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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Gael Greene

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-23

Gael Greene is in the middle of her moment.

"I savor life in the present tense," the veteran restaurant critic and author said. "To be able to savor the joy of the moment in the middle of that moment is a gift that my friends find contagious."

That joy is often apparent when she's partaking of a meal. A look at her extraordinary career prompts the thought that the five decades of Ms. Greene's adulthood could be anatomized through the meals she's had in New York, across America, and in Europe and Asia. (She hasn't been to South America or Africa, other than Morocco, but there's time - for her the day isn't short.)

"I'm still eating," Ms. Greene said. "Eating became theater in New York in the 1970s and 1980s - and I haven't stopped. So many wonderful things came in my life as a result of being a food critic."

Among those things, most certainly, has been influence. Ms. Greene stirs the palate of her audiences through reviews often characterized by the carefully chosen and well placed bon mot that surprises. She rouses restaurateurs into employing various words about her views; "predictable" isn't one of those words.

Another thing has been a certain kind of celebrity. Five decades after she came east to New York from her native Detroit to pursue a career in journalism, Ms. Greene continues to be a sought after guest at private dinners, public celebrations, and those occasions where the wealthy mix with the witty to soak up gossip and embellish the culture.

Those occasions are particularly numerous these summer days in habitats such as the Hamptons where celebrated writers such as Ms. Greene canoodle with one another, lamenting the burdens of the writer's craft - the solitude, the incessant appeal to the muse - as much as they savor the fruits of their fame.

"Writing is the price of eating," Ms. Greene said. She might have added that eating is the price of being able to sustain a robust reputation in the mouth trade where it might be daunting to be compared to some of her heroes like James Beard, Waverly Root and Joseph Wechsberg.

It is not that those legendary figures were necessarily modest. But they did not set out - as Ms. Greene did - with a fierce determination to be noticed as much as to be read.

"When I came here from Detroit and discovered the unbearable hauteur of Manhattan's great French restaurants, I couldn't bear to be treated like a peasant from the Middle West - I wanted to be treated like Babe Paley," Ms. Greene said, referring to the legendary socialite and wife of the founder of CBS, William Paley.

Her celebrity status flows not only from her reviews. It is strengthened whenever she writes a book. There have been seven books so far, including two best selling novels. Ms. Greene's newest book, "Insatiable: Tales From A Life Of Delicious Excess" (Warner Books), has fetched sparkling notices and salutary sales.

The book has especially drawn attention for its recounting of Ms. Greene's romps through that zone where hedonism and the intellectual life converge. Major figures in entertainment, publishing, fashion, and public life frequently appear - often in less than what they would wear at the beaches in the Hamptons. The energetic Ms. Greene proves a hospitable host, although the behavior of some of those whom she favors is, well, a tad strange.

Elvis Presley, for example, dropped off to sleep after their encounter in a hotel room during which he did not bother asking Ms. Greene for her name; he did, however, bestir himself enough to ask her to call room service and order him a fried egg sandwich.

When Ms. Greene reminisces, she does not do so salaciously. That isn't to say that her book - and her conversation - aren't spiced with memorable lines such as "For me, the two greatest discoveries of the 20th century were the Cuisinart and the clitoris."

The larger impression Ms. Greene conveys is that of a serious writer who invented a new, lively form of food journalism - although she disclaims any inventiveness, attributing her efforts only to "the constant need to earn money so that I could write my novels."

But when pressed, Ms. Greene acknowledges that she brought something different to the table.

"I wanted to wake up stodgy, constricted New Yorkers, I wanted to convey the joy of eating in a town where an overcooked lamb chop and tapioca pudding was considered dinner. And so I focused on the sensuality of a great meal. I wanted them to feel it with their skins, and sense it in their mouths. The sexual revolution had already encouraged Americans to think about sensuality - this was merely transferring the message to the table," she said.

"Because in the beginning I was intimidated and didn't feel qualified to criticize chefs who'd been cooking since they were 12, I began covering restaurants as a journalist, especially focusing on the sociology of eating in New York," Ms. Greene said. "The models and the men who trail in their wake, the gossipy designing set, and the nocturnal nomads - they all fascinated me."

In relaying her culinary experiences, she developed a perceived persona of being tart but warm, critical but empathetic, and, perhaps most significantly, as a writer who surveyed the landscape and spotted trends - and identified, well before the culture embraced them, the men and women who were developing bold enterprises in their kitchens.

So what does it feel to be an acclaimed food maven?

"The person I reveal in my writing is certainly me - but only a part of me," Ms. Greene said.

Perhaps a bigger part of her day to day persona is the one who, 25 years ago with Beard, launched Citymeals-on-Wheels, a program to provide food on holidays and weekends to the homebound elderly - more than 17,500 in the city's five boroughs. More than 32 million meals will have been delivered by December 2006.

Even as she expands the program, Ms. Greene is working on another novel. She has completed a children's book, titled "Noodles."

How does she nourish the wellspring of her creativity?

"I don't have a clue. I always hope for the best. I sometimes read a line in one of my old articles, and I wonder if I'm ever going to be that funny again," Ms. Greene said.

Then she gave a middle-of-the-moment smile.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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