Some readers may recall my occasional pieces in this journal called “Unlikely Heroes (and Heroines) in the Gastronomic Trenches”— short profiles of writers on food and restaurants that caught my eye. Previous honorees were Calvin Trillin (who proclaimed Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue in Kansas City the world’s greatest restaurant), A. J. Leibling (The New Yorker Writer with the prodigious appetite for food and life) and Alice B. Toklas (she of the Haschich Fudge, a forerunner of Hippie Brownies).
This month I wish to honor another woman—- a gutsy voluptuary named Gael Greene who once wrote the following sentence, which alone, is enough to make her a heroine in this series: “Great food is like sex— the more you have the more you want.”
Gael Greene is the sensational sensualist, food and restaurant critic, whose blog, The Insatiable Critic, and her internet newsletter, Forkplay, is required reading for this columnist. So let’s hear it for Gael Greene, this month’s “Unlikely Heroine in the Gastronomic Trenches.”
A FOOD PERSON
Here are a few biographical highlights on this remarkable woman’s libido-charged career.
In 1968 editor Clay Felker founded a magazine called New York— still published today— that was destined to become one of the most influential periodicals ever created. Think quirkier than The New Yorker which it resembled in those days. New York’s early writing stable included Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Gloria Steinem. Within a few months of the magazine’s founding, Felker offered Gael Greene, a New York Post reporter, a job as restaurant critic. She said she was taken by surprise. She didn’t consider herself a food person.
“How reckless of Clay to nominate me as a candidate to brandish my fork in that world,” she said.
“What would you tell people my credentials are?” she asked Felker.
“Well, you are a food person,” he said.
“Well, I’ve eaten around… but I can’t afford to write more than two or three times a year…” (at the magazine’s low fees).
“That’s ridiculous…. Dozens of people are begging to be New York’s restaurant critic so they can charge all their meals to us,” he responded.
“Blinding light bulbs exploded,” she said. “So I said ‘yes’ quickly before my doubts could erode his conscience.”
THE PRIESTESS OF RADICCHIO
And that began Gael Greene’s 30 year food feast as New York’s Insatiable Critic. During that time it is safe to say that she was one of the most influential restaurant critics in the country.
Never understating or adopting a buttoned-down opinion, she trashed New York’s sacrosanct “21” Club as boring and over-priced. She lobbed stingers at Elaine’s, the celebrity hangout. And she celebrated some Manhattan’s biggies like Lutece and Le Bernadin, but also praised a midtown snack bar.
Then in 2008, New York magazine’s 40th anniversary, she was suddenly fired.
At the time Glenn Collins, referring to her as the priestess of radicchio, wrote in the New York Times “But even among those who might have seen it coming, many were taken aback at the expulsion of the sensualist who influenced the way a generation of New Yorkers ate, and who served as a lusty narrator of restaurant life in New York for decades.”
Michael Batterberry, editor and publisher of Food Arts magazine, put it this way: “It was as if New York magazine had found its own version of Colette when it came to food. She created an entirely fresh new voice, one that has never stalled.”
Robert Lape, then restaurant critic for Crain’s New York Business, said “Greene’s palate is one of the best in the business. She could always parse a meal quite brilliantly, and her skills have not diminished.” (Coincidentally, she was picked up by Crain’s in 2008 and wrote a dining column for that publication until 2012 when it downsized the food department.)
What did Gael Greene say about herself when she was sacked? Expressing surprise she declared she was “the brand name of restaurant journalism.” I like gutsy women.
THE INSATIABLE GAEL
Now that I’ve got you hooked on Gael Greene let’s fill in the blank spots in her career. After graduation from University of Michigan she joined the news service United Press as a reporter. She was assigned to interview Elvis Presley who seduced her— or vice versa. Post coitus he asked her to order him a fried egg sandwich from room service before she left his suite. It was perhaps her first encounter to what was to become her kinky, Rabelaisian association with the foodie world.
Later, she wrote a couple of novels, one of them the critically-acclaimed Blue Skies, No Candy. Let’s just say it was a hot read. In 2006 she published her memoir, Insatiable. The New York Times said it was “Frank and funny… a gustatory napkin-ripper. Syndicated columnist Liz Smith wrote a cover blurb— “Gael Greene is the best food writer since the late M. F. K. Fisher.” A great comparison since Fisher too was a sensualist and wrote about food in a lusty manner.
Gael Greene also gives back to her community. With food-god James Beard, she co-founded Citymeals-on-Wheels, the organization that feeds New York’s homebound elderly. Recently the organization raised $820,000 at an annual Chefs Tribute to James Beard.
Obviously a woman of appetite, she peppered her memoir with miscellaneous seductions— including Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Neither actor ever denied the encounters. (And there are still those who say journalism is not a good career path.)
If I have piqued your interest in this “Unlikely Heroine in the Gastronomic Trenches” you may want to delve into some of her old columns in New York magazine. Here are three, listed by their headlines, that you might want to try: “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Ice Cream but Were too Fat to Ask”—“The Mafia Guide to Dining out”— and (my favorite) “Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen” about a gastronomic pilgrimage to France with writer Nora Ephron, comedian Danny Kaye and the editor of Screw magazine, Al Goldstein. Go to www.insatiable-critic.com.
To write about food it helps to be a sensualist.