My Summer of Suck

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The only things worth talking about are sex and death. – Jean-Paul Sartre

I’m supposed to be in Italy right now. Should have been there a week already. But something sinister grabbed me by the lungs three weeks ago and hasn’t let go. All the tests say I’m healthy enough to kayak the Colorado, but my short, panicky breathing tells me otherwise. Taking a deep breath has become harder for me than ordering a vegan pizza.

I’m not exactly bedridden, but a twelve hour plane flight was more than my anxieties could bear. More specialists are on the horizon; we shall see.

In the meantime, I’ve had a lot of time to wonder why the stars have aligned to turn this into my personal Summer of Suck.

Mother dying? Check. Wicked sinus infection that laid me up for most of June? Check. Remember my busted toe? Walking was a pain for almost two months, but that’s small potatoes at this point.

Just when the physical pain, body aches, and soul-crushing loss of a loved one all seemed to be subsiding, I awoke in the middle of the night not being able to breathe. Haven’t spent a conscious minute not thinking about breathing ever since.

Many people close to me (The Food Gal®, my sister, the last sommelier who poured me a glass) think the whole thing may be in my head. With that in mind, I thought I’d explore a few theories about why this is happening. More specifically: what could be weighing on me to the point where a fundamental, automatic bodily function now feels like a daily challenge. Some of these are pretty obvious, others unique to me. Collectively they might supply some answers. Writing them down helps me take a deeper breaths while I’m typing. So there’s that.

GETTING OLD SUCKS

YARN | Getting old sucks. Don't let anybody tell you any different. | Jumanji: The Next Level | Video clips by quotes | c4d2c0cf | 紗

Who knew? It is such a cliche to say that youth is wasted on the young, life is too short, and you never really appreciate someone (or your health) until they are gone. But as you age, the import of these phrases comes into sharp relief, and their meaning weighs on you like a ghostly specter, always there whispering terrifying realities to you.

It’s a given that we always take good health for granted until some affliction grabs us. (You have no idea how much you take your bung hole for granted until hemorrhoid surgery turns your aching anus into the focal point of every waking second. DETAILS UPON REQUEST!)

The list of things that fade with age are too numerous to count. I’ve been blessed with good hair, decent skin and a great memory. (My memory is so good I sometimes wish it wasn’t. There are many events from my past, some many decades old, that I still cringe about when I remember them in excruciating detail.) My eyesight has been shitty since I was six, so aside from those annoying floaters inside my eyeballs, I can’t complain there, either.

Of course I’m heavier than I once was, and losing ten pounds seems like a Sisyphean task, which also describes my sexual performance. (Note to young men: enjoy those heroic erections while you can. After sixty, even with pharmaceutical help, you’re lucky if your penne ever gets to al dente.)

LOVE AND DEATH

“I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen

Film — Love and Death ,Woody Allen , 1975.(Your table is waiting, Mr. Curtas)

Losing your last parent is another reality that comes to us all. They were there at your beginning — bigger, stronger, wiser than you could ever hope to be. Then, over the decades, the roles reversed. They begin to decline as you ascend, and in their advanced years they look to you the way you once revered them: as a tower of strength, love and protection. If you’re lucky like I was, at least one of your parents will not go gentle into that good night, fighting back and forestalling their inevitable disintegration, retaining their mobility and their nobility right up to the end.

My father faded more quickly than my mom, dying at 80 of a blood disease, but neither of them ever lost their eyesight, their hearing, or their joie de vivre. I still remember my dad sitting up in his hospice bed, fading in and out from whatever pathogens and chemicals were coursing through his veins, but lighting up like a kid at Christmas when I brought him a plate of barbecue. Mom used to joke about his hearing: “I wish it didn’t work so well – whenever we’re whispering in the corner about his condition, he hears every word.”

So I’ve got that to look forward to: being keenly aware, through sight and sound, of every chink in the armor and leak in the machinery which is certain to befall me.

I’m dying and I know it. All of us are. The great Oliver Sacks, while literally on his deathbed, wrote a book “Gratitude” about what kept him going through his terminal illness.  As a (part-time) writer, I can see how absorption in one’s craft can supply an important diversion from the reckoning we face.

Sacks, famously, did it with his obsession with science (he was a neurologist and a total Periodic Table geek). As he put it:

“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.”

