An Epicurean Inquisition with Jeffrey Steingarten
I would never tell him, but Jeffrey Steingarten’s book The Man Who Ate Everything is the work that inspired my obsession with food.
His essay on the wonders of salt sent me to investigate the salt harvests of Trapani in Sicily. His essays on Chinese cuisine sent me eating across Hong Kong, Beijing, even Shanghai. After he showed me his Berkel, the hand-cranked Italian meat slicer in his College and Law School alma mater's Harvard crimson, I wanted my own – in a day and age where most girls covet Birkins, not Berkels.
But what do you ask the sharp-tongued man who regularly castigates world-renowned chefs on Iron Chef America? The man whom Anna Wintour invited to write Vogue’s food column years ago, who introduced a whole new style of food writing to the world? The man who has won countless James Beard Awards (the food world's Oscar) and was given a Chevalier in the Order of Merit from the French government for his coverage of French cuisine? The Man Who Ate Everything, and who led me to do the same?
I decided to start simply.
How are you?
Everything is perfect.
Well, this is going well already!
I have no opinions, only truths.
So, Jeffrey, you probably eat out a lot, but I know you cook quite often, too. What’s your favorite meal to prepare at home?
Just eating at home, probably the old roast chicken. My favorite way is still on a 1950s rotisserie – the Roto-Broil 400. They were manufactured in Long Island City between 1955 and '57. They’re still available on eBay, although you have to watch yourself. The reason it’s better than all other rotisseries is that this gets so hot, if you touch it after it’s been on for a half hour, you may die.
I did a test of all of those on the market, and there’s no doubt that the Roto-Broil is the absolute best. [The chicken] comes out so crispy and good.
And then, sandwiches. I bake a couple loaves of bread every week -- not at the same time, only when it’s all used up. I love the bread that I bake, based on Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread, and I love sandwiches. One of my favorites might be grilled cheese. Last night my wife and I went to Eataly, and I must say I was yearning a sandwich with my bread.
What’s your go-to book about food or cooking (besides your own)?
A "go-to book," I’ve never used that expression. Please remind me never to use that expression. How can there ever be one book? If you want to find out about a subject, you might start out with the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the greatest dictionary ever written, one keystroke away.
The second thing you’d want to look at is Alan Davidson.
He pauses, distracted.
You might find that your assistant, as mine just did, has dropped food into the Alan Davidson. And then you’ll find your food all over the centerfold.
I can hear poor Elise, his assistant, plead the Fifth.
The only problem with that book is it’s much too anglo-tropic. There are a million Victorian desserts – they’re very complicated, and just like Italian cheeses: They give many different names to what an American would consider the exact same thing.
Several of the best cookbooks written in America in the past 20 years, as far as I know, have never been digitized. People don’t know about them. For example, Paula Wolfert. She wrote a cookbook after being in Morocco for two years. Or Fuchsia Dunlop, who went to Oxford and then SOAS, to learn Chinese and the Sichuan dialect. She wrote the only good Sichuan cookbook.
Is there any good Sichuan food in the city?
I once had a database done by the health department of the city of New York -- which is the only department that has a list of every restaurant in the city -- of how many restaurants had the word Sichuan/Szechuan in the title. It was about 200. True Sichuan? Not many. I want to go back to Chengdu.
What would be the biggest surprise I’d find in your pantry?
This is the year of the hundredth anniversary of the Oreo. It was the most popular cookie in the world and was made in New York. In the Chelsea Market, there’s a plaque for the American Baking Company, at some point they changed their name to National Biscuit Company [NaBisCo], who made the Oreo. So I asked my assistant to go to the supermarket to buy every type of Oreo they had. I’m afraid they now have eight different kinds.
I think they’ve gone downhill, but maybe my taste has gotten too snobbish. I’m not sure if any are any good except the Golden Oreo, which is totally addictive and you can’t stop eating it. Just once, buy a package of Golden Oreos and try eating them.
It must be difficult to enjoy everything you eat by this point in your writing career!
When you’re in this business, you spend a lot of time judging and distinguishing among different food. It’s hard to eat bad food. It’s even hard to eat mediocre food anymore.
For example, the only steak I’m really willing to eat is very very good, very expensive steak. Lobel’s is probably still the best butcher in the country – but there’s so much more variety in types of meat and sources, and different ways of raising it, that you can’t just go to one place. But if you want a really good dry-aged, the old-fashioned kind of well-marbled, corn-fed steak, Lobel’s is probably the best place to go.
So given the amount of time you spend in the kitchen, there must be at least one gadget you can’t live without.
I used to be a real gadgeteer. But now I don’t think there’s any gadget that I really love except precise thermometers and a mortar and pestle.
You realize I was the one to introduce the laser thermometer to the world of cooking. I needed to develop temperatures in my grill that would be hot enough for real pizza, 800 – 900 degrees. I asked the guy at Barbecues Galore how you would measure the temperature of a surface so I’d know how hot the pizza stone was. He didn’t know. I have a friend who’s an auto-mechanic and often has to know the temperature of sheet steel; he said there are infra-red thermometers in the shape of guns. So I went to a nearby industrial hardware store and bought one: You had to pay $500 if you wanted something that got up to 1,000 degrees. And then the company immediately went out and made a culinary one.
However, I would love to have a brick oven. Paul Bertolli has one, Alice Waters has one. I had dinner the other night with Will Rubel who has written about cooking with fire, and I still want one.
I welcome the opportunity – this will sound pretentious I know – to use one of my mortar and pestles. There’s nothing like a mortar and pestle. I learned how to use it from old ladies in Thailand. Real Thai food has to be made with a mortar and pestle. You can’t make Thai Curry without a mortar and pestle.
So yes, the Roto-broil, a mortar and pestle, and my collection of electronic thermometers. And also, of course course, my ice cream makers.
Do you want to know my favorite food? Fruit is my favorite food.
So where do you do most of your food shopping?
I shop everywhere, except for Citarella. Eataly has an amazing selection of Italian cheeses that you don’t find anywhere else. And then you have to go, for the best Parmigiano, to Di Palo. They probably have the best selection of Parmigiano in America. And you have to go to Chinatown – there are things there you can’t get outside of Chinatown.
The idea that you can go to one store and shop once a week, that’s for you suburbanites. I live a block away from the Greenmarket, and that’s the main place we shop.
Maybe you can explain to me why kale isn’t against the law. We don’t have to eat everything God created.
Have your own questions? You can tweet @jsteingarten