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“I must be near food at all times,” says Vogue magazine food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. Steingarten, a former lawyer, is not your typical food critic. This Harvard Law School graduate, class of 1968, has free rein to travel the world and engage in a food lover’s fantasy. As an epicurean adventurer, his palate has tasted such exotic delicacies as blue corn tortillas filled with green salsa and fried crickets in Mexico, bamboo worms in Thailand, and turtle salad in Cambodia. What stirred his love affair with food? He recalls that when he was younger, he “was not interested in cooking, but in eating.” On Friday nights, his family regularly dined at fancy restaurants before attending Broadway plays. At age 18, he spent two months in Europe with his family and ate in many fine restaurants. Certainly one does not become a food critic just because one loves to eat. So how did Steingarten become one? He says that since high school, he was interested in writing. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, he majored in English and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. Why did he go to law school? He attributes that decision to the fact that his father, Henry Steingarten, was a prominent business lawyer, and “the draft board and my parents persuaded me.” Overall, he “thought it was a good idea.” Steingarten says he enjoyed law school and “felt that it was the best education” he received. While in law school, he concurrently was enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a master’s program for city planning and urban economics. Food, however, was beginning to take on an increasingly important role in his life. Upon returning home from property law class, he tuned in to PBS to watch “a character” named Julia Child cooking. He learned to cook from the show and from Child’s cookbooks. After graduating law school in 1968, Steingarten worked with Barney Frank (now a Democratic representative from Massachusetts) as an assistant, he says, to “the first modern and liberal mayor of Boston,” Kevin White. Steingarten recalls that it was a turbulent era, replete with Vietnam War protests, school integration and busing strife, and squatters in Boston’s public gardens, and he spent much of his time trying to alleviate tensions among White’s constituents. Thereafter, he managed the unsuccessful congressional primary campaign in Middlesex County, N.J., for law school classmate Lewis Kaden, now a partner at New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell. Steingarten later worked as a legal consultant in a variety of areas, including poverty, mental health, and land use law. He belongs to the New York State Bar. Yet Steingarten still had a strong desire to write. In the late 1980s, he forced himself to decide whether his time should be devoted fully to law or to writing. He gave himself six months to resolve the matter. Law won. However, shortly after the deadline elapsed in 1988, Anna Wintour, now editor of American Vogue but then editor of HG Magazine, aware of Steingarten’s twin passions for writing and food, asked him to draft an 800-word article about microwaving fish. He submitted 4,200 words, of which 4,000 were published. A new career was born. Steingarten believes that a food critic should not have any food prejudices. Thus, in his quest to become “the perfect omnivore,” he ate foods he had always disdained — anchovies, chick peas, kimchi, and other previously distasteful fare. Steingarten says he “has not had a bad meal since 1974.” Where was that bad meal? “Nepal,” he replies. As food critic for Vogue, he has traveled the world in search of the best pizza. He has attempted to make the perfect french fry, even importing six pounds of rendered horse fat from Austria to use in its frying. He traveled throughout the South in search of the best fried chicken, finding it at Gus’s in Mason, Tenn. He even spent time at a leading health spa for the benefit of his readers, critiquing the resort’s food and its nutritional content, he says. Steingarten’s gastronomic essays have dealt with a variety of topics, including salt, bottled water, fruitcake, Tunisian cuisine, pie crust, and wedding cakes. One article describes his preparation of Turducken, a Cajun specialty consisting of a chicken stuffed inside a duck and then both stuffed inside a turkey, with stuffing in between. In one essay, he ponders “Why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?” and then investigates whether monosodium glutamate causes headaches and other symptoms frequently referred to as the Chinese restaurant syndrome. Steingarten is also credited with discovering the explanation for “the French Paradox,” why the French can consume much fat in their diets and yet suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans: red wine. Steingarten is a sensitive man. He noticed that his beloved golden retriever, Sky King, had grown tired of eating desiccated dog food pellets. Consulting leading French chefs in America as to the proper diet for his pooch, Steingarten now feeds Sky King thick soups, macaroni gratin, and rice pilaf with beef stew. Steingarten wrote, “In an ideal world, man and dog would eat the same food every day — though with less salt and fewer spices in the canine version because dogs seem to prefer their food a bit blander than we do.” Although Steingarten has dined in many of the world’s leading restaurants, he is not a food snob. He enjoys fried chicken and Milky Ways as well as caviar and royale of sea urchin with veloute of lobster. “It’s as much a thrill to have really good inexpensive food as it is to discover a wonderful new chef in Spain,” he