This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly. Excerpted from The Book of Eating, by Adam Platt, to be published on November 12 by HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2019 by Adam Platt. All rights reserved.
Like cruise-ship captains and candy-makers, restaurant critics are often told they have the best job in the world, even if the darker side of the daily grind — the health issues, the struggles with finding a thousand different words for “delicious,” the Groundhog Day sense of monotony as one familiar baked-salmon entrée succeeds the next — makes many things about the job less glamorous than they seem. This mantra becomes one of the quiet perks of the job, however, and it’s often followed by questions about how we got into the business and how one should train for, or even possibly obtain, such a dream occupation. A background in cooking is helpful, I always say, although since I’m not much of a cook, I add that your job as a critic is to sample all kinds of elaborate recipes, not to create them, so it’s more helpful to take pleasure in eating and to develop a sturdy constitution for the rigors of what one of my colleagues used to wearily call “tying on the old feed bag.”
What food snobs used to delight in calling “a sophisticated palate” is probably helpful too, although in my experience, a delicious dish is not difficult to spot. A modest talent for writing and expression is something any critic needs, along with a distinctive point of view. There are different tricks for developing these skills, I suppose, but if you want to nurture that crucial constitution for sturdy eating at an early age, along with a curiosity and appreciation for the endless, uplifting pleasures of a good meal, it helps to grow up with a worthy role model.
For someone who occupied the staid world of international diplomacy for most of his working life, my father always had an impressive, wide-ranging, slightly eccentric appetite for a good meal. A native New Yorker born between the wars, like my mother was, at the old (now vanished) Doctors Hospital on East 88th Street, he instilled in his plump sons a love for the great foods of his own chubby youth — BLTs in the summertime, crunchy peanut butter, Yorkshire pudding, and always his beloved mayonnaise, which he purchased in great vats and spread with religious devotion on everything from summer tomatoes to canned sardines to bizarre mystery lunch meats of every imaginable kind. Hellmann’s was his mayonnaise of choice, but he also worshipped an obscure Swiss brand called Thomy, which, back in the 1960s and ’70s, you could buy in handy metal tubes. While other dignified Wasp gentlemen packed flasks of whiskey when they went off on business trips, my father would stow a few tubes of Thomy mayonnaise in his travel bags for emergency use (though he usually had a flask of whiskey, too). He enjoyed other garnishes, especially Worcestershire and a spicy sauce from Jamaica called Pickapeppa, and although I never saw him cook a proper meal, on our birthdays he would splash these favorite condiments on a mash of toast, sausages, and soft-boiled eggs, together with a hint of vermouth, and present us at breakfast time with what he called, with elaborate ceremony, our special birthday “Daddy egg.”
The Platt family’s diet consisted of a kind of rotating cook’s tour through the countries in Asia where his work for the Foreign Service took us. My father had grown up with restaurants, and he liked to collect his favorites in the scattered destinations where we lived, whether in Taiwan, where he and my mother studied Mandarin; or in Hong Kong, where he was posted after that, working as a young Foreign Service “China watcher” analyzing events under Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic; or the random restaurants of 1970s Washington, D.C., like the Yenching Palace on Connecticut Avenue, with its illuminated Art Deco interior and sticky, vividly orange bowls of sweet-and-sour pork, or Blackie’s House of Beef downtown on M Street, where J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies used to unwind after a hard day at the office over gin cocktails and bloody slabs of prime rib. He sometimes brought back menus from his travels, including one emblazoned with the red seal of the People’s Republic of China from a banquet held in Richard Nixon’s honor, during his famous trip there in the winter of 1972, at the Great Hall of the People, where the assembled dignitaries dined gamely on “Bean Curd Junket,” “Chicken Dices in Chili,” and “Stewed Meat Balls.” Sometimes he brought back spirits from his adventures: bottles of cheap yellow Mekhong whiskey from Thailand, jars of “snake wine” from Taiwan, and fiery Maotai from Beijing, which came in a white ceramic bottle with a red ribbon tied around the top and tasted, he used to say, like “liquid razor blades.”
