Steal the Menu

Raymond Sokolov may occasionally alienate the reader, but his memoir is knowledgeable and fascinating.

Steal the Menu By Raymond Sokolov Knopf Doubleday 256 pp.

I'm surrounded by serious, professional, and, I don't think it is too much to say, influential food people. (Send me an SASE and I will divulge their names; they hold fast to their privacy, but I'll sell them out if you include a $5 bill.)

They daunt me, they delight me by the way they quarry into food's elementals. It seems trite now – local, fresh, seasonal, humane, yes yes – all good. But delicious? Not necessarily; the promise is in the cook. These people show me the flavor. They know their foodstuffs, are respectful and aware of how to coax the best from that life, whether watercress or leg of lamb. And their single-mindedness in that pursuit makes many of them memorable characters, charmingly eccentric or as challenging to the social palate as fermented yak milk.

Raymond Sokolov is not an easy character. He is pontifical. He went to Harvard, and you will be reminded in his new memoir, Steal the Menu, that he went to Harvard, about 539 times in 256 pages. Back in 1976, he published a book titled "The Saucier's Apprentice." It, too, is pontifical, but "The Saucier's Apprentice" was and is a revolutionary tract for the home cook, one that will guide the enthusiastic but inept cook to something they can make, with a bit of attention, that tastes great – delicious – for everything tastes better when ladled with a luscious and lubricating sauce, bath, or dollop: africaine, poivrade, veloutés, béchamels, béarnaise, hollandaise, cheese sauce for the cauliflower, cheese sauce for the macaroni, and, God's gift, mayonnaise.  

"Steal the Menu" is a fun memoir of self-regard – "If you graduate first in your class at high school and continue on to get a summa in classics from Harvard (picking up the undergraduate thesis prize and a junior year Phi Beta Kappa key along the way), you can be pardoned for thinking your brain is in good working order" – that can be a little stiff but never defensive, for Sokolov, he reminds you, is most always right.

He provides an engaging look at how a classics student became an important voice in the volatile world of food in the 1970s and 1980s, because he has a hungry curiosity and he likes to eat. And luck. One great formative story concerns his doctor father curing a raffish member of the nightlife scene in Juárez of the clap – and then father and son, who for Dios alone knows what reason attended his father on this visit, are taken on a grand tour of the glories of primo Mexican restaurant food.

Sokolov spins on, about eating his way through Europe in his college days, then stints at Newsweek, The New York Times (short-lived), Time, and Natural History, and his nice long sojourn at The Wall Street Journal, a classicist scholar turned chowhound with an expense account. He ate all over and everywhere; he thought about what he ate, and he wrote about it with clarity and bonhomie.

He loves well-made classical French food, he was entranced by the introduction of Szechuan food to the West, he loved the simple provocations of nouvelle cuisine–- "Nouvelle cuisine looks at Escoffier through the wrong end of the telescope. It puts quotation marks around Carême and sets the old code in italics so that the old words all mean something else" – he is a true philologist. Put a word from a menu in front of him that he doesn't recognize – momofuku, you lucky peach – and he wants to eat it.

Sokolov loves the bedrock of food, but he also wants to taste all the sedimentation that has come to rest atop, and he is a good traveling companion. Reading his writing is like being driven in an old, comfortable roadster, top down, evening falling, balmy, him in houndstooth and brogues, pontificating, but with the promise – because Sokolov always does his homework – of something really good to eat just down the road.

Peter Lewis is the book review editor of the Geographical Review.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to