says. Yet not all of his journeys have been pleasurable. While traveling in business class from China to Japan, he eagerly devoured an appetizer consisting of ham on a green leaf. After Steingarten became ill, his research revealed that the leaf was a taro leaf rich in oxalic acid. Apparently, it was meant to be decorative; the Chinese chef never thought anyone would eat it. Subsequently, Northwest Airlines promised to remove the taro leaf from its meals. Steingarten’s legal training still comes in handy. “I’ll often write an article based on arguing a case, especially in the nutrition area and usually showing that what people have been told by the nutritionists and the government is hogwash. And if I didn’t know how to argue a case, I wouldn’t be able to do it.” He credits the terror instilled by his law school professors for his willingness to tackle nutritionists and the government. “The good thing with terror is not much scares you in the outside world, once you get out.” He attacked the Food and Drug Administration for banning whole-milk cheeses. A famous health spa revamped its nutrition program as a result of one of his articles. “I don’t think everything has to educate people, but we have to make sure articles don’t make people stupid.” How does he select his article topics? “Usually idiotic statements in the press pile up to such an extent that I’m infuriated and have to write about it,” says Steingarten. And he does. What angers him? “People who try to take away my food and say what I shouldn’t eat. No one realizes the danger to society.” According to Steingarten, “Eating salt is not harmful except to 6 percent of the population. If you don’t have high blood pressure, don’t worry about salt.” Steingarten says that one of his favorite articles was about butter because his research required that he make his own. What inspired the article? He says that he went to his refrigerator around midnight and perused the ingredients listed on the butter container. Cream and natural flavorings were listed, but he found that some butter manufacturers “add flavors to make butter taste like butter.” Steingarten says that the best butter is Occelli butter, made by a small company in Italy. When Steingarten embarks on an investigation, he will take extreme measures in his research, if necessary. For example, he once asked Procter & Gamble for a bathtub full of Olestra to experiment with. On another occasion, he went shopping in Tunisia for a certain type of flat bread, walking through countless stalls and shops until he located the needed loaf. He persists until every detail is in place. He works out of a home office in his New York City loft because the Cond� Nast Building (where Vogue’s offices are located) has little food. “My time is my own as long as I hand in articles on time.” He adds that he “has to be disciplined to handle this.” He “stays up late doing projects involving cooking” and has “much more freedom in that regard.” Steingarten’s work necessitates much travel. “I don’t go anywhere where there is bad food.” Every two years, he plans “an extensive trip to Asia because I don’t see how a reviewer can write of Asian food without knowing what it tastes like.” Steingarten writes that Paris is a city “to which my arduous professional duties frequently take me.” Indeed, in the past year, he visited Paris twice; England, three times; Spain; Chicago; “all over California”; Maine; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Las Vegas; India; and, of course, St. Louis. In fact, he says he “must return to St. Louis for two great specialties: barbeque snoot [pig snouts] and brain sandwiches, an old German tradition.” In the past year, he also traveled to Campania, Italy, for an article on buffalo mozzarella cheese. “It’s not supposed to be creamy inside. They would not eat that around the area outside of Naples. … Creamy is a sign of decay. Here [in the United States] people praise it if it’s creamy inside.” I asked Steingarten what was in his refrigerator. Among the foods were assorted cheeses and the ingredients for Indian vegetarian food. Perhaps the subject matter of a future article. Steingarten’s culinary adventures are found in his books, the New York Times best seller “The Man Who Ate Everything” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) and “It Must Have Been Something I Ate” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). “he Man Who Ate Everything” was awarded the Julia Child Cookbook Award and the Guild of British Food Writers Prize. His essays have won a National Magazine Award and prizes from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. In 1994, France recognized his writings on French gastronomy, naming him a chevalier in the Order of Merit. Steingarten also contributes articles to the online magazine Slate. From 1998 to 2000, he co-hosted “New York Eats,” a television show on Metro TV, a station that broadcasts in the New York City metropolitan area. Steingarten and co-host Ed Levine participated in blind consumer taste tests, reviewed restaurants, cooked, and dined on the food of famous chefs. Steingarten recalls that he had fun working on the show. Recently he appeared as one of the celebrity judges on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef.” Does Steingarten miss the practice of law? He says that he misses “lots of money,” and adds that he would also like to write about other issues besides food. Perhaps in this presidential election year, he should write about the relationship between food and politics. In fact, Steingarten says, “With every other president, we knew what the president ate — but we have no idea what Bush eats.”

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