Like many seasoned world travelers, my father was a firm believer in the diplomatic and cultural benefits of a fine meal — it was the easiest and most immediate way to connect with any city where you happened to find yourself and the easiest way to summon up a sense of well-being and calm when everything around you seemed to be trending in the opposite direction. Later on, when he served as the U.S. ambassador in the kind of challenging posts that big-money political donors tended to avoid (Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto, the Philippines under Cory Aquino, the beautiful southern-African republic of Zambia), he’d summon what a public-speaking expert had advised him to do early in his career during times of trouble and stress: “Think about what makes you happy.” So before giving a speech or entering into a difficult diplomatic negotiation, he’d dream about the joys of a proper lobster dinner, with drawn butter and a side of crunchy potatoes, which he ate when he was a young boy during the summers his family spent up at their small vacation house in Maine — assuming a state of beatific calm that he called “lobster face.”
My father got many of his quirky culinary habits the way people get most things: from his parents, both of whom came from a long line of Yankee toastmasters, amateur cooks, and cheerful, cocktail-loving inebriates. If my mother’s family, the Maynards, were the more traditional, dour Puritans when it came to food and cooking, then the Platts and my grandmother’s family, the Choates, were jolly Anglicans, devotees of the famous 18th-century scholar and cleric Sydney Smith, who famously described his idea of Heaven as “eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets.” Unlike some families, the Platts and the Choates enjoyed one another’s company, and they liked to convene in the evenings at the appointed time to sip their cocktails and then repair to the dining room to shout at each other cheerfully over a nourishing dinner. Over the years, both families collected favorite recipes, patronized favorite family restaurants, and sang their favorite family songs in loud, merry, and sometimes drunken voices. They enjoyed crackly standing rib roasts at Christmastime and ceremonial haunches of lamb brushed with rosemary and mustard sauce for Easter. They dined on platters of shad roe fished from the Hudson in the springtime and engaged in all sorts of strange, comforting dining rituals when they left Manhattan every June to visit their rambling, increasingly dilapidated country estates up in the green hills of New England.
Sitting around in the evenings sipping drinks during their sacred cocktail hour, my father and his large collection of siblings and cousins would sometimes recite the names of the great family fressers the way wistful baseball fans remember the starting lineups of their favorite childhood team. There was my father’s grandmother, Eleanor Hardy, who came from a family of Boston sea captains whose clipper ships sailed the old spice routes between Asia and the Americas. There was Great-uncle Charlie, who returned from life as a cowboy rancher out west with a facility for baking rhubarb pies. And Cousin Frank, the family gastronome, a collector of classic New York restaurants and speakeasies, who had the staccato delivery of one of his favorite mid-20th-century comedians, Sid Caesar, and who carried in his head a rattlebag of obscure cocktail recipes, tall food tales, and snatches of poetic verse. He had a fondness for tripe, calf’s brains, and other gently simmered offal delicacies long before nose-to-tail cooking achieved the height of gourmet sophistication thanks to chefs like Anthony Bourdain and the great master of the genre in London, Fergus Henderson.
There was my father’s grandfather, a prosperous Manhattan architect named Charles A. Platt, who, back in the early 1900s, well before the scourge of vegetable snobbery swept the country almost a century later, had fresh earth shipped up from Connecticut for the garden at his summerhouse in New Hampshire. The elder Platt developed a rigorous system of composting that his descendants follow even today, and he pioneered the family devotion to fresh salad, which was so intense that one of the descendants of Stanford White wrote a sonnet about it, which still hangs framed in the Platts’ ancestral country kitchen.
