Why I love Jeffrey Steingarten, part II
Question posted by Bill Klapp from the previously mentioned egullet forum.
Since I am still taking heat from my wife for once having driven 90 minutes each way in the dead of the Piemontese winter for a taste of highly touted gelato, I am most empathetic with your travels and travails in search of the very best of certain foods. Nevertheless, the Mike Wallace in me wants to ask you, with his patented condescending sneer and arched eyebrow, "Oh, come on now, Mr. Steingarten! Do you really expect us to believe that you tried to bake the perfect pizza using the self-cleaning cycle of your home oven?" Actually, I cannot bring myself to do that, since I share your quest for the perfect pizza (and have long since concluded that there is no substitute for a wood-fired oven), and I personally see nothing the least bit implausible in that particular experiment. Likewise, being a lawyer myself, being critical of Type-A obsessions in others would be the proverbial pot calling the kettle anal-retentive. But you can be honest with us--do you not add a little yeast (and perhaps wheat gluten, too) to the truth now and again, in the interest of the well-told story?
You posed this question in such a gentlemanly way! But your questioning whether I would actually set my oven on the cleaning cycle to bake a pizza makes me wonder about your true commitment to pizza. I hope I'm wrong. Of course I would monkey with my oven. No big whoop! After all, I did great damage to my BBQ grill and would gladly do it again, though not quite so stupidly. And just before we sold our San Diego house to move temporarily into a rented version, I finally figured out how to defeat the interlock on the door that prevents one from opening it at the height of the cleaning cycle.
Truth, literal truth--that's a very important question to me and very complicated
In general, I would claim that everything I write is true, usually down to the smaller detaills. Maybe that's because my imagination is not rich enough to make things up. When I've tried, on one or two occasions, the results have sounded false and hollow.
I've been on two panels, years apart, with my friend Ruth Reichl when this question has bee asked: Do you feel the need always to tell the truth?
Ruth's answer is, no. People don't read her to get the truth (even though she is, after all, writing about people and events), but to get a good story, and in any event, she's mainly interested in writing a good story, not a true story. I was shocked.
My view was precisely the opposite. I always tell the truth. I even try to be careful when telling a story not to monkey with the chronology, always tempting when your reporting one experiences that may have occured over the course of a month or a year. People always ask my wife or my assistant Elizabeth, did you really make ten thousand pigeon pies, etc., etc., and they always answer, sure, of course, what did you think. I suppose that people raise the question because they wonder how a grown man could possibly be so dumb....
It's also about this: The world is so weird, so surreal so much of the time that there's no need to make things up. And if you're a writer and find that a story you're telling is turning out boring, either tell a different story or tell this one in a different way.
But before I get even higher on my high horse, let me tell you about the difficulties and ironies in my position. I remember spending an hour or two in the market in Meknes in Tunisia. I was with a group, and everybody in the know had prepared me for an active and interesting market. It was one of the only markets I've been to around the Mediterranean that I would describe as tedious and tiresome. Even the stuffed flatbreads I was hungrily looking forward to didn't seem to exist. The butchers in their stalls decorated with bloody calves heads were using an amazingly huge, oddly shaped, and threatening kind of cleaver, and I should have bought one or two of them, but I wasn't smart enough to think of it soon enough.
Anyway, I had time left in the market and nothing very interesting, and so I wandered off into dark, narrow, and untravelled alleys off the market. Maybe I would discover something interesting, but more likely something really revolting, such as a ten food pile of bloody calf intestines, or even better, maybe I'd be kidnapped and held for ransom. That would be an article!
So, I immediately stopped myself. Here I was, committed to writing only the truth, but trying to make the truth much more interesting than it had wanted to be that morning. In theory, the test is simple. Would I being doing this particular thing if I weren't writing about it? The answer is often yes--after all, I did have a somewhat secret life as a food explorer before I did it for a living. But would I make ten versions of coq au vin with real old live Brooklyn rooster or settle for five? That's a different question. That's for the purpose of meticulous recipe development and testing, which I owe to my readers not necessarily to myself.
Until I come up with a succinct test, I'll leave it at this: Tell the truth, but remember that there are at least two ways of deviating from it. One is making things up and the other is making things better.