I can pinpoint when it happened, when I realized that writing about the table could be a bonafide job: it was April 1984, in Boston. I was sitting alone in my suite on South Campus at Boston University, and I picked up a copy of Gourmet that someone left on the living room table. I read it from cover to cover. One article was about a young woman who had studied cooking in Paris and was spending some time in northern France. A photograph showed her dressed smartly — skinny jeans, a striped shirt, a slouchy cloth bucket hat — and standing in a field with a cow. She was nuzzling the cow; the cow was nuzzling her back. I vaguely remember the caption: The cows are very friendly in this part of France. I was mesmerized. There were a few recipes and a picture of a table laden with food — nothing fancy — and short, footed glasses of wine, of the romantic, rustic variety that a French farmhand might hoist after a morning in the field.

A few days later, one of my cousins asked me what I was planning on doing after graduation. I had been thinking about going into academia, which didn’t thrill my parents. I considered law school, which didn’t thrill my English professors. But when my cousin asked me this pointed question, it took me two seconds to answer: I wanted, I said, to write about food and wine.

My cousin was very kind, but my response baffled her. At that time, no one in my family read Gourmet. Who could possibly imagine holding down such an outlandish job (if it could be considered a job at all)? After I said it, the subject was changed, and I never brought it up again, to anyone.

It took a few years for me to nudge my way into the food world. There was a job layoff from a now-defunct publishing house, and a short spate of unemployment. There was the morning that I sat on my living room floor in my walkup apartment on East 93rd Street, with the New York Times job pages opened up, and the ad for book buyer at Dean & Deluca. I called and went down to Soho for an interview, and got the job. I started the next day. I was surrounded by books — all of the Elizabeth David volumes in imported Penguin paperbacks; M.F.K. Fisher, in the lovely, French-flapped reissued editions published by Jack Shoemaker at North Point Press; Auberge of the Flowering Hearth; Richard Olney; John Thorne; Alice Waters; Felipe Rojas Lombardi; Laurie Colwin — but also food of the most astonishing breadth and variety. Somehow (and it embarrasses me to say this: it’s such a weird word) it was discovered that I was what they horrifyingly used to call a supertaster: I would stand in the back of the store with a handful of other colleagues, taste samples that had been delivered by purveyors and producers from Tuscany to Tulum, and identify obscure ingredients in the most minute proportions. At days’ end, we would sometimes go out — sometimes to The Cupping Room, sometimes to Jerry’s or Raoul’s or Food — and talk about what we ate all day while we ate more, and drank insane, ridiculous quantities of wine until we could barely stand. This was in the late 1980s; there was also a fair amount of cocaine, which enabled everyone to stay out until three in the morning, sleep for a few hours, come back to work, and slice cold-smoked County Mayo salmon so thin that you could read the newspaper through it.

I wasn’t much for the drugs — cocaine terrified me, and like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, the last time I smoked pot I tried to take my pants off over my head — but man, the wine. I loved it, and it loved me right back. We became inseparable. My customers would ask for advice: Bandol, Beaune, or Zin? Chianti, Barbaresco, or Bordeaux? I would answer them in great detail, down to the year: ’83 was my favorite, especially for tannic Rhones, like Gigondas. I had educated myself: I actually knew what the hell I was doing because it was my job. A little while after I left the store, I found myself regularly invited to wine tasting dinners, sometimes twice a week: six courses, each place setting surrounded by a small army of Riedel glasses: Chablis, Sauternes, Gruner, Chianti, Bordeaux (Mature), Burgundy, Cognac, Water. We were all professionals to some degree and we all managed to hold it together, even though by the time the Burgundy was poured, most of us were so smashed that we couldn’t tell the difference between the seared foie gras and the lollipop lamb chops if you blindfolded us.


In my home kitchen, there was more wine: the Salice Salentinos I loved to sip while cooking for my family and friends. The cool, round Cakebread rose I’d open when the temperature climbed above sixty. The Barolos I’d pour when it snowed and everyone I knew showed up for the game birds I liked to roast and serve perched atop polenta and wild trumpet mushroom ragout. At family functions, I was the one who knew about food and wine, who could talk about Emilia Romagna and Languedoc like they were in my backyard. Wine and food made me funny and confident and smart, and pulled me out of my thick, protective shell: in my family, I went from being a dour, quiet, chronically-depressed teenager navigating the waters of my parents’ failing marriage to the bawdy, tipsy grown-up cousin pontificating about the provenance of the Alsatian muenster and dribbling her overpriced kosher Bordeaux onto the pages of her Passover Haggadah. The rituals of my life began to merge with the requirements of my profession like a Venn Diagram, and at its gray, overlapping center was excess. After years of this — the tasting events, the wee sips before/with/after dinner, the professional vodka samplings after which it was assumed I’d drive myself home, an hour away — my so-called supertaster palate was shot to hell, gone, adios, sayonara, along with my feet; that much alcohol … that much pure, unadulterated sugar … had effectively killed my supposedly nuanced tastebuds and slapped an extra twenty pounds around the center of my five foot one, sturdily-built, formerly size six frame. I looked in the mirror, and my bubbe from the old country stared back.

