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Never a Feckless Eater 

Talking to R.W. Apple Jr. about Apple's America over lunch

Wednesday, May 18 2005
When asked if I wanted to meet R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr., the occasion being the publication of Apple's America: The Discriminating Traveler's Guide to 40 Great Cities in the United States and Canada (North Point Press, $22.50), I jumped at the chance. Apple is the fabled New York Times man who has covered the waterfront for more than 40 years, evolving from a foreign correspondent (he's written from 109 countries) to his current enviable post as an associate editor with such beats as travel and food. His food articles combine erudition and enthusiasm with a great deal of charm, and they always make me want to dash off and sample country ham in Virginia, choucroute in Alsace, white asparagus in Germany, seafood along the Dalmatian coast, Latino restaurants in Hoboken (yes), and hot dogs in Chicago, to name only a handful of highlights from my yellowing stash of old Times Dining In/Dining Out and Travel sections.

Here, I hoped, was my chance to jettison some of these stacks of newsprint and enjoy the convenience of having these useful, not to mention mouthwatering, articles collected in one volume. I'd have to keep the Alsatian, German, and formerly Yugoslavian pieces, because, after all, the book has America right there in the title, but I could taste again through Apple's excellent prose the real Key limes of South Florida, wild morels of Oregon, and crabs of Baltimore.

A copy of Apple's America soon arrived, and I was, truth be told, a little disappointed. It wasn't the collection of food pieces I had anticipated, but an assemblage of monthly articles about U.S. cities that appeared in the Times between 1997 and 2000 covering all aspects of local interest, including glosses on local history, museums, music venues, and architecture. At the end of each 10-page section were brief paragraphs on four or so places to stay and up to nine restaurants. The hotels seemed to be of the posh, multistar, triple-digit rack rate kind that I've never stayed in, but the restaurants included a range of possibilities, giving as much space to an inexpensive French dip sandwich at Philippe in Los Angeles as to Charlie Trotter's Fabergé egg of a foie gras, salmon, and Japanese mushroom dish in Chicago.

But then I started reading, and reconsidered. My rule has always been that I champion any guidebook that leads you to one enjoyable place that you wouldn't otherwise have known about -- and right away, in the San Francisco chapter, I was introduced to a Richard Neutra house I wasn't aware of (complete with address and nifty adjective: "glacier-white"), in a paragraph that also made mention of local buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Bernard Maybeck. I skipped around in the book, starting with the cities I knew best, finding that Apple knew everything I loved about them and then some. This portable volume packed an amazing amount of information into its 430 pages.

I'd been offered a choice of Tadich Grill or the Slanted Door for our lunch, both featured in Apple's S.F. chapter, along with the Fifth Floor, Gary Danko, Masa's, Yank Sing, and Zuni Cafe, as well as Chez Panisse and Oliveto across the bay. (I decided not to tell him that Laurent Gras was no longer cooking at Fifth Floor, nor Ron Siegel at Masa's: Every guidebook starts becoming obsolete the day it's published anyway.) I chose the Slanted Door for several reasons. For one, Apple spent two or three years in Vietnam in the late '60s (and has been back many times); I also hoped we'd have time for a stroll through the amazing food court that the Ferry Building has become, including a stop at Out the Door, the new takeout spot at the Slanted Door. It was easy to recognize Apple, not just from the tiny author photo on the book's jacket flap (in which he was wearing a darker variation of the mustard-yellow-checked shirt he had on this day), but also from Calvin Trillin's description of him in a famous New Yorker profile titled "Newshound," published a couple of years ago: "He has a round face and a pug nose that give him a rather youthful appearance ... [like] 'a very big four-year-old.' His form reflects the eating habits of someone who has been called Three Lunches Apple ...."

Trillin says this is a nickname Apple likes, so I asked him where else he was lunching today, but our meal was the only midday one scheduled. Apple's wife, Betsey, always present on his trips and frequently mentioned in his articles (her job, she has explained dryly, is "Driving Mr. Daisy"), wasn't able to join us, so I'd invited my friend Tom, another Apple fan; two people at table in an Asian restaurant seemed insufficient. After expressing some perturbation that there were no Asian beers available on a list of a dozen, about half of them Belgian, Apple opted for a Samuel Smith organic ale. I let him choose most of our lunch. He decided against pho, he said, because of the condition in which it would leave his shirt (I remembered his wonderfully evocative article about the dish, "Looking Up an Old Love on the Streets of Vietnam"), and ordered the chicken clay pot, cellophane noodles with fresh Dungeness crabmeat, and spicy Japanese eggplant. When Apple asked our server if the lemongrass pork was a particular Vietnamese dish, she wasn't interested enough to cross the half-dozen paces to the open kitchen and inquire; we ordered it anyway. I requested the manila clams with (magic words) crispy pork belly. The tender, caramelly chicken was fragrant with ginger, and the flavor and texture of the soft, delicate little clams contrasted beautifully with the bits of crunchy, salty pork belly. And I can never get enough of the Door's signature dish of transparent noodles mixed with a few shreds of scallion and lots of sweet crabmeat. "It's the quality of the ingredients," Apple observed, as he tucked into everything with relish.

