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Sokolov’s ‘Steal the Menu’ is a fascinating culinary history

Panko as well as breadcrumbs. Pancetta in addition to bacon. Ethiopian restaurants as well as Cantonese.

The Cuisinart, for heaven’s sake!

Anyone even remotely interested in American food is aware that the last half century of gastronomy has provided thrills, chills and exciting new sustenance, and Raymond Sokolov tells us all about it.

After all, Sokolov – a self-described “child prodigy” – has seen cuisine from many angles in his 40 years of food writing. High and mighty angles to be sure.

Hired as food editor and restaurant critic for the New York Times in 1971 as successor to the rightly celebrated Craig Claiborne (and famously fired by editor Abe Rosenthal without explanation a couple of years later); serving as arts editor and later as restaurant writer for the Wall Street Journal whose political philosophy, he’s quick to tell you, he definitely does not share. He did perhaps his best work as a food historian in columns for “Natural History” magazine.

He charts here the turbulent culinary waters he managed to navigate.

“I was there and I ate what was put in front of me,” he says.

Which made for some memorable meals.

Sokolov’s first story is the best one. Sharing a lunch with the retiring columnist in the New York Times cafeteria (in the company cafeteria, you understand) he was stunned when Claiborne sloshed a little tomato-pea puree mongole around in his mouth and announced “there’s too much basil in this soup.” (The guy was never averse to showing off now and then.)

Later, Claiborne gave him but one piece of advice, Sokolov says, although it was one every restaurant reviewer in the ’70s already knew about:

“Steal the menu,” His Eminence said.

“If you ask for it, they might give it to you or they might not but if they don’t, they’ll be watching you and counting them when they take them away after you’ve ordered.

“So just put it in your lap, fold it up and slip it in your pocket. You might look like you’re playing with yourself under there but no waiter is going to bother you about that.”

(Clarification department: The printed menu provided an important fast-checking reminder of ingredients and prices for reviewers in those ancient days – it’s no longer so necessary when just about every place has a website of its own.)

Larceny aside, Sokolov had a rollicking time with his food beat. There was the Tricia Nixon/Edward Cox wedding cake debacle for instance – hardly a debacle for Sokolov but surely one for he White House. (Sokolov, not a fan of the then president, says that fact had had nothing whatever to do with his glee.)

Seems the kitchen staff had concocted a 6-foot tall, lemon flavored wedding cake for the event based on a recipe from Pat Nixon’s mother and then – with great fanfare – released a reduced recipe for home cooks to try.

And Sokolov, who saw himself as “the nation’s designated palate,” thought he ought to taste the cake the White House was proposing. He turned the recipe over to the newspaper’s recipe tester and the darn thing “erupted from its pan all over her immaculate Garland oven.”

Oh what a story. Chaos in the kitchen – so much better than a tempest in a teapot. Sokolov ran the thing in the Times the very next day. Headline: “Warning! It May Not Work.”

The wire services picked it up and the mistake went round the world – and this was before the Internet, mind you. Despite corrections and additions that came from the White House press office, all carefully documented in the newspaper, the cake was never a winner. “It was a cheap shot heard round the world,” says Sokolov. He felt no guilt.

Then there were the later trips abroad when Sokolov investigated nouvelle cuisine and its influence in lightening and simplifying Western cuisine in general. He thinks Michel Guerard, one of its originators, a genius.

But he can still take a respectful stab or two at a later emerging and even more esoteric cuisine. “Science played a transforming role with gels and slow cooking dehydration and colloidal trickery – all the magic of the so-called molecular gastronomy harnessed to intensify and concentrate the diner’s notions and experience of food,” is how he describes it.

Sokolov describes a personal incident in the famous chef Ferran Adria’s now closed, enormously influential El Bulli outside Barcelona, considered the world’s most outstanding restaurant at the time.

“There were 26 courses, mostly small and surreal, beautiful creations unlike anything my wife or I had ever eaten before. Starting with an intense mojito pumped out of a siphon, we moved on to little white paper cones filled with fine white powder. Before the waiter had a chance to say what it was. Johanna knocked hers back and aspirated enough of the pulverized popcorn to precipitate a choking fit.

“She recovered in time to join me in the ‘snack’ courses among which were a crunchy object made of quail egg and an anise flavored consommé siphoned into a beer mug and looking quite a bit like a dark ale with a two-inch head.”

Sokolov, as his many bosses no doubt discovered, is no warm and fuzzy fellow – in fact, there’s a certain aspect of twerp in his makeup. And his sometimes overly professorial style of writing can get dull, dull dull.

He loves his little dig, all right – make that a thousand digs. No one – nothing – is sacred. Not the Times when he worked there. (“the basic tone of the criticism was middlebrow and all rightnik.”) Nor present TV biggies like Paula Deen (“exhaustingly exhuberant”) nor the late and usually canonized Henri Soule of New York City’s influential Le Pavillon restaurant (“snobbish mediocracy”).

But then, culinary heresy was always Sokolov’s signature dish.

On the other hand, who needs warm and fuzzy when the tales are such juicy ones?

And – what’s this? The guy even seems to have mellowed in his old age. He knows many of the elaborate meals he ate and described were of interest only to the moneyed and well traveled…

“Canapes cunningly composed with crackling from hand-raised hogs and leather confected from handpicked black currants will never replace pot roast on the dinner tables of the 99 percent,” he admits. “But” – get ready for a Sokolovism: “Packaged food has already done that,” he says.

It’s a good read.

Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

By Raymond Sokolov


242 pages, $25.95

Janice Okun is the retired food editor and restaurant critic of The News.