There were my father’s formidable aunts on different sides of the family, Lena and Mabel, learned and eccentric women of the old Eleanor Roosevelt school who had their own strongly held habits and opinions on how to enjoy a fine meal. Aunt Lena was a cook, of sorts, who gave her favorite dishes colorful names like “Train Wreck” (an apparently delicious chicken basted with 7UP) and “Cry Like a Child” (her famous beef stew). She taught my father how to appreciate the finer points of well-roasted roast beef (“Save the fatty crackle bits for last”), and after dinner she liked to light up a long cigar and enjoy healthy drafts of sherry procured from the S.S. Pierce provisions store on Copley Square in Boston.
Aunt Mabel Choate had traveled widely in Asia and was an expert on the intricacies of Chinese gardens, which she re-created, complete with an old ancestral temple, at her house up in the Berkshires. She was a stout woman who strongly believed, my father liked to say, that good health depended on the vital organs’ being surrounded by a thick layer of fat, and she fattened up her nephews and nieces who came up from the city to work on the farm in the summertime with a diet of fresh eggs and rashers of country sausages in the morning, followed by all sorts of buttery, creamy, gravy-laden, locally grown specialties for lunch and dinner. My father remembers that Aunt Mabel wore gold and copper bracelets that tinkled loudly when she walked, which meant you could hear her coming down the garden path from a good distance away. She told stories to her impressionable young nephew about the banquets and dinners she’d attended in Imperial China, where it was the custom not to clap or murmur in appreciation of a delicate dish after a fine meal but to burp as loudly as you possibly could.
Aunt Mabel’s family, the Choates, were known for their prominent noses and shocks of wild red hair; several of them became politicians, educators, and barristers around New England and New York. Like the Platts, the Choates had their own firm ideas about what constituted a good meal, and when my father’s parents were married, the two clans used to engage in culinary debates that ran down through the generations. There were arguments on the proper way to eat your summer corn (an uncle named Penrose, who married into the Choates, spent a lifetime espousing what he called the “typewriter” method) and on what to name the best fatty bits of a crown roast (“crispy,” said the Choates; “crackle,” said the Platts). There were discussions on the best kind of raw-bar shellfish to eat frosty and fresh (Long Island cherrystones, of course) and the best way to extract the proper sweetness while cooking a lobster (gentle steaming, of course). There were debates on the most noble form of chowder (New England versus Manhattan), what kind of seafood to put in your chowder (codfish versus clams), and how to garnish your bowl of steamy chowder once it was ready to eat and on the table (with sizzled, finely chopped bits of salt pork, of course).
Often these discussions were moderated by my grandfather Geoffrey, who was arguably the Babe Ruth of this ancient, ancestral lineup of eaters, drinkers, and bons vivants. We called our grandfather “Grappa,” which also happened to be the name of his favorite Italian liqueur. Before going out for the evening, he would slug down a shot of a stiff drink, which he called a “rammer,” and for as long as I knew him, he and our grandmother Helen, who was a voluble member of the Choate clan, observed the cocktail hour seven days a week, beginning exactly at 6:30 p.m., often with an extra-dry Beefeater or Marie Brizard gin martini at their side and a bowl of Cheddar-flavored Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, which my grandfather purchased in bulk from the grocery store.
Like his father and my father and Cousin Frank, Grappa was a diligent eater of the old New York school who patronized restaurants and gentlemen’s dining clubs and beefsteak parlors throughout the city. He liked veal saltimbocca hammered to a papery thinness, stewed innards, and pike quenelles prepared the way old French cooks did them in the grand midtown restaurants, which he considered the ultimate expression of a certain kind of gourmand comfort food. Whenever we went to visit our grandparents in New York, he would buy us hot dogs on the street, smothered with mustard and sauerkraut, and hot roasted chestnuts twirled in sheets of newspapers, and when we stayed with them in Maine or up in New Hampshire or out at their house in Mount Kisco, he’d convene ritual dining clubs to celebrate his favorite foods. There were lobster clubs and fish-cake clubs and the famous “Fish Ball Club.” This august institution met only at breakfast time and revolved around our mutual regard for Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish balls, which, during the culinary hellscape of the early-1970s frozen-TV-dinner era, Grappa believed to be a kind of miracle dish. In the mornings — sometimes early in the morning, before he took the train into the city to work — Grappa would carefully heat the fish balls to 425 degrees until they were suitably toasty and rock hard, and then, still dressed in his bedroom slippers and baggy flannel robe, call the Fish Ball Club to order. There was a Fish Ball Club proclamation, which I’ve forgotten, and after we’d finished reciting the proclamation in solemn tones, he would lead my brother and me in a loud rendition of the Fish Ball Club song, “Fish Balls to You.” Dressed in our leather slippers and baggy cotton pajamas, we’d sing, “Fish Balls to you, Fish Balls! Fish Balls! Fish Balls! Fish Balls! Fish Balls to you!”