My first question, to the man who describes himself in the introduction to Apple's America as "never a feckless eater," was when he knew of his all-consuming interest in food, and why he was so consumed. He described an Ohio childhood in which he preferred the resourceful cooking of his German grandmother (whose last name was Apfel) -- a master of domestic economy for whom one chicken could provide several tasty meals (roasted, then blanketed with sauce, with a separate dish of gizzards) -- to the less imaginative cuisine of the wealthier side of the family. I wondered why, unlike his friend "Bud" Trillin, who idealizes his Kansas City birthplace so much that he still insists that the three best restaurants in the world are there, he hadn't devoted a chapter to Akron, his hometown: "I gave it three paragraphs in the Cleveland section, and that was stretching things," he replied grimly. (How had I missed them? On returning to Apple's America, I found it to be more like three words.) "What did it most pain you to leave out?" I asked; "It's not that kind of book," he replied. But when I inquired about Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, the North Carolina towns I love, it seemed that their group essay had just missed the cut. "That kind of book," it turns out -- the collection of food essays I longed for -- is coming out next year, to be called Apple a la Mode.

I had been hoping to give him a tip for some future trip of his own, but everything I offered -- my favorite lasagna della nonna at Angelini Osteria in Los Angeles, the miraculous pork pump at the Lake Spring Shanghainese restaurant, also in L.A. -- he knew well. I mentioned the Wreck, a seafood shack in Charleston: "Nobody," he sighed nostalgically, "has ever asked me about the Wreck before." It was like the scene in Rosemary's Baby in which a character says, "Name a place. I've been there." "Nome, Alaska." "I've been there." Tom and I had more success when we told Apple about three of our favorite Chinese restaurants in the East Bay -- DAIMO, China Village, and Saigon Seafood. Tom had even brought along a tear sheet of a recent review of Saigon for Apple. I could see a future Times piece brewing.

Our talk turned to a couple of articles in the most recent Dining section: Apple's elegy to Uglesich's, a legendary New Orleans place on the verge of closing, and another about the Ferry Building, titled "Tourists at Market to Look Crowd Those Who Cook," which struck me as singularly wrongheaded, not to say elitist and mean-spirited. "I've never gone to another city," I said, "from Guangzhou to New York, where I didn't seek out the local open markets. Sometimes I buy a peach, some cheese, a bunch of radishes; sometimes I just look. It doesn't seem to get in the way of either commerce or pleasure."

On the way out, I stopped at Out the Door, which has a limited menu (four varieties of spring rolls, three salads, four noodle soups, four rice plates, four noodle dishes, three sandwiches, two steamed buns, and a few sweets, including made-to-order beignets, here called sugar doughnuts). Most of its dishes were familiar from the Door's lunch offerings, though here they were a couple of bucks cheaper. There were also a few specials, that day including the Door's famous shaking beef, and an array of coffees (made with Blue Bottle beans) and iced drinks with boba tapioca pearls. The line moved briskly: I got a fragrant dish of five-spice chicken over rice and a very French Vietnamese flan nicely packaged to go. (On another day, I took back to my father, who has recently become addicted to banh mi, one of Out the Door's Saigon roast pork sandwiches. When he said that it cost about 2 1/2 times as much as the ones he's been picking up all over the East Bay, I pointed out that it contained 2 1/2 times as much meat, too, including a succulent slice of chunky pork pâté.) Out the Door is a terrific alternative for those pesky tourists who don't know that you have to call the Slanted Door a couple of weeks ahead, at least, to get a seat.

That night at the Herbst Theatre I listened to Apple, wearing a purple variation of the checked shirt, and his friend Trillin, who've known each other since they worked on their college papers (Princeton and Yale, respectively), do a Johnny-and-Bud roadshow. Trillin is the renowned humorist, but Apple got the biggest laughs: once when he leaned forward and said, "Cantonese?" after Trillin described the most disgusting thing he'd ever been asked to eat (timing!), and again when he said, after being asked to construct a perfect last meal ("Crabmeat au gratin from Uglesich's; caviar -- beluga or osetra; turbot, my favorite fish; St. Marcellin cheese; and some mangosteens, my favorite fruit, not allowed into the continental United States, for fear of fruit flies"), "And then the next morning I'd go right back to my German roots and have a big herring plate."

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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