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Sex and the City

New York State of Mind

We'd met to talk about sex (at her agent's insistence). But still, we mostly talked about food. The book is the same way. Her quote (displayed prominently on the back cover and anywhere else the book is talked about) is, "For me, the two greatest discoveries of the twentieth century were the Cuisinart and the clitoris." But you'll note the Cuisinart comes first. That's important. As a brazen, no-holds-barred memoir, Insatiable will no doubt move because Gael talks about how Clint Eastwood was in bed and what it was like crouching with Jamie Gillis in a porn-store booth on Eighth Avenue, watching him watch himself on the screen as he fed in quarters to keep the movie playing. But for voyeuristic foodies, it is much more than that. It is a priceless, invaluable history lesson, a step-by-step accounting of how we (but New York in particular) went from a nation enamored of Velveeta cheese and mushroom soup in a can to one that now treats chefs like rock stars and eating as a sensualist indulgence on par with a sticky one-night stand with a beautiful stranger.

"Between the Pill and the plague," she said to me, leaning back in her chair with a Campari and O.J. in her hand, "it was the greatest time to be alive."

And then she frowned, held her drink up to the light, scrutinized it. "Should be darker," she mused. "The color richer, almost like neon." Once a critic, always a critic.

Famous for her expense account, for the unbelievable bills that New York editor Clay Felker always paid, she went to Italy, to France, to Paris alone probably more times than she could count. As detailed in the book, this was her escape, but also the foundation of her experience with food. "Clay Felker, keeper of the money bags at New York, understood that what I ate in France was a predictor of what we'd all be eating very soon in New York. The yearly swing through France was still essential, crucial research."

True, because Gael was never a cook. Never a professional cook, that is -- though she was a champion home cook and trained for that with the best, with Craig Claiborneand Pierre Franey and James Beard and Julia Child. And she ate at "the best in the world," she said, rattling off more famous names and addresses (La Pyramide, Taillevent, Bocuse, Girardet, Guerard and La CÔte Basque) in one breath than most people could lay claim to in a lifetime. "And I brought the best back with me to New York. That's what I judged them against."

For Insatiable's entire span -- 368 pages and seventy-odd years -- Gael faces East. From the Midwest, where she was born and raised, she looked toward New York. From her table on top of the city at Windows on the World, she looked toward France. And only from France did she look further -- into India and China, as those cuisines were beginning to make their mark back in New York. Because of her training as an eater, a reader of great recipes and a cookbook home cook, I was struck by the fact that every food reference was for someone else's version of something (Pierre Franey's salad, Bocuse's duck). And because of her seeming inability to look over her shoulder, some of the culinary revolution (Southwestern cuisine, California cuisine, Asian fusion) sneaked up on her from behind. Denver's own Mel Master makes an appearance in the pages, but only for one line, as "the forever-boyish wine seller from Britain" who, along with Jonathan Waxman, opened Jams in New York. Alice Waters is briefly mentioned, the "mesclun revolution" dealt with in a half-dozen words.

Gael's universe was Manhattan, Paris and Rome, was white tablecloths and silk sheets and flutes of champagne tempered by visits to Show World and her partnership with James Beard on the Citymeals-on-Wheels program they founded to bring hot meals to New York's shut-ins. But within those boundaries, Insatiable delivers the goods on a life spent in pursuit of love and lust and foie gras. It's a war diary for those still on the front lines of the food revolution (or whatever revolution might come next), a proto-feminist confession that yeah, women like sex, too. And in person, Gael Greene, "The Insatiable Critic," was no less the passionate, exuberant, unabashed aficionado that she was for the 33 years she spent as one of the most powerful food writers ever. She just smiled when I told her that she invented the trade of restaurant criticism, that without her there would've been no me or anyone like me.

"That's why I chose to tell this story now," she said. "While I'm still here to tell it. Because I did see all these things and do all these things."

And after that, we mostly talked about porn (her collection and my collection, and how I thought I actually had a copy of the December '62 Nuggetmagazine in which she published a piece called "Are You Man Enough to Take a Mistress?") until it was time to walk down the hall for the James Beard Journalism Awards. While I paid the bill, she borrowed my cell phone to call her current fella, Steven Richter, to ask him to bring along a lipstick she'd forgotten at her desk and to remind him that they had reservations for dinner later that night. Walking away from our table, I quoted her book back to her: "Like Julia [Child] said, we must enjoy it now, because who knows how long it will last."

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