The exchange goes something like this. I’m chitchatting with people I’ve met at a party, and the subject of jobs comes up. My new acquaintances turn out to be artists, computer geeks, hippo trainers, whatever. I confess that I’m a restaurant reviewer. There’s a short pause while they look me up and down as if I were a two-headed poodle at the Westminster dog show. Then someone says, with more than a touch of resentment, “ Soooo, if you eat out for a living, how come you’re so thin?” And right off the bat, they’re mad at me. It’s not just strangers, either. Two of my dear friends have taken to calling me “that skinny bitch.” To which I say, “Guilty as charged.”
Last December 1 I celebrated thirty years at this magazine. That’s a lot of crème brûlée under the bridge, folks. During that time, food fads have risen (fajitas and Southwestern cuisine) and fallen (blackened redfish), and once-fabled Texas restaurants have vanished like a snow cone on the Fourth of July (how many of you remember Mr. Peppe, in Dallas, or the original Naples on Broadway, in San Antonio, or Che, in Houston?). Texas has changed from a state that eats at home to one that eats out, and Dallas and Houston have taken their places on the national culinary stage. Since it was founded, in 1973, this magazine has published more than 28,000 restaurant reviews. If that indicates anything, it’s that people are endlessly fascinated with food and dining. And judging by the queries I get, they’re also curious about the arcane practice of restaurant reviewing. So I thought this might be as good a time as any to answer a question or two, including the inevitable …
How do you stay so thin?
The answer is really, really simple: I’m neurotic. I eat only half of what I’m served, and if I do gain a pound, I freak out and take it off immediately. (For the record, I am five feet seven inches tall and weigh 117 pounds.) My weight-loss system is a slightly twisted version of the South Beach Diet: I don’t eat anything white. All right, that’s an exaggeration, but I do eat very little sugar, bread, pasta, potatoes, or rice (including, alas, risotto). And I watch the butter and cheese. Occasionally, I have to admit, I overdo this regimen and end up famished at odd times, so I always carry stashes of almonds and Southwest Airlines peanuts in my briefcase. As for the next inevitable question—“Do you exercise?”—the answer is not a lot; I walk a mile and a half a day. Does sticking to a diet make it hard to evaluate a meal? Absolutely not. All you do is pay attention and savor each bite.
What is the reaction when your plate goes back to the kitchen half-full?
Uneaten food terrifies restaurants, because most people in our society, especially men, clean their plates. Their mothers have guilt-tripped them with stories of starving orphans in far-flung lands. This is one reason among many that ours is a nation of fatties, but I digress. Frequently, waiters ask me if something was wrong. I just say I wasn’t very hungry. Sometimes they persist—“Are you sure?”— which is really, really annoying. If I don’t want a hassle or if I worry about hurting the cook’s feelings at a small place, I ask for a doggie bag. And I always get a doggie bag when I’m eating five or six meals a day for a story like “Pit Stops,” our last barbecue roundup (May 2003). If I can find a homeless person to give the food to, I do; if I’m on the road, the leftovers end up at my motel. More than once I’ve left half a dozen to-go boxes stacked beside the bed. God knows what the maids thought.
Did your family love to cook?
No, just the opposite. When I was growing up in the fifties, Texas was a vast Middle American wasteland of overcooked hamburger steaks, waterlogged peas and carrots, Jell-O salads, and TV dinners, the latter of which we ate—I swear to God—on folding metal tables while sitting in front of the television set watching Your Hit Parade and Gunsmoke. On top of this, my mother was a protofeminist who embraced the liberating notion that a woman’s place was not in the kitchen. Thus, she never used a fresh vegetable if she could get her hands on a canned or frozen one, and she had an absolute love affair with instant mashed potatoes. Oh, Mother could cook if she wanted to: Her lemon chiffon pie was divine, and I loved her vegetable soup. But she preferred to spend her time reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel rather than slaving over a hot stove. Her weekly canned-salmon croquettes were one reason I adored eating in restaurants. They served gorgeous food that I never saw at home, plus they were exciting and grown-up. The fact that we couldn’t afford to eat out much made them even more alluring. Restaurants were like movies to me, an escape from humdrum real life and, shudder, real food.
Have you always been interested in food?
If you had told my parents I would one day be a restaurant critic, they would have fallen on the floor laughing. My childhood food quirks were a major pain in the posterior. I was the kid who had to be removed from nursery school because I refused to consume the vile lunches they served (asphaltlike fried liver and slimy okra with tomatoes).