If you’ve been stuck in a Netflix feedback loop for the duration of the pandemic, you may’ve seen me on TV. I appear in the Montreal episode of Somebody Feed Phil. At some point in the fall of 2019, my friend Phil Rosenthal, the host of the show, sent an email asking whether I wanted to fly up to Canada and eat a ridiculous amount of food. Naturally I said yes.
But even as a professional food writer, even as a hearty eater, even as someone who once watched a TV episode in which Anthony Bourdain crawls through a veritable decathlon of foie gras in Quebec, I wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen. I met Rosenthal at the Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon. This sugar shack, overseen by the stout and feral Canadian chef Martin Picard, is like a spa resort cooked up by the Marquis de Sade. I had never seen so much food in my life. The ascending levels of gluttony, the churning oceans of calories, the steaming platters of organ meats—I’m pretty sure you can identify the moment in the episode when my complexion shifts from the ruddiness of appetite to a clammy, chartreuse sheen of nausea and fear. I remember thinking, They’re trying to kill me.
And that’s the core of a realization that I have had over the past few years: This way leads to death. I’m sorry if that messes with your fantasies about a future career in food writing. Throughout the past decade—about half of it at the food section of The New York Times, half of it here at Esquire—I have become accustomed to hearing people tell me, “You have the best job in the world!” The truth is that eating your way around the country takes a serious toll on your body, your family life, and your emotional equilibrium. For a man in his mid-50s, it’s roughly as sustainable as Russian roulette.
I have decided to stop while I’m ahead. After almost five years on the job, I’m writing my last food column for Esquire. It’s time for someone else to take over, and it’s time for me to stop acting like I’m 25. Yes, there have been highs along the way. When you’re on the road looking for candidates for the magazine’s annual Best Bars list as well as its iconic Best New Restaurants franchise, you’re essentially hunting for euphoria. You trudge through a lot of mediocre meals; you wake up at 4:00 in the morning and catch another flight to another city; you persist because you’re waiting for those rare times when the heavens open up and you hear the angels sing. I felt that at Angler in San Francisco, Atomix in New York City, Kalaya in Philadelphia, Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles, Seven Reasons in Washington, D. C.
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I also endured afternoons when I felt so sour and bloated from shoving my face into the endless trough that I started to have near-erotic longings for the ancient practice of fasting. I remember the haze of a week during which I managed to hit six cities: Asheville, Birmingham, Atlanta, Miami, Austin, Los Angeles. By the end of it, I worried that I’d become a lab rat in a scientific study of gluttony. I won’t lie: It has dawned on me in recent years that some of the most celebrated figures in food writing (Anthony Bourdain, A. A. Gill, Jonathan Gold, and my Esquire predecessor, Joshua Ozersky) did not make it to retirement age.
Jim Harrison, no stranger to excess, wrote about food for Esquire and died at 78. He left behind a vast body of literary work, including a short poem called “Poet No. 7,” in which he suggested that the secret to riding a horse bareback is to hold on. “Finally, our legs must grow into the horse,” he offered, “because we were never meant to get off.” I hear you, Jim, but I have to give it a try.
Thousands of meals. Millions of calories. Most of it? A blur—devoured and forgotten along the way. But some dishes, like some songs, burn an impression into your memory. These are the bites that, for me, have become a sort of mental soundtrack to the past few years.
- Gaeng bumbai aubergine at Nari, San Francisco
- Braised artichoke at Green Almond Pantry, Washington, D. C.
- Leah’s cabbage with smoked sausage and pork-neck bisque at Leah & Louise, Charlotte
- Pork jowl with chayote squash, kabayaki butter, and Kalamata aioli at Mokyo, New York City
- Roasted tomatoes with hot honey at Misi, Brooklyn
- Oyster mushroom kebab at Bavel, Los Angeles
- Biscuits with cane syrup at JuneBaby, Seattle
- Nancy cakes with cultured butter, smoked trout roe, and chives at Nancy’s Hustle, Houston
- Calabash crab claws at Alewife, Richmond
- Soft egg with caviar at Alter, Miami
- Seafood gumbo at Fieldtrip, New York City
- Tuxedo No. 2 cocktail at Flora Bar, New York City
EDITOR’S NOTE: 2021 is going to be a big, pivotal year for bars and restaurants, and Esquire will be there, as always. Look for our Best Bars in America list in our Summer issue and our Best New Restaurants list in our Winter issue.
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Source : Esquire