oldest bites

A cartoon in the Journal the other day showed a waiter advising a diner that “the Chilean sea bass is as fresh as fish from Chile can be,” which did get me wondering whether we should be encouraging Citarella to sell grouper with jet lag by buying those tempting fillets from New Zealand. But nothing could make you think longer and harder about the consequences of a growing global cornucopia than “Darwin’s Nightmare.” It’s the food chain as imagined by Dante, but it’s not a Hollywood movie. It’s a beautifully made documentary, and it is about as close to apocalypse evolving, the Rapture now, as anything you never hope to see.

 

The second-largest lake in the world is down to one species of fish, an exotic variety introduced in the Fifties that has eaten all the rest and is now turning on its own at the same time the economy is totally dependent on one product: Nile perch, cleaned up and zipped off to the prosperous in the European Union. Planes fly in to pick up 55 tons at a time, hookers sleep with the pilots, AIDS is rampant, the preacher is condemning condoms, starving locals are fighting over factory rejects swarming with maggots, legless kids are melting tape from the packing boxes to get glue to huff so they can sleep through abuse in the gutters, politicians are in full mufti denial and there’s something about those Russian guys. If your head isn’t spinning already, the factory boss starts showing off his wall bass singing, what else, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

 

As dexterously devastating as the whole thing was, I had to go eat afterward. And in the restaurant, I started reading Time magazine from the back, as always, only to find a story that brought it all back home: Americans are increasingly worked up about humane treatment for farm animals. Save the chickens; keep them free from antibiotics. In the grand scheme of horror, we are truly living in a raspberries-in-December neverland.

 

 

I’m sure none of this could possibly be true, but it’s too moist not to repeat. A big name is coming out with a big new thing and has already been warned: You won’t get TV. The official story is that this is Rachael’s and Giada’s world — old doesn’t sell. The view from inside the studio is more brutal: She talks with her mouth full. She uses her dress as a napkin. And her dresses are always too short — you can see her underwear when she wipes. And then there’s what one of her alleged pals told me: She farts in public. But that can’t possibly be true.

 

 

How you can tell you’re getting way too old for nutrition games: You read the staggering news that NYC is cracking down on restaurants using trans fatty acids and you still remember when McDonald’s got megapoints for jettisoning the beef tallow that made its fries taste good. I’m actually starting to understand the appeal of intelligent design. Science just can’t get its story straight.

 

As for lard and its day in the Op-Ed sun, I thought once again about the photographer friend who stockpiled trendy magazines in his basement, sure that every piece in them could be proposed again in 10 or 20 years — Zarela Martinez was making the same case way back in the Eighties when other, far more important gastronomes were jumping onto the free trip bandwagon with Oldways to promote the great fat savior: olive oil.

 

And as for the Op-Ed page as the new Oprah for authors with food tomes to flog, can you say impenetrable? Maybe it’s bad editing, although I find that really hard to imagine. But just in the last couple of weeks the record is three for three on publicity stunts backfiring. After the most pedantic, the tip I heard most often was: Don’t buy the book.

 

 

Did someone say sous vide, or did my pinkie just jerk up reflexively? My advanced age once again forces me to confess that I did a piece for American Airlines’ magazine way, way back in the last century — 1985? ’86? — on how “boil-in-bag cuisine” was the coming revolution. I did it despite the fact that I was fresh out of restaurant school where we were taught by the late great Jack Ubaldi that Cryovac destroyed meat because it couldn’t age, only virtually ferment to flabbiness in its own blood. So I can only hope the letter-writer who flayed me is still around and ready to type that great American four-letter word: Hype. If not, may the ghost of Curnonsky haunt chefs who aren’t quite clear on Escoffier. Cuisine is when things taste like themselves.

 

 

My geriatric Siamese was a kitten with balls when I ate at a certain Filipino restaurant in SoHo for the first and last time. Aside from the duck’s tongue I brought home for his fleeting amusement, there is not a single detail that sticks with me about the place. So I was not exactly surprised to find Panchito lavishing it with a long appreciation; visions of him sitting up and poring over Zagat late at night, looking for the last lost thing, are just the price you pay for flipping through to the Food Emporium ad on Wednesday. But it did illuminate why “critics” are being left in the dust. As soon as a restaurant opens anymore, the believable reviews begin instantly, in the real world Al Gore invented. No one had to wait for the garbled similes lavished on Diablo Royale in old media — regular people went, they ate, they hated, and they weighed in without detouring through rogetsfordummies.com. Ditto for Mercadito Grove and Centrico. What’s saddest for a diehard newspaper reader to admit is that the reviewing bar has dropped so low that some fake-named stranger outraged at $18 tacos with no refries can actually have a better take on a place than some guy with an unlimited expense account who seems to have spent too long eating with the pope. Either that, or he’s been fixed.

 

 

It only took two years and three months, but I finally have the answer to a question that has eaten at me ever since I read a story in an important pooper-scooper raving about the restaurant boom in Washington: Why in the name of Saddam is a city that limped through the boom years under Clinton suddenly thriving? Where were all those boutique hotels when Dick Morris was sucking toes? Why would anyone try to serve ambitious food when most of Congress seems to drink bug spray and feast on Florida vegetables? Thanks to the miracle of the internets, I’ve learned the Washington Post has cracked the code with one word: lobbyists. Under the administration that vowed (or was it threatened?) to restore honor and dignity, the other L-word types have reproduced like cockroaches. And these noble characters are charging 100 percent more than they did back way back when peace, prosperity and Democrats reigned. I’m happy for the better food when I’m dragged there, but I kinda wonder if Kansas knows what’s the matter with the capital.

 

 

America is a scary place. We only got a little over five hours out of Manhattan, but that was enough to make me wonder if the tsunami was the only thing that has thrown the earth off its axis. In Scranton we stopped for lunch at a place called Fresno’s that looked local but was really a three-city chain and realized too late what the billboard boast of “great BIG portions” meant. My consort always says I should never play poker, and I know my face gave it all away when we walked in and saw booths filled mostly with people who once could have made a healthy living on Coney Island. One girl who could not have been more than 5 years old weighed almost as much as I do, if that gives you any idea how petite her mother was. Another woman rolled in wearing a black sweatshirt with pink rhinestones spelling out “American Sweetheart” across her beyond-ample chest in letters nearly as tall and wide as on the billboard. We ordered daintily — two salads and one bowl of soup — and were still probably served enough calories to sustain several villages in Sudan for a week.

And that was just the beginning of the overstuffing. Almost everywhere we picked up a menu we got food for three in a single order. I actually came home much more sympathetic to all those sideshow acts who were born too late. When everyone around you is just jaw-dropping BIG, it’s way too easy to keep eating and eating, smugly thinking: I could never get that fat. Next thing you know, I could.

At least there was sanity to break up the obesity. At a splendiferous cafe we trekked to twice for breakfast, the owner had an extraordinarily light hand with baking. Her biscuits were airy and flaky but still held together to the last crumb even when sandwiched with a fried egg and ham, or with scrambled eggs and cheese. Her pancakes were almost other-wordly in their melding of substantial and ethereal. All that would have been impressive enough, but she also insisted she had no claim to the one job description tossed around most indiscriminately these days. “With all the carrying on these guys do anymore,” she said, “I’d be embarrassed to call myself a chef.” Not surprisingly, the extremely fit legs jutting out of her shorts did not end in orange clogs.

 

 

What’s worse than 400-pounders in every booth around you as your deep-fried bacon lands with your butter-soaked toast and grease-oozing eggs and homefries? Three-hundred-pounders with cellphones and dental issues. We got trapped next to one old white-hair one morning as she plugged in her earpiece and went to town sharing her report from the decay front. “Uh-huh, he says I will have pretty teeth, but it’s gonna take a lot of work. Uh-huh, he says one tooth is rotting now but he thinks he can save it. Uh-huh, and this one is going to be gross because he’s going to have to pull it with the pus coming out. . . .” Thank the incisor gods for the Mary Tyler Moore/Fox TV fans behind us discussing the end of television as we know it: “Everything is reality these days. I don’t care much for reality. . . .’’ Me, neither. Especially at breakfast.

 

 

By our fourth meal, I had abandoned all hope of finding anything that did not taste as if it had been tossed off a Sysco truck. Every menu seemed to start with spinach-artichoke-cheese dip in a bread bowl, include some variation on Buffalo chicken wings tortured into an entree and end with some dessert that combined a Snickers bar, Jack Daniel’s, ice cream, cookies, cake, pie crust and whipped cream. Everything, in short, seemed to be a Nation’s Restaurant News ad come to horrifying life. And then we happened across a little card in a winery listing a dozen or so restaurants in a culinary alliance dedicated to using local produce.

 

Forthwith we were at the closest one, which looked like a diner and, worse, appeared to be wine-free. The menu was a grubby printout that looked no more promising than the omission of spinach-artichoke dip. Then the waitress walked over to rattle off the special, which the kitchen was just getting ready to pack away but could be enticed to serve once more: pulled barbecue pork with coleslaw, in a wrap or on a bun. For some reason I then noticed the bread was from a real local bakery and the other touches seemed more seductive than Sysco. Even better, the special came with either fries or house-made chips, with any of four seasonings.

 

BS’s pork was exemplary, as was my turkey sandwich on whole wheat with roasted red peppers and a special mayonnaise, both garnished with half a hard-cooked egg drizzled with horseradish sauce. For the first time since finishing our Sullivan Street bread at home, we were eating real food. The owner came over as we were finishing to tell how he and his cooks had invested 14 hours in the pork and to spell out his dedication to doing the best with what he could, using local eggs for breakfast, local maple syrup, local produce in season. “I don’t have anything against California farmers,” he said, “but why would I buy a tomato from them instead of from someone I go to church with?”

 

It almost made me think America has turned a corner toward European ideals. And then, the very next night, we stopped at a cafe with a superb reputation where the high-wattage waitress insisted we try a sample of the house-made pulled pork after we had finished our excellent meal. It was far better than the idealistic diner’s. And on the way through the parking lot, BS spotted a couple of smokers smoking, pulled open one to reveal five fat pork butts being transformed and determined to come back the following night.

 

As we were walking in, though, we saw a cook out at the smoker knifing open a box stamped IBP. And neither of us could even contemplate ordering the pork. BS said that he never finished “Fast Food Nation” but “I know.” I lived in Iowa, though, and I know from industrial pork. Underqualified critical snoots in the big city can dis Niman Ranch till the hogs come home, but there is much to be said for sourcing with integrity. It doesn’t have to be local. It just has to be good, in every sense of the word.

 

 

Considering Red Jacket Orchards is among the few farms that shows up at the Greenmarket in my neighborhood all year round, I should be a huge (well, make that dedicated) supporter. But I have never been all that impressed with the fruit or juice or anything else. Still, since I had bought some great rhubarb for two weeks in a row this spring, I insisted we detour to its farmstand when we were passing through the home base.

 

Talk about a shock to the farm system. A vintner had already told us the growers have no trouble dealing in New York despite the long drive because Red Jacket has a warehouse in Brooklyn. But the stand proved to be directly across from an evil Walmart and down the road from a sign describing it as a “fruit outlet.” Inside looked as dreary as the parking lot, with dispiriting light and tired displays and an overall aura of griminess. The rhubarb was $1.99 a pound, not the $3 I paid two blocks from my house. The strawberries were on their last leaves. The bigger showroom was dedicated to all manner of jams and prepared crap. Determined to salvage the outing, I picked up a box of cream of buckwheat I had never encountered, and my consort grabbed a bag of Martin’s pretzels, the kind he always invests in on Union Square to keep us from overbuying on other food. We both trudged back to the car feeling as if we had been to the rural underworld. And it got worse: the pretzels were not only unsalted but seriously, gravely, unforgivably stale. We wound up feeding the rock-hard crumbs to the ducks on a nearby lake and worrying that neither of us was skilled in the Heimlich for poultry.

 

The Greenmarket is a mysterious place. But after that close encounter with how the apples are bagged, I think I prefer to see the curtain closed.

 

 

It’s come to this: A bare-legged chef as commencement speaker. I guess Rachael Ray was booked. But then if the Dissembler in Chief can be set loose at a podium to say American weapons “can target the guilty and protect the innocent,” why shouldn’t Rutgers graduates hear that life is just a bowl of spaghetti, dude?

Shades of Mr. Loaf: In one of the multiple and conflicting reports on Emma Bloomberg’s wedding in our styles-happy, class-scrutinizing hometown paper, someone thought Nobu had to be explained, as “the trendy Manhattan restaurant.” But at least Metro restrained itself from describing Daniel as “the restaurant awarded four stars by the New York Times.”

 

 

A faithful correspondent sent me an e-rumor that Panchito “got the axe,” but I knew immediately it couldn’t be true. Now that even political bloggers are spoofing the Liberace of literature, half the internets would have to shut down if he were 86ed.

 

 

As if being caught in a misguided war started on lies is not horrifying enough, apparently the troops are being forced to listen to Christian “jaw-jacking” while they eat, as ever-vigilant Jesus’ General noticed. Am I missing something, or wasn’t this country founded on freedom from religion? As the eloquent correspondent to Stars & Stripes put it, “I don’t go into chapels to eat my breakfast.” So what are gospel singers and proselytizers doing in mess halls? Halliburton must have the faith-based contract.

 

 

I shouldn’t complain since I needed an escort, but the opening party for BLT Prime was quite the oversubscribed scene, complete with food TV cameras (from tasteful Canada). We snagged a few hors d’oeuvres, which were excellent, and way too much wine, which was exceptional, but sat out the demeaning chow line. No matter how extraordinary the meats and sides looked, I would rather listen to gospel music while eating an MRE than stand with empty plate in hand for 15 minutes. Press parties always feel so insular, but this new trend of inviting half the phone book to one buffet guarantees an experience somewhere between a Jewish wedding and a soccer scrum. Or vice versa.

 

 

Which editor has become the Dick Cheney of food publishing? She reviewed all the possible candidates for columnist and decided only she was suited for the job. I smell a flaccid fragrance, and it ain’t truffle oil.

 

 

I have to confess I read about the second confirmed case of mad cow disease in this country and went straight out to the opening at the Heart Gallery of New Jersey and ate a scary little packet of something gray and doughy passed by a waiter who called it “beef Wellington.” No one would ever accuse me of looking on the bright side, but I figure it’s too late to worry about my brain getting riddled from eating ground-up cows raised on blood and chickenshit. My version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” would plot out a scary future where the careful few shunned beef and kept their health and wits and environment only to wind up having to care for the addled masses and masses who ignored all the warnings and happily ate those 19-cent tacos and honking Skankburgers. Besides, to quote a certain simian who talks to God, who cares about history? We’ll all be dead.

 

 

I got a hint of how the main Greenmarket sees these glory days of brilliant PR when I was chatting with one vendor just as another one walked past on his way back from a break. “Hey, Bobby Flay is filming over at your booth,” she called out. “He’s drawing a crowd.” And he stopped and said: “I’m not going back, then. They should pay us for the nuisance.” He was smiling as always but, in the words of a farmer I met on my ill-fated harvest book, serious as a heart attack.

 

 

No one on Union Square seems to be losing much sleep over the invasion of Holy Foods with its long-haul produce and corporate warmth, not when there are new fava greens and comfrey to be found at Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm. But to this eavesdropper things sound slightly grimmer less than a mile south, down in the Tiffany of food. While taking stock of the flavor-over-organic bread selection I overheard a guy vociferously informing a clutch of suits that “This is how we’re going to beat Whole Foods: We have a real butcher. They get meat in Cryovac. We have a real cheese guy. . . .” Sounded good to me. But when I was leaving with my tiny bag and without $32 I had walked in with, I couldn’t help hearing a guy in a signature chef’s coat telling another guy in the produce section, “Yeah, my sales are down 10 percent.” Calling Bobby Flay.

 

 

A writer friend was just in town lamenting his exile from the NYT book review, but judging by what ran under the Cooking rubric, he might be in a better place now. This thing read like a FreshDirect order, but with less soul — some of the subtitles took up more lines than the critical evaluations. “Bills Food,” however, is singled out for indictment as “a collection of recipes that look suspiciously untested for American kitchens,” which almost comes off as a confession that these cookbooks were just flipped through, never messed up. (No one “reads” cookbooks. You have to work them.) Worse, Molto Ego is included as one of the chef “hunks.” Anyone who believes that deserves to be mopping a pork butt, and not with cider vinegar.

 

 

Knight-Ridder News Service has just discovered a trend that was declared peaking about five years ago: chefs as hunks. When Dining did it, we joked about them as “chunks.” And even way back then no one was saying star chefs had previously been “stereotyped as either old, portly or balding,” let alone as “a combination of Chef Boyardee and James Beard.” As always, though, the lamest story can cough up a nugget. This one revealed that LA’s stud croissant, Ludo Fefebvre, strutted his steamy stuff in a cookbook at the urging of Judith Regan, who “sees me as sexy.” As I recall, the last guy who got her stock boiling was Bernie Kerik. And that queasy-making thought brings back memories of a card someone gave me right before the paper of record declared chefs hunks: “You know you drank too much on your birthday when you’re up all night blowing chunks . . . and Chunks is your dog.” Could someone get out that Vitamix blender, please?

 

 

Apparently the nervous nellies in Britain calling for a ban on kitchen knives have never been to Trinidad. On both my trips there the papers every morning were full of wildly bloody accounts of people slaughtered or merely maimed by “chops delivered” to the head or body. Take away a good workhorse Wustof and the enraged will just pick up a cleaver, or a machete. (Or, in this country, as many have on happy Thanksgivings, an electric carving knife.) What was even more laughable about the editorial mocked round the world, though, is that the authors claimed to have quizzed 10 chefs “well known for their media activities” yet “none gave a reason why the long pointed knife was essential.” And that could be the best indictment of celebrity chefs so far: they forget what their tools are good for.

 

 

In other news from the limelight zone, Food & Wine sent out a release touting a forthcoming cookbook with recipes by “superstars” like “Mamie” Oliver. Good thing he goes naked or people might wonder about him and his knives.

 

 

I’m not sure what the word for tone-deaf in editing is, but I know it when I see it: A bleakly evocative piece on South Africa on edge in the Seventies, with red curry you could almost taste, slammed up against halibut with licorice, from the outer limits of the trend-sphere. Guess it could have been worse, though. Imagine if the recipe had been for black-and-white cookies.

 

 

Here’s what $32 buys you these days: One pound of pasteurized jumbo lump crab at Premier in Buffalo, enough to make crab cakes with leftovers for four people. A three-pasta sampler plate with salad, a chicken-and-veal plate with spaghetti and salad, an order of flavor-free meatballs, all in the same tame sauce, lots of garlic-cheese bread and a big Caesar salad, all takeout from Jacobi’s in Kenmore. Or, back home, at the Greenmarket nearest me, a bulging bag of freshly picked spinach, my first radishes of the season, a pound of asparagus, a quart of Jersey strawberries, a big hunk of exquisitely fresh turkey breast, two bundles of refreshingly buggy tatsoi, a dozen extra-large clean eggs and a drinkable mango yogurt, plus a huge bunch of Sweet William with a promised shelf life of a full week. You get what you pay for in this country. You just have to cook it.

 

 

Something is wrong with a country that demands a new cellphone every week but expects an avocado to last into infinity. I just read about an insidious coating that will keep cut tree testicles from changing “color, flavor or texture for up to two weeks.” The marketers call it Natureseal, but it sounds like Botox for produce. And it’s exactly what the world needs now: Joan Rivers in the guacamole.

I don’t know what was more creepily fascinating in New York magazine: the fat girls gone sorta skinny or the restaurant critic paying back the host for her eating expedition to the new casino food court out in Sodom in the desert. Luckily, I remembered how she had calibrated her palate in anticipation of indulging in 69 (different breads). She went to Spanky’s BBQ, demon spawn of Heartland Brewery, and actually raved about the same place that sent my mild-mannered consort home sugar-shocked at how bad it was. Message: Las Vegas — It’s the new Times Square.

 

 

Say one thing for the NYT: It couldn’t get Clinton, but it did take down a chef in the sunset of his career, and apparently no one is going to be allowed to forget it. The latest chest-thumping came in the New York Observer, in a piece that would leave Hans Christian Andersen rending his raiments for all the testimonials to the critic’s new talents from eminently recognizable co-workers. Apparently the guy knows much more than a sentence referring to a “rum baba dessert” would indicate. And if that’s the case, he’s guilty of a sin far more grievous than cluelessness, at least in journalism: failure to communicate.

 

None of it would be worth expending another gram of mental energy on if not for one consideration: Through his fawning coverage in 2000, this anything-but-the-food reviewer now ambling through restaurants helped elect the chimp responsible for a morass that has consumed more than $300 billion and killed more than 2,500 Americans and who knows how many Iraqis. The same trait that left him vulnerable to a dry drunk’s seduction is clearly at play in the restaurants of New York. Recognize him as Panchito and he’ll put his lips together and blow stars all over you.

 

 

When it comes to serious food books, one man’s meat is another person’s suet. I’m being peppered with all the worthies I missed, but the disgruntled and disapproving don’t seem to grasp that my focus was on the new, the startlingly successful and, most of all, the readable. Turgid histories do even less for me than political tracts, and there are no shortages of either languishing in cookbook stores and awaiting relegation to the remainder table in megastores. The noblest book on the planet is as worthless as another Rachael Ray if a good chunk of the masses can’t slog through it. In the immortal words of Larry Gelbart, you have to get the asses in the seats. And castor oil, even organic castor oil, is not going to make that happen.

 

 

I haven’t been to Las Vegas since I was 10 or 11 years old, but I see signs that all the new glitz has not obscured its seedy core as the con capital of America. Bon Appetit is running a tout for a casino overlord’s “first property that he’s put his name on,” laying it on thick about how “you can bet he has seen to every last detail” and including a pageful of shiny, happy faces of chefs lured out to join the dream team “at the forefront of America’s culinary movement” (actual quote from actual chef). Unfortunately, I read this guano right after coming from a party where a restaurant critic from down south was gossiping about one chef who uprooted his family only to come up hard against the house. All he did was tell an interviewer that he would not be serving chicken because the quality-minded god of the casino was “too cheap to spring for a rotisserie.” Quicker than you can say “you will have hot dogs on the golf course” the guy was leaving Las Vegas. Luckily, though, hype springs eternal. Odds are good any of these chefs could be coming soon to an awards ceremony near you.

My only contact with the big besmirched awards was a purveyor party where the commemorative cocktail seemed like something (neon blue and oddly aromatic) you would measure into your washer. But it was worth the C journey for this exchange, with an engaging reviewer in from out of town who was marveling at what passes for top tier. “Have you eaten across the street at Spice Market?” he asked. “It’s nominated for best new restaurant in the whole country.” “Overpriced joke, right?” I said. “Oh, you have eaten there. We wound up leaving and going to the Spotted Pig for dessert. Have you been there? Best new restaurant?” “Pretty lame, no?” “Oh, you have eaten there. And what about this Latino place . . . .”

 

 

As if booting Bob Edwards were not unforgivable enough, NPR devoted long minutes on a Saturday morning to a segment on a guy whose own handlers once told me was plucked out of kitchen obscurity not for his Escoffier potential but simply because “the camera loves him.” Does no one else find it surreal to hear serious radio promoting vacuous TV? I guess I should just be glad Paris Hilton was too busy getting waxed to stir-fry.

 

 

Maybe it’s because the San Francisco Chronicle kicked ass with its series on “The Taking of 167 West 12th Street,” but my local paper is filling me with less hometown pride than usual, if you can imagine. Scornful as I am, even I was surprised to spot a headline that essentially read: Nyah, Nyah, Nyah. The estimable Christian Delouvrier is out of a job and the most embarrassing critic in the history of restaurant reviewing is allowed to piss all over him claiming the credit. It’s as if the only way the paper can justify hiring a joke is by holding up a little fanny-pack belt with a notch in it. Time was when the Times would have been more modest, even self-effacing; in both my stints on 43d Street any mention of the paper in the paper had to be cleared all the way up the command ladder. Now, a full year before he’s scheduled to retire, it’s clear that Al Siegal has left the building. But at least the world has been made safe for martini drinkers at Ducasse.

 

 

Apparently women don’t have it bad enough in the restaurant business. A hypercelestial blogger is running a ridiculous contest to name the chef with a correct chromosome who should take over the White House kitchen. Could there be a more thankless job than peeling bananas for a chimp, brewing nicotine for his real wife, trying to persuade his pretend wife to eat and whipping up good-and-greasy Hangover Helper for the skank twins? Especially when Clintonesque state dinners seem to have given way to hand-holding photo ops by what Tom Toles has labeled petrosexuals at the “ranch”? Somehow I don’t think this is quite the path to “women rule!” glory it’s being sold as.

 

 

One of the more indigestible lunches of my Dining days was with the Egotist, and not just because it involved the spectacle of him reflexively rubbing his pate stubble while mocking our old-line French waiter’s crude rug. The high point came when I asked why in the name of Pierre Franey he had taken on the drudgery of a weekly column for such a paltry fee. “Are you kidding?” he shot back. “The exposure makes everything else possible.”

 

Turns out there’s exposure and there’s flashing. The acres of type in his own words devoted to his TV masterwork gave new meaning to the word indecent, not least because the NYT failed to disclose what the show’s web site does: It’s underwriter No. 1. Bad enough Rick Bayless has been pilloried for shilling for Burger King while “I Am the Greatest” shamelessly lured chefs to his book party at another fast food sponsor. But blowing yourself is not a technique anyone expects to see demonstrated in a family food section.

 

 

One of the greatest things about living in Manhattan is what E.B. White called the gift of anonymity. But the longer I spend here, the more I realize this vast ocean is really just a fishbowl. Exactly how dangerous it is to forget that came clear on our way to the D’Artagnan party, on an hourlong bus ride in a treacherous snowstorm. Around 14th Street a woman who looked vaguely familiar got on and immediately started reaming out the driver, railing that she had been waiting 20 minutes and that he had not pulled up close enough and had made her walk too far from the shelter. As she bitched and moaned, another passenger, a young woman, finally moved near her to say quietly, “Ma’am, just call the MTA. He can’t do anything for you now.” But she kept carping even as the driver was skidding and sliding and telling her how hard it was to pull close to a stop on the ice. Finally a second young woman called out, “She’s right: Call the MTA and pipe down.” Now it turns into one of those great “you’ll never see these people again” bitch-slaps, with the older woman yelling, “It’s none of your business,” and the other one responding, “It is our business if you’re distracting the driver and he gets us in a wreck.” Just when it’s sounding interesting, we pull up to our stop and she and we get off and I lose sight of her while concentrating on my own slipping and sliding.

Next day, in the party post-mortem, a friend asks me if I had seen a certain well-known cookbook editor there because “she’s lost a ton of weight.” And then I realize: “That was the crazy lady on the bus.” Remind me never to flip off anyone who honks at me. It’s undoubtedly someone I know.

