“Since when did you become a food queen?”
Thus spoke legendary movie critic Pauline Kael to Raymond Sokolov on the occasion of his appointment as the New York Times food editor, replacing Craig Claiborne. The year was 1971. A passion for food was still a social liability. Nobody knew the name Paul Bocuse or Michel Guérard, nouvelle cuisine hadn’t been invented, and there wasn’t one Sichuan restaurant to speak of in New York City. Sokolov bore witness to these unprecedented developments, writing reviews, recipes and an account of taste-testing brand-name dog foods with his pet. He was fired in 1973.
For some, Ray Sokolov is an acquired taste. “I think some people are wary of me, but then there are people who find me, you know, pleasant company, and then there are people who don’t like me at all,” he confesses. “It took me a long time to believe that, but I have come to see that there are those who do not share my mother’s enthusiasm for me.” I propose that such individuals have unrefined palates.
Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food chronicles Sokolov’s rise from hungry beginnings to storied food journalist. “I never refused a bottle. Far from it. Not long after we returned home to our bastard Tudor house in the comfy Russell Woods neighborhood, I was sucking down three bottles at a feeding,” he writes. He was a childhood spelling prodigy who went on to study classics at Harvard University, receiving his PhD in classical philology “after thirty-eight years of procrastination,” reads his author’s note. (It ends: “Rice pudding is his favorite food.”) After passing his orals in 1965, Sokolov fell into a job as a Newsweek correspondent posted in Paris, resulting in a fine diner’s education. Back at the New York bureau, a fellow reporter, on a lark, pushed Sokolov’s name toward Times editor Charlotte Curtis, who, under fierce pressure to replace Claiborne, offered him the plum job.
“I don’t see any particular connection between being interested in food or interested in books or language or eliciting embarrassing remarks from people in interviews, or whatever things I did—but when the opportunity came along to do those things, I fell into them because I didn’t have a very good plan that I could have articulated to you,” says Sokolov.
His brief tenure established an authority that led to a food column for Natural History Magazine, in which he once explored cannibalism, many years as arts editor for The Wall Street Journal, and the eventual post of Journal food critic, traveling worldwide to dine on their dime. It was the stuff food dreams are made of: eat anywhere, order as much as you like, invite as many friends as you can find. “But it was just inconvenient to get people to show up in Milwaukee where I knew nobody,” says Sokolov. “I said, ‘What about using an escort service?’ Someone would have to eat what I told them, and it was easy to arrange. I wouldn’t have to rack my brain to find a companion. They said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
Today Sokolov splits his time between Manhattan and the Hudson Valley, and is out of the fine dining loop. But he’s already eaten his way through modernism and molecular gastronomy, from the heyday of Lutèce to the establishment of Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller as contemporary culinary gods; and he’s hit shacks and storefronts from coast to coast, questing for authentic American cuisine.
No matter the scene, Sokolov approached all victuals with intellectual and gastrointestinal vigor, and his readers are richer for it. “Forty years in food have turned me from a cynic into an optimist,” he writes. “Forty years ago in this country, there was no first-rate American cheese, no radicchio, no world-class restaurant, no fresh foie gras, no Sichuan food and no top chef of native birth.... I look back with pride at the progress we have made in feeding ourselves and rejoice to think of the even better meals that lie ahead.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @mlabrise.