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'Steal The Menu': A Chronicle Of A Career In Food Coverage


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. You know when Raymond Sokolov began writing about food, it was considered a specialty portfolio. Today, celebrity chefs abound at the U.S. and Britain with cookbooks, TV shows and groupies. Kids from the kinds of families who used to eat SpaghettiO's now know the difference between capellini, fusilli and zitoni. They root for Iron Chef contestants. There are four-star restaurants in one-horse towns. Great deli in Ann Arbor; great sushi in landlocked places. What's happened? Raymond Sokolov has written a memoir about his life writing about food. It's called "Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food." Raymond Sokolov joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: You should tell us about that title first.

SOKOLOV: Well, in 1971, the Times was looking - New York Times - was looking for someone to replace the illustrious Craig Claiborne. And eventually I was amazingly hired. And there I was on my first day at work having lunch with Craig. And I said Mr. Claiborne, I'm so new at this. Can you give me any advice? And he said, well, you'll figure it out, but there is one thing you need to do, and that is steal the menu. And I said what? And he said, well - you know, this was way before the Internet, obviously - and he said there's so much information in it. You don't want to be calling them on deadline to find out how much a cote de boeuf cost or how they spell their appetizer name. So, the best thing is you want the menu. And if you ask for it, they might give it to you, they might not, and if they don't want to give it to you, they'll be watching you. So, best thing is to fold it up, put it under the table and stick it in your pocket or your briefcase.

SIMON: How did the - I mean, I've been sitting here sitting thinking on this and how the Hart-Cellar Act, or Immigration Nationality Act of 1965, improved food in the United States.

SOKOLOV: Well, it got rid of what was lovingly known as oriental exclusion. The immigration law, until Hart-Cellar, made it very, very difficult for Asians to get into this country - and a lot of other people not of North European background. And so all of the sudden, in the '60s and certainly ever after, there was an avalanche of legal immigration, and these people were very sophisticated, who were coming over to be students and engineers. And some of them dropped out of school and started restaurants. And basically the very high-quality Asian food we now have was impossible before Hart-Cellar.

SIMON: Have we gotten a little crazy about food in this country?

SOKOLOV: The explosion of interest in food that we have in this country, and really in the world, I think, is a result of many things. One, is people know things now that they didn't because of the cookbook industry that made it possible for them to get serious information about food. That started with Julia Child and Jim Beard, people who were really serious explainers and educators as well as authors of recipes. And then people traveled after, say, 1960 in a way that they never had before. And a lot of them discovered that gastronomic travel was something you could do between visits to museums or skiing or whatever you went abroad to do. And so they saw what authentic food was in foreign countries and weren't so interested in kind of fraudulent copies of it when they came home. So, our restaurants got better because they were being held to a higher standard.

SIMON: Well, early in your career at the Times, you wrote about a Chinese restaurant, I think, in a shopping mall in New Jersey.

SOKOLOV: Actually, it was attached to a BP gas station on Route 1, U.S. 1. It was call A Kitchen. And it looked like some kind of chop suey joint that you might stop in while you were waiting for a tire to get fixed. But in fact, these people - the wife - was a very skilled cook and it was an amazing little place that I wish I had been able to wait a little to write about it. But Claiborne decided he was going to leave the minute that I was on staff and it was one of the three tryout pieces that I had in the bank. So, we ran it and it destroyed the place. The phone rang off the hook. They had no idea how to handle their celebrity and in fact they deteriorated. It was my first taste, so to speak, of the power of the food press.

SIMON: Does that exist anymore in these days of Yelp?

SOKOLOV: Well, you could find out a great deal about a restaurant in the age of the Internet that you never could in 1972. I mean, you could get - almost every restaurant in the world has its menu posted. And reviews and biographies of the chef. You can really get a feel for what a place is. Even before Yelp, I remember having lunch with William Rice, who ended up running the World of Food at the Chicago Tribune. And he was in New York as the editor of Food and Wine magazine when it first began. And we were having lunch, and he said to me, you know, it doesn't matter what we say anymore. There's too much out there. Too many people are paying attention and there are too many ways to find out about this, so that one voice just can't have the influence that it did. And I think that that's basically true.

SIMON: Raymond Sokolov. His new book: "Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food." Thanks so much for being with us. Do I say bon appetit?

SOKOLOV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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