Slice of Life

But surprisingly, it was the lunch -- cooked on outdoor grills, with a simplicity almost unheard of back then -- that captured the media's attention. When Simmonds asked the lunch cook to characterize his style, he called it "a marriage between the aesthetic chasteness of nouvelle cuisine and the hearty, robust hominess of bistro food: New American Cuisine."

The man who spoke those fateful words? Jeremiah Tower, a guy who refuses to play second fiddle to anyone, regardless of their pedigree or how many Michelin stars they possess.

If the early '80s were a francophile's dream of strutting, youngish French rock stars in chef's whites butchering the English language on live TV and deconstructing the classical methodology of their forebears in the kitchen, then Tower was a different sort of rebel. He'd been brought up all over the world, spending his formative years aboard luxury cruise ships and in four-star hotels, finding native pleasures in simple, fresh foods wherever he landed. He worked at (and later became co-owner of) Chez Panisse under Alice Waters, and saw the place through its subsequent transformations from cafe to restaurant to temple; he opened Stars in San Francisco -- ground zero of the California-cuisine movement -- and then the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley. Anywhere the food revolution was happening, Tower was there (usually drenched in Cristal and with a nose full of blow), so I guess it was only appropriate that when the revolution was given a name, that name would come from him.

Not in Denver

For the story of whipping Savoy on the cranberry people's dime alone, Tower's new book, California Dish, is worth the cover price. Its subtitle -- "What I saw (and cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution" -- aptly describes what's inside: Two hundred-odd pages of whining, bragging, self-aggrandizing memories from forty years in the company of the most famous names in the American culinary lexicon, mixed up with some great one-liners, beautiful moments, uncomfortable truths and recipes. Tower the celebrity is a prick in a world of pricks, the self-professed inventor of everything culinary from about 1972 on, and he uses this book to offer proof that he single-handedly shaped the American palate with the force of his personality and passions. But Tower the man is just a cook -- ridiculously talented, horribly damaged and funny in his way without ever really trying to be.

The book is heavy on name-dropping and long on descriptions of Tower's own fabulousness, but it runs a neat line between the street-punk testosterone of Bourdain and the haughty sensationalism of a celebrity memoir, all the while taking readers step by step through the moves (both intentional and accidental) that brought American cuisine to where it is today. Tower loves who he loves and hates who he hates, and by the end of the book, you definitely know who's wearing the white hats and who's wearing the black. In Jerry's opinion, anyhow.

The tome even has a local hook. Somewhere near the middle of the California-cuisine explosion -- while Stars was in full swing and Chez Panisse was rewriting the rules for eating well -- three partners bundled up all that California freshness and took it east on a road trip to New York. And there, Jonathan Waxman and Melvyn and Jane Master would open Jams, one of the most talked-about restaurants of the all-talk '80s. This was the place that introduced New York (and, consequently, the world) to the joys and terrors of California cuisine, and Tower sums up its influence in three tidy paragraphs:

"Waxman's Jams was a shock to New York, if a delightful one. The prices were electric, and the decor an eye-opener for New Yorkers. How could a 'serious restaurant' with a 'famous chef' be so plain? None of the 'frog-pond' great French restaurants had white walls. And the elegance of The Four Seasons was indeed very formal. The co-owner of Jams, Melvyn Masters [sic], explained: 'I hate the theatrics of pseudo haute cuisine -- the kind where you need a torch to see the menu.' He opted instead for bright walls with works by modern artists and a kitchen open to public view -- where diners could watch Jonathan again prepare his trademark dish of 'free ranging' chicken cooked over mesquite charcoal and served with french fries.

"Time claimed that the new cooking was in 'an intellectualized, even esoteric style, characterized by the use of fresh, native ingredients.' Now I would add that since one cook's esotericism is another's poison, the term 'California Cuisine' was brought to its knees by overenthusiastic combinations of ingredients known only for their newness. Kiwis were piled on top of blueberry vinegar-infused reductions that were loaded into squirt bottles lined up in front of restaurant cooks just waiting for some poor squab to come along, probably paired with foie gras, scallops and balsamic vinegar-drowned baby lettuces.

"But that was later. For now California was the media darling. It had the freshest ingredients in the land."

Where food comes from, part III: Out of Berkeley comes another book, this one by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, called The Pig Who Sang to the Moon. Subtitled "The Emotional World of Farm Animals," it's a long, weepy, totally one-sided look at the emotional abuses suffered by animals. Masson devotes page after page to the horrible cruelties to which animals are subjected on factory farms, tells stories about ranchers who put two in the chest of any sheep clever enough to unlatch its pen, goes on at length about swine genetics, quotes Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy, and generally milks the subject for every drop of pathos it's worth.

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