Eating for a Living
I TAKE FOOD SERIOUSLY. When I sit down for a meal I'm at the table for a lot more than simple nourishment, and I feel sorry for the many people who think of food as just vitamins and minerals. On the other hand people who make a living eating, although they are certainly an unusual sort, are people I sometimes envy.
A few days ago I got a peek into the psyche of a number of them, although my glimpse was roundabout. I was on a plane going somewhere or other and picked up a copy of Republic Airlines' inflight magazine. The editors had asked 19 professional eaters-- food editors, restaurant critics, TV cooking personalities and the like-- to describe for their readers their ultimate eating fantasy, the most incredible meal that they haven't eaten.
"What was placed before me was a dish of such stunning magnificence, it became a spiritual revolution. It was as though a key had been turned, a door opened, and I was offered the essence and extract of some sublime, supernal elixir," says Craig Claiborne, the food editor for the New York Times. He, alone among the 19 accomplished gourmets, described a meal he had already had, explaining that he had already experienced his ultimate food fantasy.
Claiborne was coming back home aboard the Ile-de-France a few years after the war, after having spent six months in Paris studying French under the GI Bill. On the first night out the waiter set before him a turbotin-a-l'infante and Claiborne, a good ole Mississippi boy, dates his career in food from that moment. "Never again has anything tasted as audaciously good as that young turbot with white wine sauce," he says.
Julia Child, no introduction necessary, wants a simple meal of caviar, fish, duck and potatoes with truffles. Like most of her colleagues she is much concerned with the company, the setting and the ambience, and she devotes more words to them than to the food.
In her fantasy she wants to dine someplace with a magnificent view of the ocean, with her husband and four others-- two of them from England, two from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her table must be round with a pink tablecloth and placed in the corner of the room. She wants no music and no flowers, since the music would interfere with the sounds of knives and forks, corks popping, and good conversation, and the flowers might interfere with the aroma of the food.
Janice Henderson is a Los Angeles restaurant critic. "I never want to see the waiter. He is also trained as a master magician, and can make food appear and disappear without our ever noticing him," she says. She was voicing an idea that several others had, that the waiter shouldn't get in the way of the diner.
Janice wants to have her fantasy meal at a restaurant overlooking a beach lit with a lone torch and she wants her table to be bare marble with a single brightly burning candle. She asks that a Romanian violinist be on the beach playing torrid Gypsy music. She requires that he wear a scarf around his head and a black patch over one eye, specifically his left eye.
Her entree would be paper-thin slices of milk-fed veal served with a sauce that strikes a delicate balance between bold and gentle. After the meal she will have the water make the whole restaurant, all the patrons, and the Romanian violinist with the black patch over his left eye disappear. "That grand gesture leaves me and my husband alone on the lanai, with a bottle of very old cognac on a very young night," Janice says.
I know that when men start fantasying their thoughts sometimes turn pornographic, and I was a little worried about Al Sicherman, a food writer for the Minneapolis_Star_and Tribune. "My food fantasy involves swimming around in tubs of food. Specifically, garlic butter, whipped cream and lukewarm, melted Hershey's semi-sweet chocolate. If I were alone in the tubs, I might want some nice Italian bread to dunk in the garlic butter," he says.
He doesn't mention anything about music or candles, and he obviously says nothing about the shape of his table or the color of the tablecloth.
Some people eat so they can continue living, others continue living so they can eat. But these rare characters-- and you can see that they are both characters and rare-- are in a class unto themselves. They make a living eating.