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Food for Thinkers: The Meal that Turned a Restaurant Critic into a Science Writer

Science writer Steve Silberman's journey from food-obsessed restaurant critic, through disenchantment, boredom, and eventually, disgust.

To me, Steve Silberman is a science writer—a great one, whose reporting on placebos, autism, and neurodiversity are frequently included in "Best of" anthologies and nominated for national awards. But to my surprise (and delight), when I asked him to join in this week's Food for Thinkers conversation, he revealed his secret past as a restaurant critic.

As it turns out, he writes as compellingly about diner cheesecake ("displayed in acrylic 'hat boxes' with crowns of Chernobyl-scale strawberries in ruby fluorescent glaze") and over-cooked lobster ("the pale chunks of its flesh resembled disemboweled mattress stuffing: straw-like, fibrous, and impossible to cut even with a knife") as he does about Oliver Sacks or antibiotic resistant infections.

In his epic Food for Thinkers post, "The Meal that Ended my Career as a Restaurant Critic," Silberman covers his journey from life-long food enthusiast who lands his dream job ("being a critic in one of the great restaurant cities on Earth felt like getting paid to have sex with someone you love"), through disenchantment, revulsion, and, eventually, a restorative stint as a volunteer macrobiotic chef for the poet Allen Ginsberg.

The final meal—the one that convinces him to throw in the towel and switch (albeit temporarily) to a diet of "oatmeal with soy sauce and kelp flakes"—is described in awe-inspiring, retch-inducing detail:

The first dish out of the kitchen was an amuse-bouche of puff pastry, adrift like a little raft on a greenish-yellow sea. So much excess butter had been worked into the pastry [...], the butterfat was weeping out in amber tears, mingling with whatever was leaking from the raft to congeal in an oleaginous pool that was spreading ominously across the plate.

The source of the greenish leak turned out to be an abundance of pesto sealed inadequately in its pastry pouch. One bite revealed that this verdant filling—which stung our tongues with oxidized garlic—concealed yet another surprise: escargots.

Now, I have nothing against snails, or even against eating them. (My neighbor, Barry Roth, happens to be one of the world's leading authorities on them.) But I must say, if the intention of a chef in sending out a complimentary appetizer is to whet the appetite, an oily croissant crammed with snails swimming in pesto fails miserably. It didn’t help that the gastropods had the texture of something you’d desperately try to hock out when getting over the flu.


You'll have to visit Silberman's blog, Neurotribes, to follow the meal through to its ultra-rare veal chop conclusion, complete with "crimson blood pooling on top." Along the way, Silberman squeezes in an introduction to the father of restaurant criticism (Grimod de La Reynière, an 18th-century Parisian who dined wearing gloves to hide his deformed hands), an anecdote about waiting on legendary British cookery writer Elizabeth David's table, and his experiments in preparing "avian prosciutto" by hanging a Chinatown duck carcass in his basement. Fair warning: It is a long post, but it's also a really good one. Enjoy.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

Image: Grimod de La Reynière (perhaps?), by Ed Alcock for The New York Times.

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