 

 

After an eternity essentially confined to my little office, I’m feeling like Rip Van Winkle lately. As I travel farther and faster (the subway is the Concorde compared with buses and cabs), and can walk more than a few blocks, I keep bumping up against all the ways the city has changed while I was sleeping: buildings have gone up, and come down; restaurants have opened, and closed; Wild Edibles has spawned like salmon; Jamba Juices are busting out all over; Sullivan Street Bakery has added more desserts and raised its prices. But then I’ll open an ostensibly hot-off-the-presses newspaper and it feels like Groundhog Day all over again. Best diners reprised in the Daily News? And delivery in the Times? Didn’t we go through all that back in the Living section? Repeatedly? Next they’ll be telling us where to buy roast chicken. Oh, right. That old hairball was already coughed up.

 

 

Jacques Tati’s wondrous 1967 “Playtime” showed for only a week at Lincoln Center, but it could run forever if the creepy TWC had a movie theater like any other self-respecting mall. One long sequence features a restaurant in meltdown on opening night that makes Thomas Keller’s fire seem no more consequential than a smoke alarm going off. The best bits reminded me our pit stop at Cafe Gray, or my long lunch at Asiate. We didn’t have a succession of waiters coming by and seasoning and saucing and otherwise mucking with our whole fish on gueridon without ever serving the thing. But the general confusion felt the same, and I could just imagine a maitre d’ back in the kitchen putting more energy into making sure waiters were not sneaking swigs out of the flambe bottle than tending to patrons. Best of all was the Tati waiter describing a special: “poached in beurre blanc, doused with cream, napped with . . . .”

 

It would all have been even more amusing if we had not walked seven blocks north afterward to find a favorite restaurant having its own crisis. Too late we realized the chef was away and the kitchen thought it could play. Steamed pork dumplings were the size of meatballs. My usually crisp crab cakes were like soggy clumps of gray lint. My consort’s chicken seemed not roasted but battered into submission. And it all took forever to come to the table, giving us way too much time to do the math on the wine list. The Matua Valley sauvignon blanc I buy for home for $8.99 a bottle was $36. It’s a sad night when you walk out thinking: at least we didn’t get broken glass for ice.

 

 

Thanks to a gift subscription to a very lively little magazine, I now know where a certain literary light wound up after ceding her Sunday Times turf to the soon-to-be Bride of Latte. No, not the New Yorker. She’s writing recipes using fake sugar, with headnotes in perfectly direct, downright readable prose. (People rag on Rick Bayless for touting Burger King, but at least meat, even creepy meat, is food. Splenda is magic dust for mad scientists and calculating accountants.) Even more amazing, the wordsmith of yore is now also dispensing diet advice. As in how to lose weight. So that’s what happened to onefatass.com.

 

Just back from two weeks in Italy, I’m having a tough time assimilating, probably because I spent most of my excursion looking at ceilings, and not of the Sistine variety. One impression will stick with me, though: Compared with Italian cooking shows, the Food Network is Masterpiece Theatre. Even Emeril never has to kiss a man-size cartoon character of a beet, and repeatedly at that. And even Mario looks positively Armaniesque compared with the pubic-permed hostess in denim sausage casings who afflicts Italy’s version of Iron Chef, where good ideas like mortadella stuffed into fried zucchini blossoms get lost in a frenzy of shrieking inanity.

Commercials were actually a break: My favorite was the one for Guylian featuring a slug sliming to the big city to be eaten in chocolate form, to the haunting sounds of “Everybody’s Talkin’at Me.” (Maybe you had to be there.) Trapped in a trauma bed with this kind of pap all day and half the night, I started to wonder if a country that invented cappuccino and Parmigiano and Arneis could really be a colony of mental deficients, and then someone mentioned who controls the airwaves in Italy. And I could only be glad the Bush empire sticks to oil. Rove’s Kitchen is not anything I would ever want to see, in sickness or in health.

 

 

A few too many loud encounters with Italian Jeopardy also had me deluded into thinking anything written in English was almost Nobel-quality literature. And then the first few confections from the NYT magazine came my way (downside to the internet: there’s no escape). All I can say is that the motto for T should be “Not Waving but Drowning.”

 

That an employee of a publication widely derided as Pravda on the Hudson if not White House Officials Said could mock another country’s newspaper as “hilariously one-sided” was juvenilely offensive enough in a recipe column. But the arrogant new feature that aims to out-Bittman Nigella had the high tone and lame language of a 1960s Sunday supplement and the depth and context of frosting from a can. Worse was the verbal equivalent of a Keane painting, wide-eyed and artificially innocent. Certainly many is the time I’ve tucked into morels in an expensive restaurant on assignment and thought: I’d love to meet the guy who checked these into the kitchen; it would add so much to my understanding. Last laugh goes to our old friend the Big Homme. He gets a couple of gullible press types into his lair for major publicity and he makes sure the Mexicans are eating lobster penne for staff lunch. The idea of Mario Batali writing for Vanity Fair, and about music rather than food, seems less and less absurd every hour I’m home.

 

 

Of all the phrases Julia Child ever uttered, probably my favorite was, “If you can beat a pound of butter into a pound of spinach, you’ve won.” Her truly un-American fearlessness when it came to fat was a huge part of who she was (“if you’re afraid of butter, use cream”). The fact that everyone in one of the nastiest professions on the planet almost universally revered her was also remarkable. But it shows the depth of the lack of understanding in certain quarters that those kinds of references were wiped from the record. Her great statement that we’re terrified of French food and yet “you don’t see all those big fat people over there that you see lumbering around Disneyland” was also deemed not fit to print, although it was gleefully repeated on NPR and television as just the reflection of outspoken character it was. The suckers who were stuck with day-late print did learn, however, what the French master thought of Italian. Does everything in life and death have to come down to Mario Batali?

 

Julia, unexpurgated

 

 

What remains most fascinating about Julia Child is that everyone wants to be her, but no one would dream of putting in 10 years of obsessive work on a cookbook. The empty goal is a TV show, endless product endorsements and an army of assistants to write the recipes (or a co-author to claim all the credit). I look forward to many very brief obits down the line, all buried in the back pages.

 

 

When I was thinking of leaving journalism to go into cooking, in 1983, I wrote craven letters asking for advice from a cluster of chefs I admired. I heard back from two, Pierre Franey and Leslie Revsin. The 60-Minute Gourmet caught me off guard by calling only a few hours after I had gotten home from the NYT around 2 a.m., but he was extremely charming and seriously encouraging despite my sleepy inarticulateness. Leslie, though, earned points into perpetuity: She invited me to come meet with her at the Bridge Cafe, where she was temporarily moored, and we spent a good morning talking about just how brutal and demanding professional cooking really was. Having broken into the all-male kitchen at the Waldorf less than 10 years before, she advised me to have no illusions but be prepared to love it.

 

When her husband called to say she had died, it felt weirdly like a personal loss. I met Leslie only once after that first encounter, at an early Women Chefs and Restaurateurs event, and I only spoke to her when she did a couple of pieces for the Dining section (as a writer, she lived up to her headstrong reputation), and we exchanged only a few emails. But I always felt I knew her well through her recipes, starting with the ones in her “Great Fish, Quick,” every one a masterwork of imagination, flavor and technique. The short ribs in her next book, “Come for Dinner,” are the best I have ever cooked, let alone eaten. Her husband said she was testing recipes over and over for her next project even as she was debilitated by cancer and its treatment.

 

Like Julia, Leslie Revsin was the real deal. She earned her time in the TV spotlight by going where no woman had before. And, more important, by so willingly extending a hand to those behind her.

 

 

I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but can we talk about Jeff Smith? He made his name and his money on television and in print selling an image as a man of god, warm and generous and the very model of moral superiority. In my one telephonic encounter, though, he all but told me to go Cheney myself, Madam. Thanks to a starstruck editor in the mid-Eighties, I had to approach him for a recipe for a magazine story and it was if I had dialed Tourette’s Central. Suffice it to say he did not end the conversation with “I bid you peace.” Nasty as the experience was, it does make me look back in wistfulness on those days of innocence when you could just call a celeb straightaway. Today he would have handlers shielding the real Frug, and seven guys would be wondering if anyone would ever listen to their allegations.

 

 

After several years of wondering what ever happened to the greatest restaurant critic New York has had in my 23 years here, I now have the sad answer. There is no more Seymour Britchky to tell the tight truth and nothing but about the food scene in the city. In his newsletter and guidebooks, he meted out stars for dummies but counted on his readers to be smart enough to read a whole review to understand exactly what they were in for. His one-star take on Le Cirque in 1991 could not have been said better, especially this acid-toss at “poor Sirio,” who “is not aware that, though the moneyed and powerful are his clientele today, in any reverse revolution, he and they will be separated at the first cut.”

 

I owe my most transformative early food experiences to those kinds of baroquely composed but still terse assessments, one of which led us Meursault virgins to Le Lavandou, Jean-Jacques Rachou’s “baby bistro,” in 1982, where we paid a shocking $125 with tax and tip for a meal that opened up another world. (We went back again when it was Le Pistou and the review was just as on-target.) Even better, Britchky could verbally take us to places we would never want to go. I can’t think of Elaine’s without seeing her through one of his reviews, lumbering through and hiking up her underpants.

 

 

“The Five Obstructions” is not just one of the most dazzling movies I’ve ever seen. It also has an extraordinary food scene: A Dane in a dinner jacket tucking into a sumptuous meal on a filthy street in the red-light district of Mumbai with only a translucent plastic scrim separating him from a real-life horde of frighteningly poor onlookers. As he pours his Chablis and forks up his fish and sauce, the expression on one young girl behind him steadily turns from longing to hate. Nothing I’ve ever seen on a screen so powerfully illustrated the gap between worlds in this world. Maybe I’m soft-headed because I’ve been on both sides of the scrim in my life, but it’s hard not to believe we’ll never win the war on the abstraction until we share the fish.

 

 

Just back from Italy, Estonia and Denmark, my head is echoing with Surreal-Sound: “Me and Mrs. Jones” playing in a pub outside Venice, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” muffled by the death-rattle coughs in a smoky cafe in Copenhagen, even “Feliz Navidad” lilting in Estonian in a countryside tavern dating from 1802. The European verdict may be that “the American dream is dead” thanks to the evildoer in chief, as a Calabrian acquaintance told us at that pub, but at least they haven’t started hating our music, at least while they eat.

When a New Yorker who has eaten in London suffers extreme sticker shock, you know a city is Gougeville. In Copenhagen, potato soup was $18 in a funky cafe, and monkfish in a mid-range restaurant was $50. And those weren’t the exceptions. It was hard not to wonder if Halliburton had the catering contract for the whole town.

 

 

Culinary tourism always seemed like a great idea, a way to save the world by showcasing local food. But a return trip to the Mercato Centrale in Florence flipped the sunny rock over to the buggy side: so many slaves to food lovers’ guides have tramped through that the place has metamorphosed into Pike Place Market.

 

Last time we were there, in the mid-Nineties, it felt much more like a real city resource. I remember watching my consort eat a fat-dripping beef sandwich while we stood near a workmen’s lunch counter after pushing through the gritty aisles admiring the overload of produce and cheese and meats and fish. Now the lunch counter is so well-known that mostly fellow travelers were lining up and then taking their Florentine Little Macs to a special cafe area with a mural straight out of Little Italy. Wild strawberries were one (inflated) price downstairs and another upstairs, where the stalls were a little darker and rougher (although even there the Faith Heller Willinger effect could be discerned: a sign over a three-foot snake squash read “widow’s pleasure” — in English). The wine shops were run by Asians, with signs in Japanese; the grocery stalls carried pasta shapes shamelessly designed for tourists and curried risotto mixes no Italian would be caught dead ripping open. And when we stopped to look at some olive wood bowls, a clerk ran over to help us, again in English (after close to a dozen trips I think I can safely say: that’s not Italian). Even the cheese counters looked tricked out more for Kodak than for locals. Tripe and udders and deep red horse meat were also on view in the antiseptic shops, but I couldn’t help expecting some hollering fishmonger with his eye on the cameras to toss an Alaska salmon my way.

 

 

English may have won the world language race, but Italian is clearly now the super-power of food. It’s inescapable from plane fare to Estonian cafes; at the high end it’s French for the 21st century. But Mexican is catching up: even Tallinn had more than one restaurant with guacamole-to-enchiladas menu, complete with chipotle salsa. (One also had spicy chicken wings, translated as “chicken muscles.”) Copenhagen was the worst offender, with one half-Italian, half-Mexican joint called Mamma Rosa’s among many but also with nachos on nearly every cafe menu as an alternative to the inevitable burgers and Caesar salads and of course lame pasta. I finally decided I should order them and make them disappear, but it didn’t work that way. And what I got for trying was exactly what would be slopped out on Columbus Avenue. Only a few strange strips of Danish ham made me remember I would not be paying in dollars but with way too many kroners. And afterward I could see why Italian rules: you won’t get Mexican everywhere in the land of tradition.

 

 

Estonia is pure magic, and not just because people there say their president “is an idiot, too, but he’s harmless,” or because the supermarkets make Wegmans look Soviet. We saw it through the shimmering eyes of a native, one who had booked my consort for a slide show and us into the very idiosyncratic and comfortable Olevi Residents and who steered us to good locals’ hangouts like Cafe Anglais and Elevant. Not surprisingly we got a completely different impression from the ones in the travel articles friends had sent me before we left — those were the kind that can only be formed at the end of a press trip leash (it’s bad when an article filches directly from a hotel brochure, right down to the misspelling of Hans Christian Andersen).

 

In one piece fully 300 of the 1,500 words were devoted to the hotel, maybe double that to the deep and thoughtful insights of Carmen Kass, allegedly the world’s most famous Estonian, who had led the awestruck poodle of a writer around. We went to inspect those splendiferous $300-a-night lodgings out of curiosity one night and could have walked into the W on Union Square. The place did have a great library, though — the trick is to stay at the 100-euro Olevi and read at the Three Sisters a few blocks away. Just as revealing was our trip with our connection to one of the too-hip cafes touted in the story. As we were leaving, he said: “You know that model you were talking about? She’s right there by the window, smoking.” Which only made me wonder: Who’s the freeloader with her?

 

 

One of the rules of travel is to always let a local to take the first bite. Our guard must have been down big time in Tallinn, though, because we blithely accepted our connection’s advice in a bizarre restaurant he assured us was frequented by Estonians as well as the hordes of tourists thronging the central square and side streets of the walled city. It was a medieval theme park, with only candles for lighting, Disneyesque musicians playing in a hayloft, waiters in “Holy Grail” costumes, a leatherbound illuminated menu in ye olde script (and on sale for 50 euros). Descriptions of all the dishes were also Pythonesque (Grand Beef of the Mighty Knight, Berries of the Highly Blessed Olive Tree), and the variety was a little staggering considering how little was probably available 500 years ago, even to rich merchants who lived in houses like that.

 

We were seven at the crowded table, drinking the spiced and honeyed beers forced upon us, and then the spiced vodka, and we didn’t really notice what everyone else ordered; we just took the insistent advice to try the specialty: bear (I sea-chickened out with salmon). We dug into all the appetizers, the smoked herring and the baked cheese with juniper and herbs, along with everyone else. And then the main courses landed. Exactly two of them, one really loaded with bear. Waiting politely for the rest, we were stunned to hear: “Go ahead. We didn’t order anything. We don’t eat that.” (For the record, it was true mystery meat: it could have been anything.)

 

The real joke, though, was coming home and finding Olde Hansa has about as much connection with Tallinn as Babbo does with Naples. The corporate web site indicates it’s a chain, looking for investors to expand on the five-year-old prototype. And that 50-euro menu is free in cyberspace.

 

 

For all the acres of type generated by the opening of the Whole Foods in the TWC, no one seems to have shopped there. Every reporter gets so dazzled by the double-wide aisles he forgets to tell you how the food is. So it was a bit of shock to learn that Fairway is in no danger from this mall competition.

 

I went because I needed socially acceptable veal for a story, and I figured for once I could get everything on my list in one stop. But first the lemons were half-green and hard as hockey pucks are cliched to be. Then there was no Italian parsley to be had, only curly-leaf parsley under the flat-leaf sign in the organic section. The garlic, helpfully labeled with country of origin (Argentina), had cloves tinier than my pinky nails. The only butter was organic or otherwise obscure stuff, or Plugra priced like truffles; there was no solidly reliable Land O’ Lakes for my cake. I did find some gorgeous Champagne mangos that weren’t on my list, but one turned out to be rotten inside (the other was sublime).

 

As for the veal, it was probably the most flavorful I’ve cooked in years, but the four big cutlets varied from buttery to uncuttable, sometimes in one piece. And so once again I headed back to my own neighborhood, to go store to store to get the parsley and the lemons and the garlic and the butter. Whole Foods my ass. Bits & Pieces would be a better name.

 

Whole Foods also claims to be raking in 30 percent more business than it had forecast at the dread TWC, which makes me suspect it either set the bar low or is making all the money in the prepared-food half of the store, which is always mobbed. I tasted a few samples of what they’re serving, though, and wondered how long that will last. The eggplant parmigiana had that strange Whole Foods soy (or is it soylent?) aftertaste, and the apricot-glazed turkey was jerky. This was around 11, when the breakfast steam table had been dismantled but none of the lunch hot food was out (they’re not quite on Manhattan time yet). And the soup buckets were being filled by someone so snarly she had to be the sister of the nazi a few blocks away. Either that or she had to eat the staff meal.

 

 

 

When I read the NYTimes memo announcing Frank Bruni had been named restaurant critic, my first thought was: Judy Miller must have been busy taking Chalabi’s dictation. This was a move that had desperation written all over it, coming exactly a day after the NY Observer’s damning front-page story on the protracted bungle in the Dining jungle. If the idea was to promote from within rather than hire a famous writer or other culinarily clueless individual, why not Adam Nagourney, a solid reporter who is steeped in the New York restaurant culture and is also related to one of the better cookbook editors in town? Oh, right. He might want a future in straight news.

 

The new Craig Claiborne may “sneak food into his coverage of popes and presidents,” but he is better known for helping to sell a tragically limited, ethically compromised candidate as a harmless good ol’ boy with none of Gore’s earth tone flaws. (Dailyhowler.com’s archives hold the best documentation of these “memorable moments in the history of fawning.”) Like so many others, he was apparently charmed by Bush and his condescending nicknames, which does not bode well for his future in the notoriously manipulative food world. If Drew calls him Panchito, will he come running with that lost star?

 

 

Why is it that only bloggers seem to know how to use Google, and not “legitimate” journalists? Almost as soon as the ink had dried on the Chicago Tribune’s fawning Laura Bush interview in which she proclaimed, “I don’t bake cookies; I’ve never really baked cookies,” one cyber eagle eye had rifled through the official White House web site and found the recipe for “Laura Bush’s cowboy cookies” that was sent out to so many women’s magazines during the 2000 campaign. Forget about weapons of mass destruction and the Medicare bill and imminent threats — it’s a sad day for America when you can’t believe a cookie story. Now even “her” guacamole looks suspect. What true Texan uses shallots? Aren’t those Freedom onions?

 

Given the lump in the bed’s history, though, it’s probably not surprising that “her” recipes turn out to be lethal weapons. One is for a soup made from leftover baked potatoes with two cups of cheese and about as much heavy cream, sour cream and butter — it’s a heart attack in a bowl, and if only they’d serve it in the bunker. Even the cookies she doesn’t bake have been enriched to the edge of overkill, with coconut and pecans on top of three sticks of butter and three cups of chocolate chips. Except for the chips, none of those were in the cowboy cookies I really did bake when I was a kid. Mine started with shortening and were stretched out with oats. We were too poor for the recipe on the back of the Toll House bag. The one on the White House site would have bankrupted us. Which, come to think of it, is the one true Bush formula.

 

 

Call it Mario Does Madrid. It sounds so much nicer than “let ’em eat fake.”

Batali’s latest mob magnet, Casa Mono, does many things right. The welcome is surprisingly warm, the service competent, the space well-designed considering it’s about the size of my dining room. My friend and I also ate one seriously good dish: pumpkin croquetas filled with goat cheese that were fried to crisp-and-creamy perfection and also communicated flawlessly with the 1996 Muga Rioja reserve (a reasonable $45).

But the distance between the Plaza Mayor and Irving Place felt unbridgeable with the four other dishes that wound up on the table. White beans with chipirones bore an unsettling resemblance to a saucer of maggots, and the baby squid was distinguishable mostly by a slightly high taste. Scallops with chorizo and cava was a waste of gorgeous scallops in the shell with roe attached — the sweet wine duked it out with the spicy sausage and the scallion garnish won. Oxtails in piquillo peppers was a nice idea but a soupy execution. And the braised duck managed to be fatty but dry while avoiding all flavor from the whole olives with it (pitting the suckers would help). A plate of three manchegos in various stages of maturity was a great buy at $6, but the other dishes seemed to be priced in euros (the duck was not worth $13 American).

Once again, I walked out thinking you can fool New Yorkers most of the time now that so many are too paralyzed to get on an airplane and experience the real thing far from our strong and proud and free home. Still haunted by tapas in Madrid and many meals on Lanzarote not so long ago, I’d say Casa Mono should be called Senor Otto.

 

 

Just back from India, I’m feeling as disoriented in New York as Bush must have in Baghdad. But I have to eat here.

 

After nearly two weeks when so many meals were preordained perfection, I’m struggling to decide what to survive on. One of my complaints about this country is that we have no cuisine, only a smorgasbord that’s open all night. Now I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as Indian food — instead there’s Rajasthani and Gujarati and Punjabi and Bengali and more — but at least the disparate states have come together on a general pattern of eating. And none of what they put out is anything like what is pawned off on untraveled New Yorkers. As more than one very proud acquaintance pointed out, it’s the Bangladeshis and the Pakistanis and the North Indians who are the economic refugees who have to go into the food business here. South Indians can either live well at home or find a higher calling overseas. And the world’s table is a poorer place for it.

Eating Indian style, and with abandon, I actually lost eight pounds. Part of it may have comed from forgoing flatware, which does keep you from inhaling. In India, eating is a contact sport: you use your fingers, even with rice. Otherwise, I think I had four bites of fish, one beef dumpling (in a Tibetan restaurant) and one taste of Bob’s tandoori chicken in all my time away, and I see why India has no five-a-day campaign to promote fruits and vegetables. You can live very well without indulging in flesh. At least you can when the food is so varied and vibrant and wondrously seasoned. One of the most amazing experiences among dozens was loving every fingerful of a 12-dish thali at Teej in Calcutta, then noticing on the check that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. I never missed the meat.

I also didn’t miss the wine that’s usually my water, once I tried a local red from Grover Vineyards and a local white from highly rated Sula. When Kingfisher tastes good, you know the grapes are grim.

Now that I’m back, I’m dazed, hungry and adrift. Looking for the antithesis of Indian, I stopped at Pain Quotidien on 72d Street for the first time and got a duck pate tartine to go. I should have been nervous when my cat refused to share, but I plunged ahead with $8 worth of buttered bread and pate dabs, with unripe mango, less ripe cantaloupe and anemic tomato on the side. It all said welcome home with a vengeance. Lunch with a friend at Rosa Mexicano was even more of a shock to the system. That has to be the most inconsistent restaurant in 15 boroughs. The once sublime enchiladas suiza were greasy and cold, with a broken sauce and cheese only partly melted, and I think I flew from Delhi to Calcutta in less time than they took to slide out of the kitchen.

Maybe the only thing to do is to go back to India and learn how to make rotis and chapatis and parathas and puri and pappadum. I could live on bread alone.

 

 

After three nights in a countryside hotel that should have been spelled with a v, I expected to be blissful on landing at the Oberoi iin Mumbai. I had just survived three bathing experiences that involved two faucets, one bucket, two pitchers and a plastic die to rest my fanny on while I splashed out a semblance of a shower. I had withstood repeated encounters with gray curries that were heavy on oily sauce and pretty close to vegetable-free. I had slept on sheets the color of cumin. And still I resented our $220 quarters on the seaface back in civilization. I had gone from a surfeit of local flavor to none.

 

We had landed in Esperanto Land. All hints of India had been excised in favor of a universal blandness. Lying in luxe linen, I realized we could be anywhere, or nowhere. It was a business hotel like every other one on the planet. Only the sandalwood soap in the shower (separate from the bath) carried a whiff of India. Breakfast, in the Rotisserie, was even more displaced: croissants and brioche, Brie and baguettes, granola and chocolate chip muffins. The morning before we had stopped at a roadside cafe outside Mysore and eaten freshly cooked masala dosa with coconut chutney and sambar off steel plates I was careful not to look at too carefully. The “ladies room” was Indian style (you fill in the blanks). And it somehow all seemed healthier. When in India, you really should eat what — and how — the Indians do.

 

 

This can only qualify as delicious irony: I went off to India gamma globulined against Hepatitis A, and now it turns out I’ll need the protection more at home. I missed the news reports of the lethal outbreak from Chi-Chi’s contaminated Mexican scallions but am thoroughly enjoying the reactionary cluelessness. Lou Dobbs actually suggested the solution is to seal the borders. Sorry. Immigration is not the problem. If you think globally, you’ll always eat locally, and in season. (Ever notice how most of these imported scares, from Chilean raspberries with Cyclospora to Mexican cantaloupe with salmonella, happen just when nature says we should be sticking to apples and oranges?) And as I just saw up close and personal, in this new world order when so many vegetables and cheeses and fruits need passports, the only way to keep the food supply safe is to treat the humans handling it like humans.

 

 

Levity was the one thing missing at St. John, the culinary cathedral in London where innards are not just dished up but downright worshipped. Absolutely no snickering is allowed: not when the special is announced as venison faggots, not when another dish is Gloucester Old Spot (and definitely not when the waitress looks like Dick and Jane both). Eating there was like going to weird mass, with Monty Python officiating. The deadly earnestness as the staff tried to make the bizarre seem everyday gave the dining room all the warmth of a morgue, and a rictus-lipped headwaiter in mortician wear didn’t help vanquish thoughts of “Dirty Pretty Things.” The more they tried to make it feel white-clean, the creepier it felt. (Contrast that with a great Chinese restaurant where your fish is presented to you first live, then on a platter, steamed to a state beyond denial.)

Offal is never my thing unless it comes from a diseased duck or goose, but when a newfound friend who lives nearby steered us there, St. John looked oddly appealing after four days of wiener schnitzel and Salzburger nockerl. And it seemed safe enough, with about half the menu given over to either vegetarian choices or good old fish and chips (plaice and tartare sauce, I mean). Maybe it was the “cheap and cheerful” bottle of wine we’d socked back at Carluccio’s Caffe beforehand, but suddenly even I was changing my appetizer order for smoked mackerel and horseradish to the terrine once the unsmiling waitress explained what it was made from: Pork. And offal.

