May 24, 2006
What Gael Greene serves up in her latest book more than suggests that identity may be defined not only by what you eat but "whom."
Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess, takes its title from Greene's (in)famous food column "The Insatiable Critic" for New York Magazine. Shameless, nasty, riotously funny and punny, this may be the ultimate dish memoir of "the mouth trade." Greene certainly puts down restaurants that failed to deliver, but, to judge also from the tales of "tails" included here, she seems never to have met a penis she didn't like. And while the details are juicy, fully cooked accounts of travels through countries, kitchens, men (and one woman), the excess of fork play and foreplay may prove numbing, with only famous names distinguishing one conquest from another — Elvis, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, notable French and Italian chefs, not to mention Jamie Gillis, a well known porn stud, among dozens more boy toys and philanderers (including her ex-husband, newsman Don Forst). What an appetite!
Greene doesn't admit or confess, she revels and reveals. Great food is like great sex, she says, "the more you have, the more you want," though a reader may wonder if all the disco dancing and bedroom acrobatics really made room for the next gourmet dinner.
She always loved food, and by happy accident was on the scene in the late 1960s just as "foodism" was emerging along with feminism and free love. A precocious, ambitious 17-year old from a secure and happy family in Detroit, she came to New York to jumpstart a writing career. How intuitively wise of Clay Felker, originating editor of New York magazine, to sign her on, a veritable unknown whose credits included Cosmo, Ladies Home Journal and the Post. Her sassy style caught his eye (though not his libido). It was a groundbreaking appointment and quite a coup for the tall, big-bosomed blonde because culinary columns then were owned by men.
Sharp, witty, sensual, literate, her prose made and destroyed reputations. She ruled the roost at New York for over 30 years, "tapping into trends, documenting and fanning the flames," capturing historic moments in America's changing habits in food and sex. Even after she stepped down in 2001, she kept up with a short column, "Ask Gael," and continued to enjoy the perks of position. She got everyone down [!] in memorable prose — faddists, fashionistas, celebs, the "loitering literati" at Elaine's and "their heaps of Uriahs, the masochists, the gofers and the hangers-on."
Determinedly controlling, she knew how to manipulate her way at home and abroad. Her idol Craig Claiborne wasn't buying her sexual wares (for obvious reasons), but Greene knew how to get to him, especially in the Hamptons, and her portrait of him is astutely critical as it is sympathetic. She watched the nation move from macaroni and cheese to elaborate, unpronounceable French dishes of undercooked, hitherto little-used parts of animals and fish, and then to nouvelle cuisine, when carrots became crudités and De Gustibus famous chefs started giving cooking classes at Macy's. She critiqued with praise, with venom, sometimes spicing reviews with an engaging amount of self-deprecation.
By her own admission she was a difficult person and, surprisingly, she includes some of the harsh personal and professional judgments that were leveled against her. She clearly drove men away or couldn't hold on to them, but she is unapologetic about her sex drive or writing about frivolity among the rich and famous. Another surprise: she helped start, with James Beard, Citymeals-on-Wheels. She nods to world-shattering political events, especially starvation in Biafra, as she pursues without let up her sybaritic life. She loved it all — the wallowing, the power, the luxury — and she misses it, perhaps more than she knows. A sadness sets in after a while, and the book's structure may betray her sense that the good life and the high life were not always the same. One divorce, two hard-won, sexually explicit best-selling novels, legions of lovers — she had a lifetime of fame, fortune, fabulous food, clothes, friends — but, as they say, where was Love? Unsentimental, she nonetheless keeps returning to the heyday '70s, and although the short chapters make for easy digestion, a stricter chronological approach and a less arbitrary selection and placement of scattered recipes might have provided more satisfying late-night dining. But oh, those glory days!
Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess by Gael Greene. 368 pp., photos, index, $25.95.