DINE "I've had a good run," Harry Morant tells a young friend near the end of one of my favorite movies, Breaker Morant. Soon after, he is set before a military firing squad and shot dead. My own circumstances are, I hope, less dire — certainly they're less cinematic — though I too have had a good run. But all journeys come to an end sooner or later, and so now does this one.
If you've read these columns through the years, then you've read quite a few columns, and you've counted quite a few years passing by. In a better world, you would get a rebate check for all your trouble. Reading is, if not trouble, at least effort; it is a form of work that requires exertion, and it also — unfortunately — reminds too many people of school, with syllabi, assigned texts, pop quizzes, and other such outrages. "Required reading" has always seemed to me to be one of life's great oxymorons, along with "military intelligence."
Nonetheless I have always posited the existence of readers, people who would take the time to sit down and concentrate for a few minutes on a piece about a restaurant in a free alt-weekly so that they might discern, and maybe even pleased by, the texture of the piece, the flavors of the language, the sense of a place conveyed, the images and jokes. And I have tried to write for those people, even if (to judge by the occasional appreciative notes I received) they seemed largely to be members of the UC Berkeley faculty.
Readers, as I imagined them, would take pleasure in what they had just read, and they would also have been expanded by it, however slightly. Their effort would have been repaid. As I writer, I have always tried to keep this transaction, the basic transaction of all literary life, in mind.
Never was I an awarder of stars, nor, as I understood things, a recommender. Those tasks fell to others, and in a city stuffed like a fat sausage with people keen to write about food and restaurants, leaving tasks for others struck me as an essential survival skill. The greater good is not served by everyone descending on the same place to write more or less the same thing, as quickly as possible. That is simply hype, and we are dying of hype. I meant to write about places others weren't writing about. Sometimes I managed this and sometimes I didn't, but the idea was always in my mind, and when I found myself in the midst of a 10-car pile-up anyway, as happened from time to time, I deducted five points from my account.
For me the model, or ideal, of this gig resembled a travelogue, a running account of places visited, impressions received and relayed. Of course journalism tilts strongly and inevitably to what is new. But I thought it was important to tack against those powerful winds when possible, to go occasionally to places that were not new or were even old, or to places that could be found on roads less travelled. I tried to keep the varieties of cuisines in mind, and of price points. You can spend tons of money and be disappointed, or spend very little and be elated — and it can also be exactly the other way around.
My basic philosophical orientation was that of a cook, setting forth to look for ideas and even a sort of instruction. I've been the cook of my little household for more than a quarter-century, and someone in that position naturally is going to be looking for ideas, twists and wrinkles that can politely, or at least discreetly, be taken home and used. Often, when looking at menus, I would find myself wondering: have I made that, or could I, should I try to? And when this or that dish reached the table, I would wonder how it compared to my own version.