Was it ever. The flavor was like liverwurst that had been on a week-long binge. I was only too happy to pass my plate around the table, but not when I tasted my consort’s salad of crispy pig’s ears and watercress. Babe Jerky is about the best description for the dainty strips of meat. Bob also succumbed to Old Spot, which was a very juicy slab of pot-roasted pork with prunes, but it was hard to eat without thinking of the geriatric hog that had died for his dinner. Our friend Chris too generously shared his deep-fried skate cheeks (who knew skate had cheeks, top or bottom?) and then the faggot, a meatball that brought back childhood memories: My dad killed at least one deer every fall that he would butcher and freeze and my mom would cook and force us to eat; when every other part was gone, she would boil the heart to a pungent death in her pressure cooker. I’ve worked very hard for 40-some years to get that taste out of my mind. Now it’s back, and I’m afraid for good.

 

The scariest part of the whole meal was that my entree was the hands-off winner. Thinking literally “no guts, no glory,” I ordered the chitterlings after Ms. Grimserver explained that they were salt-cured and pan-seared and served with splendiferous lentils. They had to be better than my last taste of that particular organ, at a swanky restaurant in Harlem years ago where Bob was seduced by “chitlins and Champagne,” only to be presented with a plate of plain boiled and coiled intestines and a flat glass of bubbly. These were truly spectacular, both charred and somehow succulent, but it was hard to look at them and cut. With hanger steak you can fool yourself. There’s no mistaking the exit route on a cow.

 

 

Just back from San Francisco, I can’t help thinking maybe the terrorists have won. The airport, especially the overseas terminal, was so deserted a shuttle bus driver hailed us, rather than the other way around. Chinatown was so empty you could have thrown a roast duck up Grant Avenue and not greased a soul for blocks. Saddest of all, there was a listlessness to the food almost everywhere but at the wedding that drew us out there.

Admittedly, San Francisco has been hammered by the dotcom debacle, and Geedubya Hoover’s back-to-the-Thirties economy is not helping, as our return driver on the shuttle insisted. But this is a city that primarily lives off tourists, and they ain’t crawling out of their bunkers with SARS loose in Canada. Not even for hotel rooms at $77 a night (at the Vintage Court, where the Orbitz rate bought us what would pass for a closet in a bed-and-breakfast in Belfast until we complained, twice, and got an upgrade to the “king deluxe” we had prepaid for).

In the two years since I last ate in San Francisco, the restaurant scene seems to have been gripped by fear, too. The buzz was still buzzing, faintly, about the same few high-end places. A gallery owner we met who was quailing over the dearth of visitors told us the only action is in the neighborhoods — destination scenes are dying. But at the highly recommended Woodward’s Garden in the Mission, the room was so dark and empty at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night that it was like dining at the Winchester mystery house (on the upside, the dour server brought us a free plate of risotto after insisting our friend instead order the steak, which really was the best entree on the table, much better than the geriatric halibut).

Zuni Cafe at quarter-filled lunchtime was not as bleak, only bleary. The Caesar salad was one of the best I’ve ever shared, but the house-cured anchovies with celery and Parmesan were a riddle up against an enigma: could such aggressive ingredients really be so passive as a team? Garganelli with microscopic flecks of pancetta, anemic fava beans and chives was also desperately seeking flavor. And the farro salad with manchego, arugula and Serrano ham (or was it everyday prosciutto?) was a shopping list on a plate. Espresso granita and a Qupe half-bottle of marsanne almost saved the meal, until we walked back out into the eerie emptiness.

Slanted Door, the hip Asian restaurant everyone was still salivating over, was even more of a letdown. The new space is certainly spacious and designed, but the hostess needed to cut back on her downers and the kitchen needed to start popping uppers. Everything we ordered was spark-free, nothing like the lively, jazzy, innovative food we had eaten last trip. You have to wonder about a restaurant that blows off its namesake spring rolls (“where the rubber hits the bland” is the best description of these turgid specials).

Even funky, time-warpy Sear’s Fine Foods had slipped a few meters downhill. Absent the tourists who will wait hours in line for snappy, happy service, it’s now closed an extra day a week. The hash browns have gone commercial and the pancakes have a weary look, and texture.

But all is not lost. For the first time since I’ve been traveling to San Francisco, since my sophomore year in college, the city was almost free of the ugliest Americans, the supersized ones in shorts who might as well be wearing T-shirts reading: “Wonder why they hate us?”

 

 

Howell Raines should not be the only high-flier wallowing in infamy right now. Larry Forgione deserves to be down there with him, judging by his latest incarnation of American Place, in Lord & Taylor of all ignominious ends. My lunch there was so bad I started off wondering how you can screw up water and left hoping it’s not really possible to confit a poodle haunch.

I stopped in only out of morbid curiosity while shoe shopping, having eaten at every one of his previous pompous homages to James Beard and American cooking. The menu looked promising, and the place was draped with his laurels, including what the host told one woman was “the Academy Award of culinary.” But the first warning that I was making a huge mistake came not when I realized there was no wine but when I heard the Japanese woman at the next table ask for bread and be told, “It’s coming — the kitchen is behind.” She turned to me and said: “Everything I ask for, there’s a problem. And look, they have half the dining room closed off.” The other half looked and sounded like a motel coffee shop with an odd mix of overdesigned accoutrements (skinny-handled knife guaranteed to slide off the square plate; silly silver dome over sloppy slab of butter).

When the flatbread finally arrived, well after my salad, I suspected Mario Batali was moonlighting as baker. It was tough, brittle and tasteless. The water had an oily aspect, so I ordered iced tea, which achieved the bizarre state of being both weak and bitter. But the real horror was the duck confit salad. It was based on the same mix of overcooked, uninspired vegetables every other table seemed to be getting under the salmon, doused with a Coke-sweet pineapple-chile sauce. But the leg was downright creepy: the skin was uncuttably tough while the meat was cold, old and lumpy, not fibrous and fatty and tender. After a few bites, I stopped when I suddenly remembered a photographer friend who traveled all through Vietnam asking for duck and being refused until the last night, when his interpreter confessed: “I thought you were saying dog.”

 

 

Washington would turn Mother Teresa into Barbara Bush. Just trying to get a decent cup of caffeine brought out the bitch in me over the weekend. At the Hotel Rouge, the “cappuccino” was made with regular coffee and serious foam — it looked like dishwater with rabies. When we tried for tea instead another morning, there was one tea bag on the premises and a silver bowlful of loose leaves. When my consort asked for something to separate the leaves from the tea, the attendant belatedly brought two iced tea spoons. (Tea, naturally, was $1 more than coffee.) Even when we fled in search of a real breakfast the third morning, the cafe at the nearby Washington Terrace hotel — the only place open for blocks — was serving big glass pots of barely tanned hot water. And when we sent it back, we got more of that burned murky foam that passes for cappuccino in Washington. No wonder the government is so screwed up. Everyone’s half asleep.

Worse, the whole town seems to be on Bush time. We reserved at Bistro d’Oc for 7:45 and realized we would be a little late after leaving the movies (“Man on the Train” — go immediately). When Bob called to say so, he was warned that the kitchen closed at 8. On Sunday night. Just as I suspected, we were the only people in the place, and it was too dreary to contemplate eating tripe and pigs’ feet and cassoulet in a restaurant that empty. We walked out onto the emptier streets and soon felt like the only people on the planet. No wonder laws seem to be passed in a vacuum in Washington. They are.

 

 

The happy occasion of this latest expedition to the far fringe of the civilized food world was a wedding of one of Bob’s childhood friends. And it was, as Michelin would say, vaut le voyage, but not for the usual reasons. What I got out of it was an epiphany about wedding cakes. I’ve always hated them because they’re more about looks than taste, but now I understand why.

This one was actually one of the best ever: the cake itself was moist, the berry filling was both intense and restrained, the frosting did not need a pickaxe to penetrate. But as I ate and considered, I realized what was so troubling. This cake had not been baked yesterday. It was a production, and it was tackled in stages. And there is no way it should have tasted as fresh as it did. Any more than a body at a funeral should look as good as it does.

I hate to say wedding cakes are unnatural. Embalmed is a better word.

 

The Emperor Wears No Pants: Maybe pizza needed to be reinvented, but not as a cross between a Communion host, a nonfat tortilla and a sloppy tostada, which is what Mario Batali has cooked up at Otto. His latest fool-most-of-the-New Yorkers-most-of-the-time enterprise in the old One Fifth/Clementine space in Greenwich Village is clearly still going through a shakedown cruise. But as long as prices are not set at the preview level the food should be a little better than salsify cooked with saba until it tastes like fruitcake without the batter and “panelle” fritters that have as much in common with real farinata as tofu mayonnaise does with hummus. The caponata, our sharp-palated friend pointed out, was so sweet it tasted like something from a seder.

But the pizza of the giorno was the real travesty. Cooked on a griddle until it got good and dry and too tough to cut, the super-thin crust was covered with slices of prosciutto and Parmesan that slid off with every bite. Adding insult to messiness was a drizzle of balsamic vinegar that was like syrup on a saltine. My cynical side can’t help but suspect that Batali is capitalizing on Americans’ new fear of flying to pass off this bogus Italian. Who will remember how the real stuff compares with his when we’re all huddled in our bunkers listening to Geedubya’s Terror Toons? But I can still hear people in Pantelleria, Sicily, laughing when I asked them about eating raw fish, the way he serves it at Esca.

One of the more fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made lessons I learned in 46 months at the New York Times is that a certain top French chef will do everything but fart backward to get his name in the paper. So when the new Dining section editor (motto: “awesome, dude”) said I would get “extra bonus super thanks” if I named a “multi-starred” restaurant in the lede of my last piece, on Mexican staff meals, I immediately put in a call to No. 1’s No. 2. She was out, but the assistant to the assistant was all gushes and promises. Not only was 25 percent of the staff at his three restaurants Mexican, she said, but his forthcoming cookbook just happened to include a recipe for posole that was a direct outgrowth of the staff meals at the big homme’s second restaurant. Of course we could have that recipe, and of course we could shoot in the kitchen.

Second thoughts set in about as fast as gas from frijoles. After emailing me the recipe, the assistant called in a panic to say no Mexicans were actually cooking at the restaurant, then emailed this message: “We would be delighted to prepare the Pozole Soup for the NYT to photograph. However, we do not wish to have photos taken of our staff having their afternoon meal. Although it is important to us for the staff to eat well and enjoy their dinner before they begin the evening’s service, it is simply not an issue we choose to feature in a photograph. We hope you will understand.”

 

The funniest thing was that every other chef I interviewed for the article all said the same thing: “Call over to The Top Place. They’ve got this guy Lupe who’s making the most amazing food. . . .”

 

 

Just back from 13 meals in Nantucket, I have new understanding of how the rich are different from you and me. They’ll put up with a lot more abuse. Most places we went, even the good ones, the attitude seemed to be: treat the CEO’s like shareholders.

The island is magical, but simmering right below the surface is definite contempt in a seasonal business. Restaurateurs like to push around patrons with No rules: no reservations, no credit cards, no bread, sometimes even no wine. And it’s not as if these are East Village-affordable joints. Local people say they don’t even think of eating in them.

At the Galley on Cliffside Beach, the fixed-smile lunch for a surgically enhanced crowd was priced for Jack Welch. Two crabcakes with a handful of mesclun went for $26, but that didn’t include snappy service. Small fortunes have been made faster than our food was delivered.

At Chanticleer, where we were lured by a longtime islander’s promises of “the real Nantucket,” we should have bailed when we overheard the sockless tycoon at the next table open the wine list, ask what was available by the glass and reel as the waiter responded: “Those are the wines by the glass.” The cheapest was $17. Give me the fantasy Nantucket any meal. Like fools, we stuck it out and were rewarded with a baby chicken as juicy as an old rooster ($30) and a dainty little lobster salad with frozen mixed vegetables ($29) — and it could have been worse: at dinner, duck for two is $80.

But the gouges were not without entertainment. The menu at American Seasons read like Food & Wine multiplied by Gourmet and minus SpellCheck: “seared rare porcetta rubbed tuna on a warm salad of fingerling potatoes & panchetta in a roasted tomato & saffron sauce with a spanakopita crisp.” And the one at Oran Mor could have been lifted from a Monty Python script with rap accents: “pan seared Ruthie B. summer left eyed flounder with a rustic garden provencal.” Translation: fish and sauce.

In a season of bizarre book blurbs, the most surreal can be found in a little primer called “The Waiting Game: The Essential Guide for Wait Staff” by Mike Kirkham, Austin restaurateur Peggy Weiss and Bill Crawford (Ten Speed Press). Laura Bush of all peple provided the foreword, which starts out warmly — “my husband and I love a good meal — especially one served with a smile” — and then turns sinister: “Many of us can relate to having a bad dining experience. You waited too long for a table. You waited too long for your food. You waited too long for your check.”

As anyone who remembers the delicate campaign coverage of Mrs. Bush’s past will recall, the First Lady has a bit of a problem with waiting. In 1963 she blew through a stop sign in her tiny Texas town and killed a boyfriend in the car she slammed into.

In other words, if you know what’s good for you, get this woman her food. Fast.

older bites

Ducasse must be having a going-out-of-business sale. Three hundred twenty dollars for a truffle dinner for two with wine pairings? I think they call that distress pricing. And the place must be completely empty if that level of hooliganism is encouraged. Reading about it reminded me of the dinner my consort and I suffered through eons ago at Jean-Louis at the Watergate, which actually did cost something like $320 (I had the receipt up on my bulletin board for about a year to remind me that we could have flown to Paris for that price at that time). We had made a pilgrimage to what was allegedly one of the highest temples of gastronomy in America, only to be seated near a couple with a baby. A screaming baby. One that was being raised to scream itself out. But at least it wasn’t packing a digital camera and microphone and regurgitating, to Palladin’s humiliation.

I doubt I was the only reader embarrassed to be a New Yorker on seeing an adolescent had been sent to do an Apple’s job profiling the most brilliant woman in wine writing. What must that quintessentially erudite Brit have thought about the level of depth and wit at what presents itself as the nation’s greatest newspaper? And here I thought crush had a whole other meaning with wine. “Be still my heart,” my ass. Get working, my gag reflex.

Donald Trump is normally beneath comment (except by Borat’s behind, of course). But I have to say the new vodka out under his name does not really look as if it is bottled in gold, which is the effect clearly being attempted. That color makes it closer to urine. Which must be why the T logo evokes a certain statement by Andres Serrano.

The small story was about an outbreak of salmonella in tomatoes in 21 states. The huge one was about all the pandering to germphobes these days. Can no one make the connection between the absurdity of automatic disinfectants for doorknobs and the reality that food harvesters and handlers are among the poorest-paid and most deprived of health care of any workers in this country? All the Purell on the planet is not going to solve that little problem of denial. Lately, with a good friend coming to town, I’ve been marveling at hotel prices in Manhattan, and I just love the idea of someone who can pay $1,000 a night worrying about germs on the remote when the lethal risk could be from the obscenely overpriced strawberries from room service. Can I say it again? Typhoid Mary was a cook.

I’m no believer in the Apocalypse, but knowing a cranberry bog was simulated in the heart of Manhattan, in Rockefeller Center, almost got me seeing naked Christians flying up to heaven. A society (I started to say culture) that can indulge in such absurd excess purely for promotional purposes really is asking for End of Days. Having spent more harvests than I can count up around South Carver, Mass., during what really is the greatest show in agriculture, I found it particularly offensive: all flash, no substance, just nature out of context and balance. As a reality check, I think Butterball should be forced to bring a turkey operation to town next, with miserable birds bred to be all breast crammed cheek by gorgle into tiny cages. New Yorkers might stop complaining about tiny apartments and ass-packed subways — not to mention about being unable to mate naturally.

So some joint desperate for publicity in Las Vegas is offering a $70 baked potato. The truffles put it over the top. The potato makes it pathetic. I don’t think even in Dubai they would be so blatant about demonstrating their contempt for the losers with cash coming into casino eateries. Rubes tasting the most exclusive tuber in the world for the first time would think — as I confess I did — that it was something scraped off the bottom of someone’s shoe. Give them their dignity as you extract them from their winnings. Strew some gold leaf over the chicken nuggets.

I go back and forth on whether the internets are going to revolutionize the news business. For every breakthrough like the hijacking of BLT Burger’s opening you get a “Harold McGee has a blog!” The former demonstrated that restaurant flacks might want to think about looking into whether anyone is hiring in Bangalore. Sites like eater and chowhound grabbed that bone and ran with it, to the extent that anyone who goes online to decide where to eat knew a week ahead of every reader crawling after print that it was not just open but, apparently, not very good. Press releases were anticlimactic to the point of dodo-ish. But then the cyber-hysteria that greeted the discovery that the Einstein of food was posting was relatively ridiculous. The thing has been up since August and, when I checked, had not been updated since September. How do you say “stop the presses” in HTML?

In my indentured servitude I recall eating many times at Burritoville on Ninth Avenue near Chalabi HQ. So how in the name of Siegol did the word burrita make it into print? I guess on the 43d ode to funky food at the ball fields, effete eyes just glazed over.

“A Good Year” may not come in the form of a mushroom cloud, but it is one serious mega-bomb. Russell Crowe should have thrown a big white telephone at Ridley Scott before allowing the director to embarrass him so profoundly, having him play a money-guy asshole (or is that redundant?) who inherits a vineyard in Provence. A friend and I, invited to a free screening through a promising-sounding new group called Women & Wine, lasted about 15 minutes before realizing spit buckets would not be handed out. Maybe the movie will be a hit, though. The evening had started with a reception featuring out-of-season rose and bounteous imported cheeses, and my snobbish side noticed that the Boursin went first. And the asses were still in the seats when we fled.

I used to subscribe to GQ just for the food coverage, but that has been many years ago. Judging by the kerfuffle over the New Orleans story, I don’t think I’ll be re-upping anytime soon. Reading about it online made me remember the dismal day I went to lunch when I was still not weight-bearing and a guy walking out deliberately knocked my propped-up crutches off my chair; my surprised friend thought it was “like kicking a cripple.” Maybe the cooking really has gone completely to hell in one of America’s top five food cities, but now is not the time to blare that thought out, not while the people who staff the restaurants are so scattered and so many problems are clearly still far from solved. But in every debacle there is always a laugh, and mine came when I read the outrage over the outsized trout the poor critic was served. I guess he don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speckled trout. And we should all be glad no one attempted to serve him puppy drum. I can read it now: “Not only was it not a dog, I couldn’t beat it.”

Somehow it’s not surprising the canned White House chef is being very careful not to dis Mrs. Chimp — he has to know he would wind up with a horse’s head in his bed. And as a former friend once noted, that BFEE payback tradition must be how we wound up with so many horses’ asses in the executive mansion to begin with.

Nice to think Panchito has a second career waiting. After managing to gorge across northern Italy without a single thought any deeper than out-Appling Apple at least on his Visa, he could take up competitive eating. As much as I find that whole “sport” abhorrent, there is something deeply satisfying about imagining him entering the Coney Island hot dog pig-out. And winning.

Also, I have only been to the train station in Bologna, but one of my far-flung e-pals just back from there has an interesting observation: “Via Drapperie is one place in an otherwise untrammeled food town where every shop sells 80-euro bottles of balsamic with labels in English. This writer deserves a tour on the receiving end of Puglia.” Or at least a budget. This had to be spending on a KBR scale. With returns just as rewarding.

WNYC ended its fall shakedown in the absolute nick of time. If I had had to listen to that ridiculous promo for the Zagat Survey one more time, I would have thrown all three radios out the windows of our 14th-floor apartment, and at least one receiver, too. It had every cliche that could be jammed into one too-long enticement (“bad boy chef” — give me a break), and it struggled to add a veneer of validity to what is truly nothing more than a gazetteer. Which is why, for all the dopiness of the new Michelin, I for one am happy to have it, Dinosaur BBQ and all. The “mysterious inspectors,” as the company’s capo referred to them at the announcement breakfast, at least appear to be trying to impose qualitative judgments rather than letting “democracy” rule in a Diebold world. I can even forgive them the two stars for Molto’s palace because I now understand where they’re coming from. The place feels very much like the wildly ostentatious starred restaurant at Pompeii my consort and I once found through the Red Guide. But maybe I’ve just gone soft because that breakfast, at Bouchon Bakery in the dread TWC, was such a trip. It was the ultimate contrast to the gang-bang at the Guggenheim for the inaugural guide — there were probably no more than a dozen and a half reporters at 9 in the morning but enough flacks and waiters to take back Baghdad. And the exquisite little pastry I had plated by two servers was definitely worth the journey.

New York City’s move to ban trans fats in restaurants pretty much strikes me as a tempest in a Fryolator, even though I agree with chefs who say letting government outlaw any food is a very oily slope. But this is really about fast food and processed food; the kinds of restaurants that care about what they serve have already moved beyond the latest designated evil. Three of the mid-range places I eat at most often — Pearl Oyster Bar, Fatty Crab and Chola — all say they don’t even touch trans fats. And all you need to know about how the proposal affects ethnic restaurants is that this is a decidedly American innovation. Which makes it all the weirder that the industry keeps putting out misinformation and murking up the debate. The latest terror alert was from the head of the restaurant association, warning in the Daily News that the ban will make it tougher to turn out fresh chocolate chip cookies and cannoli and egg rolls. Exactly why is never stated. Not only does every one of those taste worse made with shortening rather than butter or hydrogenated oil instead of canola, but aside from the bottom line not one of them needs to be made with either foul ingredient. And if they are, all I can say about the crackdown is: Bring it on.

I actually found myself sucked into the dread TWC twice in a week, the second time because I happened to be nearby and just could not limp the extra 14 blocks up to Fairway for the large amount of Swiss chard I needed for a recipe. I think this was the day Holy Foods was getting yet another beatification in the press, this time for its support of “animal compassionate” meat, because my spinach detector was on high as I meandered through all that eco-sensitivity on chest-thumping display. And of course the cashier tucks my paper-wrapped loaf of Sullivan Street Bakery bread into its own heavy plastic bag and snaps a rubber band around the plastic box of duck rillettes already sealed so tightly that I will almost have to use pliers to open it. Ever since Vanity Fair said the most immediate thing we could do to save the environment is to cut down on plastic bags, I have been trying to carry my hyper-sturdy Cuba tote everywhere and toss everything I can into it unwrapped. I didn’t have it that day and realized: Walking out with this chain’s shopping bags, you’re just talking the talk.

The most surreal party of a strange week was the one for the Waldorf-Astoria’s new cookbook, in Peacock Alley. I had to take my chocolate cookie and go home after succumbing to the macaroni and cheese served in a martini glass and having some hammered woman at the bar next to me point at it and start half-singing, “This is us. You know what I mean? This is us.” Speak for yourself, lady. And now I won’t be able to listen to Mark Knopfler and Emmylou for a long time. Even more unsettling was that different serving stations were dispensing food from the book, and the longest lines (meaning three or four people) were not for the lobster or the truffled gnocchi or even the slow-roasted monkfish. They were for the mini-burgers. What in the name of Craig Claiborne has happened to taste in this town? Even Laurent Tourondel has succumbed to the siren song of nonthreatening burgers and, I see, now has toddlers to contend with in his newest dining room. I guess it makes sense on one level: He must have a shitload of meat scraps to use up from his other joints. But I still never thought the national capital of food would turn out to be a glorified McDonald’s. It has to be Dining’s fault. As we’ve learned the hard way with Washington, blinkered coverage leads to disastrous situations.

Hometown paper, my ass. One day it refers to Gramercy Tavern in the embezzlement story as “a bar.” And on another it says a Mexican food cart down in SoHo is on “Worcester” Street. Think the copy desk has been outsourced to Bangalore?

This is not a payback to Grub Street, but I have to say New York magazine’s story on extreme dieting was brilliantly done. We were spared all the blow-by-blow of the writer’s experience and simply treated to one devastating dinner with some truly scary characters (although I’ve seen more people in this town licking their plates in restaurants than mooning the A train — two to one if you’re counting). The writing was quite clever, too. But what I mostly came away impressed with was how much very specific nutrition knowledge these I-wanna-live-forever wackos had at their mouse clicks. People who try to eat right based on what they read in the papers and magazines and hear on the teevee are essentially clueless about anything beyond fat and carbs and whatever Big Food and its stenographers are pushing as the miracle nutrient du jour. And these anorexics by another name are getting their RDAs if not much else. Time for another confusing study on fish!

One of the best signs I have ever seen in a restaurant was in a gay diner in the French Quarter that read, “Watch your handbags and your husbands.” I thought of it yet again after hearing the fascinating story going around right now about the Schnorrer. When I passed that tale along to a friend, I added: “It’s so insane for him to do it — everyone knows he’s corrupt.” And she just said, “Now we know he’s a corrupt goon.” I guess in this business, you take your moral clarity where you can find it.

I also suppose it’s true no attempted good deed goes unpunished. After seeing a certain restaurant pop up on the Eater deathwatch, I figured I would go drop some money there because the chef is very good and very charming, plus the place is pretty and it is on the way to the Greenmarket when I am late as lunchtime in getting downtown. So I walk in starving at 12:40 and two tables are occupied while the “hostess” is on the phone rattling off all the many rules for some poor sucker who had the temerity to make a reservation. “We only hold it for 15 minutes, and then we have to give the table away, and we cannot seat you until your entire party has arrived” etc. etc. Finally, finally, she hangs up, literally tears at her hair, blurts frazzledly, “I’ll be right with you” — and promptly takes another call. This is the hospitality business? Lesson No. 1 when I sold shoes eons ago was that a customer standing in front of me was worth 500 on the phone. Ms. Stressed may have thought that sound she heard as I turned around and stomped out was steam exploding out my ears. I would say it’s a death rattle.

Anyone who gets the Greenmarket gig merely for living close enough to shop in flip-flops deserves to do better than trivializing. Voguish as an adjective anywhere near Michael Pollan? Some grownup really should take the keyboard away. Pigs are dying in vain.

A smart friend just back from Rome, Naples and Piedmont spent at least an hour on the phone venting on how unhappily she and her husband had eaten, and for so much money. If I hadn’t been to Tuscany relatively recently, I would have thought the Italian sky was falling. No one knows better than I do that the country has ingredients, not a cuisine, and if they’re not handled exquisitely, you can easily drop 100 euros on pallid pasta and overcooked fish. At least I had a fresh email from my orthopedist pal in Torino to restore my faith; back from what he called an “aria fritta” and I assumed was a boondoggle (fried air), he reported he had eaten in Milan, Rome, Naples and Palermo. “Enjoying respective local cuisines, I was thinking about you; I realized that in almost every Italian restaurant they’re trying to homogenize traditional cuisine and stylish cuisine . . . with not bad results. We had a meeting too at Canale d’Alba, at Enoteca del Roero restaurant, and I liked this wonderful commixture of authentic solid flavours from Piedmont revisited with a touch of French frivolousness.”

