In Steal the Menu, Raymond Sokolov attempts not only to detail the history of contemporary cuisine over the past 40 years, but also his immense contribution to this history. He is, after all, a prolific writer who served as the food editor for The New York Times, pioneered food anthropology through his contributions to Natural History magazine, and wrote for the Wall Street Journal for almost 20 years. Further, he is the brain behind the famous books The Saucier’s Apprentice (1976) and How to Cook (1986), educating thousands of professionals and home cooks alike.
If you ever wanted to pick at a food critic’s brain, Steal the Menu gives you the opportunity to do so. It reads like an in-depth conversation, which has both its pros and cons. The biggest benefit of the book’s conversational format is that it serves as the most intimate account of Sokolov’s career that you will ever get. This does not necessarily mean that his plentiful anecdotes are particularly riveting, however: he covers so much that he seems to just skim the surface on different aspects of his life. It’s a shame, since he’s such a gifted and humorous storyteller that he even makes tasting dog food sound like an epicurean delight.
But Sokolov does not recount all of his memorable meals in the same manner, as his descriptions vacillate from being colloquial and relaxed to pretentious and stiff. All of these meals may have been unforgettable to Sokolov, but his run-of-the-mill descriptions of them are, alas, forgettable to the reader.
Moreover, Sokolov tends to ramble on about rather unimportant topics such as his days as a National Spelling Bee contestant. While this story supports the fact that Sokolov is undeniably intelligent, it only marginally impacted my perception of him as a food writer. I would have instead preferred to hear more about why he decided to stick with food writing as opposed to his original position as a book critic or the personal struggles he faced as a freelancer.
Although Sokolov certainly does not shy away from low moments of his career, his retellings of them are, for the most part, emotionless and bland. This is a memoir, after all, and readers expect to hear about the author’s ups and downs.
Fortunately, Sokolov redeems himself with his truly thought-provoking introspection about the development of cuisine since the latter half of the 20th century. His best anecdotes are the ones that directly invoke his background as a Harvard-trained classicist, as he keenly historicizes the food item or trend in question when he does. In fact, the book’s cover mimics a Roman mosaic, which both pays homage to Sokolov’s educational background and also suggests that he primarily regards himself as a food historian.
Indeed, historicizing food and thinking critically about its development is precisely why Sokolov has cultivated immense respect and popularity throughout his career. For example, he takes a moment to mention that it was all due to the groundbreaking Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, which granted American immigration rights to those from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, that Sichuan cuisine really took off in America in the late ‘60s.
He also refreshingly details meals that he has enjoyed in overlooked cities like Duluth and Kansas City, speaking of their allegiance to unique local tastes. Details like these reinforce that Sokolov wants his readers to be curious and well informed about the historical and cultural forces that shape what we eat, which very few food writers have been able to successfully accomplish. If only he had done this more often in Steal the Menu, readers could have gotten a deeper sense of Sokolov’s true greatness.
Interestingly enough, I felt that Sokolov did a better job conveying the transformations that journalism itself has undergone during his career than those of contemporary cuisine. In just a few pages, he succinctly captures how food writing has drastically transformed since his days at the New York Times and even the Wall Street Journal: whereas in the old days he was the main authority on what to eat and where to eat it, Sokolov admits that in the Internet age, he has confided in sites such as Yelp and Zagat when visiting different cities. One must appreciate the fact that he has obviously embraced the shifting role of the critic as the voice for the people to the voice of the people by allowing his readers to occasionally serve as his guides, even though he warns today’s burgeoning “foodies” that celebrity chefs such as Paula Deen and Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard are a bit overrated.
While simplicity is key for Sokolov, Steal the Menu suffers from being too simple at times. On the one hand, it’s peppered with humor and intelligence, but on the other hand, it’s unmemorable and tedious. If you’re looking for descriptions so mouthwatering that you feel that you are dining at the world’s finest restaurants, then you should probably look elsewhere, but Steal the Menu is worth taking a look at if you are curious about how food writing has developed over the past 40 years from the perspective of one of its masters.
Steal the Menu is overall pretty satisfying, but it will leave the reader craving for much more.