Sometimes the Fish Ball Club would convene out in Westchester, where Grappa lived with our grandmother in a house of his own design (like his father, he was an architect) filled with big bay windows and large brick fireplaces that smelled of woodsmoke even in the summertime. Sometimes the Fish Ball Club would convene up in Maine on an island called North Haven out in the middle of Penobscot Bay, usually in between our visits to the local market (for bags of root-beer barrels and other penny candies) and the carefully orchestrated lobster dinners that Grappa called “lobster wallows.” These family banquets always unfolded according to the same sacramental routine: with the dressing of the salad (blue cheese), followed by the crisping of the potatoes (with olive oil, salt, and a scattering of rosemary) and the breaking of the lobsters over the sink, a ceremony Grappa performed wearing the same big, rubber lobstermen’s gloves that my brothers and cousins and I still use today. On very rare occasions, the Fish Ball Club might even convene at the old Platt summerhouse up in New Hampshire, where Grappa was born on the second floor in a sun-filled room facing south down the valley. Built by his father, the architect, in the upper reaches of the Connecticut River Valley, it was located on a ridge of farmers’ fields above the river between the towns of Plainfield and Cornish, New Hampshire, overlooking Mount Ascutney and the distant church steeples of a town called Windsor, Vermont.
According to my unofficial count, close to 50 people have access to the old house in New Hampshire, and if you show up on a summer weekend, any combination of them might be there, having traveled from places as distant as California, Washington State, and Peru. Other architects as well as artists, like the illustrator Maxfield Parrish and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, worked and owned houses in the area, and the group, many of whom were friends of Grappa’s father, Charles, were known informally as the Cornish artists’ colony. Like his friend Saint-Gaudens, whose house and studio were up the hill, Charles was a neoclassicist who read Ovid in the original Latin and had traveled widely in Italy. Over the years, as his practice down in New York grew, improvements were made to the house, often in a neoclassical way: A large room called the Parlor was built for entertaining, and he added garden terraces modeled after the great villas around Italy, which he’d visited as a young man, and even a columned porch area called the Piazza, framed with cracked bubblegum-colored frescoes embroidered with painted grapevines.
Long ago, it used to take the first Platts seven hours to travel up to their country house by train from Grand Central station — which is about how long it can take their modern ancestors to navigate the same trip through the weekend rush-hour traffic outside New York or Hartford or Boston with their cavalcades of children, guests, and dogs. Usually, you arrive late at night, and, depending on the season, the air will be filled with the smell of pine trees and woodsmoke or, in the late spring and early summer, of blooming lilacs. Once you finally arrive, where you sleep is a matter of serendipity. You could find yourself in “the back,” above the kitchen, where I slept with my brothers and cousins when I was young and my father and grandfather slept when they were boys. You might end up in the North Room, so called because it faces north and gets little light, or, on special birthday or anniversary occasions, in my great-grandfather’s room, with its weathered oil paintings and views out over the garden to the pine trees and the blue-green mountain in the distance. Or, on crowded holiday weekends, you could find yourself curled up in a sunny room on a musty couch in a cigar-colored space called the Boys’ Room, peering at cracked first printings of Rudyard Kipling or Max Beerbohm with your knees tucked up under your nose.