Now that is a uniquely lyrical voice you can trust. Especially compared with the reflexive bleatings about the damn Autogrill disseminated even in absentia. Once upon a time that roadside institution really was a guaranteed oasis. But after our last stop this summer, in Florence, I’ll always wait for the Spizzico in the airport. It’s the exact same processed crap anymore, but with Burger King on board. No wonder my frustrated friend is convinced Italians are playing fast and loose with their culinary heritage. They can serve industrial mozzarella with Big Ag ham on a cotton ciabatta and hornswoggle an American critic. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Molto realized long ago.

The same frustrated friend, far across the country, had just the right take on the food cart megaturd, too: “People in NY go out for late dinners. Wow.” Wait till she hears about the $40 entrees. How soon we forget the $36 soup. I’ll say it again: They’re defining nadir down.

It’s only happened twice, but I’m convinced it’s a trend. Dogs are getting better service than humans in this town. Once was at a sidewalk cafe in the Flatiron where a guy walked up with a Great Dane bigger than he was and made me think Rick Santorum might be on to something. My friend and I waited and waited to order food while both the hostess and a waiter rushed to bring the dog a drink in a takeout container. The second instance was at another sidewalk cafe, on Columbus, where I got water only on request and bread only with my food but where the waiter positively sprinted to make sure a big boxer was rehydrated seconds after being leashed to the fence. The only redeeming element was what ensued. The owner asked me to watch Buster while he (the owner) went to the bathroom, and almost immediately, with so many other designer dogs prancing past, I found myself in the bizarre position of eating and drinking while watching an absolute orgy of butt-sniffing. It was almost like being at a press party with the Uberomnivore.

I told a friend from Beacon about that episode, at which I also heard there is a Manhattan store that specializes in Halloween costumes for dogs, and she went off on how her town has a “barkery.” “We don’t even have a bakery for humans, and we have a barkery for dogs,” she said. But then freshly baked biscuits and kibble don’t surprise me. The only refugees from Lebanon allowed into this country after the bloodbath were dogs, apparently the only things Americans care more about than blastocysts. Funny how we seem to be out-Frenching the French, who at least keep dogs in their place under the table — and proportioned for cities.

I keep going out to parties looking for absurdities and actually enjoying myself (yet another validation of my mantra: expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed). The Chow extravaganza at Bedlam (well, they call it Public) was a revelation. I don’t think I talked with very many guests besides chefs who do not exist largely in cyberspace, and it was a whole different experience from the literally old media events that can be so unpleasant. That classic New Yorker cartoon captioned, “On the internet no one knows you’re a dog,” is so true when it comes to food writing. In dog years I am ready to be put down, but all the pups were astonishingly friendly and open. A day or so later I realized why. On the internet you do it for fun. You compete only with your last post. And when you actually meet the people whose words you admire, you can be pretty confident those are their words, unfiltered. Of course part of the reason I went was to meet the blogger who thinks I am clench-jawed nasty, and of course she looked and seemed like a sweetheart, what the famous David’s sister might be if she didn’t have to wait on peons at that fake fish camp. She didn’t cringe from me, either. But then I did retract my fangs for the night.

Earlier in the week there was an evening at Zarela’s amazing home that I found seductive even without succumbing to the margaritas (the crack cocaine of cocktails), largely because the crowd was so mixed between media types and patrons who have become friends. I really can’t write about her in my other life because we are friends, too (although she once informed me I was becoming a liability precisely because of that separation between personal and professional), but I’m here to say from long experience that she does know how to fiesta. Among the things I learned as Aaron’s caja china was steaming out in the garden in the rain: The pizza at Celeste is best at 10:30 at night because it takes that long for the oven to reach the optimum state; Hallmark has a magazine, and it’s actually not unbearably treacly, and, if you are a smart and personable guy moving into a pivotal position, characters in need will be on you, in the immortal words of James Carville, like stink on shit. Some major-league glomming was going on, but I somehow suspect the attempted victim is more than able to resist the blandishments. Still, why do I doubt the words “when you were hired I got very frightened” were ever uttered?

You know the world is spinning off its axis when a tabloid runs a cartoon of a diner requesting “the House Republican special” as a waitress calls to the kitchen: “One order of toast!” — and it’s not the NYPost. If he’s lost Mr. Fox, the Chimp really is down to his Lump in the Bed and his real dog as loyalists.

Chills should also be running down the cloven-hooved Rove’s crooked spine now that news of Coke’s allegedly calorie-burning green tea drink has been greeted with more skepticism than the announcement of the last capture of Osama’s 1,900th No. 2. Something’s happened, and what it is isn’t exactly clear, but it’s obviously getting harder to fool all of the people all of the time. Rather than swallowing the notion of gym-in-a-drum, smart papers such as the WSJ did the math and reported that it would take 28 cans of this new Coke to counter one Big Mac. If America is really starting to wake up and smell the guano, it might mean the end of the faith-based flimflams, in and out of the supermarket.

The rumor that Grayz is not going to happen, heard only two weeks after I suffered yet another earnest pitch for the place, is somehow not surprising. The city has gone crazy, but maybe not crazy enough to want the uneasy spawn of a mixed marriage of “21” and a tapas bar. What’s most remarkable is that the pullout is happening after such unparalleled overselling — the announcement party alone would have put a Nobel soiree to shame. Somehow they always forget what happens when you push too hard and too fast: premature exultation, the most awkward form of birth control for restaurants.

If you want to save your sanity, never read a food piece in the business section of the NYT. On the same day Michael Pollan in the magazine presented his usual brilliant assessment of how we wound up with shit in the spinach, and how more government regulation would make everything so much worse, a stunningly misguided columnist laid out the exact opposite argument, right down to an ode to the great advance of forced pasteurization of milk. Maybe it was satire to praise irradiation, but somehow I don’t think so. When I saw the Chicago Tribune is looking to hire a “food policy reporter,” to be based in DC, it struck me as yet another sign of how schizophrenic old media is about food — is it women’s pages fluff or is it a crucially important topic right now? Coverage that bridges that gap as Pollan does would benefit everyone. And maybe what the world needs is more food policy editors, the kind who can tell the spinach from the Shinola.

Speaking of editors needed, it gives me no joy to point out the obvious one more time: Friends don’t let friends drone drivel.

Blogs must be the new Viagra. In one noteworthy case, a keyboard kommando has actually grown an extra ball and taken on the 800-pound gorilla. Maybe one of the duller openings really does represent an outstanding newcomer, but the defense sounds like a Tony Snowism: “Nina and I have never voted in one of our surveys.” But that was not the accusation. As we all learned too painfully in 2000, you can win an election with judges only.

A more telling insight into how the food world works in this great age of the series of tubes can be found in the “reviews” for a new wine book. Authors send copy to blogger, blogger raves, links are exchanged, traffic goes up all around. Spy used to call this logrolling in our time, but even those cynics never imagined how virtually out of control it would get. Maybe it’s not payola, but it’s so much easier than planting eight-thumbs-up reviews on Amazon. Expect a sequel. Call it “Becoming Your Own Flack.”

My sick suspicion that the food pages of the Daily News are preying on 6-year-olds has been confirmed. The latest insult to intelligence was a piece on breakfast “sammies.” That word is even more of an abomination than “veggies.” Do they really think any kid has a $31.60 allowance to subscribe? For that price, though, we deserve better than a full-page feature celebrating artichokes in mid-October. Maybe you can buy them all year round now, but if we have learned anything from killer spinach, it’s that obliviousness can be dangerous. For a publication so rabidly obsessed with the latest fashions, the News seems oddly clueless about the hottest trend in food right now. Just a clue: It starts with an L. And it’s something you would certainly expect in a “hometown paper.”

“Our Daily Bread” is the most devastating documentary food movie since “Darwin’s Nightmare,” and if you can sit through it you will have a very hard time understanding how animal rights ninnies can waste a nanosecond of concern on foie gras. Gavage looks like a trip to the Golden Door compared with the way chickens, cows and pigs are raised to become 49-cent-a-pound fodder. Even my overactive imagination could never have envisioned how brutal it is to take tiny chicks and ram their beaks into a guillotine at the rate of roughly one a second so they can be packed together tighter than excelsior in an Easter basket, let alone how disgusting is it to see them literally vacuumed up and funneled down chutes to the next level of hell. I think chickens are filthy birds but was still oozing sympathy at what industrial agriculture does to living things.

This long, slow, breathtaking movie is both queasy-making and mesmerizing in depicting the antithesis of sustainable. Every shot is as composed as a photograph on a gallery wall, and the camera really never blinks. There is no music, no voiceover, nothing but an unflinching and unjudgmental look at how man has beaten nature into submission, or so we think. It’s like “Koyaanisqatsi” without a Philip Glass score for comfort (there’s a thought I never thought I would have), but while it’s beyond life out of balance it presents a staggeringly fair depiction of the true cost of Big Food — animal, vegetable and mineral. I’m pretty careful about where my food comes from, but even I was repeatedly sickened; the sequence on farmed salmon was as unsettling as the many on greenhouse cucumbers and peppers and white asparagus and, especially, salt. By the end, after watching not one but two cows undeniably in agony after getting whacked while trapped in an iron maiden of a contraption, I realized that if the brisket I had to go home and cook for a story had not come from Niman Ranch, there is no way in hell I could have ripped open the plastic. As it was I had trouble sleeping for two nights and still get queasy thinking of a burger.

If only the dainty bleeding hearts out there squandering their worries on ducks without a gag reflex could hear the shrieks of pain from a piglet locked into a metal brace to have its tail docked before heading to the next stage of confined misery. And are the gadflies really trying to save cockroaches from an eating contest at a theme park? Islamochrist help us all.

I’m not a Democrat, but at least once a day lately I find myself mentally paraphrasing the Frugal Gourmet: Thank heaven for little boys.

A friend down in Texas mailed me the most amazing story from his local food section, a four-page spread on the blow-by-blow opening of a hometown restaurant here in the big city. Not just because of the novelty of print, I read it with absolute fascination, waiting to see how the flacks would get canned. That little messiness was never mentioned, but I did learn that they (or their replacements) provided the chef and his wife with “a fat notebook” crammed with photos of “reviewers, food writers and editors, along with other media big shots.” “Some come with descriptions: ‘a better, younger-looking Woody Allen,’ ‘looks similar to Harrison Ford but more muscular and tan,’ ‘likes to eat large meals’ . . .” Aside from the last, I’m trying to think whom they possibly could mean. Even more telling, the story also notes that “none of the A-list celebrities has made an appearance” at the opening party. Maybe the third PR team will be the charm.

No wonder we’re bogged down in a lose-lose situation in Iraq. There are actually people out there, in the media no less, who do not know how Panchito got nicknamed Panchito. (Big honkin’ hint: Not by me.) Thanks to e-pals who alerted me with reviews ranging from “semi-coherent” to “mean and pompous,” I looked in on holierthanthou.com (or is it circlejerk.com?) What is it with guys who read me and have to take to the fainting couch? It’s only guys, interestingly enough. Women must be more honest about how the food world works — not for nothing is it known as a coven. At least I don’t let my comment-monkeys fling the feces for me. And while I could never describe what it’s like being me, I can tell you what it’s not: boring.

If the descriptions of one set of American-girl fingers getting grape-stained in a vineyard in the Loire didn’t dull you enough, brace yourself. Apparently Travel has bought the same story. With luck we’ll at least be spared that very French recipe title, “Gruyere puff.”

One guy who would have searched out and insisted on the real name for that dish has just made the ultimate press trip, after one of the most enviable careers ever in journalism. I have to admit I was far more awed and admiring before I had to handle his food stuff, and luckily I did not have to do that very often. It was not just misspellings of fettuccine Alfredo that sent him around the bend (although that early fuck-up in his own obit should have brought him bellowing back to life). I remember once shaking for three days after I had to call him somewhere halfway around the globe to say the copy desk had found a couple of errors in his piece. It was like cattle-prodding a bull elephant. “Must be wonderful to have a bullshit job,” he yelled back, in all caps with exclamation points and a bit of boldface. No wonder I came in one day during the 2000 Republican convention to say I had seen a photo of Johnny Rotten at the solemn assemblage and a co-worker looked at me quizzically. “Why wouldn’t he be there?” she asked, not realizing I was talking about the punk rocker. I give the Times huge points for addressing that aspect of him, although my own evil side wonders if the obit could have gotten through any copy desk in the building without that graf after such a long and legendary career.

Johnny was the last of his kind, though, a consummate pro who knew his stuff and so much more. He sucked life dry, and shared. Even better, for a top god, he could be unbelievably human. I remember shaking for five days after I wrote a profile of Andre Soltner and came in the morning it was published to pick up a voice mail from Johnny, actually saying he was impressed. (On such small shreds we build our nest of self-esteem.) I can’t even begin to imagine how bereft the legendary Betsey feels knowing she will never again be able to deflect an editor by saying, “He’ll have to call you back. He’s in the bath.”

Sad that cookbooks and food memoirs are still issuing from the last horrific chapter in world history even as a craven Congress has officially handed the naked emperor a cat-o’-nine tails to stifle dissent. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of recipes that will work in the Halliburton “immigrant” detention centers that we who still believe in the Constitution may very well wind up inhabiting.

With a depression also upon us if the Chinese ever decide to shut down the pipeline financing this obscene war, here’s a good scam to remember. A guy at a table next to me in a restaurant ate his lunch with great gusto, got the check, stuck a credit card in the folder and handed it to the waitress, saying he was going out to feed the meter and would be right back to sign it. And of course that was the last we saw of him. Considering there are more banks than restaurants in this town anymore, it’s gotta be easy to take out and then cancel all the cards you can eat.

The reality of a kid dying from E. coli is appalling, but if there is one lesson to be learned it is that spinach has its place, and it’s not in the blender. A fruit smoothie made with the stuff is now a certifiable crime against nature. Dog owners tempted by the canned fruit desserts I spotted at the register at Little Creatures might want to think of that, too. The clerk told me people really do buy the idiocies, and then he picked up another temptation he thought was even funnier: A Snozzler, which is a pig’s snout dried into a chew toy. Maybe it’s because I have watched my consort eat the same appendage barbecued in St. Louis, where they go for that sort of thing, but it seems so much saner than berry cobbler and apple “torte” for one of those baby-and-a-boyfriend Chihuahuas women tote around.

Poor W magazine got left with foie gras foam on its trendy face by profiling the new Rocco just as he was being shuffled off to Philadelphia from his lofty perch in New York to “consult.” The kicker was the worst part: “Restaurants come and go. Chefs — well, I’m still here.” Then again, maybe he’s not the new Rocco but the new Chimp. Whose fault was it that Gilt was struggling? Not his. Blame the flacks and the marketers. I guess he never heard my favorite Yogi-ism: If people don’t want to come, nothing can keep them away.

Curious to see the Union League, I went to a panel discussion put on by a bunch of culinary overachievers that was surprisingly entertaining, if not just for the heavily padded CV’s alone. But my favorite part of the evening was running into a few women at the Champagne hour afterward who were about to be inducted. One, not realizing I was only press-passing through, acted as if I had peed in the punchbowl. “How long have you been a Dame?” she asked with the barely concealed disdain of someone wondering if she has been tricked into slumming. Obviously she didn’t realize any club that would have me is not one I could ever join. Besides, it looks as if it might be hell on your cleavage.

My other amusing party encounter was at Porter House, Michael Lomonaco’s promising makeover of V in the dread TWC. Having partaken of most of the excellent steak and hors d’oeuvres on offer, I was standing talking to a few food notables when a tall guy walked over, introduced himself and shook everyone’s hand, mine last as he announced: “I’m the prick’s scion.” Oops. Talk about words coming back to haunt me. But at least he was a good sport about it, stopping by on his way out to introduce his pretty wife and tell us business is great and his dad is a really a nice guy and we must come in. If one editor’s reaction is any indication, though, the octogenarians will continue to have the place to themselves. Normally the mildest of mannered women, she started insisting, “We’ve met many, many times, and you never remember.” Well, he is son of Sirio. But at least he’s trying. And I’ve long suspected his charming mom’s DNA might be stronger.

So much for arugula conquering America. The WSJ, in a piece on how it’s suddenly the new spinach, calls the green an herb (so does the dictionary, but it modifies the noun with “salad,” and by that definition so is watercress). But then the NYT was just as confused about what a lentil might be, referring to it once as a seed and another time as a bean. And that was not as peculiar as illustrating a story on a crippling shortage of said legume with photos of warehouses stacked high. Still, nothing was as weird as my weekly email from Tarla Dalal, the Betty Crocker of India, suggesting her subscribers give a little pizza party and make a few topped with baby corn and asparagus. Somehow it is hard to reconcile that recommendation with photos of women in peacock-worthy saris digging ponds to collect rainwater in an increasingly desperate country. Not to mention that the idea of the whole world eating like Americans can be leading nowhere good, let alone “gourmet.”

Whatever they’re smoking at the Daily News is even scarier. It insisted readers should switch to soy “milk” in response to the rising price of the real deal. I now see what a bargain $2 Ronnybrook at the Greenmarket is if the Key Food in Brooklyn was indeed selling industrial cow juice for $1.90 a quart “before the price hike.” Of the seven brands featured, five cost more that, substantially more. Either the writer and editor were using Pentagon math, or someone didn’t realize nonfat dry milk is not made from soy. And don’t get me going on the oysters-as-aphrodisiacs-that-aren’t nonsense. One reason we subscribe is for the comics, but the whole paper is turning into the funny pages — and it’s nowhere near as smart as “Over the Hedge.” Talk about cottage cheese as monkey brains. . . .

It’s too bad Panchito didn’t wake up and smell the sulfur sooner. Somehow I suspect voters before the first selection might have understood there is a big difference between “quit drinking and found God” and “alcoholic.” As more than one sage has noted, the media have been the worst enablers. And now no amount of O’Doul’s can save us.

It didn’t take the WSJ long to give Big Food a chance to spin the spinach fearstorm. I don’t know why I even open the editorial pages, but my latest reward was a piece concluding: “Finally, it is unwise to automatically consider everything organically grown to be safe, and food products that contain chemicals unsafe.” Got that? Eat your industrially grown, virus-sprayed, irradiated, preservative-crammed, carelessly processed, long-hauled supermarket garbage and leave your worries behind. It’s no coincidence that I thought the S on the can held by Popeye in the accompanying cartoon was actually a dollar sign.

Speaking of supermarkets, didn’t Dining feel as if George Bush the elder had hijacked it? “Gosh, wouldya look at this: scanners at the checkout!” I couldn’t read the Jetson piece, but the sidebar intro was good for a few laughs. Since when is Whole Foods not a supermarket? Since when is Zabar’s pricey? (Reach for the snoot oats at even the down-and-dirty Food City near me and be prepared to pay $3 more for a tin.) And is “the Internet” code for the one virtual supermarket in town for so many New Yorkers? The whole notion that anyone could winnow the average quadrillion foods in even a small D’Agostino’s is patently absurd, not to mention tone-deaf elitist. Really, the idea pool has been drained completely dry if this vintage chestnut is the best they can recycle. But then maybe it’s just a set-up. Once when my consort and I were in Barbados or Grenada he disappeared for hours with a bunch of little kids who promised to show him the perfect picture point. I was imagining the worst when he finally came back and said he had stepped out on a rock in the water with his camera bag and slipped and fell. Far and hard. When he resurfaced unbroken, the barefoot boys were all standing open-mouthed and one finally pulled it together to say, in awe: “You are a lucky mon.” Ditto for Pete. After this streak of idiocy, anything will look like an improvement.

This must be the season for geriatric chestnuts. One of the check-back-in lures of Mr. Cutlets’s new berth is a daily feature on the availability of tables for two at various restaurants at 8 that same night. It’s always fun to see the mighty “fully committed” publicly humbled, but you have to wonder why anyone would waste a dial tone on Barbetta. A table at 6 can be hard to come by even at a dive in the theater district. At 8 the joint is yours. But the bigger question is who is choosing which tables to heat-seek. The 800-pound gorilla? Bring us the head of DB.

Everyone’s having a good time yukking it up about the new Hawaiian Tropic restaurant in Times Square, but not, of course, because the chances of the hair in the food being curly have gone up radically. It’s interesting that the coverage seems to mention everything but the chef and food, which is funny because he’s so known for taking a “Jackass” approach to his career, blithely (and endearingly) chortling all the way to the bank. What’s weirder is that at the very same time the new Fort Worth outpost is being treated as a serious restaurant, and all you need to know is that it gave away branding irons at the opening party without ever mentioning what they are used for most often. No, the answer is not to “stake a claim on everything from saddles to farm equipment,” as the promo promised. It’s to burn animal flesh (sort of like what they did in a certain Yale fraternity under a budding torturer in chief). As restaurant decor, they’re about as cute as a noose.

Anyway, I suspected braving the party was a mistake when I passed Mimi Sheraton halfway down the sidewalk and she warned: “It’s a madhouse.” It was jammed, but I managed to snare a glass of wine, meet the owner (who actually tipped his hat, something I haven’t experienced since my dad died) and wriggle through to see the whole Jekyll-and-Hydey space. I passed on the kangaroo nachos (tell me again where the marsupials roam?) and heard some gossip. And then I walked straight out and back to the subway, Justin’s to the left and Duvet and Taj to the right, realizing what a fool I had been to think any place on that block would be about food. Hope that sweet chef didn’t think one gig at the Beard House meant Manhattan was clamoring for more. They say that to all the rubes.

Flacks must be also feasting on and fighting over Goblin Market. You can’t turn around without hearing about it (but not what the name means, of course). What they won’t tell you is that the cramped, awkward space is doomed. I have eaten in three restaurants at that address in the last few years, and I kinda doubt the fourth time will be the charm.

All the style coverage at the NYT has always been mocked as “The Buying Sections,” and the magazine makes it just as clear that the food page exists solely to snare the occasional Colavita ad. Still, it was surprisingly surprising to see how craven ribs could be. The layout was like a Spy magazine parody, and the copy read the way Minnie Pearl looked, with a price tag hanging off every other line. If it was all done to cut costs, with credit given for props borrowed or donated, I really wish that was reflected in my paltry Times stock. But mostly I wonder what Craig would think to see the earliest fumbling attempts to advance American cooking not just ridiculed but reduced to a Williams-Sonoma catalog giving a born-yesterday chef yet another a chance to beat off to his own brilliance.

I don’t know what was more stomach-churning on Patriot Day, the increasingly rabid Chimp parading around with only Republicans to distract from the gore he is wreaking in Iraq or New York magazine landing on my doormat filled with truly gruesome meat photos. This might not have been best week for any body parts, in black and white or color. But these would really put you off your goat.

The NYT definitely picked the wrong headline for the Nora Ephron book promo posing as a pop-ed. Shouldn’t it have been “I Feel Bad About My Dreck”?

Anyone who still doubts the wisdom of eating local has only to consider the reality that not only is there shit in the spinach, but that the shit is sold in three-quarters of all grocery stores in the country. Talk about a monoculture disaster waiting to happen (Natural Selection indeed). It was telling that the LAT report referred to the purveyor in question as a “farming operation.” About the only name it was not doing business as was Engulf & Devour. How easily we forget that clean food comes from a farm. It takes Big Food to dirty it up and sell it as prewashed. I suspected there had to be a price to be paid for baby spinach turning up in salads all way down the food chain. And I would be very wary of “organic” milk at Wal-Mart prices.

I have to say my spinach detector is also up about a certain off-the-radar Midtown restaurant suddenly awash in favorable press. The place is a burnout, but lately it’s hotter than Ad Hoc. As my friends out in Portland always say, free is a very good price. And “check, please” has evidently taken on a whole new meaning for certain diners.

All the New York lemmings also lined up to chorus the praises of the redesign of Picholine. Maybe I’ve had two experiences too many in the last year or so, but to me the place now looks like a funeral home. It was always dreary, but the opening party could have been God’s waiting room. That crowd is old, and that new color/fabric scheme is classic coffin. I stayed for one glass of pink Champagne and one weird blue cheese parfait and split when I saw the locusts around the cheese table; it was like a buffet scrum at a Jewish wedding. Mission Accomplished, though. They got the press, even if it had to be in the Large Type Weekly.

Call this the tale of two Littles. One had seriously good food, creative and beautifully executed, along with interesting wine, a very polished but inviting look and superb service. The other had workmanlike but well-produced food, interesting wine, a diner-crossed-with-a-cafe look and ragged service. When I came home from the second, struck by how overdressed the other patrons were, I went online and looked up their respective ratings from our boy Panchito. Yep, No. 2 was a two-star. No. 1 was rated half that. But this is not about there being no accounting for taste. It’s about how restaurants suffer when reviewers are over their heads, not raving but drowning. The second review was mostly about the food. Well, mostly about a pork chop. The other, published well over a year and a half earlier, was obsessed with what was on the iPod, back in the days when the Little lost boy was really struggling to pad out his essay questions. Learning on the job is fine when you’re swabbing toilets. It’s embarrassing in an archived world.

Congratulations to the Amateur Gourmet. Now that he has been shat on by Sirio, he can consider himself a real New Yorker. Interesting that a mere blog has the scion of Le Cirque all shook up, though. When Ruth returned the dump, it rolled right off the prick’s best side. Business must be booming in the new location if they’re actually worried about the little people.

A spy in the city of the Liberty Bell raises an interesting question about restaurant reporters who tell tales about moonlighting as propaganda catapulters. Is that “ethical” or “acceptable” or just “WTF”?

I can only hope no one else made the mistake of reading the profoundly sad but strangely uplifting front-page piece in the Wall Street Journal, on the Martha Stewart of Cuba, right before turning to the NYT magazine and the self-indulgent whining of yet another privileged white American journalist just overwhelmed by the difficulties of having too much. Compare and contrast. One steeps the water saved from rinsing rice rations with two spoonfuls of dark sugar for 45 days until it turns into something a little like vinegar for salad dressing, or a hair conditioner. The other is just incapacitated to the point of weeping by the stress of having to use up 10 over-bought staples rather than have the movers her employer would pay for box them up for California. One advises that wringing out towels with the grain of the fabric will make them last longer. The other recommends chicken stock over water in her lentil soup and runs out to buy creme fraiche to gussy it up.

The recipe that ran in the Journal was one of the bleakest I have ever seen in print, and it should make every American ashamed to think we’re “sacrificin’, payin’ a lot of taxes” while allowing a cruel and insane embargo devastate such a resilient population. The dish is “Syrian rice,” and it combines the ingredient in the title with crushed noodles, a fried onion and precious salt. The last line: “If you have a hot dog, chop and add.” One optional hot dog for four to six people, while here in the land of cursed plenty Ms. Comestible Poseur will be using her lupini beans for pie weights.

As the ultimate annoyance, the silly mewl ran under a headline about a cookout(?) that promised “not a wiener in sight.” Aside from the editor, of course, who should be hiding.