It would be nice if religion or (C12H14CaO12)n (calcium alginate) gave me a boner (or helped me sleep at night), but that’s not the way I’m hard-wired. Losing yourself in abstract principles is difficult when you have the attention span of a housefly.

LOSING AMBITION

Forever Lazy GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY(Epicurean education, 21st Century style)

I used to be great at rebooting myself, and reviving my energies, no matter how badly I crapped out at something (marriage, career setbacks, money troubles, etc.) “I never worried too much about you, you’re a survivor,” my mom always said, and I guess she was right.

For 60+ years I was great at springing to my feet and avoiding the standing eight count. Whether it was something good for me (golf, cooking, writing, work), or self-destructive (women, ego, partying like it’s 1999, all the time), my attentions vacillated from the compelling to the insatiable. (One thing that never motivated me was money, much to my ex-wives’ chagrin.)

But times have changed and age has caught up with me. As Garrison Keillor recently put it: “In your seventies, you lose your ambition.”

Boy do you ever. And when someone like me loses his motivation to prove himself (whether in the kitchen, the bedroom, or the courtroom), the wattage within has dimmed and you can feel it.

Younger people do not know this feeling. They still have mountains to climb, and an entire world of commerce exists to trade on their hopes and spurious dreams: selling them everything from cars to clothes to entertainment — each sales pitch aimed at trying to convince us how important something fungible is to our well being.

Amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it, anesthetizing ourselves in the service of mindless consumerism. The smarter among us suspend our disbelief and indulge ourselves with these perquisites of purchase, while ultimately realizing how little they mean. But you don’t realize this until you’ve drifted into old age, and one day realize how little joy you actually get from everything competing for your attention.

As I age, I have become less and less interested in: politics, the economy, global warming, abortion, culture wars, gender identities and education battles. These are future concerns; at my age, you become a man of the present.

FOOD WRITING FUTURE

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Through divorce, professional pressures and numerous ups and downs, my food writing has sustained me since 1994. Kept me level and focused when (sometimes) all I could see was despair and chaos.

For all those years, no matter what was going on, there was always a script to record, a television appearance to make, or a review to write. Thus did the world of food and restaurants become woven into the fabric of my daily life. Even with the advent of the internet, this website provided us a nice blank canvas (and a bigger microphone) from which to pepper the landscape with our opinions. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

Social media, as it slowly eats our brains, has only made things worse. “Everyone’s always sellin’,” my dad used to say, but until a dozen years ago, the only ones selling were those with something to sell, as in: an actual product. Now, everyone is their own brand, and woe to anyone under forty who isn’t constantly promoting themselves. The whole thing is exhausting, and definitely a young person’s game.

I understand why businesses do it, but long for the old days when restaurants slaved away and hungered for a little recognition in traditional media, rather than constantly bombarding customers with promotions, food porn, and chef’s lifestyle pics. I yearn for the undiscovered gem and hidden treasures — not the umpteenth video of pizza goo,   advertising disguised as influencing, or whatever the f**k this is:

Chantal Sarault / Foodie Beauty | Page 2330 | Kiwi Farms

You may find this hard to believe, but a dozen years ago, I was begging, BEGGING, restaurants to get on social media. Now my Instagram feed is nothing but a tsunami of selling, and all social media is one gigantic marketing platform.

What you gain in information, though, you lose in the romance of discovery and the seduction of surprise. Where’s the fun in knowing the whole menu, and what the food will look like, before you step through the door? By the time you get to most restaurants these days, you know everything from the brand of olive oil they use to the names of the chef’s children. God bless Chinatown, where a bit of modesty is still practiced, and they let the food (and not shite like this) do the talking:

Mishti Rahman Influencer GIF - Mishti Rahman Influencer Pretty - Discover & Share GIFs(I am so influenced now to eat this pizza)

I NEED A HOBBY

For forty years I’ve been obsessed with food. For almost thirty I’ve been writing about it. But as I’ve said since 2014: people are not interested in reading about food anymore (see above).

Something is needed to fill in the gaps of more free time which you and I will inevitably have in our later years.

My wife calls it something to propel me forward. Something which is decidedly lacking in my world right now.