Sooner or later when you visit the Platt house up in Cornish, however, you’ll end up in the kitchen, with its old wood-topped breakfast table and rattling drawers filled with all sorts of anthropological wonders, like ancient eggbeaters, rusted carving knives, and dark cast-iron pans as thick and weathered as soldiers’ helmets. The cupboards are stacked with cocktail glasses and patterned china plates, some of them from long-ago weddings, and above the breakfast table are narrow shelves of cookbooks, winnowed down over the decades to the bare essentials, like a scuffed Joy of Cooking dating from 1973, its yellow, stain-covered pages falling from the spine and covered in illegible notations; an early edition of Fannie Farmer with an introduction by James Beard; and its precursor, the classic Yankee volume The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, which Fannie Merritt Farmer first published in 1896, with its old-fashioned canning charts and carefully measured recipes for chowders and buttery “two crust” country pies.
Back in the day, if it was a classic New Orleans Sazerac you wanted, or a quirky disquisition on the best vintages of mid-20th-century French wines, or a lesson in the correct way to dig a barbecue pit, or the perfect recipe for timballo di lasagne alla Modenese (which still sticks like an ancient biblical parchment on the bulletin board above my desk), the person to consult was Cousin Frank, the family gastronome. Cousin Frank told stories about possibly mythical cocktails, like the Tammany Hall martini, made with a dash of whiskey instead of vermouth by the Irish ward bosses downtown. He remembered visiting the first American Ritz in midtown, where his parents took him when he was 5 years old to sample the magical invention, called vichyssoise, of the head chef, Louis Diat, and how the waiters stacked phone books for him to sit on when the cool, creamy, delicious soup arrived at the table. Frank’s father, my grandfather’s brother Roger, was a schoolteacher and a man of regular and steady dining habits that sustained his “substantial” physique (the term he preferred over fat, Frank used to say). Frank’s father and mother had a regular extra-large booth to accommodate their substantial size at Hamburger Hamlet in New York, where they lived, and his father enjoyed the occasional late-night snack the way my grandfather and my own father often did: standing naked except for his underpants, late at night in front of the open refrigerator. “Is there anything better than eating cold mashed potatoes by the icebox on a hot summer’s night with your son?”
The Platts weren’t bad cooks, and my grandmother especially prided herself on the recipes she’d learned from the chefs at Le Cordon Bleu. As the family had a habit of collecting favorite restaurants wherever they went, however, it sometimes seemed to me, as an impressionable young eater, that the real die-hard New Yorkers among them had a favorite restaurant for each meal of the day. When not consuming fish balls in the morning, Grappa dropped into diners like my local, Joe Jr.’s on 12th Street, or Neil’s on the corner of Lexington and 70th Street, where my father still likes to sit at the bar to read the morning paper and sip his non-barista cup of $2 coffee. The old Oyster Bar, with its curved, bunkered ceilings beneath 42nd Street in Grand Central Terminal, was the favored Platt venue for a quick big-city luncheon. Grappa liked to sit at the original bar in front of the shuckers and cooks, not in the tourist-filled dining room and never, God forbid, at the low-slung, Formica-topped counters the owners installed during one of their misguided expansion periods. In the summertime, they’d order a dozen bluepoints over ice and, if they were fresh and plump, a platter of the Long Island cherrystones. If it was a wintry afternoon, the famous oyster pan roast was the favored Platt dish, and we would sit at the bar together and watch the chefs in their tall white hats mix the oysters with sweet butter and flagons of cream, the way they still do today, and then pour the silken concoction over slices of bread and finish each bowl with a sprinkling of paprika.