Just wondering . . . What kind of curdiot would think you can substitute Parmesan for Monterey Jack? What kind of Freudian slip is it to write that a chef previously “coked” somewhere? Did I really hear a vendor at the Real Food Market in SoHo say he would hate to be at Union Square because it’s “too cutthroat — the hustle and bustle would kill me”? (Come on, the Greenmarket can be either the underdog or the pit bull, not both.) And what in the name of Islamochrist were they thinking stuffing all that nutrition babble into a spinach bag so far past its sell-by date? The real news would fit in a tea bag. If it didn’t put you off that practice altogether. . . .

Lest we forget, it’s not officially 9/11. Our priorities-in-order Congress and Chimp in Chief instantly designated it Patriot Day five years ago next month. So if it’s gonna be a holiday, it needs a food. I suggest goat. Lest we forget, as Disney apparently did.

In another case of weapons of mass deception, Cargill is running the most astonishing full-page ads in newspapers lately. They actually contend its “special” cow feed is creating higher milk yields for Parmesan producers and thus “more of the famed cheese for all to enjoy.” If this is really going on, the EU is breaking down already. What makes Parmigiano-Reggiano so distinctive, to use the copywriters’ adjective, is the grass the cows graze on. It’s the quintessence of terroir. You can’t strap that flavor on with a feedbag. And as shocking as it is that the consorzio might be buying into good old American greedism, it’s even more disheartening to realize no one has learned anything from mad cow disease. Which also started with special feed for higher yield.

Bon Appetit seems to be mistaking a midlife crisis for a milestone. The unrelenting clutter of ads in its commemorative issue is an in-your-face expression of utter contempt for the poor sucker who pays 15 bucks a year minimum for a subscription. Everything blurs; all the overwrought wordplay and happy-all-the-time features are lost in a sea of selling. No wonder old media is struggling. In a world of Google-ad subtlety, it’s shoving billboards down readers’ throats. Hate to rain on the 50th-anniversary party, but this feels like a golden shower.

Speaking of being old in a young world, I’ll confess to a twinge of envy on learning the It Boys had been on “the culinary journey of a lifetime” for Travel & Leisure. Then I read their Odyssey and positively reveled in my antiquity. I’ve already eaten my way around Piedmont but didn’t have to take American advice on how to do it, thanks to my amazing consort and his TPW connections. As evocative as the piece was, as always with those two, I kept hearing that inimitable sound so many Italians tend to make when you pass along Willingeresque wisdom: Phhhht! And they’re right. Listening to Molto Ego about grub in Italy is like asking one of the Guido brothers where to eat in Denver.

If you can’t think of Saint Danny and “downtown” without hearing the Davy Crockett theme song in your head, you might want to avoid all news outlets for the foreseeable future. He has a book coming out, and the propaganda will be widely catapulted. So far the usually sentient interviewer in the NYT magazine is surprised the masterwork does not contain recipes. (Hint: Neither will Teresa Heinz Kerry’s inevitable memoir. There are chefs, and there are products.) Even weirder, at a publication that seems to think readers will happily swallow four figures on the price tag of a one-season bag, there is outrage that a meal could carry a $125 prix fixe. Maybe instead of that mystifying Key half-tonner (brink-of-crash advertorial, or just editors too embarrassed to compile a masthead?) they should start publishing yet another fat and glossy supplement to reflect the internal wacked-out condition of shock and awe on 43d Street. Call it Sybil. Or, better yet, Bi.

This is not the greatest of times to claim cooking as a career. One pro was just arrested in Maine on charges of killing four people at the B&B where he was staying while flipping omelets at another inn. And, in a truly sad case, another who worked at an IHOP was beaten to death in a robbery on Staten Island, apparently simply because he was Mexican. What’s interesting about both stories is how the papers for once understood the difference between “cook” and “chef” in describing key characters. Maybe it’s class, maybe it’s race, but it’s a huge step forward for semantics. And then there’s the fact that both depressing tales kicked the rock over to expose two realities in this country. First, the people cooking your food are anything but what you see on TV. Second, and most sickening, when the ostensible leader of an allegedly united country sets out to demonize immigrants, hard-working guys from Mexico who are great at their jobs and their families are going to get caught in the crossfire. The fish really does rot from the head down.

Sacha Baron Cohen could not have dreamed up a better ad campaign for the restaurants at a certain free-spending casino in Atlantic City. No matter what the cuisine — steak, steak, Italian, seafood, Italian, bastard French-Asian — or who the chef, the message is the same: Stupidly eat, drink and get laid. One spread has a woman wearing nothing but an apron and a cleaver, another shows an airhead looking like the poster girl for feminine hygiene. I can’t imagine a real woman responding to any of it, let alone traveling to a place with a slogan of “when food becomes art, hunger is entirely optional.” (Translated from the Kazakhstanese?) And what were Wolfgang and Flay and Susanna Foo(!) thinking? It’s all so sleazy you know that what happens in the poor man’s Vegas could not possibly stay there. And I’m not talking salmonella.

Some years ago Bob and I were in Trinidad midway between Christmas and Carnival and the music everywhere was mesmerizing, a wild mix of holdovers from the holidays and raucousness for the week-long party to come. I remember one night we went to a huge outdoor concert that was opened by a stand-up comedian who had the perfect rejoinder to someone who had called him an asshole: “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Toilet Paper.” But I will always hear the soca singer who followed him belting repeatedly, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” And, unfortunately, that refrain echoes against the great good news that the NYT has apparently finally designated a captain for that listing-to-sunken ship, the SS Dining. Judging by his taste in on-line reading, he is a superb choice. But never forget why “Rosemary’s Baby” was set in Manhattan.

Islamochrist, has it come to this? Rush Limbaugh blaming food stamps for fattening the poor? Clearly he never reads the news or he would have known they’ve found the root cause of the obesity epidemic: religion. And isn’t that what our “liberal” government, to use his epithet, is trying to force-feed us?

What is with the obsession with weenies this summer? First they’re organic and then they’re in blankets and then you have to wonder why Joel Robuchon would think there could possibly be a market for his exquisite food in a town so obviously full of bottom feeders. The only thing stranger is the endless drumbeat for Tony Luke’s. Seven shout-outs for one cheese steak purveyor on Ninth Avenue when Time Out can fill pages with restaurant openings every week? Somehow I smell a gold-plated bidet. A 19th-century French commode would be too obvious.

The Daily News, meanwhile, seems to be going for the gold in the idiot Olympics. What it ran, obviously at the instigation of the lethal combination of a TV flack and the Dublin Devil, was a feature so stupefyingly stupid it almost defies description, but the poor writer tried: “Celeb fare can be yours for less than you think.” So a bulimic walks into a bar and orders tuna tartare for $12. Cost-cuttin’ Dave turns it into shrimp paste for $3 partly by substituting shredded beets for “pricey shiso.” (Beets. For shiso. Why not weenies?) Foie gras teriyaki is allegedly cut down to $4 by using shell steak (beef at that price I would be very wary of ingesting), but would that really cover the sake and yakitori sauce? Even beyond the desperate inanity of it all was the sloppiness. Striped bass is swapped for pricier halibut (on what Pluto?), and the ingredients specify wild cod while the photo looks like none of the above. The New Frug advises buying grape tomatoes rather than regular ones, right now at the height of the season, and the photo is of Greenmarket Sungold cherry tomatoes. For once I think they should have turned the whole section over to Big Food’s “Hungry Girl” and her better eating through chemistry. It’s embarrassing to see grownups trying to mate Food & Wine with Tiger Beat. Even the right-wingers would have to say “abort.”

Applebee’s has hired Tyler Florence to beef up its sorry sales with his fairy dust of “celebrity.” (“Who?” I can hear my in-law equivalent asking up in Buffalo, where this is one of the few chains.) I hate to say it, but they might have been better off taking on the One Fat Lady. The religious sorta do like idols in their own image.

File this under “there’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere:” A reader wondering why I am so unforgiving of Panchito actually answered his own question, then followed up with an observation I could not have put better. “With him worrying about the state of affairs of restaurant coat-check prices rather than propagating more Bush lies, the world is a better place.” Now if only they could convert Fox News into the Food Network.

For all my bitching about fake parties in the glossies, I can see why they think a set-up is the best bet. The new Dwell has a gripping photo feature called Family Meal, stark documentary photographs of Americans eating, and you want to avert your eyes. The more you look at it the more you sense why the editor just bailed. The magazine is as fat as a Vogue in December, and real life does tend to get in the way of the GE Monogram fantasy.

The biggest load of Barbaro droppings in donkey’s years has been deposited on Slate, which apparently fell victim to that increasingly pervasive affliction of the food world, what I call “born yesterday syndrome.” The site actually posted a big story tracing the origins of New York City brunch to Amsterdam Avenue in 1981. As some sports guy said, you could look it up. Forget the reality that the word was coined in 1895 in England. Just Google “Maxwell’s Plum Sunday brunch.” First hit is Fred Ferretti, writing contemporaneously of the lively scene all over Manhattan that my consort and I discovered 25 years ago when we moved north from Philadelphia, where people lined up every Sunday for omelets and better at the Commissary and other Center City mainstays. The only truth in this wispy epic of stenography was the quote about whole families of rats. I remember them well. On boss’s orders, we would set shortbread out for them every night, hoping the filthy creatures would be content with their designated dinner and leave everything else unchewed. (If there were rat turds in the sticky buns, at least they were sugar clean.) What’s scary is that 1981 is not the lost year of Marjorie Morningstar. It barely qualifies as recent history. Next up: Happy hour — invented at Crobar!

The greatest bar in town right now is the beer garden attached to Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport. The wine sucks, and it’s poured in plastic cups, and the shrimp roll is scary (it’s from Heartland Brewery, after all), but the setting is the next best thing to being in Sydney. Sitting almost under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges as the sun lights up the windows across the river while water taxis and cruise boats pass by almost as if choreographed is an excellent way to blow off a Sunday evening. What’s most amazing is that the hordes of waddling tourists packing the mall parts of the seaport seem not to have discovered this oasis, aside from a few who arrive bearing shopping bags from the Bodies exhibit. Think about it: There is apparently a gift shop in the show morgue. Or have another crappy pinot grigio and don’t think about it. Just marvel at being alive in a city where people cross bridges on foot, on bikes, in cars and in subway trains and you can see them all at once from your table in the breeze.

If a food can jump the shark, turducken has done it big time. I walked into a store the other day and found the (over)stuff in a can. For cats. And it gets worse. The same company makes a “California Roll” flavor. Next up has to be “Caja de China.” If not “Molecular Gastronomy.” Which, judging by the way my Siamese hoovers it, is the very definition of kibble.

More proof that you can’t believe what you see on the teevee came when a Republican politician pulled a faux FEMA trailer to Washington for dinner with the farting Chimp and got huge adulatory coverage from the same knaves and fools who always tell us just what Rove scripts. Dig a little deeper into that clumsy photo op and you find something called femagourmet.com. You read that right. Someone, somewhere actually thought there was gold in that disaster. I’m not sure blackened seasoning was the wisest choice for a roll-out product. But you have to admire the slogan: “When no one else will respond.” Next time you need help from your government, order spices online.

Hitler’s Cross may not have been the most ill-advised name for a restaurant, especially in Mumbai. That distinction should go to the new Dodo at the South Street Seaport. Considering the high rate of extinction among eating establishments everywhere, it’s asking for it.

The Daily News seems determined to make Panchito look smart. In lieu of an actual honest restaurant review, it offers up a solution to a “dining dilemma” (back to the dictionary for whoever dreamed that one up) by sending some poor birthday sucker off to Mama Mexico, a warmbed of mediocrity that becomes a true circle of hell once those mariachis get wailing among the baby strollers and the tequila-stupid. The same section treated readers to the sex life of oysters by way of selling clams, but in that round Good Living trounced Dining in its choice of mollusk photos. A stock shot over coals was actually appealing, while the big-budget paper squandered a freelance fee on what looked like something undoubtedly familiar to your average geriatric gynecologist. It’s very telling that the ad-hungry NYT thought it more urgent to hire a perfume critic than a food editor. And to demand deeper credentials of a reviewer of scented candles(!) than of the person charged with evaluating one of the most important art forms, not to mention key sources of income to the city. Thanks to Men’s Vogue, though, apparently what some of us have suspected is true. Panchito is such a lightweight he needs two trainers to keep his mussel-man figure while gorging like a mindless Apple. His predecessors got by with so much less. So who’s the twat?

The saddest evidence that this is the summer of food: Retired generals are speaking in kitchen metaphors. To be specific, one accused Donald (How Does He Keep His Job?) Rumsfeld of serving up “a huge bowl of chicken feces” to the military and expecting them to “turn it into chicken salad.” Unfortunately, given the way this administration polices the food supply, that somehow sounds like eating as usual.

Only the Brits cry for the chickens, though. A good story in the Guardian on the eight most unethical foods to eat lumped broiler birds in with Dole pineapple (labor abuse) and Fiji water (ecodisaster on a plane). So while Chicago nobly jumps in to save ducks from the cruel fate of overeating, supermarkets continue to be stocked with chickens that suffer “breast blisters and hock burns from sitting on soiled bedding” while packed 30,000 at a time into windowless sheds. No wonder McNugget is risking the flu.

The latest sign that the 800-Pound Gorilla’s clout has always been mis-overestimated: Vinnie’s Pizza on Amsterdam Avenue is being auctioned off. For years the rumor had been that it was highly rated for proximity’s sake alone, because the pizza was certainly nothing you would cross the street to try, not with Freddy & Pepe’s steps away (at least back when the latter used real mozzarella). According to the last Zagat’s foisted upon me, from 2003, this sorry little joint was as good as Solera and better than Pastis. I guess you can rig some of the ratings some of the time, but — to paraphrase Yogi — if people don’t want to eat crap, you can’t stop them.

The epidemic of shockingly bad managers is spreading, and apparently there is no vaccine. It’s like the CEO syndrome seeping down to food level. My latest exposure came at an otherwise excellent restaurant, up the stairs from Broadway, where we headed after my consort expressed a desire for steak. Given that he was tight on time with a flight to his new life in the wrong Athens the next day, I called to see whether we needed reservations and, on my second attempt, reached a woman who nicely took down his name, the number in our party and the time and even asked if we had a preference for a table. So we show up promptly at 8:30 and are greeted by a waiter who immediately sets off to clear and set a window table for us. While we wait, Humpty-Dumpty before the fall rolls up to ask if he can help us. We say we have a reservation and our table is being prepped and he interrupts: “We don’t take reservations.” “I just called.” “That’s impossible.” “I just called.” “We don’t take reservations because we can’t honor them. This crew just does what it wants.” “Isn’t there a manager?” My consort then pokes me: “He’s the manager.” “Oh, I get it. You’re herding cats.” “What do you mean?” “They do whatever they want, no matter what you say?” Luckily, the cat/waiter signaled us that his setting was done just then, and we could sit down to a perfectly lovely dinner, once I stopped steaming over being called a liar. Double luckily, I faced away from the sight of the fat boy chowing down at a table with friends, as usual, while his hard-working herd of cats ran the restaurant. Long may they run. And why aren’t managers being outsourced, anyway?

I hope the magazine publisher who I heard just dropped $500 on a profoundly disappointing dinner at Del Posto doesn’t happen to read the latest Departures, which my consort trash-picked from the recycling bins in our back hallway. In the requisite homage to Molto Ego, it discloses that he washes his 30 pairs of orange Crocs in the dishwasher and wears them while still hot. It’s a lovely thought to contemplate while chewing a $70 guinea hen and wondering whether what is caught in your teeth is freckle or hair. If only he wore them with the Paul Smith socks he claims to buy.

A friend came up with the best spelling of the name of the newest alcohol-dispensing outlet on Columbus Avenue: Wine & Rose$. One glass on the list of whites is nine bucks, but most are double-digit insults. Which would be okay if not for all the other annoyances. First were the baby carriages, pushed in by desperate couples. As another friend, a mother, said, you can’t relax while waiting for the occupants to start shrieking (“shitting time bombs” is what I call them). The very sweet bartender/waitress reeked of cigarettes from her repeated smoke breaks on the sidewalk. The busboy was hellbent on busing our table whether we had finished our economical bottle of $32 Arneis or not. The nice bar snacks of cheese Triscuits and olives arrived without either cocktail napkins or a receptacle for pits. But the ultimate turnoff was the wraith who materialized partway through our bottle, looking as if she had been tied up in the basement and starved between face-lifts. No wonder one guy at the bar wore his earphones. He needed blinders. Admittedly, it is August. But if this is the new Upper West Side, take me to the wrong Athens.

Just back from joy riding around mid-coast Maine, I was so happy to see Manhattan again I could have kissed the filthy pavement. Turns out that would have been less disgusting than indulging in either Starbucks or Shake Shack while I was away. Workers at the former in Manhattan are claiming the stores are infested with vermin, while the latter is now reassuring patrons that at least there’s no shit in the meat. If both hang on long enough, though, they won’t have to clean up their acts. Our government by and for big business will rubber-stamp some remedy like the spray-on viruses just approved to treat deli meats for listeria. That’s a solution so insane it makes David Burke’s new “lickable body sprays” look irresistible. And come to think of it, those might ward off both bugs and bacteria, especially the “frosting and passion fruit” flavor. Courtney Love should try them.

The London freakout over gels on a plane may have had exactly the effect Darth Cheney intended, forcing people into their cars to burn more overpriced gas to benefit his oil benefactors. But an encouraging thing happened when my consort and I insisted we bypass the shit-in-the-meat chains and find something decent to eat on the long drives north and south with our good but carb-fearing friends: We went a little farther and ate much better. The weakest link was one slow and overpriced futzy breakfast at a peculiar “bistro” in Portsmouth, N.H., where the omelet mucker-upper was a self-mutilated kid whose name had to be Pierce. And I did get exactly what I deserved for ordering an iced cappuccino in a doughnut shop near Worcester, Mass., where the special was blueberry-cinnamon iced coffee. But mostly I realized how easy it is to buy into the notion that you’re a prisoner of Burger King on a highway to anywhere. Funny that this country was settled by people who kept pushing relentlessly westward and now their successors will drive around a McDonald’s parking lot five times looking for a space rather than detour five minutes into the great unknown where real people might be cooking real food. If Laura Ingalls Wilder were writing today, the series would have to be “Big Asses on the Interstate.”

A few forests are apparently being felled to generate enough paper to print all the releases being mailed out about one Texas chef moving to the big city. His flacks are calling him “a bona fide cowboy,” which must mean he’s not like that reckless chimpanzee in the big hat who has driven the country into the ditch. Even more questionable is the claim that his “urban Western” cooking “favors seasonal, local ingredients” and “is heavily influenced by the people who settled the Old West.” I guess I grew up in the wrong West, because I do not think kangaroo belongs on nachos. Everybody knows you use jackalope.

One way this techno-dunce has retained relative mental health over the last four years is by almost never linking. But now the first anniversary of the wipeout of America’s most seductive city is almost upon us, and the son of Barbara Rhymes-With-Rich has still not been shamed into delivering on his promise to bring it back. With luck Spike Lee will get the rabble sufficiently roused with his documentary to make a country mindlessly squandering $11 million an hour in Iraq start asking why the “homeland” is so neglected, not to mention insecure. But in the short term a supremely creative thinker has a modest proposal for a ritualistic Katrina dinner that should give anyone ever smitten by New Orleans hope that its unique gumbo might be salvageable despite the diaspora. And no gefilte fish will be harmed in the celebrating of it.

If you want to know just how badly this country has declined, consider the news that George Washington’s distillery is being recreated at Mount Vernon. In less than two and a third centuries we have gone from a president smart enough to make his own whiskey, and make money doing it, to a failed oilman who cannot be trusted near nonalcoholic beer without blowing up the Middle East. Thomas Jefferson must be spinning in his garden.

Freedom is clearly on the march in Congress, too. The cafeteria has reverted to serving “French” fries. Unfortunately, that flip-flop doesn’t go far enough, given the idiocies being proposed anymore by all those crooked Chimp enablers. Let ’em eat pommes frites.

Looks as if the two tabs in town are ratcheting up the competition. The Post saw the Daily News’ blackout recipes and raised them with a piece on super-cooling restaurant dishes during the heat assault. First up: a Bloody Mary oyster shooter, in the same week 91 people were laid low by a certain raw shellfish the wise avoid in the hot months. And the main course? Steak tartare, of course, another bacterial hotbed only made safer by Hades temperatures. Now the next round is up to the Devil from Dublin, and I suggest she flagellate the staff a little harder and get something really smart out of them. Cooking omelets on the sidewalk, say.

The idea of an obesity vaccine sounds so American you have to laugh: a shot to thwart a self-induced condition. Apparently scientists are working away on it, but if you think about it they would be better off focusing on a willpower drug. When would you get this magic bullet: before you balloon, meaning you waste away, or after, when the cows are completely out of the barn? Gullible media swallowed it all unquestioningly, but the key line in the “news” about tests in mice noted that they lost their weight on low-fat, low-calorie diets. Nah, that would never sell.

I would read the real Panchito rather than the parody before I ever watched any sport but the Kentucky Derby (for old home’s sake). If it doesn’t involve broken bones (Barbaro, Olympics) or destroyed hips (the Testosterone Kid), it just doesn’t exist. So I’m probably not the best person to ask why in the name of OJ anyone would want to see soccer played by chefs. For 75 bucks, no less. It’s being billed as an insider event for groupies, but it’s hard to imagine anything more likely to dispel illusions than seeing two whole teams dressed like Molto Ego and sweating like Iron Flay in his most memorable competition. An all-woman team, however, might be interesting. And that would be true in the restaurant business, too. Just imagine a level playing field.

I can’t believe I have lived in Manhattan for 25 years this month without ever even noticing Prime Burger, directly across from St. Patrick’s. But when a blog stranger offered to buy me lunch there, it didn’t take long to get excited. A good friend raved about “the little desks” and about going there while pregnant with her first son; I noticed a New York eater with a good name ranked it in his top five burger joints. I suspected we would have issues when the menu on the web site noted tomatoes on any order would be 50 cents extra, but I was game. And it was pretty much what I expected, right at or below the level of Corner Bistro’s sorry little pucks even though my benefactor insisted we get them cooked fresh rather than “par-broiled” (what the hell is that all about?) The beef was virtually tasteless, the “cheese” was processed, the bun was the kind that makes you worry your teeth are decaying as you chew, the lettuce was iceberg and the mustard was French’s. The tomato was worth the 50 cents; clearly, they could make a mint charging a dollar for Romaine or Cheddar or Maille. I loved the place and the people; it’s the Sears Fine Food of Saks country. But what it serves is not a burger worth risking mad cow disease.

And that made me realize that for so many unevolved experts who obsess on burgers the gold standard is fast food. I’m old, so I can remember a world before McDonald’s was as omnipresent as Starbucks. I care about what I put in my mouth, so I can appreciate the huge advances in American food that have made a burger more than a thin grey slab in cotton. By unhappy coincidence, I had already eaten a burger just days before this revelation. The one at Fairway Cafe is exceptional: a fat chunk of good meat, cooked evenly, in a substantial bun with real Cheddar, mesclun, tomato and onion to add at will, serious mustard if you want and a nice sauce if you don’t. Biting into it, you never think of White Castle. But you do think; you don’t just chew. A quarter of it is perfect, half is more than enough. You would never even consider seconds. Trust me. If you want a great burger, don’t ask an aficionado. He buys them by the bagful.

Note to Sunday Styles: You might want to lay off wine. That rose-is-the-new-Cosmo/frolicking in St.-Tropez story ranks high among the all-time most embarrassing features ever published in the NYT, and that is saying something. Worse, the double byline proved that two heads can actually be emptier than one. What were they drinking?

Dumber things may have been published in newspapers — a taco is a series of tubes, for instance — but it was still hard to keep my jaw together on reading the Daily News’ response to a “reader” wondering what to cook with no electricity. It actually printed a chef’s recipe for seviche. I know I certainly had fresh shrimp, calamari, “whitefish” and octopus right at hand in our blackout. Not to mention four kinds of fresh herbs. I’m starting to think there’s a mole 10 blocks south trying to make Dining read less dim. The funniest part is that the “reader” wanted something “more sophisticated than a peanut butter sandwich.” And here I thought that was next up at the plate after the nadir of Old El Paso for Dummies.

Interesting that only two days after yet another faux exaltation of low-end dining Virginia Heffernan would say, in a review of the new Alton Brown travesty, what so many readers are thinking: “. . . that pose: the near-hysterical enthusiasm for diners, drive-throughs, burger joints, pizza parlors, sandwich shops. Haven’t we had enough? Doesn’t anyone want to say that, sure, a grilled cheese can hit the spot, and cherry pie is great, but French food is still harder to make, better balanced, more beautiful and more delicious?” Merde, it doesn’t even have to be French. I’d settle for Mexican discussed intelligently and accurately. Someone could make a fortune accepting corrections for an ad-supported web site, since the elitists seem to keep 90 percent of submissions from ever seeing print. Call it craigclaiborneslist, after a guy who has to be spinning at the thought of so many resources squandered on such inanity week after week. Or, better yet, firsttheduckmustbedead. You know it’s bad when vintage corrections are more clever than current stories.

The straits are also looking awfully dire for Saveur. Colman’s departure is not a good omen, given the penny-squeezing publishers’ track record with once-wonderful Islands magazine (to put it succinctly: they ran it into the sand). Worse is that I just got a menacing letter from a collection agency looking for the $29.97 I paid by check last August. When you’re pointlessly dunning not just a charter subscriber but an infrequent contributor there must not be many bushes left to beat. And that last bit of energy might be better expended trying to find someone, anyone, who will advertise in a husk of a magazine that is driving its last readers away.

Why does the phrase “practically on my knees” sound a little peculiar when it refers to a flack allegedly begging a guy not to name a restaurant the Spotted Dick? (And if you believe that protestation, I have a bridge to nowhere to sell you. No buzz is worse than bad buzz in this business.)

I hope the drug industry did a classier job of buying off Congress on the Medicare bill than it apparently is doing with doctors. Judging by a front-page story that has the naive in a tizzy, doctors are selling their souls for General Tso’s chicken. If they can’t hold out for lunch at Jack Abramoff’s restaurant, the least they should demand is better than Dunkin’ Donuts. And as a reader, I can only wonder why such petty graft gets such huge play when we’re in the middle of an epidemic of pillaging and looting. Business as usual doesn’t sound like much of a scandal when Congressmen are taking real bribes from military contractors while soldiers are getting killed at a frightening clip. Next they’re going to be telling us reviewers get cookbooks for free.

