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Thoughts on writing about restaurants, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. — We notice it’s that time of year for those annoying year-in-review columns. Maybe some cliché along the lines of Best Restaurant, Best NEW Restaurant, or Best Meal of 2018. Frankly, we’re considering something more along the lines of Best Waiter of the Year, Best Bus Person of the Year. Perhaps a Review of the Reviewer is in order?

In fact, we were commiserating the other day with an estimable writer on this beat from the “other” paper in town, and noting the daunting position in which we find ourselves.

One bad word from a movie reviewer, who cares? Tickets sell, Tom Cruise and the key grip get paid, the lousy director will work again, and there’s a movie screen on every street corner (and in your hand!). Once upon a time, we confess to having committed the thankless, quite useless task of writing art criticism. But no column could put an art gallery out of business or on the art-world map, or make or break any artist.

Not so with this gig. Restaurants are what art galleries once were in Santa Fe, arbiters of sense and sensibilities (and discretionary income), and one discouraging word in a LOCAL paper and people can lose their jobs, their entire enterprise. There are economic consequences, and it gives one pause.

Food and culture lovers should rush to a local bookstore and acquire “Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris” by A.J. Lielbling.

Also consider, a restaurant – whether it’s a “greasy spoon” or a 3-star Michelin joint – is a one-off live performance every day and night. Like putting on an opera with just about as many moving parts, and the high-wire drama, the moment-to-moment cat-and-mouse game with disaster and triumph acted out in the public theater of the establishment.

Finally, consider also the fact that even the greatest restaurants have their off nights, as do orchestras and singers. There can be a bad produce order, the special that runs out early in the evening, a sick waiter or one distressed to have left a sick child at home, but who can’t take the night off because he or she needs the dough from working in a restaurant they can’t afford.

In short, there is a lot to consider and we do our best, and are put in mind of the great food writer Edward Behr and his “The Art of Eating” newsletter and blog (artofeating.com). He reported receiving a letter from a colleague who had just been hired to a prominent critical position: “I am not sure I have discharged my duties as was envisioned or as I hoped. It would be nice to have been ruder – there are a lot of bad restaurants that people like – but that ends up serving no one. But while one is being nice there is the nagging terror that the niceness is entirely misplaced and that you will be exposed as a charlatan by the first person with real taste who eats the product. The advantage of a small public (as with a newsletter) is that you can afford to say what you think and you don’t really care if anyone disagrees.”

A book worth buying

Since we are still within the octave of Christmas (12 days and all that, don’t forget) we’d like to offer a gift suggestion. For anyone, even yourself, who is interested in dining, culture, drinking, horse-racing, Paris, boxing or just becoming a better person in general, there is THE indispensable volume: “Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris” by the GREAT A.J. Liebling. Run to your locally owned bookstore and grab a copy (there are lots of editions from which to choose), and you can thank me later.

It begins: “The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book. This is capable of expression by the formula TMB, for Taste > Memory > Book. Some time ago, when I began to read a book called ‘The Food of France,’ by Waverly Root, I had an inverse experience: BMT, for Book > Memory > Taste. Happily, the tastes that ‘The Food of France’ re-created for me – small birds, stewed rabbit, stuffed tripe, Côte Rôtie and Travel – were more robust than that of the madeleine, which Larousse defines as ‘a light cake made with sugar, flour, lemon juice, brandy, and eggs.’ (The quantity of brandy would not furnish a gnat with an alcohol rub.)”

Do yourself a favor, get it!

Finally. HUGE thanks to The Baroness who has furnished us with brilliant photographs and many fine dining experiences all year! And to The Good Doctor who has provided us with some elementary and fine points of dining and cooking and restaurant going. Thank you! And to you, dear eaters, Happy Hollandaise and see you in 2019!

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