When I was a food critic, friends would often speak envious words to my husband, telling him how lucky he was to be able to go to the latest restaurants on the newspaper’s dime.
He’d smile and agree. But he knows, as do others who have been my dining buddies over the years, that there are down sides to sharing a table with a food writer.
Food writers eye your plate and then ask for a bite in a polite voice that barely conceals the demand beneath. It’s the price you pay for the meal. To a food writer, every plate on the table is theirs and, in the nicest possible way, they’ll fight you for it. My husband has grown inured to the fact that, the minute the food shows up, my camera comes out. Then he and everyone else at the table have to stare longingly at their lunch while I focus and bracket and try to decide whether it’s better horizontal or vertical, with or without flash.
Because we live on different islands, my mother isn’t as familiar with the drill. A few weeks ago, when I was visiting her one Maui and we went to Cafe O’Lei, her fork was poised over her plate when I shrieked loudly enough to make her jump: “Don’t! I haven’t gotten a picture yet.”
“I might write about this. Got to get a picture,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, in a hurt tone. “I don’t know about these things. I thought we were just having dinner.”
But food writers never “just have dinner.” Or any other meal. Whether we’re being paid to write a review or just gathering fodder for labors of love like this blog, we hate to “waste” a meal.
This complicates life for those who travel with us, too. I never want to “grab a bite.” I want to plan the day’s dining like Patton on campaign (“If we go to the museum first, we’ll be in the right neighborhood to have lunch at this place I heard about.”) I never go anywhere without a list of possible restaurant stops annotated with locals’ recommendations.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares my passion. For example, we love to travel with our brother and sister-in-law, who are the most easygoing of people and who share our interest in photography, the outdoors and historic places.
But they are the exact wrong people to serve as foodie companions. The truth is neither of them much cares about food (although my sister does admit to a sweet tooth). As accommodating as they are, when stomachs start to rumble and I begin frantically paging through my list of possibles, they look abashed and start toeing the ground in their low-key Midwest way, mumbling about “not knowing much about food” and how they’re not dressed for “anyplace fancy.” At which point, the go-along-to-get-along local girl in me generally gives up and gives over, consenting to a quick stop at a family restaurant or the nearest place spouting a familiar logo (or arches).
In sharp contrast is the girlfriend (and fellow blogger) with whom I have twice traveled to Venice. An avid reader of the food media, including scouring the New York Times daily, she packs a culinary map compiled from months of clipped reviews, travel articles and food pieces. Even the meals we prepare in the kitchen of our Dorsoduro apartment are slotted in as an opportunity try local cheeses, produce and cured meats, to nibble the specialties of bakeries all over the city and to experiment with recipes from the cookbooks I always buy (some in Italian; I can’t read it but I understand culinary Eurospeak the way I speak “hula Hawaiian”).
Waste a meal? Hell, we debate the merest snack as though we were buying a house together. Nary a non-Italian thing passes our lips. No one is ever allowed to order the same thing as the other or to have the same thing twice. We routinely request little plates for sharing and it’s taken for granted that, at some point, our forks will be poking each other’s plates. No one complains if the other drags her five vaparetto stops away because there’s a little pizza place that just has to be visited (even though the other doesn’t like pizza). It drove her mad that, with my small appetite, I could never clean my plate. And it drove me mad that they don’t do takeout boxes in Italy. We nearly lost our minds during a side trip to Bologna, where we were staying in a hotel room with no kitchen and the open-air markets and extraordinary bakeries, pasticcerias and salumerias were a sore temptation.
If all this seems exaggerated, a form of foolishness, then what are you doing reading this blog? Those who can’t understand the concept of “wasting a meal” are wasting their time here.