Just because I’m convinced readers are not as dumb as some editors apparently think, I’ve been peeking in on certain online forums and have found easily the best parody of both the Gourmet supplement and most food pages in the NYT magazine. Copy-edited for esthetic reasons, it reads: “I’m writing a novel, ‘The Sausage Zinger,’ about a sausage I ate on the 4th of August 1960 at the Parque Retiro (Coney Island) in olde Buenos Aires. It’ll make you cry and laugh and think a lot.” On second consideration, I hope it’s a parody. Otherwise, brace for the inevitable reviews: “Proust had his. . . .”

I see the Porcine Pantload is about to drop another megaturd on bookstores. You could call it “The Joy of Gluttony,” although he is not so honest. Apparently it’s supposed to be “part satire, part social commentary” (think Ann Coulter with elephantiasis), but I wonder how amusing obesity will sound if he ever has to have surgery and spend months hauling his laudatory bulk around on crutches and he can’t even fit into X-rays. Obviously it’s no laughing matter to me, remembering my orthopedist’s warning that staying thin is the best way to keep my own hip and knowing there is a difference between eating and abusing food. But I do hope some breakfast TV interviewer manages to ask about the “sexual prowess” angle promised in this swinish celebration. I’ve been curious ever since my first newspaper job out of college, in a little town in Iowa where the police chief and his wife were both of a size that back then looked suited for a sideshow but is now the American standard. They had kids, so they must have “done it,” but it was hard to see how the necessary parts connected with such bellies in between. The story going around the local bars was that they used something called the X position to get over, under, sideways, down. A little elucidation from a celebrated overeater and the Pantload could be outperforming “Snakes on a Plane.”

As if it weren’t bad enough to have the Chimp eating like a pig and swearing like a Cheney, he has to go and pander to the fundamentalists who have completely gotten over their wild objections to IVF after raising a shitstorm when Louise Brown was conceived in a lab. If this “culture of life” gets any crazier as babies’ heads are blown off, we aren’t going to be able to eat eggs. Potential chickens will have a right to be hatched so we can fry them.

You know things are grim at Bon Appetit when the most enticing — and deepest — thing in the magazine is the “wild salmon Florentine in a delicate sauce with garden greens.” And it’s cat food. Flip through the latest issue and you can halfway hear Gertrude Stein commenting on the absence of there. Unfortunately, the special supplement with the new Gourmet really makes you realize why Fancy Feast ads are so valuable. Unbroken pages of story after story with the same inherent theme leave you longing for some GE Profile fantasy to break up the trudge. Even usually brilliant David Rakoff was unfinishable, and don’t get me going on the Road Fooders dirging along unwittily for miles of type. I slogged all the way to the end of the Trillin meander and realized the problem was the same as it ever was with advertorials versus advertising: Words expanding to fill the space allotted, rather than being distilled to one sharp idea. It’s bad when those bizarre tourism-in-Rwanda sections the NYT runs start looking almost as pithy as Brillat-Savarin.

Gordon Ramsay is going to have his scales full when he crosses the Atlantic. W reports he’s going to force his New York kitchen staff to weigh in monthly because he hates 250-pound chefs. If he feels the same way about patrons, he’d better abandon all hope of opening in Las Vegas.

Classy of the NYT to have a skunk jump out of the birthday cake for the Greenmarkets. I actually read the whole story wondering first what the point was and second why it was in Dining and not Metro or Bizday. Neither question was answered. I guess the stated mission was accomplished, though: They did not print “just another love letter.” And why let reality get in the way? (Or photos, for that matter — those were mighty withered-lookin’ apples outshining the Bronx cherries.) Between that travesty and the info-lite column trawling in flip-flops, the section may be tortured into being “more accessible to regular readers” (at least those who think Rachael is the new Julia). But hollow victory may come at a nasty price, judging by the rather astonishing back-stories going around the markets and turning up in my email.

It’s more than passing strange, too, that corporate Trader Joe’s gets a love letter while selling primarily processed crap and the Greenmarket with its multi-tier mission gets pecked apart in a piece that — seriously — never mentions a big reason it exists: to save farmland from development. An idiot was actually quoted as saying she didn’t care where her food came from. It all made New York magazine look like the local hero with its beautiful and resonant feature on farmers and fishermen and cheese-makers. Somehow I suspect the issue is not the Greenmarkets “searching for a niche.” It’s a section in desperate need of an editor. Aren’t there any warm bodies over in Sports who could grab the wheel before the Greyhound goes over the cliff? Or here’s an idea: Snare someone from the Rome bureau. It worked so well last time.

So I’m waiting for the light at 57th and Lex after PT when I hear a woman behind me going on and on about how she is feeding her dog only carrots and celery because golden retrievers are prone to hip dysplasia, “which they get when they get too heavy.” I turn around to see more and find the concerned owner could use a few carrots herself. She weighs easily 300 pounds. The funny thing is that I spotted a product called Healthy Hips at the Fancy Food Show and thought it was a cool idea until I realized it was not for two-legged species. Maybe humans should be going to see vets.

At the show I ran into an acquaintance who asked if I was working or just eating and I had to respond: “You could write a thousand stories about trends here, and every one would be true and every one would be a lie. It’s just too big.” I did notice that the flavor of a rather substantial chunk of the 150 or so things I tasted would have been impossible to identify without reading the sign, though. And while I did succumb to the fake-roe Anchoviar, some things you wouldn’t try on a dare, like the pineapple margarita cheese ball and the chocolate chevre. After too many indistinguishable “BBQ lasagna chips” and “creme brulee almonds,” I sampled one of David Burke’s bizarre sprays — smoky bacon — and decided he may have the right idea: all flavor, no food.

The Daily News seems to have lost its mind in the features pages lately, most notably by replacing its regular restaurant review with a column in which a “reader”asks for advice on where to eat and is counseled by some uncredentialed byline who actually believes, in a city with more than 15,000 choices, that a place called Mumbles would be worth consideration. Apparently everyone knows it’s a nuthouse there although no one is saying why, but I think one hint might be in the new fixation on the word peckish. Maybe in the old country it means “somewhat hungry.” But I read it as the second definition: “cross; irritable.” And that’s how readers who thought the paper could have been a contender are feeling as solid food coverage gives way to In Style-meets-Myspace hysteric inanity.

Even at its most ridiculous, though, the News would be hard put to print some of the Barbaro droppings generated by the deep pockets daily. Forget the stop-the-presses revelation that you can get food with drinks (or not, if the photo is any evidence). Did it really run a recipe saying stick a Dutch oven under a broiler? With a column that gave deep new meaning to the word insipid? Every Wednesday I think of the cab driver in Barcelona when it was torn up for the Olympics, the one who kept shaking his head and repeating: “Es un disastre!”

What if you promised pato negro and everybody came? You serve them anything but the meat that even the Italians are saying is the best prosciutto in the world right now (well, at least my TPW friend from Bologna is saying that). True, the invite did not specify the actual certifiably rare ham, and there were chorizo and other salumi made from the fabled pig on copious offer, but it still felt a little bait-and-switchy. And when the one regular Spanish haunch on display was finally and ceremoniously sliced for what the importer called us “yearnalists,” the pieces handed out were as thick as bologna. No, make that baloney.

In other barnyard news, the Wall Street Journal ran a very long, very thorough examination of whether organic beef is safer and never once raised the strongest reason for buying it: Cows that are not fed ground-up other cows do not get that little disease no one seems to worry about while bracing for bird flu. The piece danced so enthusiastically around the central issue that by the 30th graf, I was wondering if the conventional beef industry had resuscitated Scott McClellan.

The best of many great cartoons lately was the one from the Christian Science Monitor showing a man in a bathrobe picking a morning paper off the lawn with a headline reading: “You’d Better Sit Down.” It could be a banner every day anymore, and not just because we’re on the eve of destruction while the Chimp bangs on his tray for pig (could he have chosen a more tone-deaf obsession than “unclean” pork right now?) First came the sinister news that kids at summer camp eating chocolate chip pancakes and wondering why they’re hyperactive are all ingesting legal drugs that will, of course, be excreted into the water supply, joining all the “antibacterial” pollution being pumped in from a billion unnecessary products. And then you read that tuna in the Mediterranean is so devastatingly overfished that the littlest specimens are being captured and sent to feeding farms on the Croatian coast. The flip response would be to wonder how long before the anti-foie gras forces intervene. But this is seriously unsettling. The planet is going to hell. If there is a Rapture, what will Jesus eat?

A forthcoming cookbook by a renowned pastry chef who thinks vanilla is an invisible essential actually calls it “the underwear of baking.” Sure, it smells. But you never want to take a spoonful of creme brulee and wonder: Boxers or briefs?

Anyone with a last ort of doubt whether honor and dignity would be returned to the White House had to hang it up on the useful idiot’s birthday. Not only did a Glasgow newspaper report the awful truth — blowing out candles, it said, he “looked more like a primate than a president” — but the most photographed of his many cakes was something Trailer Park Monthly would be embarrassed to run. I don’t know which was worse, the Gracelandish rhinestone “60” on top or the white chocolate mansion as the finishing layer of what looked like a stack of dark chocolate caskets in honor of Kenny Boy. Forget wars and diplomacy. This crew couldn’t do chicken right.

Speaking of the friendship that dare not speak its name, the death of the Chimp’s “acquaintance”certainly put Aspen in a sinister light. Then Colin Powell took sick at dinner in an unnamed restaurant there and wound up checking into the same hospital Lay did not check out of. Maybe only the altitude was to blame in both cases. But could Food & Wine please invite Dick Strongheart for its next Classic?

Clearly, I don’t get out enough. Riding up to an excellent engagement party in Newburgh, we passed an animal squished flat as a panino roughly every third revolution of the car’s wheels. After about the 50th slaughtered possum and fox and skunk I started worrying again about the poor lobsters. The insect of the sea has to suffer a little before getting dipped in butter for our delectation. It’s so much worse than trying to cross the road to find food and winding up a bloody mess not worth a second thought except for how high the price of gas is getting in a cars-are-king world. If those silly little fawns would only join the Holy Foods chain they might meet a caring end. Or at least get a decent burial under sauce.

The insane rains this summer have also turned factory farms for chicken into deathtraps — close to 100,000 specimens of McNugget material went breast-up in June in Maryland alone while cooped up awaiting normal slaughter. But through it all the class war continues unabated. An op-ed in an upstate paper actually worried that force-feeding ducks gives them “feelings of malaise.” And in the shrink capital of the world, that is so much more horrific than drowning.

It would be impossible to top Problemdrinker’s take on organic hot dogs on Gawker (no matter whether the udders grazed on the grass, you are still eating offally scary bits). But the very fact that the NYT idiocy saw print, a day late for the Fourth of Nathan’s, should be a warning that we will one day be reading about the happy-animal transformation of another Living perennial: Spam.

Chinatown Brasserie has apparently chosen to live by Page 6. Let’s hope it doesn’t die the same way. The same day I read Bill Gates, Larry David, Paul Simon and Charlie Rose had been spotted “dining separately” there I met friends for dinner and, decor and waitron’s hair aside, could have been eating in Omaha for all the glam factor. Admittedly, it was Fourth of Nathan’s Eve, but seeing that ghostly-empty bar downstairs on the way out quite late I felt a very long way even from Spice Market. Given who the owners are, I can understand why they’re going for the glitz. But when you have steak, why promote only the sizzle?

Evidently I’m the Greenmarket snob. Friends were led into temptation by that silly panna cotta recipe and wound up with 24 ounces of liquid in 72 ounces of ramekin, among other glitches. Maybe their succumbing means an effete dessert is now mainstream American. But I will always have issues with panna cotta because I first encountered it on my first trip to Italy, when my consort’s gastronomic guide (and interpreter/fixer for National Geographic) kept talking about “fish glue” while shepherding us all over Genoa during the search for Columbus. What Massimo finally introduced us to was a rubbery, bland thing we ate standing up in a cafe just to say we had tried it. Its allure eluded me, and I realized why after Massimo sent Bob home from another trip with a box of instant mystery dessert. Translating the ingredients I finally understood he had meant gelatin. No wonder Americans have glommed onto it. You can mix fat with Jell-O and call it panna cotta.

But then I’m so twisted I hear tiramisu anymore and think the worst. I always knew it meant “pick me up.” But during my sojourn between the hospital sheets in Torino, I heard only “tiralisu,” with the pronoun changed to “you.” And that’s what the nurses would say when they brought the bedpan.

If Warren Buffett does nothing else with his life, let’s hope he at least has made marketers think twice before inundating my inbox with touts for the most expensive anything, whether coffee or burgers or leather chairs designed solely for sipping scotch. We now know what unimaginable fortunes are for, and it ain’t one-upmanship. Even better, we’re now freed from pitying the poor rap stars dissed out of guzzling Cristal just for the price of it.

Talk about putting out fires with gasoline: With the lobster-welfare issue at full boil, it’s a mystery why a magazine would run a recipe only Rumsfeld would approve, let alone wrap it in a text that lets a hostess trash her guests (shouldn’t it be the other way around on 43d Street?) What would The Ethicist say?

One of the many silly refrains in our house is from some story or book I once read, a cook defending her mole sauce by saying, “There’s got to be half a pound of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nuts in there.” But I still find it odd that the salmonella recall of the British company’s milk chocolate line has produced such a mellow, even jocular response. When cantaloupe had the same affliction, melons were treated like anthrax among the barely informed, and don’t even get me started on the perceived lethal weapon of raw eggs. Now we’re looking at full-bore Montezuma’s Revenge and it’s somehow no biggie. I often marvel that the most germ-phobic people in the world will always handle dollars that undoubtedly have been stored at some point up close and personal with a bum’s jewels. Apparently chocolate is the new cash.

The Wall Street Journal must not value me as a subscriber as much as it claims. The tribute box of caffeine it just delivered included a pack of “pumpkin spice” flavored coffee. The only thing more unnerving would be a container of that new laxative designed to be dissolved in coffee, sent without diapers.

I see Rao’s is finally making its move to Las Vegas, if you can believe all the ads. With so many big-name French chefs opening in the over-fountained desert, maybe there really was a gaping need for profoundly mediocre Ameri-Italian (when your three stars were awarded by Mimi, five critics and many fill-ins ago, it might be way past time to hang them up). I’m sure the place will be just as exclusive as the spaghetti sauce sold in supermarkets everywhere. Without Little Al, though, it’s less than Tom’s Diner.

Brad Steelman should be nervous. Right now he is heading for a record as longest-lasting chef of the River Cafe, and at that landmark it is no point of pride. Buzzy O’Keeffe famously says he likes to launch chefs, not capture them, and hanging around too long might send the wrong message.

But at the beyond-lavish 30th-anniversary party literally under the Brooklyn Bridge, it was easy to see why a chef might want to stick around. The setting is unreal, the restaurant is staffed and stocked to excess and the mood is so genial it was not surprising to find Steelman’s four predecessors producing the decadent but still restrained menu with him (starting with Larry Forgione’s “terrine of three smoked fish with their respective caviars” and winding through Charlie Palmer’s asparagus with duck ham, David Burke’s lobster “steak” and Rick Laakkonen’s roasted rabbit with cannelloni). But it was the wine director, Joseph DeLissio, who offered the most potent evidence of why someone might check in and not want to check out: When my consort and I stepped off the New York Water Taxi, magnums of Veuve Clicquot and Henriot were being poured, and waiters were soon warning us to save room for the Cristal and Dom Perignon. Each course came with some exceptional liquid (the wine magazine editor next to me at a window table was particularly awed by the Silex-D. Dagueneau 2004 Pouilly-Fume), and by the time Steelman’s lamb three ways landed, magnums of various knock-’em-dead reds were being poured almost faster than the excellent waiters could change glasses. It was an extraordinary show of generosity for the motleyist crew imaginable. This was no press mob scene or chef gang bang or even Le Cirque-style freak show (a k a crude customer cultivation). The Soltners, the foie gras queen, a peculiarly camera-shy Gael Greene and an M. Shanken contingent were among the relatively few industry notables; in the ultimate indication of careful culling, there was no Evil Monkey from the NYT. The photographer shooting hard was not the usual Mr. Magoo but a young woman from the Brooklyn Eagle. It was all unsettling.

On the ride back to the glittering island we had looked out on all night, the water taxi took a detour to spin us around the Statue of Liberty. The whole glamorous, luxurious experience felt so far from real life it only made me wonder why no one has ever produced the most obvious series: “Food and the City.” I could even put up with Sarah Jessica Parker as the chef, waiting to launch.

About 10 years ago I spent an entire 12 months cooking only what was seasonal in my small part of the world, developing recipes just for myself while keeping a diary of how hard and easy that all actually was. The most brilliant agent I know then spent another year shopping my efforts around, only to be met with a collective, “Huh?” So I am very happy to see the food world has finally evolved far enough that the NYT has started a cooking-from-the-Greenmarket column. But did it really have to begin with an homage to Marie Antoinette? Fava beans are easily among the most esoteric of local vegetables, sold at a fraction of the markets, and really, who ever comes home from Union Square with bulging bags of still damp and dirty, instantly eatable green things to think, “I know. I’ll make panna cotta!” (Maybe lemon balm brioche was too ordinary.) The great gift of the Greenmarket is that it takes so little to make so much of exquisitely fresh, in-harmony-with-nature ingredients. But for reasons I will never understand after seeing women paying with food stamps at the exceptional market in my neighborhood, something about the idea of eating seasonally and locally brings out the snoot in food writers. It’s not enough that the food is seasonal and local. It has to be tortured into effete. Before the summer is out, how much do you want to bet we’ll be reading a recipe for tomato water?

Just back from Italy, I’m dazed and confused but still not so addled I need pie defined. “The round fruit-filled pastry”? Does that go with the frozen dairy product or just the dark caffeinated beverage?

The good news is that you can get a quartino of decent local wine for as little as 1 euro in a restaurant (Miravalle, in Manciano). The bad news is that the Autogrill has gone to hell, or maybe just to America. I was looking forward to our last stop through the whole week, remembering how wondrous my first experience had been, way back in 1990 on the Autostrada outside Genoa. But the one we tried right outside Florence had the same tired and underfilled cardboard panini you now see in every train station, with the alternatives being a Spizzico counter and more junk food in huge packages than any human should ever have to face. It’s really bad when you leave thinking the Burger King upstairs might have been the better choice.

Partly I feel as if I spent a week in successive strips of “Over the Hedge.” My companions for cappuccino one morning were a newfound friend from Parma and three ancient turtles, one dawdling over its own breakfast of lettuce leaves in a cafe’s garden in San Quirico d’Orcia. The rescued mascot of the Canon workshop my consort taught was an abandoned starving kitten nicknamed Moribund by the digital cynics at TPW. Our alarm clock in a hotel carved out of the tufo in Pitigliano was the frenzied chirping of thousands and thousands of chicks nesting in the porous rock. Our lullaby on the next two nights at the Roccaccia winery’s agriturismo in an olive grove was apparently the mating frenzy of uncountable frogs. And one memorable forenoon four of us were lolling on a bench in San Quirico when a squirrel materialized out of nowhere and shot cannon-like across the piazza, up the church steps and straight into the sanctuary, as if he had just gotten religion in the worst way. No wonder I lost all interest in the daily bread of Tuscany: meat and more meat. And maybe that’s a good thing, because one night my consort ordered wild boar in a tiny osteria in Pitigliano where the next table was occupied by four women with one huge white dog and when the waitress arrived and announced “cianghale” the dog was up and howling as it had just treed that squirrel. For all my mockery of the Tuscan sunners who give the region the aura of ItaloDisney, it still has animal magnetism.

We tried to make our road trip a Slow Food odyssey but were thwarted at nearly every meal. The restaurant we drove to Bolsena to try was under demolition. Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano was closed for no perceptible reason, as was Da Paolina in Manciano. At least the Celata panificio was baking away in Pitigliano and we were able to sample the prototype for the Fig Newton. But even there it was easy to see how Italy is changing. Half the cookies we bought were coated with either corn flakes or Cocoa Puffs (seriously). In the Coop grocery line in the same town, the woman ahead of us unloaded a cart in which a crate of peaches was the only fresh food among the frozen pizzas and sliced meats and sauces in jars. The one time we turned on a television the ice cream ads ran nonstop. No wonder so many little boys we saw could audition for the Fatty Arbuckle role in a pre-Coke biopic.

This is no joke: First prize in a contest would be one night in Florence. Second prize would be a week. My least favorite city besides Rome was even more annoying on my stopover waiting for a flight home, and my dinner dates confirmed my impression that hell is other Americans. As they put it, the place is overrun with 20,000 sorority girls, all wearing flip-flops and bent on getting hammered every night while trying to meet Italians but landing only Albanians posing as Greek. They told me this at the allegedly classy Cibreo before we were serenaded, to their horror, by a couple of street musicians who shook down all the diners after their raucous performance. The city even has Mexican restaurants, serving “dolce” burritos (zucchero, Nutella). I was so happy to leave I got to the airport in time to have the Air France clerks try to persuade me to take the earlier flight just boarding, but I hate CDG in Paris worse than Florence and stuck around for a last prosecco and panini. Imagine my horror when I passed through security, having had my bags dumped out and pawed through by a surly functionary, to find the lovely cafe I remembered from my last trip two years ago completely gone. All that was waiting at the gate was a bank of machines for coffee and snacks. Getting there was creepy, too, through a maze of steel walls with no windows. As I sat there sadly eating a packet of crumbled potato chips in desperation, I could only think yet again of how the war on an abstraction has made the world so much safer. Now instead of airports we travel through maximum-security prisons. Hungrily.

It took serious work, but I managed to stay blissfully ignorant of news for nearly an entire week. Somehow, though, one tidbit did filter through: Gordon Ramsay’s winning his libel case, which was wildly reported. Apparently he learned from a master, Marco Pierre White, who beat the NYT some years back. I’ve always thought the perpetrator of that offense is either lucky or female dogged, but then a headless section will obviously take what copy it can get. Travel sniffs even less.

The Financial Times also yielded a morsel on the flight home: A new wine has been branded Chamarre because it “sounded similar to several other famous French places and products, such as the Champs-Elysees, chardonnay, Champagne and Chanel.” Maybe to the rubes it might. To me it’s the wine equivalent of Accenture: sounds good, means nothing. And somehow I don’t think you beat Gallo by aping Starbucks.

Haagen-Dazs is running a rather tone-deaf campaign for its Mayan chocolate flavor: “Cortez invaded for it.” Hope the same ad agency doesn’t get the Bocaburger account. We’ll be hearing what Hitler would eat.

Foie gras may be over even before the misguided manage to get it banned completely. Chefs seem to be increasingly realizing ducks have much more to sacrifice than mere engorged livers. Along with their vital organs, their tongues and their balls are popping up all over trendy menus. Force-feeding was apparently not enough. Now Daguin wannabes have to go medieval on those birds.

Joking aside, it was hard to read the report that Holy Foods is not going to sell live lobsters anymore out of concern for the crustaceans without wondering why these bleeding hearts are sitting by silently while their own government allows human beings to suffer in cages to the point where the only escape is suicide. Did I really read in a once-respectable newspaper that Americans are worried about the “quality of life” of a softshell crab? On the same day force-feedings at Guantanamo were reported yet again? Watching my Siamese nap 23 1/3 hours a day, I always swear I want to come back as a cat. These days I think a better bet would be as something much farther up the food chain. Never forget the tales of fat lobsters in the wake of Flight 800.

I guess Time magazine deserves credit for devoting much of an entire issue to food, but it was still surprising to see how little news was involved. I felt as if I had read every story 14 times before, except for how Giada and Goin stay thin and, more train-wreck mesmerizing, how the Cheesecake Factory develops its menu. Suffice it to say bastardizing serious cuisine would be an understatement. The magazine does get points, though, for letting Michael Pollan trash what he trashed (Go-Gurt, Twinkies) while accepting an ad for whole-grain Club Crackers, which really taste like Crisco in crunchy form. Then again, the ad sales guys do not seem to have gotten the message: “Pay no heed to nutritional advice.” Every ad in the section that was not for a drug was for some get-healthy-quick food. So disregard what you read and just dress your salads in canola Hellmann’s.

(PS: Marion Nestle is an admirable character, but really: How many times can she feign shock on walking into a supermarket, reporter in tow, to promote her book? Milk in the back? Sugar on the cereal? Stop the presses. At least the failure of imagination makes you want to shoot only the messenger.)

The hometown paper now desperately shopping for a Dining editor has been running some intriguing pieces. The writing in one made me wonder if the Egotist might actually have a shuffle function on his word processor (if it’s June, it must be the misery of the pie plant). And the prose in a couple more, by renowned literary lights in the magazine, was so turgid and forced it reminded me of how Elvis died. Not from eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches. By straining at stool.

A far worse offense by the Chalabi Crier was the Chimp House handout touting “cocktail parties” allegedly thrown by the dry drunk in chief to win Congressmen and influence votes (or vice-versa). Anyone with half a brain — or anyone who had to suffer through editing “news” stories in 2001 about inaugural food cooked with alcohol — would immediately ask: Cocktails? With the guy no admiring voter could ever drink a beer with because one would be too many and a hundred not enough? Of course the retyped press release mentions only lemonade and iced tea (and not of Long Island origin). But they had to shove that gullible report into print anyway. It was easier than acknowledging there might be more world-threatening weaknesses than an affinity for blow jobs. Sad that inviting people for alcohol and serving anything but just fits a pattern. Does weapons of mass deception ring a bell?

The cretin who named a new product that sugar-coats the lip of a cocktail glass would have been wise to consult urbandictionary.com before trademarking Rimmer. The Crustini it goes around sounds crude enough.

A wind-up Molto Ego doll, as sickeningly reported on thefoodsection, could turn out to be the greatest idea since burgers in the rat-infested parks. There should be a whole line of these miniature chefs, and not just flipping spaghetti and meatballs. Imagine sales of the one that could fart backward.

The only wonder is that no one thought of this sooner: A bacon cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme doughnut for a bun. Some baseball stadium is actually serving it, and we can only hope it does not turn out to be the inspiration for the sports chapter of fast food’s “The Idiot and the Odyssey.”

Just how far has television come from Dionne Lucas? Apparently there’s now a chef show that rewards a guy who actually put these four ingredients together in one mouthful: mortadella, grapes, mushrooms and tapenade. Think about it. But not too long. Your head will be spewing like Linda Blair’s.

Lately I can only wonder what historians will think of this miserable era with atrocities to the right of us and disaster straight ahead and buses running half-empty on highways clogged with cars. Even now, though, it is pretty clear that we could never be forgiven for marking Memorial Day, of all days, with hot dog-eating contests. With a couple of wars on, what kind of country would celebrate gorging and gluttony? The only thing worse would be doing it for Darfur. But I guess I shouldn’t worry, just be happy as a Chimp who famously declared: “Who cares about history? We’ll all be dead.” We might as well all drink hemlock to that.

