Languagehat apologizes for persistent recent negativity; herewith a hymn of praise that should leave us all feeling better.
There are apparently people out there who don’t care for Adam Gopnik, but I don’t understand them. He’s the main reason I keep subscribing to The New Yorker, and I think he’s one of the best stylists and funniest writers around (thoughtful as well as funny, but being funny is harder than being thoughtful). I would like to bring to your attention his article “The Cooking Game,” from the double Food Issue of Aug. 19 & 26; I wish I could provide a link, but the magazine has not chosen to put it online, so I’ll have to type in my quotations (probably just as well, as it will keep me from quoting so much it takes up my entire blog).
The article is about a cookoff among five chefs in Manhattan restaurants, all of whom agreed to create meals based on farmer’s-market ingredients chosen by Gopnik. Who cares, you say (unless you are a serious foodie), and you would be right, except that Gopnik can write about anything and keep you turning the pages with delight and anticipation. He begins with a paragraph saying that cooks are “the last artists among us who still live in the daily presence of patronage”; unlike artists, writers, and the rest, they have not been “Byronized…. there to instruct and puzzle an audience, not to please it.” He goes on:
But although cooks are a source of romance, they are not themselves Romantic. They practice their art the way all art was practiced until the nineteenth century, as a job done to order for rich people who treat you as something between the court jester and the butler. Cooks can be temperamental–cooks are supposed to be temperamental–but temperament is the Byronism of the dependent; children, courtesans, and cooks all have it. What cooks have in place of freedom is what all artists had back before they were released from the condition of flunkydom: a weary, careful dignity, a secretive sense of craft, and the comforting knowledge of belonging to a guild.
Isn’t that well said? I don’t care if it’s “true” in the judgment of historians; it gives me a new way of looking at the world and making connections I hadn’t made before, and reading the words gives me intense pleasure. Let me finish up with another quote that provides the sort of illustration of perverse human nature I can’t resist. He tells a story one of the chefs, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, told him, about a time when everyone in the restaurant was sure a customer who’d been coming and ordering different things was actually William Grimes, the main food critic of the NY Times.
“So the very next day, Grimes actually calls from the Times and asks for a wine list. Now, this guy, let’s call him Mr. Hudsucker, had taken a menu with him–but not a wine list! So, I mean, now we’re getting obvious.” He went on, “That Friday, a ‘Diner’s Journal’ article comes out that lists all the dishes Mr. Hudsucker ate at the bar! So, O.K., the next week H.M. Hudsucker makes another reservation, and we flip over backward for him, creating all these tasting menus, and the servers going through hula hoops. You have to be careful with that stuff, of course, because it’s like the Enigma secret–you want to use it, but you don’t want it to be obvious you’ve broken the code. Anyway, finally someone comes into the kitchen and I say, ‘That’s Grimes,’ and he says, ‘No, it isn’t. I know Grimes, and that’s not Grimes.’ And I say, ‘That’s not Grimes? Then who the hell is that?’ Later, a waiter went over without my knowing it and said, ‘You seem so, uh, passionate abut food, Mr. Hudsucker, are you in the business?’ And he said, ‘What business?’ And the server said the food business. And Mr. Hudsucker said, ‘The food business? I’m in the insurance business. I just like it here.
“And the really terrible part of the story is that he came back and we didn’t do anything for him–not because we’re malicious. It’s just, just that at this point we’re sort of disillusioned with H.M. Hudsucker, no fault of his own. And he walked out upset. It’s ironic because… he was the ideal diner! He ate like a food critic without being one! The ideal guest.”