I don’t know if Josh invented the actual name for Grub Street, but he was a master at dispensing names, so it wouldn’t surprise me. As he liked to remind his friends (and his many enemies), Josh was also an intellectual Grub Street hack of the old school. He had many heroes whom he liked to quote at length: the British historian Thomas MacCauley, the great New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, and, the great muse of Grub Street hacks everywhere, Samuel Johnson. Josh had a Ph.D. in American studies from Notre Dame and wrote a book on Archie Bunker before he started hammering out these tone poems about cheeseburgers or deckle. He was well acquainted with pop culture, television shows, and graphic comics of the most deviant kind, and unlike lots of food writers I knew, he could quote MacCauley in one sentence and Philip K. Dick the next, while waxing at length on the quality of the cheeseburger he was jamming down his throat.
Like Johnson, this was all part of a carefully calculated public persona, of course. Josh’s parents both died when he was relatively young and he had no siblings, so he was really a kind of Dickensian orphan, and, as such, he was free to reinvent himself. The character he liked best was the old-fashioned Runyonesque flaneur — the portly, learned gentleman who liked to stroll among the downtown fleshpots in his derby hat. He didn’t bet the horses, because he was too cheap, but he loved to dive into smoke shops and delis to buy a fistful of lotto cards, which he’d scratch out with a big smile on his face, hoping to win a few bucks. In the old days, he used to drop into my apartment when he was making the rounds and pass out snoring on the couch. My girls, who were small and impressionable at the time, used to ask me quietly, “Daddy, who’s that fat man snoring on the couch?” The last time I saw him in New York, the day before he moved off to Portland, we went on one of our old rambles. We wandered up down St. Marks Place eating Papaya hot dogs and doing those damn scratch-outs. It was clearly the end of an era, so I took a picture of him dressed in his goddamned derby hat.
I think Josh liked Portland: He liked the peace and quiet of it; he liked the idea that after the rough and tumble of the big city, he’d ascended to this artisans’ heaven, a place filled with bearded picklers and buxom cheesemakers. But to the end, I think, he was a real creature of New York. He liked the hustle, and the bright lights. As a child of the internet, he was hooked on the endless “conversation,” and as an intellectual, he was hooked on disputation. He had many favorite Johnson quotes, but the one he liked best was about fame as a shuttlecock. “If it be struck only at one end of the room it will soon fall to the floor,” he would declaim in his old office cubicle at the magazine, which was cluttered with freebie bottles of bourbon and desiccated sandwich ends. “To keep it up it must be struck at both ends.” So he wrote in a purposefully polemical way, and he was endlessly picking fights. He picked fights with Brooklyn, he picked fights with devotees of M.F.K. Fisher, he picked fights with all of his friends, including myself, and although he was sorry sometimes, I think it generally gave him a great deal of pleasure and amusement.
Of course, sometimes the shuttlecock got a little out of hand. He was a great admirer of the kitchen culture, he loved the hot stoves and the tattoos and the craft of cooking, and I think he felt much more at home in that community than he did among pointy-headed writers. He championed chefs, but he wanted loyalty in return, which is how he ended up getting into his famous beef with David Chang. He was also a great ally of Michael White, and when I wrote a review of White’s restaurant Marea that wasn’t quite as complimentary as he thought it should be, he responded with a big, quite personal broadside against my review and against me. I didn’t respond to it in public, but I think the minute it was written, he was wracked with regret. He wrote a heartfelt apology, and he came around to see me with a bottle of not very expensive Irish whisky. We were friends after that and we cleared the air a little bit, but I don’t know if he ever got over it. Then there was the whole wedding controversy. I didn’t attend the bachelor party or the wedding, because I saw that coming. Of all the controversies Josh got himself into, I think that was the one he least enjoyed.
Josh had the metabolism of a great internet writer, but also the talent and voice of a great long-form essayist. In this topsy-turvy writing age, you usually get one or the other, but you don’t get both. Josh was both. He did a lot of great writing about food, and about his beloved hamburgers, but he wrote beautifully and with great feeling about all sorts of topics. His story about his father, which he wrote for Saveur, gives you a window into his tortured soul, and so did his great piece on Philip K. Dick and the joys of stimulants, specifically his beloved Adderall. It’s clear from that piece that he was more than a bit eccentric. But I also think that he was the closest thing to a real Liebling-esque figure in this increasingly gaseous world of food writing that we have. Like Liebling, he was an outsider and a glutton who loved sports. The only difference — well, of course, there were a lot of differences — was that Leibling wrote about that world, while Josh actually lived in it.
That’s part of why Josh hated Brooklyn the way he did. Professionally he lived there, but publicly he hated it. He thought it had become prissy and pompous, and like all old-fashioned New Yorkers, he viewed it as a place of exile. He hungered for recognition and life in the emerald city. I like to think he found peace in his marriage to Danit, and I like to think he found peace out in Portland, which, when you come to think of it, is an idealized, platonic version of Brooklyn without all the excess baggage. It was much more peaceful, he was under less pressure, he could come and go, and write his Esquire pieces and do his videos and his Meatopia without getting too close to the fire, without getting burnt to a crisp. Pete Wells wrote in the Times that Josh was last seen at a karaoke bar in Chicago singing his giant lungs out at 4 a.m. That’s Mr. Cutlets, more or less in a nutshell. That is how he would want to be remembered.