Of all the hallmarks of success, sending in a clone has to be the ballsiest. Unfortunately, it works. At the Brasserie Ruhlmann fete, people were desperately looking for famous faces and kept telling me the Schnorrer was one of them. But I sat next to that guy at a press lunch once and he let me in on the scheme. If only I had a schoolmate who looked enough like me to dress her up and have her grace parties with “my” presence. I could have been spared the sight of Fatter Guy in the flesh, not to mention meeting a certain someone who always makes me check for my wallet after she passes by.

But then I would have missed a pretty nice affair, despite the kvetching about how doomed the place had to be, because of its location and because ridiculous Medi died a quick death there. The non-press guests coming in certainly did not look any scarier than some of the ghouls I saw at the Le Cirque party. And they were being fed and wined more copiously; platter after platter of gougeres, country pate, tuna tartare and other great hors d’oeuvres got passed, and seafood was being cracked open at the bar inside. Somehow, too, I doubt any European who goes to Le Cirque will have the experience my consort’s high school classmate in from Stockholm just did at his dinner at Ruhlmann: When his steak arrived more medium than rare, the very French waiter not only took it back but sent over a platter of oysters to enjoy while he waited for a fresh one. Sirio would have quoted the old joke about how to get to 42d Street, Cheney-style.

I think chefs with outposts around the world might be overstretched, too, but damned if I’m going to take the word of Mr. Shrimp Shell Stock on it. This might be the first time ever that I think even Jay McInerney might have been a better arbiter of consistency. The Times truly works in mysterious ways when it allows a chef’s collaborator to give what some say is the guiltiest party a pass by just not discussing him.

The new biography of Mrs. Beeton is apparently causing a stir in England because it reveals that she was a plagiarist. A slyer way to put it might be a prototype. As the Guardian reported, “Isabella Beeton was only 21 when she began cookery writing. Her first recipe for Victoria sponge was so inept that she left out the eggs. Seven years later she was dead. How did she come to write the seminal book? ‘The answer is she copied everything,’’’ her biographer Kathryn Hughes said. Sounds like 1983 all over again, when the food coven went into witchy overdrive denouncing a pretty, youngish thing who had had the audacity to produce what was probably the first coffee table best-seller, insisting she “stole” recipes for things like shrimp toast. Change the names and the British historian could be talking American: “We should not necessarily think badly of Mrs. Beeton. ‘Although she was a plagiarist, she was adding value. She was an extraordinary innovator.’’’ Unlike whoever it was who swiped the shrimp toast first.

The price of a soul seems to be dropping. Does Ming Tsai really believe some tricked-up potato chips are truly the “perfect pairing with your favorite wine”? Someone tell him about cheese. Or at least offer him a Singha to sell out in a snack ad.

Emeril, on the other hand, actually appears to be doing something good while doing well. Maybe I don’t get off the island often enough, but on a foray down to eat with friends in New Hope I spotted a new-to-me line of salad greens in the grocery with that overexposed smiling face on the label. Considering a huge reason Americans refuse to eat their fruits and vegetables is the dearth of big-bucks promotion, it can’t hurt to have a little celebrity nonsense in the produce aisle. Imagine what a Sandra Lee could accomplish doctoring up raw ingredients.

 

Manhattan is changing so fast you can blink and the 117-year-old Harvey’s Chelsea House (a k a the Tonic and also Amuse) will be gone in a cloud of brick dust. Still, I was surprised walking past Le Madri for the first time in months to see it boarded up and bearing a “rodent station” warning. Back in its heyday that sign would have been really appropriate.

I guess the Julia Child bio-pic was inevitable, and I sorta like the idea of Joan Cusack getting the role and sloshing around the TV kitchen. Slashfood takes exception, though, preferring Joan Allen. Forget the reality that she has all the warmth of Pat Nixon. There’s also the size issue. Wouldn’t it be like casting Bob Balaban as James Beard?

Take the two most self-destructive American pursuits — eating fast food, and eating fast food while driving — put them together and what do you get? Exactly. A lead story in the same newspaper that actually asserted that Girl Scout cookies will kill you with trans-fats. It’s not surprising that a guy with so many gaps in his own mental map would take the shallow road rather than jump on the opportunity to learn more about what this country is really cooking, regionally and nationally. This is, after all and never forget, the useful idiot who helped put a feces-flinging chimp into power with his voter-deluding stories. Maybe he can drive back through a bunch of bariatric operating rooms and dialysis centers and get a few more laughs. What kind of message does it send when fast food is considered both megadeath and great good fun? But this verbal master of disaster could not have done a better job if he worked for bestfoodnation, the propaganda site the promoters of the stuff that has made America adipose have set up. Then again, considering he’s employed by the best tool the vast right-wing conspiracy ever had, that may be exactly how his story came to be. Eric Schlosser, don’t forget, has already had his NYT takedown, portrayed as just some guy who got lucky while ambling through history. And so far only the WSJournal is telling us why it was no accident. Party on, Panchito. I’ll bet the fast food is really great in Iraq these days.

The Hillary-panty-sniffing paper’s visual homage to Mrs. Kerry, on the other hand, was well worth the reads. Two things jumped out at me. One was yet another uncritical recounting of the restaurant clitic’s exploits. First as a reporter she lay down with a subject, then as a reviewer she routinely schtuped the chefs she was evaluating. Does no one else see any ethical issues there? No wonder it’s taken so long for food journalists to get the time of the Times. The other peculiarity was in Nora Ephron’s review of “Look Back in Indigestion,” in which she speculates about the authors’ home being cluttered with pickled okra and other cutesy vittles they’ve dragged back to Connecticut. I still remember interviewing them for some magazine whose name has long been forgotten, and that house had anything but kitsch in it. I’m starting to think Yalie bluebloods are bizarrely adept at masking their true selves — consider a certain graduate who no longer goes “home” to his “ranch” because he’s afraid to pass the antiwar protesters camped outside. Oh, well. At least no one got harmed in the making of the two-for-the-road show, despite the python-on-gazelle promo photos of the authors.

In case Per Se was not pretentious enough as a restaurant name, Keller has gone and dubbed his new place in Napa Ad Hoc. It should be In Absentia. And if he keeps emulating Wolfgang and Emeril and other chainsters, he can just start using Ibid. Or Ad Infinitum.

The race to the bottom is farther along than even I had realized. Bon Appetit is now speaking Rachaelese. Twice in one issue. It’s as embarrassing as a menopausal waitress in a Hooters uniform.

Never let it be said Philadelphia does not have its priorities in order. Apparently the most pressing item on its agenda is a ban on foie gras. And they call Chicago the second city. Interesting this goosey councilman is not raising his voice about the profound misery at Guantanamo if he’s so concerned about suffering. I guess torture really does begin at home.

My friend the wickedest food writer in the business raises an interesting question about our hometown paper: Why is it that any national chain that invades Manhattan gets acres of wet-themselves coverage while a local business gets an offhand mention and a couple of photos the size of thumbnails you can’t click? And don’t pull that “national newspaper” bullshit. Fairway is both a big stop on the tourist food circuit and a brand name in the cheese world. What’s most disgusting is realizing we’re about to be inundated with more Tiger Beat-off: I see quirky Adriana’s Caravan, the crammed stall in Grand Central where you could find anything from Aleppo pepper to grains of paradise, is being replaced by a Penzeys Spices. A-1 coming up, and I don’t mean the sauce.

This was not a banner week for said paper, though. After reading about Alma Grill both there and in Time Out New York, I headed off post-PT eight blocks away, only to find a place billed as opening for breakfast, lunch and dinner locked up tight at 12:30. And just when I was thinking Manhattan salumi was not a bad idea for a feature, I saw the same subject the same day in Time Out. There are no new stories, only new PR campaigns. Oversaturation of the market probably also explains why the newest one-star was almost empty at brunch Saturday. In the Mimi/Miller heyday, a review had clout. Now it’s just more static in a menupages world.

I thought I had seen the nadir in party accouterments when they broke out the chocolate fountain at my consort’s high school on wall-of-fame night in Buffalo. Then I walked into the tent at Le Cirque and saw the Illy booth. I almost had to check my invitation to be sure I hadn’t wandered into the Italian pavilion at a trade show. But it was just the first sign the party would be class all the way. If a scary number of the “girls” when I got there early were not “working” (and a few transvestites), they were doing very gaudy imitations. Most of the cleavage of course was of the sort not seen in nature, but this was the first time I think I ever noticed so many prosthetic bras — there is no way nipples could be that perky under throats so ropy. All of this, naturally, was being recorded by the Stevie Wonder of party shooters. As for the food, I guess I was one of the lucky ones: I tasted two nondescript little hors d’oeuvres from one of the overloaded platters passing around the tent. And I got to walk through the actual gloomy restaurant, complete with unfilled wine tower, before a guy near the clogged coat check started yelling: “Folks, this bar is closed.” Famous faces, you ask? The only one I spotted was Andre Soltner, although a flack I ran into outside pointed out an ancient gossip columnist, whom I would never have noticed on my own. The undead look oddly alike.

If you can’t bring yourself to read Panchito’s peculiar love song to his soul (of a chef) mate, there’s always more skeptical Time Out, which ran an interview in which the book flogger contends chefs are like surgeons. He cites a few good comparisons — energy, stamina, organization — but omits the best one. It’s something I heard from my orthopedist in Italy, a country where chefs are not exactly national idols. Dr. Guzzi was always full of entertaining aphorisms when he’d stop by my bed before and after he screwed my femur back together (“We say Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm;” “Medicine is like a short blanket — you cover the feet and the head is exposed”), and one day he was talking with my consort about their respective professions. “Photography is 10 percent skill and 90 percent talent,” he said. “Surgery is 90 percent skill and 10 percent talent.” Or, as a doctor at Lenox Hill put it when I got back home: “A chimpanzee could do what we do. He would just need us to tell him.” Maybe it’s not too much of a reach to say cooking is brain surgery.

Just back from America, I now know that the distance between Columbus and Athens is 104 roadkills, mostly raccoons and possums, and that there are more sideshow-size fat people sitting in one USAir departure lounge at LaGuardia than you will see on the OU campus in four days. It’s a whole other country out there, one where a half-toothless guy can arrive to pay his rent with a can of Chef Boyardee in his hand in a development where the model apartment has French food posters on the walls, including one of Pates Baroni. One where a chef/owner sits counting cash at his high-end bar in Buffalo and a flier at the Anderson’s stand pleads for donations for a shopkeeper wounded in an armed robbery. One where a decal on university doors is the universal symbol for no guns but where the farmers’ market sells araucana eggs. The scariest thing I saw was the supermarket in Buffalo where motorized carts are actually provided for shoppers who are too fat to walk to the microwave food. But the pithiest summation of the state of the nation came in a letter to USA Today, the paper thoughtfully delivered to our hotel door, from a chagrined woman whose doctor had informed her that her problem was not her knees but her carrying “a Cadillac body on a VW frame.” I forget. Are people still arguing about foie gras?

I knew I was safely back home when the local paper ran a big story touting Holy Foods as a bargain basement, just as its new campaign in the City section says it is. Food Emporium should be particularly pissed, keeping Dining afloat all these years only to get thrown over for the new chain in town. Who knew the slogan had morphed into “All the ads fit to print”?

What if you gave a World Series and the two biggest teams didn’t come? That’s sort of what the Beard journalism awards amount to, but it still didn’t stop the sour grapes in the wine realm this year. Also, for the first time I heard WNYC reporting on the nonsense, and it couldn’t possibly be because their guy won, could it? All the awards in all categories make the Zagat Survey look like the very model of fair and balanced judging, though. It’s one big circle jerk. And to think: Chefs cook with those hands.

Time, however, deserves an award all its own for not just including Rachael Ray in its list of influentials but having Molto “write” her up. (Maybe the Food Network will take him back now?) He should return the favor and let Jim Kelly run the kitchen at Babbo. That would get people to cook at home for sure.

File this one under, “To be immortal, you have to be dead”: Remember the good old wonder years of Mexican in Manhattan? It was back before fajitas, even, when you had your choice of overloaded combination plates with rice and refried pintos and the enchiladas tasted like the tamales tasted like the “rellenos” and only the tostada was not awash in greasy Old El Paso red sauce. The guacamole came from a can, and so did the corn tortillas. Who wouldn’t feel Montezuma’s pangs of nostalgia for those pre-cilantro days of sangria and nachos now that mescal and moles are so easy to find everywhere? Who wouldn’t feel weary of authenticity? Well, guess what? You can still have that Patio frozen dinner experience. At El Rio Grande, where it’s always 1988 except the chips come in three colors. I’m just not going to write 5,000 words about it. Old-time Spanish, though — now there would be a story in the age of Adria. . . .

Country and city merged one surreal night in Athens after we stopped at a cafe for a glass of wine and, to avoid the smokers, settled for stools next to a guy behaving rather bizarrely. He had his head flat on the bar at first, then lifted it to ask, “Are my kids safe? I’m worried about my kids.” The bartenders let him keep blathering variations on that plaint, but one finally said: “We don’t know. We don’t know your kids.” But this kept up and then, when my consort stepped away to use his phone, the freak turned to me and loudly announced: “I’ve got it. You play the evil nurse. Or is it the doctor?” And all that was before he dramatically poured his beer all over the bar.

A few hours later we’re back in our hotel room and I get an encore when my clean-speaking consort calls out from his laptop: “Who is XXX? He’s fucking crazy.” Since my email was coming into Bob’s account, I was spared actually having to read what was sent, but it did make me wonder why a certain MFK wannabe would want to piss off potential reviewers. And now I’m really enjoying imagining him sitting at some sad bar, wondering endlessly: “Is my book safe? I’m worried about my book.” And hearing: “We don’t know. We didn’t read your book.”

Only her therapist knows for sure what this means, but a friend confessed she saw the reefers on the cover of the Whining section and thought one read, “Frank Bruni Dies in August.”

I would not have wanted to have been the chef responsible for the food served at the lapdogs’ dinner before Stephen Colbert did what no real journalist beyond Helen Thomas ever has. Talk about acid reflux. Apparently it’s funny when the honored guest makes jokes about a situation that has now gotten 2,400 Americans slaughtered. It’s bad taste to ask why. Hope they locked up the vanilla in Mrs. Chimp’s kitchen. Any liquid that is 35 percent alcohol had to look more seductive than an imaginary friend after Truthiness’s verbal bruising.

Everyone seems to have the same reaction to the news that “Joy of Cooking” is being updated: “Again?” Turns out the impetus is the 75th anniversary of the original, not just the fact that the last edition is nearly 10 years old now. Doesn’t it seem like only last week that the food world was so swept up in all the sturm und drang involved in that embarrassment of egos? At the press lunch with shrimp wiggle (it didn’t), there was much talk of what’s being restored (cream o’ soups) and what’s being added (enchiladas), but I also heard the most tantalizing reference to what’s been cut: “Florid writing.” Let the shitstorm resume.

More and more legislators around the country are deciding Chimp abuse in the form of impeachment is the most pressing issue right now, but in Chicago, the City Council is more worried about ducks being force-fed. Clearly, the 48 of 49 cretins who voted to ban the sale of foie gras have never been to a dairy and seen what they do to cows. Maybe I’ve had too many mammograms, but I can tell you I would rather have corn endlessly rammed down my throat than stand in shit and be mechanically milked twice a day, without even memories of green pastures in sunshine to distract me.

What the city with the most notorious animal record (calling Upton Sinclair) should be outlawing is Taco Bad. The chain has started promoting “the fourth meal,” one last temptation for the weak-willed obese to pork out between breakfast and dinner. Having overheard a therapist at PT confessing he gained 20 pounds indulging in just such an opportunity while hanging out with the guys even before the new campaign, I’d say this diabetes-imperiled country needs to start saying, “No quiero.” Or at least start thinking about how the chickens destined to be ground up for 59-cent burritos are treated better than large chunks of the world right now.

An alert reader informs me it’s not just treasonous military contractors who are running up big tabs in restaurants while buying the best democracy possible. Since honor and dignity became nothing more than words under this administration, drug companies apparently also feel free to throw around megabucks, but with a difference. My mystery emailer says he knows of a legal pusher who approached a restaurant where dinners averaged $100, offering to bring in doctor clients and charge up to $2,000 on the company credit card, which the owner and the salesman would then split 50-50. When you think about it, the only amazing thing is that even more billions have not gone unaccounted for in the rebuilding of Iraq. And so much for the myth that drugs are obscenely expensive because the poor companies have to underwrite research and development. That classic category on expense accounts is metastasizing: bribes and gratuities.

After passing up endless opportunities to make the requisite pilgrimage to Jacques Torres’s Chocolate Haven here on the big island, I couldn’t resist the walk there with friends from out of town just to have the conversation that was so impossible at rocking-and-rolling Fatty Crab (”It’s our style,” the waitress said). All three of us were shocked when we finally found the place. As I always say, when the French have bad taste, they really have bad taste. It was bizarrely designed, garish, ugly, weird and totally fromagey, with oversized bunnies on display on green excelsior weeks past Easter. My friends were hellbent on hot chocolate, so they ordered two large and I asked for a cappuccino at the rather nice bar. All three came in paper cups. We sat at a little table on tall stools and interspersed every two serious sentences with, “I can’t believe how awful this place looks” or “This place would be okay in a mall. Or an airport.” What was most amazing is that a steady stream of people flowed in and actually walked out with bags in their hands. Slow as I am, I finally figured out why: If you tout it on TV, they will come. The image that will not soon fade from my mental screen is of a 400-pound woman and her only slightly leaner husband, both in T-shirts and jeans, casing the joint, almost drooling, before picking up a handbasket and filling it up. I’m not a chocolate junkie, but even I know there’s something wrong with that picture. I was half-ready to run straight to Pierre Marcolini, where French women do not get fat for very good reasons.

I’ve been puzzling over why Go Fuck Yourself needed to rake in $9 million last year (Nine. Million. Dollars.), but a little scandal involving the woman who helped slide his oily self into the White House gives a small clue. Katherine Harris has admitted she was treated to dinner by a crooked military contractor at Citronelle where the tab came to $2,800. That is almost six times the price of the most expensive meal I have ever paid for, and I do this for a living. If you make too much, you clearly have to spend too much. I just wish those troops the greedy support so heartily could have a last real meal. Even a Halliburton MRE would go down easier with a $1,000 Bordeaux.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fourteen years ago my consort and I set out on a blissful but ill-fated odyssey to document 12 American harvests, of foods that nature gives up only once a year, and Crop No. 2 was Vidalia onions. We spent the bulk of our time in Georgia with an unnervingly lovely family who had advertised their spring sweetness in the back of the New Yorker and for a few years turned a local specialty into a national sensation. Among their many marketing inspirations was trademarking the slogan they repeated more often on that trip than they did Biblical allusions: “They only make you cry when you’re gone.” So I certainly had that little “deja vu all over again” reaction 14 full springs later when I did a quick google search for Vidalias for a possible story and came up with no end of “news” reports from respectable publications all quoting our guy Delbert with those exact words. Somewhere along the line a company slogan became a statement worthy of disseminating as informed comment. Could there be any better proof that while journalists spend their workdays tracking their stock prices, the spinmeisters have won the news game? And did you hear the one about the WMDs?

Hoke. It’s the real thing.

One of Richard Thompson’s most haunting songs is “When the Spell Is Broken,” and it was ricocheting around my cranial sieve after I met one of the few bonuses for a bad break for a late lunch on the Lower East Side. Charbon, where we had planned to rendezvous, turned out to be closed, so I suggested Schiller’s, where I had not been in donkey’s years and had always loved the look. Visually nothing had changed, but I warned my inadvertently acquired friend that the food would not be as great as the bathrooms. Even I was surprised, though, at what arrived sans the French fries I specifically ordered as insurance against dejection. Her “seared tuna salad” looked to be mostly a mess of onions; my “tartine” was a slab of baguette alongside a mound of vapid portobello slices, Parmesan and arugula. Right as our tiny tumblers of wine were running out, Patsy put down her fork and said: “It’s just a diner, isn’t it?” Funny how Balthazar never makes you feel as if “love letters you wrote/are pushed back down your throat.” To paraphrase Richard Thompson, you can’t cook if you don’t know how.

As the virtual for-sale sign on Bistro du Vent proves, though, restaurant magic is not a patented formula. Friends from the other coast were surprised to hear the news eater reported first, but I had three theories about what led to its demise: That alleged orgy on the bar. The bistro-by-Sears-catalog look. That alleged orgy on the bar. When you walk into a restaurant and the first thing you think about is Clarence Thomas facing down a Coke can, you can’t enjoy your meal. I still remember the time, 20-some years ago, when I took one of my sisters and her husband to New Deal in SoHo and someone had defaced the dessert menu with choices like “Hair Pie.” How exactly do you beat that image off? So to speak, of course.

 

Maybe there is an allah after all. The batshit-crazy bane of my Dining existence has finally, finally been routed from her Aeron throne. To work for her, you had to be comfortable with either a stiletto in your neck or a knife in your back. Plus she knew as much about the food world, and journalism in general, as the Chimp does about nuclear science and disaster relief put together. Every closing was a cuss-fest; I could have done a memoir called, “Tuesdays With Hysteria.” The only mystery is what the tipping point was, although a not-so-unbiased observer pointed out that the paper has had a few more pressing personnel problems lately, including the Whitewater Crusader and more recently Ms. Chalabi.

The nut case’s replacement once ran the old Living section, so I guess we can look forward to more of the turgid features and musty bylines that have already started re-emerging. I’m not going to predict the Dining section could not get any worse, though, because somehow, every week for almost longer than I worked there now, they have managed to prove me Gravy Master wrong. But maybe I’ll be hearing fewer sob stories around town from freelancers about pieces being assigned and mysteriously withdrawn now that KK (as in Krazy Rhymes-With-Lunt) has been thrown to the news sharks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Venice is so much better the second time around. I had gotten all the tourist obligations out of the way back in 1998, so it was pure pleasure just to walk and eat and drink in the magic. I did duck into the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, but mostly to see what kind of anal probes a museumgoer would have to suffer in Italy compared with nervous New York. (Answer: I had to check my bag, but only to protect the art, they said.) Otherwise I spent my days while my consort was teaching his TPW workshop wandering from market to cafe to pasticceria to restaurant and studiously avoiding venturing anywhere near the Piazza San Marco. We stayed at a wondrous little hotel in Canareggio, Locanda Martini, and it was almost possible to forget we were in one serious tourist town, at least if I kept my eyes off the garish pasta for sale everywhere (did the world really need Curacao blue or cocoa, let alone in gondola and penis shapes?)

And this time I was armed with excellent recommendations from Italians, so I thought we could escape the famous curse of Venice: gross food at gouge prices thrown down by surly servers. Mostly we did, until I went off the approved list after four great lunches in a row to try La Colombina, a restaurant right near the hotel that was listed in a (seriously outdated) Slow Food directory we found in the breakfast room. We should have known it was trouble when we peeked in at lunchtime and saw the closed dining room was a mess, with big stains on one table. But both of us had it in our heads it was where we should eat, even after superb and very filling cicchetti at Al Timon nearby. Big glasses of prosecco were immediately plunked down with the menus, I guess to blunt the shock of 20-euro antipasti. We were surrounded by Italians sharing huge platters of sliced meat, and I started worrying we had found the Venetian Il Mulino. But it got worse. We were given two choices of wine, pinot grigio or soave, and charged much more than water for the mediocrity. The antipasto was an artichoke sformata with shrimp and butchered scallops with roe in a shell resting on a lemon slice (don’t ask). I faced down a monstrous portion of black linguine with zucchini and tasteless tomatoes and exactly seven tiny shrimp, all resting on a slimy pool of polenta. Polenta. With pasta. It was like tucking into a Molto flight of fancy; all it needed was hairy legs and duck balls. Laying down 88 euros has never stung so hard. And of course I woke up a few hours afterward and started mentally counting over and over to see how the bill got so big. You guessed it: It was 10 euros off. Next morning, though, I felt much better talking to another couple over breakfast who were marveling at how badly they had been eating everywhere — and they came from Scotland. You know it’s grim when haggis looks good.

We did have a couple of just average meals, too, where I learned how advanced the Europeans are at diplomacy. One Italian would say, “I like it. I don’t love it.” And an Austrian had a very graceful, “It was prepared in a style I’m not used to.” I’m saving those for the next time someone offers me salame d’asino, or veal muzzle translated as muscle.

Anyone else hear the rumor that Michael Brown has a new show coming on the Food Network? Web word is that they were looking for people who were not chefs or even trained in food. And apparently he knows something about horseshit.

Watching France go into meltdown over bird flu should send Americans into a tailspin. Everyone seems to be worried about what the outbreak will do to the poultry industry, not about the big picture. It’s so very Bushian. Chirac is saying “let ’em eat supreme de volaille” when it’s clear that ducks and turkeys and other great edibles are fast becoming endangered species. Given what a heck of a job the Chimp has done so far at keeping the people he serves safe, the chickens will definitely be coming homeland to roost. And why do I think that will just mean a bailout for Tyson and Perdue?

Now, if it was cheese flu on the horizon, there would be serious reason to panic. No other food is as splendiferous, as satisfying on every level. I’ve been in the cult since I was a kid in Arizona snaring bits of indigenous Colby Longhorn from my dad, who also had a dairy tooth, and I can only imagine how much richer his life would have been if he had ever had a chance to taste an oozing Munster in Alsace or an Epoisses in Burgundy or even a blue cheese out of Oregon. But for all my obsessiveness, even I have to draw the line at the weird new fetishism busting out all over. A cheese tasting I just went to was almost painful to sit through, with all the nattering about rennets and grass and whatever. Cheese worshipers make wine geeks look sane and balanced. It was unseemly. I can’t believe I wanted to stand up and yell, “It’s just food, for feta’s sake.”

The occasion was part of a promotion of Wisconsin artisanal cheeses, and it was a revelation to realize how far the state has come from the mid-Nineties, when a big squad of Cheddar cheerleaders would roll into town every year to throw a huge party at some swanky restaurant to expose big-city food writers to the wonders of factory curds and ways. I hear Wisconsin and, fair or not, I think industrial. But clearly it has made huge strides in a world where the boom business is always in the niche sector. The Pleasant Ridge Reserve we tasted from Uplands Cheese was blowaway, both the youngest and the oldest of the three chunks on the plate. Unfortunately, by the time the cheesemaker finished his video and his spiel, I had just about lost interest in the whole topic. I kept mutating Thelonious, thinking, “Talking about cheese is like dancing about wine.” I know it can be done, and done well. I’ve heard it. But there was something about being in a small room in a cheese temple with supercilious fat people who wanted to go into the most arcane minutia and one-upmanship that made me think we’ve earned Armageddon. Most of America still considers Kraft Singles cheese. Some of America can’t even afford that. The little sliver that can indulge in the paralysis of analysis is sapping the pleasure right out of the experience. But then if I were M. Shanken, I’d have a new title in my stable faster than you can say Wine Spectator or Cigar Aficionado: Cheese Bore.