On the bright side, I made a very good risotto this week which made me happy. I learned to make risotto from Marcella Hazan (in person) and that makes me proud. Maybe I’ll turn this into a cooking blog. Heaven knows the world needs more of those…

https://twitter.com/i/status/1553819294646947840

I kid. I kid. The world needs another cooking blog like I need another ex-wife. Showing off your kitchen skillz is something for which social media is beautifully suited. I think I’ll confine my creations to those venues. Maybe that’s what I should do on Tik Tok, when I’m finished looking at young women lip-syncing in their underwear.

I SUCK AT GOLF

…but not as much as this guy:

Charles Barkley Golf GIFs | Tenor

Golf was once my go-to therapy for everything from business pressures to a broken heart. I started playing when I was twelve and played a pretty respectable game (10 handicap) for about twenty-five years. My best golf came in my forties when I could break 85 on a good course without breaking a sweat. (BRAGGADOCIOS? YOU BET!)

Then, I gave it up….for twenty years! Many things conspired to end my love of golf: a divorce, the expense (playing became criminally expensive during the Tiger Woods era), losing a well-paying job in a big law firm, re-booting my career as a solo practitioner in the early aughts, and finally (and probably most important): the food thing taking off at the same time. Put them all together and my golf bag became a forlorn, discarded symbol of another me in my garage; so starved for attention that when the clubs were eventually stolen, it was probably a year or two before I even knew they were gone.

But all golfers are secretly gluttons for punishment. So against all odds, I decided to dust off the old irons about a year ago and have been diligently pounding balls at the driving range at least once a week — fully aware that my best golf is like a long-gone ingenue whose beauty will never be recaptured…even if an old diva like yours truly won’t admit it:

Is it better to speak, or to die?(Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my pitching wedge)

There are many reasons for this: 1) Golf is hard. 2) Golf is really hard when you have a twenty-pound gut on you that wasn’t there twenty years ago. 3) You’re way less limber. And finally, 4) your bifocals wreck havoc on any attempt to focus on the ball — either just sitting there, waiting to be whacked, or anywhere it happens to go in flight (usually sideways).

In other words, I’m not as strong, or as flexible as I once was. I can’t see the ball worth a shit whether it’s right in front of me or flying through the air. (The skulled grounders I hit I can follow just fine, thank you.) My coordination has faded and my swing now flows less like syrup and more like a busted jalopy constructed of spare parts.

It makes NO SENSE whatsoever for me to put myself through this humiliation, but am I going to stick with it? You bet!

At this point, golf is like sex: something I used to be fairly good at that still beckons me, even though my performance falls woefully short of my previous standards. The benefit of golf is there’s no one balefully staring up at you when, once again, your putter comes up short. But I continue to chop away, taking comfort in the words of three-time Masters champion Jimmy Demaret: “Golf and sex are the two things in life you don’t have to be any good at to still enjoy.”

NOSTALGIA BITES

Nostalgia GIFs | Tenor

The late Christopher Hitchens once said that when you turn sixty, you start looking back. I’ve delayed that process for ten years, but am now reckoning with it. But It’s hard to turn a rose-colored gaze on the gauzy memories of the past when sadness lays heavy on your breast and you have trouble taking a breath.

I have too many pictures, too many books, too many menus, and too many memories to cull through. Things that once comforted me, now feel like a burden. The thought of looking through decades old albums of times both good and bad, should bring a smile to my face. Instead, I think of them with dread, as if revisiting the past diminishes the present, or reminds me of the person I will never be again.

SELF DIAGNOSIS

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Some people (like me), love to go whistling past the graveyard — feigning nonchalance with the confidence of a teenager — but we know we’re only fooling ourselves. The Boogeyman under your bed may be in your imagination as a child, but the Grim Reaper is all too real, and standing at the end of your personal cornfield as an adult — ready to reduce your sentient stalk to a pile of dust.

Maybe the cure is simple for my summer of suck: to find meaning in the simple pleasures and tender mercies of everyday life. It has been very hard for me to do that over the past two months, but keep trying I will, because giving up is not yet an option.

Growing old will not make me a better person. (Turning fifty and settling down with my wife did that.) I intend to be the same feisty, not-suffering fools dude I’ve been for my entire adult life. There will be no religious conversion, no new leaves overturned, and no kinder-gentler persona adopted. By my age, your personality is pretty much set in stone, but the stage upon which my performance occurs doesn’t have to be. I may fit the official definition of an old man but I am not ready to be one.

Something has to change.

I need to find another mountain to climb.

