I’ve started reading Jeffrey Steingarten again. Like a lot of people I first discovered him through his book The Man Who Ate Everything, which I read cover and cover and enjoyed immensely. Then I read It Must've Been Something I Ate, which was probably just as good, but it was more of the same and therefore less enjoyable. And then I’d read him in Vogue once in a while, but he always seemed to be banging on about exotic coffee beans or what he fed his dog, and then I saw him as a judge on Iron Chef America, and it really didn’t seem that television was his medium. And so, with no great animosity, though no great regret, I stopped reading him.
But now a couple of recent issues of Vogue have found their way into the house and I’ve come to think that Steingarten is quite the waspish ironist and that I’ve been missing something.
First, in the August issue, there was an exquisite hatchet job on Gwyneth Paltrow, inspired by her forthcoming cookery book, due out in April 2011, My Father’s Daughter; “85 xeroxed pages” Steingarten blithely observes. He reckons the recipes aren’t too bad and so he and Gwyneth do some cooking together.
He suggests making the ten hour chicken but she can’t fit that into her schedule, so they settle for making chicken dumplings, and corn chowder. He’s arrives late for their cooking date, but once there he admires her knife skills. He tells us she has two outdoor pizza ovens, one in her backyard in London, another in Long Island. “I took her ownership of two of them as the mark of her seriousness as a cook,” he says. He’s not serious, surely.
Then she makes pizza, but with the wrong kind of flour according to Steingarten. And he tells us, with apparent admiration, that she makes her own stock. Personally I find this about as impressive as hearing she makes her own toast, and Steingarten can’t help adding, “But Gwyneth does have skilled kitchen helpers.” Sarcasm? I do hope so.
Things seem to be going along quite civilly between the pair of them, but obviously Steingarten’s had enough. He asks her if she hates any part of her own body, and that’s it, the end of a beautiful relationship. She doesn’t give an answer, and there’s no more cooking a deux. Reading not very closely between the lines, I think Steingarten couldn’t stand the arrangemnt a moment longer and sabotaged things to be rid of her.
Then in the September issue he visits “the best restaurant in the world,” Rene Redzepi’s Noma, in Copenhagen. Noma concentrates on “local ingredients,” which in this case (Steingarten helpfully tell us) means food from anywhere in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, an area of about 1.2 million square miles by my reckoning: it’s Greenland that really bumps up the area.
Steingarten and Redzepi go foraging. They walk along the beach and sample five different kinds of sorrel. They go to a nearby farm where, says Steingarten, “I could not always tell whether it was a planted field or a vacant lot.”
Next day he eats lunch at the restaurant, and writes, “A white vase on the table was filled with various small evergreen branches: dip them into an oil infused with cepes ... then pop them into your mouth. There was a printed card nearby listing norman fir, black spruce, lodgepole pine, mountain elm, and four other trees. Soon the bulrushes arrived …”
All this is described deadpan and without comment: the most ludicrous food since the inventions in American Psycho. All of which leads me to believe that Steingarten is a master satirist who knows that all the best jokes are told with an absolutely straight face. He had me howling with laughter.