Panchito must have been very, very bad if his employer is making him stay after school and write “I will not be excessively alliterative” over and over on the blackboard. Blogging with a full-time job has to be like indentured servitude. And blogging with an editor behind him has to be even worse. At least we’ll know why the caged monkey flings his feces.

If Dick Cheney were writing obits, he could not have missed the mark any more shamefully than the NYT did with Edna Lewis. Besides the three (count ’em, Julia “Childs”) errors that were corrected, the piece it took two bylines to muck up was shot full of inane details and had holes big enough, as they say in copy desk-speak, to drive a truck through. It was all PC, no ID. Why mention that the family of a freed slave had “no fancy cooking equipment” (what, the Cuisinart was available to the dirt-poor in 1925?), let alone natter about baking powder on a coin and being a loser at ironing? If you wanted to know how this singular cook wound up baking souffles for the rich, you had to read the LAT. If you wanted to know why her long life was so worth a big obit, you had to read the LAT. If you wanted to be cynical, though, you had to wonder why this regal, mesmerizing woman could not get one last shot of herself in print all by herself. She was Edna Lewis, and she was anything but the dark side of a media-manipulative couple.

Did someone say wicked witch? About me? Hey, I’m just subscribing to the Alice Roosevelt Longworth credo: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, come sit by me.” And I just wonder why someone looking for happy talk stays on the bile page instead of clicking through to sweetness and light. (Hint: I loved Philadelphia this trip.) But I really know the answer; it’s as close as the new Food & Wine. Kicking up one little guano storm has gotten it more attention than 10 years’ worth of heavily hyped “best new chef” declarations ever did. And there’s a thought. How long till they do a cover on “worst new blogs”?

After mocking all those suckers who heard the news about fat and went directly to McDonald’s, I’m now right behind them on my way to the trash can with my calcium and Vitamin D tablets. I started taking both after my little incident, even though my bones looked very strong on a density test and I had nothing but scorn for supplements before then. I always drank my whole milk, ate my fish and greens and cheese, got my weight-bearing exercise on a daily basis. But, down for the count, I wanted to do everything I could to get back to some semblance of normal and so I swallowed the official story. And I learned the very hard way that the cheap calcium pills are chalk and will shut your digestive system down, while the pricey ones with citrate are trouble with a lower-case T. In other words, they all have the very same effect Philip Larkin attributed to your mum and dad: They fuck you up. And so do the nutrition nazis.

The latest incidence of nutritional about-face at least solves the riddle of why Americans are not storming the Bastille Blanc. They are just too easy to dupe, and not only about the little stuff like wars and hurricanes and eavesdropping. Exactly three days after the NYTimes led with “Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risk, Study Says,” Hardee’s was being given space in the same Chalabi Crier to tout its 1,420-calorie burger as a sane choice. And if you believe that, someone has a health savings account to sell you.

The other fallout from the low-fat-will-kill-you news could be positive, though. Maybe whole milk will finally be considered nutritionally acceptable again. But then given how much Big Food has invested in processed alternatives and Lactaid, the Bolivians probably have a better chance of putting coca in school lunches for calcium’s sake. One thing is sure: If those traditional leaves with their 1,450 milligrams of goodness were available here, they would be sugarcoated and whole-grain-enriched faster than you can say Snackwells.

Having reveled in multiple bicerins in two of three sojourns in Torino, I had one thought when I saw how the NYTimes chose to cover the sensuous subject. And no, it was not that old bit about travel writing being a mix of plagiarism and speculation (that apparently only applied to a Lithuania story). What came to my sick mind was “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” trying to describe what a woman’s breast feels like. If you’ve never had one in its hometown, one of the most seductive drinks on the planet undoubtedly would seem like a sandbag.

Rao’s was the subject of another conversation one night, over an excellent buffet dinner by a caterer called Canard (“It means duck,” one of the servers helpfully offered when I asked about it). One of our table mates was thrilled to have snagged a reservation at the conceptual prototype for Babbo, and of course I could not remember a single detail of what the group I went with was served, back in about 2000, only that it was all profoundly mediocre and staggeringly expensive, at least $100 a head. Instead I launched into my tale of one of the most surreal evenings ever, with a certain unsavory politician dancing with what looked like a hooker and with one of our party excusing himself for the men’s room and coming out to say he had seen said politician addressing his own dick, thanking it for “being a good guy, not expecting too much.” And of course what brought that to mind was an odd e-mail I got recently about nicknames. Strange, but women don’t tend to feel any need to give themselves pet names. Guys, though, are all too willing to “Little Al” away. (Or, as John Hiatt put it, “let their little heads do the thinking.”) And then they’ll eat anything.

One thing you should never discuss before dinner at WD-50 is the face transplant, let alone the incomparably creepy French horror movie “Les Yeux Sans Visage.” My friend and I had just long enough at the bar to trade details (a self-made expert on plastic surgery predicting that the “miracle” may literally fall off; the overlap between cinema and verite) before we were sitting down to food that, course by course, felt more like the grim churnings of a mad scientist than exuberance from a grounded sensualist. One of the best things, the shrimp literally converted into couscous, got my friend conjuring images of the wood chipper in “Fargo” (and you never want to think about a sock on an oceanic Buscemi’s tail while you’re eating). One of the strangest, the foie gras formed into a tight cylinder that oozed beet juice when sliced open, had both of us saying, “Eraserhead.” And by the end of the meal the weird straps on the back of all the waiters started looking like the leash attachments used to harness them in the basement like the dogs in the movie. It was nothing like my last visit, when the place first opened. And dinner a few nights later at Upstairs at Bouley Bakery really put it into context, reinforcing the simply extraordinary pleasure of great ingredients treated with intelligence, with only little tricks like passion fruit in a sauce needed to make halibut taste like something entirely new. No wonder I never see Wylie at the Greenmarket anymore. He seems to be fighting nature, not celebrating it. And “Cuisine Avec Michelin mais Sans Joie” is turning out to be one freaking sad movie.

My consort is the one in our house who studied psychology, but even I could read more into the triple-plantain extravaganza than just judgment from another planet, like Uranus. It brings back the headline an old, boozed-up copy editor at the Louisville Times would recollect at every opportunity on our early-morning shifts, the one on a story that ran after a British princess was forced to give up her commoner lover: “Lonely Margaret Still Longs for Peter.” Maybe we should just be glad it’s not cucumber season.

Speaking of which, someone should call a moratorium on screw-and-tell memoirs by restaurant critics. Cul-porn is one thing. But no one wants to be forced to conjure Clint Eastwood being mounted by Ben Franklin while Tom Jones belts, “You can leave your yachting cap on.” And Elvis? Enough already. Let’s hope this latest blow-by-blow is a case of a million little weenies.

Another Wednesday, another WTF: Was that really an alternative poster for “Brokeback Mountain,” that shot of the two sad sacks sucking limp noodles out of the same salad bowl? If the point was to get people talking, it worked — the mildest commentary at a superb dinner party that night was the consensus that the photographer was just pulling a Velazquez, “making people look fucked up,” but only because “they are fucked up.” The whole exchange was far more credibly entertaining than a critic doing an all-thumbs-up piece on a restaurant not even open yet, followed by a reprise only days later. When Molto Ego is involved, one big newspaper needs a new motto: Without fear or fellatio.

Wine spas are about the silliest idea since chocolate massages — everyone knows the beauty of alcohol comes from within. But I never thought of grape treatments as gruesome until I saw the Travel shot of a puffy broad up to her pits in a wine bath having what appeared to be her worst period ever. Unless they were trying to evoke “The Shining,” they really should have marinated her in chardonnay.

Just when you think industrial food news can’t get much grimmer, along comes the Wall Street Journal with the depressing headline “When Eating Your Vegetables Makes You Sick” over an article on how produce now causes more food-borne illness than meats, poultry and eggs. Thanks to the paper’s usual sharp editing, though, the piece gets right to the point in pinning the blame not on tomatoes and cantaloupe but on “the centralization of produce distribution, a rise in produce imports” and “the growing popularity of prechopped fruits and vegetables.” In other words, once again, it ain’t the food, it’s the handling. Can someone please remind me why it’s elitist to eat seasonally, shop locally and avoid processed crap? Those bags of “prewashed” lettuce and peeled-and-cut squash in particular may be timesavers, but now they’re obviously becoming time bombs. As a road sign I saw in India put it, it’s better to be five minutes late in this life than five minutes early in the next.

Having only been converted to cappuccino in the last year, when I have had a barista in-house to make it for me every morning, I will always be amazed at how caffeinated foam has overtaken America. But nothing could prepare me for a stop at a crossroads gas station on the Cattauragus Indian reservation outside Buffalo, where we had gone to check out the Iroquois corn project that produces such amazing flours from heirloom crops. Passing a sign for cheap unleaded along with “smokes, food,” we pulled in and filled up. As we were heading inside to pay, my consort asked his mom if she wanted a cup of coffee and she said, ‘‘Yes, half decaf, half French vanilla cappuccino.” We both laughed at the very idea. This place was so far beyond Starbucks it was bordering on “Deliverance,” a backwoodsy setting with scary-looking guys at the next pump who admitted they were guards from the prison nearby. And of course we went into the smoke-filled shop and immediately saw a little cappuccino dispenser alongside a pot of free decaf. No matter that the Italians would be gagging on their espresso at the very idea. It was French vanilla. And it proved that a talking pig does not have to speak in complete sentences. It only has to squeal.

I would have missed the latest influential cookbook roundup by a certain pompous repeat offender if not for an email from Jessica’s Biscuit offering deals on his choices even before his review was posted online on the official site. But for once I have to say that I’m awed, and not just because he consistently gets away with reviewing cookbooks he apparently did not cook from. This guy has never struck me as the most agile of writers, but somehow he managed to pull off the most astounding feat. Not only did he rave about a friend’s cookbook straightaway, but he went on to froth over another book that he boasted includes one of his own essays. I never thought it was possible, but clearly there is such as thing as logrolling while blowing yourself.

Innocents may be wondering why a certain nondescript restaurant has been reviewed more often than Alain Ducasse even though it can’t keep a chef and has needed four different critics just to get above one star. Cynics have only three words in response: location, location, location. Could it be that an editor who happens to live nearby wants reviewers to keep going back until they sorta get it right? I know it’s hard to imagine anyone at the paper of Judith Chalabi losing a moral compass to fear and favor. But I really wonder what the hell the lovely bistro next door ever did to a neighbor besides prove beyond a doubt that it doesn’t need any stinking reviews.

I know you shouldn’t laugh when someone’s trying to get someone else to pray, but the NYT piece on grace contained the funniest graf outside the brunidigest. As evidence of the alleged hidden hunger for spirituality before meals in this country, the story cited a prayer booklet distributed by a household name that it described as having a “firmly religious” management. Admittedly, this was published in the WMD Daily, but how gullible do they think readers are? Tyson Foods just went all the way to the Supreme Court to fight having to pay workers for the time they spend getting into and out of uniforms required to be worn on the job — and it lost. Do a google news search and a confessional’s worth of other allegations will pop up, from “egregious animal cruelty” to chickenshit-dumping. Eric Schlosser, a guy who would know, has called it “one of America’s meanest, toughest corporations.” Just like the born-again lying warmonger the whole world has been saddled with, this is a company that believes Americans should do as it says, not as it does. Or, to put it in words to eat by: You say grace. They mean greed.

Kids say the most apocalyptic things. I overheard a boy about 8 at the next table at Fatty Crab officiously inform his parents that he would not be ordering the duck, or the chicken, because of avian flu. It was a line right out of Boondocks, and it rang particularly strange since I’ve never, ever eavesdropped on similar sentiments about mad cow disease at a burger joint, let alone E. coli. Clearly, the misleaders have done their job too well. While that concerned little citizen is quaking over the Saddam of food, with the likelihood of contracting a piece of the pandemic from dinner just about nil, Osama in the form of a draft is looming right out there on the bright horizon of his future. If I were his age, I’d order dessert first.

Apparently I’ve missed my 15 seconds. An AP reporter interviews me on the brunidigest phenomenon and somehow passes up my brilliance to produce a straightforward report on the mega-brilliance behind the savage spoof Panchito says he barely knows. (Sorta like his relationship with food, no?) All my attempted Parkerisms get left on the editing room floor: “If he read it, it would make him write even worse — he would turn into a parody of a parody, and then you’re spinning into infinity.” Or: “You read it and you feel the same way you do when you get a Chimp joke in your email — you laugh, and then you want to weep, because we’re still stuck with the guy.” But I was thrilled to be wordless when I saw the quotes from Ruth and Biff. If his predecessors are reading, you know they’re laughing, too.

 

What’s even funnier is that a certain porcine pantload is now sanctimoniously expressing alleged dismay at the brunibrilliance. Thanks to a sharp-eyed and certainly strong-stomached friend who wades through the fertilizer on his end-of-the-alimentary-canal forum, I hear that the guy who allowed no end of high-tech — and humor-free — eviscerations that are cached forever is now wiping his brow with a frilly hanky in sympathy for the fool: “As a human being, I think it’s a bit scary — a demonstration of the dark side of blogging.” Mrs. Friend and I might even agree here, without directly quoting Dick Cheney’s most memorable suggestion: just go do it.

 

 

Speaking of the porcine pantload, though, the fact that he never came close to reviewing restaurants in the big time despite his many ill-advised overtures reflects the informed editorial judgment that once prevailed in GrayLadyVille. For all the mockery of a poor sucker obviously over his head, wildly trying to pad the answers to the questions on the essay test he is never prepared for, the real blame lies higher up the masthead. And that, sadly, sounds like a trend anymore. Even though his given name does not start with a J.

 

 

In other cover developments, you have to wonder what writer, editor, art director, publisher and sales staff could possibly think a Linda Lovelace poster wrapped around a collection of recipes would be appealing. This one has everything but Sammy Davis Jr. and the donkey. Blurb by Batali, though, so it must be good. Or at least the chapter he read is.

 

 

Among the many reasons to love Italy is the fact that you can eat yourself blissful there and come home trimmer than you left. Even in a region where, as my philosopher-surgeon in Turin put it, cooks “exaggerate the quantity.” The whole way of eating is just superior.

 

Coming home, it’s too clear that it is not pasta making Americans so fat, and so fat that I saw another patient at PT nearly pull over the massive exercise bike when she tried to dismount. Candy bars suddenly bigger than bread boxes might have more to do with it, or sodas so cheap welfare moms can load up on gallons of sugar for less than a big bag of rice. No wonder the news is full of distant early warnings of impending dinosaurhood here. The boat that capsized on Lake George was designed for bodies weighing 145 pounds, not the 174-pound average of the load it carried. The Wall Street Journal reported that kids get chunkier in areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive.

 

Luckily, there’s Fresh Direct to the rescue. An ad I saw in the subway showed one of its kids’ lunches, and it looked like the antithesis of what the bambini eat. The turkey-mozzarella wrap was what you might expect, but otherwise, it was processed carrots with processed dip, processed granola bar and the most nutritionally useless part of the apple, the juice. It all reinforces the message that only the kind of family that can throw $4.99 a day away can limit kids to 400 calories at lunch.

 

My childhood was grim, but I think I was better off eating peanut butter and brown sugar sandwiches (jelly was too expensive) than being indoctrinated into thinking fresh vegetables need sour cream and a label.

 

 

Wandering around Grand Central always gives me a lift, if only from seeing how bored the Guardsmen look in their can’t-miss camouflage. More than anywhere in New York, change blends into the past there. (Was there ever a time when soldiers didn’t walk among us?) Most recently I spotted a new Jacques-Imo’s and a new Brother Jimmy’s BBQ and a new Chirpin’ Chicken and then, for old time’s sake, a cockroach almost big enough to saddle. And I kinda doubt she was there unescorted. It may be a magical place, but I would avoid that bakery with the long line on the concourse. Terror can come on four legs.

 

 

Just back from Piedmont, I finally understand why America is afflicted with so much abysmal Italian. The Italians teach it. Or at least they take money to try.

I lost half a morning watching students from Denver at the Italian Cooking Institute for Foreigners bumble through a simple pork dish and was only happy I could not stay to see the hash they made of fresh pasta. It was scary. An Italian chef stood in front of the class with a translator by his side and TV screens overhead showing close-ups of his every move, while the pampered kiddles in their important hats seemed to be cooking from a whole different channel. He would say “check the onions” stewing into jam and they would keep slaughtering their salt pork. He would say “sauté over low heat” and they would crank the burners up to the smoking point. Most of them showed no signs of knowing how to dice an onion, and here they were collecting a line of credibility for their resumes. While the teacher was still plating his minimalist assemblage, they were lining up to have him taste their abortions, oblivious to the rivulets of butter seeping out of the red wine slopped over the charred tenderloins.

 

At least they showed a tiny bit of self-awareness, even if it was way too late. One kid came back to his station and reeled off his translated grade: “The meat’s too cooked. The onion’s too raw. The sauce broke. It sucks.” And then he happily ate his F work. Just think: Coming soon to a trattoria near you.

 

 

The saddest realization from this trip, yet again, is that you’re better off posing as Canadian in Europe these days. That drunken frat boy who drove the country into a ditch has really alienated all our old admirers, judging by the dismissiveness verging on contempt we kept encountering. It was so bad the owner of a pizzeria in Turin heard us speaking English and asked where we were from and I said New York, only to have him respond, disgustedly, “Americani,” with the usual “scumbags” gesture. And I could only say, “No, New Yorkese. New Yorkese.” We must secede. Even if we have to take the Lattes with us.

 

 

What the Italians should teach is how kids behave in restaurants. The most extraordinary part of an exceptional meal at the dazzling Guido, at the new gastronomic university in Pollenzo, was watching a girl about 5 and a boy about 7 eat like civilized human beings. Neither of them was demanding plain spaghetti and hogging attention, let alone throwing hissy fits and french fries. The girl was part of a huge party and was making no fuss as the many courses landed; the boy was with his parents and was gracefully tucking into their exact same food — and this was no agnolotti joint but easily the most ambitious place we ate in 2 1/2 weeks (34 lunches and dinners).

 

It was not just an issue of age, either. The superhero who was my surgeon in Turin brought his 3-year-old with some of his extended family for a Sunday outing with us, and not once did she scream for Goldfish or tear up the table in the noisy but elegant Baratti & Milano cafe. She sat up in a regular chair, drank her Coke, ate her panino and made me realize, yet again, the problem is not the kids but the culture. And until it spreads to our have-it-your-way world, I’ll be keeping that yardstick at my door that warns “you must be this tall to come inside.”

 

 

Other things are apparently universal. After Dr. Incredible’s brother-in-law pointed out Paissa as “the best grocery” in Turin, I dutifully made my way there to buy gifts and thought I had wandered into the last remaining inch of the Arctic. It was painful. Later I told my consort’s translator, who is threatening to write the ultimate guidebook to her hometown for the Olympics: “They’re pretty nasty if you don’t speak Italian.” And she just said: “They’re nasty if you do speak Italian.”

 

 

I don’t know what was more surreal, turning on the BBC in our hotel in Castiglione Tinella and seeing what looked like the apocalypse in Houston or opening up the New York magazine I had schlepped and reading Molto Ego’s fantasies of the ultimate Italian restaurant back home. Luckily, I was sitting on the toilet at the time. Del Posto could not be more different from what we had just experienced at Guido 1 (in Pollenzo) or Guido 2 (at the Relais San Maurizio). Sleek would be an understatement in both cases, and never was a carving station trundled tableside. The food was perfectly elegant, almost to the point of French (my highest accolade). And the best adjective for both was relaxed, one that I kinda doubt will apply to the Epcot outlet heading for the meat district.

 

Fortunately for the Bastianich deep pockets, the reviewer they’ll be trying to impress now that the Michelin is already at the printer’s can only compare them with places in San Sebastian, where he admits he has never been. Clearly, Jayson Blair quit too soon. He could be describing cuisines now the vaunted NYTimes is apparently okay with travel stories that stick to the famous formula Jay McInerney once laid out: plagiarism and speculation.

 

 

It will take me some time to assimilate all the sensory overload I was subjected to on this trip, but for now I can sum up one half of the Slow Food segment with two encounters of the cow kind, both thanks to my consort and his camera.

 

Early one morning we switchbacked nearly to the top of a mountain outside Bussoleno to meet a family who make a cheese called chevrin with equal parts goat and cow milk. Halfway up, we started hearing what sounded like a new-age symphony just as the road snaked alongside a deep green meadow full of black-and-white cows busily chewing up the scenery. As their heads rhythmically dipped to the grass, the bells around each of their necks almost sang. It was one of those “whoas” you never forget. But what was even more amazing was what I flashed on after moving closer. These cows, a particular Piemontese breed, were the most gorgeous I have ever seen anywhere, and I’m no sucker for udder-bearing animals. Their coats were lustrous, their muscles rippled, they exuded health. For the first time ever, I could understand how the first human looked over at his usual milk supply one day and thought: I bet that would taste pretty damn good. It certainly explains the Piemontese passion for carne cruda.

 

The other revelation was less savory. We went back to another farm that raises special gray rabbits and also produces cheese so that Bob could shoot the evening milking, and I couldn’t watch. Ten freaked cows at a time were herded into a smelly room with a pit and hooked up to machines to pump them dry, with Rove-Gro flying everywhere. I fled and found our translator out in front of the farm’s shop, happily spooning up her second gelato of the day. I spent my first four years on a farm with goats, and still I can only say: Forget sausage. You do not want to see the ice cream being made.

 

 

Slow Food is a concept no non-Italian seems to get (“Crock-pot?” an otherwise smart New Yorker asked when we got back). Around Bra, where the movement is based, it’s always just a bite away, even in something as simple as the peppers of Carmagnola: sweet, vibrant, thick-fleshed, hand-nurtured, a family affair. Which makes it all the more surprising that our two experiences with Slow Food in restaurants were so dismal. My baccala in foil at Osteria del Boccondivino, the group’s unofficial canteen, was cooked literally to leather (yes, we did linger absurdly long over the good soup, but why would any restaurant that cares send out something essentially incinerated?) And when we exhaustedly went down to dinner in the hotel at the gastronomic university, the two of us were seated alone at a table for 10 and served pastas that if you closed your eyes you could not describe. They were flavor-free even with cheese and pepper laid on.

 

All was forgiven when we went to cheese day in Bra, though. The whole city was full of white tents with producers handing out samples of my favorite food, and in one big hall about 800 Italian wines were available for tasting. Five euros bought us not just admission to that wonderland but also a Slow Food holster holding an excellent oversized wineglass — you could hang it around your neck and keep your hands free for eating. It had to be the greatest innovation since the screw cap, even if it was really just the Big Gulp for traditionalists.

 

 

In a week when there was very little to laugh about, I did spot a T-shirt that said it all. It was trundling down Amsterdam Avenue stretched around the very ample chest of a squat woman who was either an emigrant from Mexico or doing a good imitation of a poster girl for the evolution of the human body after exposure to the great American diet. I can only assume she was unaware of what the slogan under the fish symbol promised: Survival of the Fittest.

Almost exactly a year ago, I survived what felt like an untranslated eternity in an Italian hospital by traveling nonstop in my mind. I couldn’t walk to the bathroom three steps from my bed, but I could go back to every wondrous destination (and a few grim ones, too) where my consort has led me in 24 years of sharing a home (anniversary No. 2). And one day in one city gave me incalculable pleasure to relive: Thanksgiving 1994 in New Orleans.

 

I could lie in that miserable bed and somehow be zipping along in a rental car on an impossibly bright afternoon, crossing the Mississippi from Algiers back toward the French Quarter after turducken at Kelsey’s, John Hiatt’s “Buffalo River Home” blasting from the tape deck (“tearing through the cotton fields and bus shelters, the South running helter-skelter;” “I’ve been taking off and landing but this airport’s closed;” “just when you think you’ve been gypped, the bearded lady comes and does a double back-flip”).

 

I went that first time after my consort moved there for a couple of months to shoot it for National Geographic, back in the good old days when a photographer could actually be underwritten in his desire to live and breathe a story. I joined him for one week in slave quarters converted into a rental apartment in the Garden District, and we just soaked the place up, to the point that I noticed a Times-Picayune story about a do-gooders’ plan to serve 25,000 or so turkey dinners to the poor and had to make my way to the Convention Center to help. Surprisingly, almost more volunteers than takers showed up — it was pretty much a horde of white people in “Feast of Friendship” commemorative aprons standing around with a bunch of photographers. I remember being dejected but hopeful: Maybe poverty wasn’t so bad in a city that had already struck me as one of the most troubled in America, with blood almost literally running on the sidewalks. Maybe all the needy were off having the Norman Rockwell experience on their own?

 

I think I knew even then how silly that was. But that day we just blithely got in the car and went to eat turducken (overrated) and then to a run-down house where the young cooks from Nola were holed up and had invited us for their potluck after Bob struck up one of his singularly engaging conversations while we ate at the pizza bar one night. That was a revelation, too: guys sleeping on mattresses on the floor in otherwise empty rooms for the chance to cook with Emeril, a hero a couple of them had not even met. But they could cook — I had the best duck of my life, in confit with rosemary. Everyone had kicked in a specialty: pot stickers; smoked turkey glazed with roasted garlic; apple-habanero chutney; New Mexican carne adovada; mushroom soup, even canned cream corn, with six types of bread. It was so New Orleans (as was seeing a great-looking young black guy with his girlfriend being fawned over at Nola another day and wondering what celebrity he might be, only to learn he was an employee who was being treated to lunch to experience how patrons were treated — a concept every restaurant should adopt, actually).

 

The rest of the trip was a heady blur, although I’ll never forget the artist who shared a joint before taking us to a three-hour lunch at Galatoire’s and too many drinks at the Napoleon House, or Jamie Shannon serving us amazing gumbo and then driving us in his little red convertible to meet his seafood supplier and refusing Bob’s quicker route because he thought it was too dangerous, or Anthony at Ugglesich’s talking us into his trout Muddy Waters and barbecue oysters and crab cakes, washed down with a Barq’s and a $2.50 chardonnay, and the local arts official we ran into afterward at a coffee bar saying he could tell by the smell where we had just eaten. Duck at the Upper Line, biscuits at the Sonniat House, a muffuletta from Progress Grocery, a Ferdi po’ boy with debris at Mother’s, Vietnamese food after the surreal farmers’ market out near the Versailles apartments in New Orleans East, Sazeracs and snapper with crab at Brigtsen’s with Susan Spicer across the room on a Saturday night — those are memories I will always be almost able to taste.

 

 

It was a truly enchanted city. Bob was so smitten he wanted to move there for good, but reality reared its unavoidable head. Even then it was clear that it would be an impossible place to make a living in, and not just because temptation beckoned from every corner. A good friend once posited that the only way to thrive in New Orleans would be as an alcoholic millionaire. And has that ever been made clear, in the cruelest way.

 

Only a soulless dry drunk of a millionaire would let it be devastated and then just make photo-op cracks about the good times he let hurl there.