July 22, 2009
Food Section Meditations
Wednesday is Food Section day—one of the holiest days of the week.
For me the observance of Food Section day began in 1982, when I graduated college and moved into a room in a crumbling Victorian pile in in San Francisco. Now the neighborhood is fashionably called the Lower Haight. Back then it was just a dumpy street near the barbed wire encased Federal Mint, in a no man’s land between the hippie cool Haight Ashbury and the gay cool Castro. Every Wednesday morning I gravitated toward the Castro, which had a newspaper stand selling the New York Times. I needed the Food Section.
Some of the best writing, word for word, was in that section. And in the days before the Internet, it brought me the most current possible news of what people in New York, Paris, London were sitting down to eat that week.
It was an education: Pierre Franey’s cooking in 60 minutes, Craig Clairbornes explorations of New England clambakes, and reviews of three stars restaurants I could only aspire to visit. You have to understand, this was at a time when you couldn’t type “miso” into a search engine and instantly find 3,000 articles, recipes and videos on fermented soy beans. If you wanted to watch people cook on TV, you had to wait for the one PBS show each week. If you wanted to see color pictures of food, you had to suffice with the stuffy layout over at Gourmet or the garish calorie-counting articles at the women’s magazines. But the Food Section was the whole meal: it offered quality and quantity, and—the hallmark of any great restaurant—consistency.
It was also an escape. I paid my two quarters for the Times, found a table at a local coffee shop, pulled out the Dining Section, and took in the front page. If there were recipes I imagined them in my mouth, flavor for favor, as I read them. If there were stories of pressed duck at a Paris restaurant, I was transported there. I was making minimum wage as a cookie baker at the first Il Fornaio to open in America. I belonged to no group larger or more important than the cast-offs and kooks who populated the kitchen—not to mention my two indelibly quirky housemates—but the Food Section put me in touch with the wide world of like-minded believers, people like me alive in cities far away, people who thought, like me, that food is important. People who started every Wednesday with the Food Section.
Today, Wednesday, July 22, 2009, I bought The New York Times again, shuffled into its thinning corpse and pulled out Dining. I unfolded it, still excited, as I ate my avocado sandwich downstairs at the office lunch room. There’s no question that in the era of ChowHound, Epicurious and 1000 other food web sites, magazines and blogs—including nytimes.com—the midweek hole in my life that it used to fill just isn’t as big.
But it’s still special, like ritual is special. We have electric lights all week, but we still gather to light candles on Friday. I can’t quite let go of the printed Food Section, though I know that time is near. One day a Wednesday will come and go and I’ll forget to get the paper, I’ll even forget about forgetting—and all the anticipation and ritual that went with Wednesday will have vanished from my life—probably like what happened after the printing press came along, and took the last parchment scroll from the caves full of believers.