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Courage, In the Raw

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When it comes to breaking out of ruts and assumptions, food writer Gael Greene knows how to do it – both in the kitchen and in life.

If you know food, you know Gael Greene as the fearless, sensual, soul-baring journalist who all but single-handedly defined food writing for the postwar generation. What you might be surprised to learn is that this fearless writer – who shared all in her ground-breaking columns in the 1970s and 1980s – was raised not to be a bold journalist, but to be a nice, demure, white-gloved Midwestern lady who, above all, should keep her white gloves clean.

Curious to know how such a person manages to bust out of a life of predetermined ruts and limitations? Turn to Greene’s new memoir, Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess (Warner Books, 2006), in which she tells the absorbing story of a good Midwestern girl who turned herself into a bold New York woman, and changed a whole facet of journalism in the process.

“Well, you know, I think everyone starts out life as I did,” Greene told me when I spoke to her in her New York office – and made a pest of myself peppering her with questions about how she got to be so fearless. “You start out going along with whatever is happening – which for me was that 1950s conservative, constricted time: white gloves, pantywaists [and so on]. When I look back, I think the difference in my life was initially made by my father, who was wonderful. He always said: ‘Whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to be brilliant at it.’ My first published pieces in the newspaper, tiny things, he carried them in his wallet and told everyone what a big success I was. That gives you so much. After that, I think it was a matter of wanting adventure – and if you want adventure, when it comes, you must gird yourself, square your shoulders and go on in.”

For instance, when she was just out of college, still living at home in Michigan, Greene knew she wanted a newspaper job writing in New York City. When she heard of a vacation-only opening for a mere two weeks at the New York Post, she quit her Midwestern job, packed her bags and moved across the country, prudence and safety nets be darned. Once at the Post, she quickly learned that if you’re open to adventure, life becomes incredibly exciting, both on and off the plate.

Willing to Try Anything

The Post at the time was owned by a woman, and so it was one of the rare newsrooms to encourage women to take on the grueling assignments that come with the territory: Greene soon found herself on the “vulture beat,” covering murders, and deep in the South, working on dangerous civil rights cases. When she wasn’t on assignment she was exploring the gourmand’s side of life: stocking up on exotic mustards and preserved fruits from French gourmet shop Fauchon, adapting then-famous recipes like Café Chauveron’s mussels in Chardonnay cream, glazed beneath the broiler, and saving all her pennies for trips to France to dine at temples of high cuisine like La Pyramide.

When I asked Greene how she found the courage not to second-guess herself when she took these massive leaps into unfamiliar territory, she told me her words to live by: “You just go – you just go,” Greene told me.

She kept sneakers under her desk for writing assignments that sent her into physically treacherous territory, and if a French chef invited her to see how the mustard-slicked duck was prepared, she didn’t worry whether her French was up to the task, she just went.

“It was awful,” doing some of those crime pieces, Greene told me. “But it was liberating, too. You’d have to gird yourself to do it, and after doing that a dozen times, your idea of what’s impossible to say or ask changes quite a lot.” Ditto for the food, which Greene details in prose, but also in 14 recipes she picked to illustrate various points in her life, and America’s simultaneously evolving tastes – for example, a mushroom strudel from her early married days, or wine-sauced “Jean Troisgros’s Figs Candy Blue” from time spent in Napa Valley before that wine region was as famous as it is today.

Derring-Do

Glazing mussels in Chardonnay beneath the broiler, climbing about train trestles in sneakers, it all sounds so intimidatingly fearless to me – in fact, I think “Fearless” would have been as good a title for this memoir-with-recipes as “Insatiable.” So, I asked Greene, was she really so brave? Is there any real difference between being fearless and acting fearless?

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” she told me. “I really am full of all the insecurities and fears that everyone has. When I went to my first renowned restaurant, I had every typical, every possible anxiety: ‘I’m going to be late. I’m going to be lost. They’re not going to like me. They’re going to immediately see that my shoes are not worth $600, and that I don’t fit in here.’ You still have to act as if it’s OK and you are ‘it.’ If you took away from my memoir the idea that, in life, you often have to act as if you’re fearless, that would be fine by me.

“Acting fearless, of course, is not the same thing as being fearless, but a lot of the time they lead you to the same place.” Which place is that? The one where you’re out of your rut and into adventure.

Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Nominated five times for James Beard Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she received two awards for her restaurant and wine columns in the Village Voice–owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been included in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.

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