And this is the thing about the food world that no one ever seems to talk about: being a food professional — a writer, a chef, a caterer, a wine distributor, whatever — totally legitimizes excess, be it on the plate or in the glass or both. Comus, God of Excess, representing chaos, a wreath of flowers on his head and a torch in his hand always in the process of being dropped, is the son of Bacchus, God of Wine; it’s a very slippery slope. If you have just the tiniest smidge of a predisposition towards addiction in whatever form it comes (Instagram, Facebook, anger, Twinkies, whiskey, yoga, Blahniks) and even if you don’t, you will be fighting the worst ogre of all, and that little demon inside you — the one who promises that what you’re doing is for work, or for ritual, or for both — is going to convince you that getting stuffed and/or hammered in the name of all that is culinary on a regular basis is really okay. Because, after all, it comes with the gig. And then, as thirty-five becomes forty, and forty becomes fifty, your body will begin to break down: your blood pressure will soar, your thyroid will die, your weight will climb, your neck will sag like a child in a hammock, and your face will start to resemble a sort of pouch. Your liver will fatten up like a goose in Toulouse, and all those Bandols, Beaunes, Bordeaux, and Barolos that you swirled and savored and drank with the most perfect very French-style rosy-pink lamb or Umbrian wild boar braise will take their toll. If you’re lucky, you’ll know when to stop, or at least when to cut way back because you’ll begin to feel like you’re hauling around a sack of potatoes strapped to your ass. If you’re not lucky, you’ll have a nice come to Jesus moment right before they put the stents in, and you’ll know that food and wine are just as delicious when had in moderation. Maybe moreso. Or, in the case of the latter, maybe not at all.

I grew up in the 1970s, and back then, the d word that everyone — food and wine writers, magazine editors, health gurus — now loves to throw around meant one thing: a stay at Betty Ford or Hazelden. Today, detox has been usurped by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Bon Appetit to the Pinterest food boards: we live in a binary world accepting of extremes, of feasting and fasting, where detoxing no longer means a month inpatient, but a delicate bowl of steamed green broccoli, a dollop of artisanal goat yogurt, and a sprinkling of dukkah, or a bright purple smoothie topped off with hemp seeds soaked overnight to make them more digestible, or a ten day juice fast.

So laden with the assumption of excess is the world we live in that the fact of too much is just something we take for granted, like clean air and fresh drinking water and guns. But what would happen if the food and booze community — those of us who glamorize the massive portions and the artisanalia and the out-all-nights-eating-ramen, the vintage cocktails and the whiskey parties — not only preached the moderation we love to snarkily laugh at every January when detoxing grabs the headlines, but actually practiced it? What would happen if moderation was romanticized in place of decadence? Detox is a word and a practice that is now glorified; something is seriously wrong. All of this yearning and hungering and gorging and drinking signifies a certain longing for nurturing, a need for sustenance in a world that, with every passing day, grows more and more enraged, and we, more disconnected from each other.

It’s been thirty-two years since the day I picked up Gourmet Magazine, and twenty-eight since I went to work for Dean & Deluca, did a stint in cooking school, and began to attend regular meat-a-paloozas, deep-fried vegan patty festivals, craft beer bashes, wine tours that poured four massive glasses with every course (at lunch and dinner), and whiskyfests that left me with great human interest stories, but otherwise staggering. In 2013, I was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, an aortic aneurysm, hypercholesterolemia, and high blood pressure. Since then, I’ve changed the way I eat and drink; I’ve had to. And I feel better. But I still struggle to think about food and wine in smaller portions and moderate pours. Excess is what I’ve known for so many years, and, as I’ve written here, my off-switch sometimes gets stuck in the on position.

