Confessions of a Mercenary Eater

By Jay Jacobs

Atlantic Monthly Press. 314 pp. $21.95

This odd memoir, at times agreeable and amusing while at others disagreeable and irritating, is the work of a self-confessed "hired belly," Jay Jacobs's term for "the writer who ekes out his daily bread by gorging on truffled foie gras" and thus practices "journalism in its most visceral form." This is to say that for much of his career Jacobs has been a food writer and restaurant reviewer; he is best known for his work in the latter capacity at Gourmet, the coffee-table food magazine, and it is from this experience that much of the vim and venom of "A Glutton for Punishment" are derived.

If kiss-and-tell is the generic term for "inside" memoirs from Hollywood and Washington, what do we call a food writer's confession: eat-and-run? Certainly that's what Jacobs does herein. He has harsh words for, among others, various personages at Gourmet, competitors (mostly unnamed) in the hired-belly game, innumerable chefs and restaurateurs, and others whose paths -- and swords -- he has crossed over the years. A fair amount of this is self-serving and of little moment to anyone save those wounded by it; but Jacobs is observant and irreverent, and his prose is tart, so the reader interested in food world intrigues is likely to find much here on which to munch.

In his monthly restaurant piece for Gourmet, Jacobs writes, "The persona I tried to project, in print and at table, was that of the suave, cultivated man-about-town, the embodiment of savoir-faire." Though he does not quite come right out and admit as much, the Gourmet column was at heart an exercise in puffery: "The magazine's reasonable assumption was that a well-heeled, self-indulgent readership was interested only in those restaurants that could be recommended with confidence and that no useful purpose would be served by anatomizing the deficiencies of those that couldn't."

For a decade and a half Jacobs played the game, extolling the virtues of three New York eateries each month, but now that the game is over -- Gourmet ended his tenure in the late 1980s -- he is out for blood. Much of one long chapter, for example, is devoted to the various subterfuges restaurants employ in hopes of suborning reviewers, as well as to the varieties of baksheesh taken over or under the table by the subornable. The proprietor of an Upper East Side Italian restaurant "had a sordid story to tell, involving one prominent restaurant writer's rating scale: three to five thousand, depending on the warmth of the published praise, payable in advance to the reviewer's spouse, who might waive some of the payment in return for the sexual favors of a kitchen scullion of the same gender."

Not that the restaurateurs walk away unscathed. There's a withering account of a misspent evening at the Russian Tea Room, and another of the ups and downs of the Quilted Giraffe. At the latter, Jacobs admits, "I may not have ordered dinner altogether without hostility," as "the name of the place made my teeth ache, as did some interior designer's vision of a posh day-care center," and the "maitresse d'hotel minced around the dining room as though her derriere were made of baked meringue, darting glances of disapproval at any paying customers boorish enough to crack a smile or otherwise mar the solemnity of the occasion"; still, Jacobs liked the food, though his praise for the meal is less fun to read than his pan of the place's pretensions.

Speaking of pretensions, nothing gets Jacobs's dander up more than the chefs of nouvelle cuisine, the wonder boys and girls who fancy themselves the Rembrandts of the kitchen:

"The young Turks of the new wave adamantly refused to budge on any point of imagined principle, however specious it might be, supremely self-satisfied, supremely intransigent, supremely ignorant of the implicit obligations of their calling. In their obsessive drive for individual recognition, for the superstar status so negligently conferred on them by trend-fixated food writers concerned only with marketable novelty, they convinced themselves that any miscegenetic culinary marriage, previously unperpetuated by chefs too respectful of kitchen logic to sauce pompano with blueberries or oysters with maple syrup, was an original signature creation of immutable perfection."

Three cheers for that, and for the many other blows Jacobs strikes for good eating without airs, among them his praise for the blue crab of the Chesapeake and for William Warner's "felicitously written" portrait thereof, "Beautiful Swimmers"; for the lowly potato, boon companion at any meal; for home cooking and small, unknown restaurants; and for Carolina barbecued pork, to which Jacobs properly accords "absolute superiority ... among civilization's more complex and subtle beneficences." Sometimes, to be sure, Jacobs expresses these views with what one of his correspondents calls "egocentric verbiage"; but they are civilized views all the same, and to my way of eating they make "A Glutton for Punishment" a civilized book.