The favorite Platt restaurant for a ceremonial family dinner was Giovanni’s, an old Italian establishment run by Giovanni Pramaggiore, an avuncular, balding gentleman from the Piedmont region of Italy. Like André Soltner’s Lutèce over on East 50th Street, Giovanni’s occupied the bottom floors of a narrow townhouse, on 55th Street between Madison and Park, and like Soltner, the proprietor lived with his family in an apartment above the restaurant. Also like Soltner, Giovanni went to the markets every morning with a shopping bag, and the food his restaurant served was an elegant big-city version of the classic regional cooking of his childhood. Early on, during the Depression, Grappa and his brother Bill had done architectural work for Giovanni, and because money was tight, they’d agreed to be paid in kind with a string of dinners. Over the years, as the economy recovered and the restaurant prospered, Giovanni’s became an informal clubhouse for the Platts, who held birthday and wedding parties there and a long series of booze-filled weekend luncheons. When my father turned 21, he was given 21 meals at Giovanni’s, and many of his cousins received the same coming-of-age gift. Over time, Giovanni became an honored friend of the family who attended weddings and christenings; when one of Frank’s children was born, the old restaurant man appeared at the hospital carrying a frosty jug of vichyssoise for Frank’s wife, Judy, which he considered the most nutritious potion possible for mother’s milk.
Giovanni closed down his restaurant in 1980 after a long, successful run and moved with his family out to the suburbs. He and Grappa and Frank would gather at his house with their families on occasion to drink dusty bottles of amarone and inky red Barbarescos and dine on specialties from the home country, like braised wild boar that was so soft, Frank remembered, Giovanni would cut it the traditional way — using stiff pieces of string. I never tasted this famous dish, and I visited Giovanni’s only once, when we went to New York from Hong Kong on home leave. Compared with the food we’d been feasting on in Asia, the refrigerated jellied clams and tubes of cannelloni stuffed with under-salted ricotta seemed a little bland. But for my father, going back to the old restaurant had a Proustian effect. Throughout our wandering childhoods, he would always be searching for that mythical place where he could order off-menu, chat with the owner, and summon for his own family the sense of permanence and community and celebration he’d known at Giovanni’s back home.
Growing up, we’d hear stories about Giovanni’s sometimes as we sat out eating Mongolian barbecue under the stars in Taichung or during one of our dinners at a colonial establishment called Jimmy’s Kitchen in Hong Kong. Sometimes we’d hear about Giovanni’s at Peking-duck restaurants in Beijing or at our favorite sushi restaurant in Tokyo, where we first tasted a mysterious, silky, orange substance called uni, which the proprietor explained was excavated from the insides of prickly raw sea urchins and shipped down to Tokyo in little wooden boxes from Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.
We never found our mythical Giovanni’s, of course. Or we’d find it for a little while and then pack up and move on to another country, but when we’d return, the menu would be a little different, the food wouldn’t be as we remembered it, and that fleeting sense of intimacy you get as a regular would be gone. During my career as a frenetic professional eater, I’ve been doomed to repeat this same endless cycle, although sometimes I still dream about that mythical joint filled with familiar faces from the neighborhood, a place where I can order a leisurely dinner without looking at the menu, at my usual table, on my usual night, a place where the kitchen staff doesn’t recoil in alarm when the critic walks through the door.
Over the years, I’ve taken my daughters to the old Oyster Bar in Grand Central to sample the legendary oyster pan roast (“These oysters are a little overcooked, Dad”) and to the old French restaurants uptown in the hope that they’ll develop a taste for Cousin Frank’s favorite tripe (“This isn’t really my thing, Dad”). My father will sometimes come along on these expeditions, but he’s still a regular at heart, so he visits Neil’s diner for his short-order breakfast and drops in at the old Oyster Bar now and then at lunchtime to get a sense of the old bustling city at the original bar, where his father used to sit. He convenes dining clubs for his grandchildren up in Maine in the summertime, and although the club song is the same as the one my brothers and I chanted loudly on those winter mornings with our own grandfather out in the New York suburbs many years ago, tastes have changed over the years, and both he and his raucous brood of grandchildren seem to prefer boxes of “brown ’n serve” maple-flavored pork sausages to the timeless frozen pleasures of Mrs. Paul’s.
*This article appears in the October 28, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!