Stealing a Glance at Food History with Raymond Sokolov's 'Steal the Menu'

Raymond Sokolov details the history of contemporary cuisine over the past 40 years. But while to him best dishes are the simplest ones, his simplistic approach to memoir writing could use more 'salt'.

Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 256 pages
Author: Raymond Sokolov
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-05

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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