In preparation for this special Summer Guide dining column, I’ve been perusing new books for foodies to entertain themselves with during a summer beach vacation, or the latter throes of a lazy Sunday picnic. Next to my desk are piles of books about eating and cooking written by food writers, chefs, novelists, scientists, even a gossip columnist. They are divided into two stacks: crap and not-crap. But there is one book that stands so tall'that is so not-crappier than all the rest'that I’ve chosen to devote much of this column to that one very special book. If you have any interest in food, cooking, dining or living well, the one book you must read this year is Liz Smith’s Dishing: Great Dish'And Dishes'From America’s Most Beloved Gossip Columnist.nn
Dishing is an enjoyable read in part because it’s not what you expect. Dishing isn’t full of gaudy or tasteless “tell-all” stories about the rich and famous. We get enough of that on the E! Channel. Rather, Liz Smith’s book is a literary kettle brimming with down-home honesty, warm reminiscences and a healthy dose of bawdiness. Granted, Dishing might appeal to an older crowd.nn
It helps to have been around long enough to know the players who populate this fascinating work, including Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Jackie O., Carly Simon, Dirk Bogarde, Rock Hudson, Tom Wolfe, Elvis Presley and Katherine Hepburn, in addition to a younger cadre of celebrities like Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, George Clooney and RenÃ©e Zellweger. But rather than write a titillating “lifestyles of the rich and famous” type memoir, more often than not, in Dishing, Liz Smith shares the everyday ordinariness of celebrity life. And that’s so much more interesting and entertaining than the pornographic detritus of stardom.
Smith reminisces, for example, of struggling to understand what made Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton “so much larger than life-size.” She writes, “Indulging in a delicious order of raclette in a divine Left Bank cafÃ©, I pondered my problem. Money, stardom, fame and married sexual excess were not their gods. Food was their ever-present reason for living.â€nn
Here’s a typical exchange from Dishing, when Burton, who is making a movie across town, visits Taylor in her opulent Paris hotel. RB: “Today Rex [Harrison] and I had the greatest beef stew in the world.” ET: “Yah, yah'my father can lick your father!” RB: “What did you have?” ET: “I had pancakes with strawberry syrup and bacon when I got here, fried chicken and chili for lunch.” RB: “Tomorrow we are having stuffed steak. Your surroundings here may be grand, but the food is very common.” It turns out that creamed chipped beef and “Jailhouse” chili are two of Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite meals, and that her Paris hotel pantry is “crammed with Dinty Moore canned stews, Sara Lee cakes, Ritz crackers, Aunt Jemima mixes, Campbell’s soups and pork and beans, Gebhartdt’s chili, maple syrup, Jolly Green Giant cream-style corn, B&B brown betty, Wilson’s dried beef, Heinz pickles, V8 juice, Triscuits, Heinz ketchup, canned hominy, popcorn, Betty Crocker corn bread mix, and Bumble Bee tuna.” Now, isn’t that much more interesting than the men she married?nn
Along with learning the dos and don’ts of chicken fried steak from old Texas friend Ann Richards, that Julia Roberts is partial to country biscuits with red-eye gravy, and Nicole Kidman will eat anything and everything that isn’t tied down, Liz Smith also offers interesting insights into how America interprets food and celebrity. There’s an especially enlightening chapter in which she tracks the watermelon as a racist symbol, and why eating watermelon had become “politically incorrect” in the Northeast, “like the flag of the Confederacy.” Still she writes, “My elegant performer friend Bobby Short [an African-American] collects a kind of Southern kitsch'Aunt Jemima mammies in head scarves, minstrel actors with painted lips and little black faces framed by a slice of red watermelon.”nn
Peppered with home-style recipes for dishes like Elvis’ deep-fried Snickers bars and Liz Smith’s Texas childhood Frito Pie (split a bag of Fritos down the center and ladle chili con carne on top), Dishing'like Liz Smith herself'is much more collard greens than caviar. It’s a scrumptious summertime snack.nn
At the more hoity-toity end of the food spectrum, Ruth Reichl'former New York Times restaurant critic and current editor-in-chief of Gourmet'has created a nifty side career by writing about the practice of food writing. Her most recent book, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise offers insights into the art and business of restaurant criticism, particularly at a renowned daily paper like The New York Times. Some of it is self-serving; too much of the beginning of Garlic and Sapphires deals with how difficult (boo-hoo) it was for Reichl to leave the Los Angeles Times and move to New York City, even suffering a pay cut down to a measly $82,000. In other chapters, she seems to take credit for introducing Times readers to ethnic restaurants and cuisines.nn
But what’s really fascinating about Garlic and Sapphires is how much more engaging Reichl’s present-day reminiscences about NYC restaurants are than the repackaged original New York Times reviews that accompany those reminiscences in the book. The reader gets the “story behind the review.”nn
And like restaurant reviews in most daily newspapers, Reichl’s original reviews come across as flat and uninspired, due in part I think to the silly grammatical conventions that handcuff critics. It makes me remember why, when I lived in NYC, I read the Village Voice’s restaurant reviews rather than those of the Times. But for anyone interested in restaurant criticism'and especially New York restaurant criticism'Garlic and Sapphires will make for yummy beach reading.