“Today, Sushi is as intrinsic to the Los Angeles cultural scene as mud slides and SUVs.” When Alan Richman talks, people lean over their plates and listen. He’s both gourmet and gourmand, with as good a sensor for the right wine as for the best barbecue (or so he thinks). He frequents diners and joints with as much gusto as the fine tables of Europe or New York. And he writes with wit and sentiment that have kept his fans at GQ hanging on for many years.
With such myth-busting lines as “When they are not blanching, the French seem always to be deglazing,” Richman allows us to see him as one of us. When he is lured by a Cuban street person into a “restaurant” with one chair and offered only a thin, hastily constructed pizza, he shows his egalitarian stripes by accepting the invite, and by leaving in haste he reminds us that even a professional eater must have some standards. There are some foods not worth trying.
“Never lose control of your shallots…Washing your mushrooms is perfectly fine.”
Richman tells us a lot about his mother, a consummate cook. He patiently abides her "Early Bird" specials, the old folks' budget buffets prevalent in the Wrinkly Belt from Tampa on south. “I asked her if she had learned anything about life after so many years, and she said, ‘It was fast.’”
Where I would disagree with this entertaining chomp champ is in his assessment of barbecue. In his relentless search for the best, he haunts the North Carolina back roads. We’re talking pork, here, by the way. Being a North Carolinian, I agree so far – my state takes the cake, and the hush puppies. “I ate it so fast I had to go back and get another one right away,” he says of his pork sandwich at the Starlight Inn in Ayden, where he lovingly slavered his ‘que despite the “ambience issues.” But I can’t agree that any one stand has the best when there are so many famous pits in and around Lexington, NC, so many spicy varieties further east.
Richman has probably never been to the place I like best, about fifty miles from home in the country somewhere near Statesville, NC, where a sign on the door warns customers not to tote firearms and a digital loop lights up the dining room informing us that we should sit where we’re told, remain in our seats so as not to confuse the wait staff, and keep our children under control. The proprietor is famous for his own special development of the cuisine of chicken ‘que – he marinates the bird in a piquant vinegar sauce (no tomatoes) and dumps it whole into deep fat. The resultant meat is so succulent that customers without teeth would not go away hungry, and the portions are super-sized without the extra charge.
When Richman pans, he pans with well-chosen witticisms: “It was the only sandwich I didn’t finish, the only eastern North Carolina chopped pork sandwich I disliked. The proprietor might have mistaken me for Jeff Gordon, so quickly did I accelerate out of Big Nell’s parking lot.” I haven’t been to Big Nell’s so I can’t judge, but I do agree with the author’s observation that “barbecue places have a lot of gumballs machines.” It’s just one of them Southern deals.