Every day is no longer a feast; it shouldn’t be. I still take pleasure in feeding the people I love, but the joy and sustenance I used to associate with decadence I now find elsewhere: in doing good work, in my garden, in my yoga classes, in art, in the company of friends and family, in the mundane, quiet life I’m lucky enough to live with Susan.

And that’s enough.









because I wanted it.

April 10, 2017 · 7 comments

A few weeks ago, I attended a writer’s retreat in Bridgehampton led by my friend and teacher extraordinaire, Dani Shapiro, whose new (remarkable) book, Hourglass, is about to be released tomorrow. We were a small group of women writers at the beautiful Topping Rose House; the workshop was an immersive, intensive experience capped off each day by Nancy Alder’s great restorative yoga, which was held in a small barn on the property. The cool, calming, monochromatic accommodations were luxurious in their simplicity; they let the mind rest at the end of each day. The surroundings, Dani’s teaching, the yoga, the sea air in early spring — they all conspired to quiet my brain, making the place ideal for the generative writing experience it was.

After four months living in a state of high anxiety, the few days at the workshop affected me in the same way that Marie Kondo’s life organization book did; I could finally focus. I could see the promise of the serene on the horizon of my frenetic, hysterical life. As a rule, I believe that things would be better if I wrote more, owned less, ate less, drank less, weighed less, had fewer chins, and lived a hygge-ish life in reassuring, subtle shades of gray and white. I arrived at the workshop with the plan to use it as a creative reset after the last few very trying months when everything — my work, my home, but most of all, self-care  — has gone by the wayside. The night after our first group dinner boded well: without the stimulation of the brash and loud, I fell asleep in my soaking tub while reading the new Joan Didion.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten is responsible for the food at The Topping Rose House, and it is stellar. The restaurant staff turns themselves inside out to make sure that every diner with every permutation of dietary restriction is accommodated, and so, on the first morning of my stay, when I ordered gluten free toast (from the menu) with my eggs and house-made spicy maple-chile sausage and my server asked if I had a gluten allergy — not a sensitivity, but an allergy, which I took to mean like the one my friend in LA has; she has to give herself a shot of adrenalin to keep from going into anaphylactic shock if she accidentally ingests a breadcrumb — I, with self-care in mind, said Yes. Because I’ve learned that gluten, in many cases — not all, but many — can make me unwell, and I didn’t want to run the risk of eating something that was going to make me ill to any degree. My truthful answer to the server’s question — that I have a sensitivity and a thyroid condition worsened by gluten, but not a potentially fatal allergy — would, I decided, possibly result in my situation being taken less seriously. So I answered the way I did even though a sensitivity is not the same as an allergy, and feeling drunk and drugged and euphemistically undone is just not the same as dropping dead.

My breakfast arrived along with everyone else’s; we were all gabbing and drinking our very dark coffee and eating our very crispy smashed potatoes sprinkled with flakey sea salt along with our local eggs. Everyone had ordered simply, and without any fuss or special requirements. I spread sweet butter on the slice of pale beige gluten free toast that came with my dish and it was fine. It wasn’t stretchy and pliable because it couldn’t be. Being gluten free, it was not the same as the other bread that had arrived for my friends — the bread I secretly lusted after in my heart — and that I couldn’t take even a teeny bite of because I had just announced to the entire universe that I am unlike everyone else. I am different. And this made me feel very badly, and covetous, and a little enraged. And when I get enraged, I tend to take my fury out on one person: Myself. And I engage in activities that might be considered the complete opposite of self-care.

That night at dinner, more baskets of warm bread arrived on the table. One of my friends ordered crispy calamari as an appetizer, and like a misbehaving child, so did I. Because I wanted the crunch, the crumble, the salt, the bite. I wanted the batter without the squid. I didn’t want to think about what I was eating, and instead, to just enjoy it like everyone else. I didn’t ask the server if it was dredged in corn meal (gluten free) or einkorn flour (not gluten free but tolerated by many gluten sensitive people) or gluten free flour (not likely) or locally-milled flour (likely) in order to gauge exactly how unwell I might be at the end of the night. I said fuck it, and just ate it, and I followed it up with a piece of warm bread, which I blithely dunked into the (flour-thickened) jus on my pastured roast chicken.

I had just succumbed to what my novelist friend Jane Green calls a case of the fuck-its. 

Fuck you, gluten, I thought. I’ll show you.

My workshop-mates were lovely and said nothing. If it had been me on the other side of the table, I would have tried to keep my heart open in an accepting and compassionate manner. A few years ago, I would have thought What an asshole. But that’s the old, judgy me speaking.

For a few minutes after the calamari, I was sated, happy, drinking a massive glass of Barbaresco and feeling completely normal and carefree. I had thrown caution to the wind without fear or concern about anything: not the fried calamari, not the bread, not the jus on my chicken, not the goblets of wine I kept ordering even though I’d promised myself I’d only have two because my shut-off switch sometimes gets stuck in the ON position.

When dessert arrived, a wave of self-loathing swept over me like the ocean at high tide: when the chocolate cake I ordered was set down in front of me as everyone else ate their sorbet, my ears turned red with hot embarrassment. What I had done was inexplicable, and had I been in unkind company, I would have been (rightfully) reamed for my behavior, and obvious lack of credibility. I felt morally bankrupt, and like everyone I’ve always complained about who claims to be gluten free and then — like the pleasure-hating Alfred Molina character in Chocolat who is found passed out in the front window of Juliet Binoche’s shop, his face smeared with ganache — takes themselves out to lunch in a different town and secretly sucks down a bowl of hand-twisted garganelle.

Which is what I ate the next night.

Everyone else had the salmon and vegetables.

I just got it for the rustic meatballs, I explained. They were spectacular.

So was the pasta. Everyone had a bite. We all enjoyed it.

The next morning, I woke up in my hygge sea of soft grays and whites with a raging migraine so bad that I thought my eyes were bleeding. At breakfast, my new friends were going to have to listen to me guiltily drone on about my suspect behavior the night before, and the fact that because I’m working on some serious life issues at the moment, I had gone on a self-destructive bender and ordered the most glutinous thing on the menu and ate it with abandon.

I’m sure it was just the wine, I said to one of my new friends, as she handed over an Alleve before the start of that morning’s session.

Of course, she agreed.

A few days after I got home, I came down with a sinus infection so hideous that it required two antibiotics and a steroidal puffer, much time spent in bed, and four boxes of tissues. I’m not positive that one thing had to do with the other; I couldn’t help but think it. There are articles about this kind of thing, which I will not post here.

I had a lot of time to think about what I had done. What is it that compels us to act this way — to say one thing and do another; to take a firm and public stand that impacts others (because foisting one’s dietary needs on professional kitchens does impact others, as it does when your friends know you as a gluten-avoider and go to the trouble of filling their pantries with gluten free crackers should you happen to drop by) and then throw it in their face; to announce at the top of your lungs the dietary restriction that makes you feel good and healthy and is the very embodiment of the self-care that you deserve, and then to do the opposite. To say I can be just like everyone else. I can handle it. Just watch me.

What compels us to not act in our own best interests just because we want something we’re not supposed to have? (Fill in the blank here. I’ll help: the non-gluten free bread; the secret box of chocolate; the fourth glass of wine; the eighth tube of lipstick; the entire sleeve of Fig Newtons that my father used to binge on in the closet when he was furious with my mother, which was always). Because, in our world of instant gratification coupled with the fact of too much of everything, we want what we want when we want it.

But to quote Augusten Burroughs, Just because you want something doesn’t mean you have to have it.

At its core, this is the addict’s lament, the same thing that pushes the drinker off the wagon, the pill-popper to say why not, the gambler to take the bus to Reno: Sure, it says, I can be just like everyone else. Only, I can’t. And that makes me feel very badly. And when I feel very badly, I do everything in my power to make myself feel even worse, as though I’m somehow punishing myself for the fault of my own sheer humanity.

I want what I want when I want it is more than a credibility issue: it results in a metaphysical tangle that would make Marie Kondo’s head explode. Whether you’re talking about too much stuff that you wanted when you wanted it — the five striped shirts instead of two; the twelve pair of flats instead of three; the purses; the fifteen tubs of powder like the ones hidden away in my mother’s vanity — or the inclination to gorge yourself on what you wanted even though you’ve told the entire world you can’t eat it but you do and you end up feeling like a you’ve been hit by a paving truck, the result is the same: a muddled brain, a monkey mind, an overabundance of psychic stuff that no amount of hygge will help you cope with.

It took me nearly three weeks to get over my sinus infection; I spent much of it in quiet reflection and review of the chapter I’d workshopped in Bridgehampton. The original version felt heavy, laden with excess, stuffed with dross. Susan made a pot of chicken soup for me and clarified it over and over, pouring it through a fine mesh sieve until all that was left was a crystalline broth. I drank it out of a hand-thrown mug while wrapped in our vintage 1940s Hudson Bay blanket, gazing out the window at the world, anxious to start over.





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