The Evolution of a Critic

http://images2.fanpop.com/image/photos/14400000/Ego-anton-ego-14471062-1295-575.jpg

(Ed. note: People are always asking me” “How did you become a food critic?” Here is the answer.)

Food writer John Mariani once said there are 3 kinds of restaurant critics: “The slobs, the snobs and the oh goodie goodies.”

The slobs are professional writers who either get thrown into, or decide to write about food sometime in mid-career. Being writers by trade, their qualifications for the gig (when they start out) usually consists of being able to write a cogent paragraph and knowing what they like to eat. Ask any editor and they will tell you they prefer a real writer who wants to become a food critic, to a passionate foodie who wants to (try to) become a writer. Getting real writers to write about real restaurants is usually a lot easier than getting them into a collared shirt.

Mariani properly pegged me as a “oh goodie goodie” type of critic years ago. For the longest time, I ate everything in sight and was pleased as punch that Las Vegas was taking its place on the world’s gastronomic stage. Somewhere over the past decade, I shed my omnivorous obsessions and replaced them with unabashed epicurean snobbery, and therein lies the tale.

John Anthony Curtas was practically raised in American restaurants. As a preteen in the 1960s, I circumnavigated the United States with my family, eating in the best restaurants in town from Miami to Seattle, New York to New Orleans. My  parents were hardly “to the menu born,” but both had a healthy appreciation for good food, and wanted their children (me, two sisters and a brother) to experience the best of eating out. Neither parent was a gourmet; we never had wine or liquor in our house, and seafood was as foreign to our table as chopsticks. But what Mom and Dad loved was going out to a restaurant — dressing us all up and making a night of it. To them, dining out was about the experience of leaving the confines of home and seeking the thrill of being served good food in a fabulous place where they waited on you hand and foot. Wherever we traveled, they always sought out the best restaurant in town and the best table in the house —  the better to experience the theater of great dining.

As a young adult I started cooking more out of poverty than choice. My older sister gave me a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine in 1978 that I ate up, literally and figuratively. An early girlfriend and the second Mrs. John A. Curtas were both foodies before there was such a term, and they indulged my then passion for Chinese food. By 1980 I had pretty much cooked my way through The Chinese Menu Cookbook, (Joanne Hush and Peter Wong, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1976), and was seduced by the Szechuan food craze that was all the rage by then. (Yes, there was a Szechuan food craze in those prehistoric times, and I have the cookbooks to prove it.)

My ex-wife was even so kind as to compile a list of Chinese grocery stores for me, when we first moved to Vegas in 1981, so I could continue working my way through the various regional cuisines. Until around 1990, if you had asked me what my favorite food in the world was, I would’ve answered the strong, salty, sour and hot foods of the Sichuan and Hunan provinces of China. (Then and now, the textural nuances of Cantonese cooking, and the folderol of  Mandarin banquets, remain more of a curiosity than a keen pursuit.)

Wedged into all of this was a move back east in the mid-1980s — where I lived mere 50 miles from mid-town Manhattan. It was a seminal time for American food, and I consumed the New York restaurant scene wholesale, as Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, Larry Forgione, et al developed a food-centric, wine-friendly, customer-casual template that put baby-boomers at ease with sophistication without pretense.

In 1990, after five years of eating in places like Odeon, the Coach House, Four Seasons, Peter Luger, and the Union Square Cafe (not to mention enjoying the best seafood in America every summer on Nantucket), I moved back to Las Vegas and surveyed the edible landscape. It was not a pretty sight. The best restaurants in town were two chain steakhouses: Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s. Every hotel had five eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and Italian, and a (not-very) “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine” from some unnamed continent. All of them facing the keno pit, or so it seemed. Marcel Taylor — the Caesars Palace dealer who brought Ruth’s Chris to town in 1989 — told me the philosophy of every hotel back then was to capture the casino customer and never let them out the front door. As he put it, “…they figured we have every place anyone could ever want to eat in right here, what more could they (the tourists) want?”

But want they did, and when Ruth’s Chris realized its Vegas outpost was outselling all its other franchises, the word quickly spread to upscale chains and chefs everywhere that Las Vegas was the place to be. Late 1992 brought the opening of Spago, and soon thereafter, Mark Miller, Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse planted their flags in the MGM. Suddenly, we had a real restaurant scene.

The only thing lacking was a serious critic to write about it. Hard to believe 23 years later, but in 1994, the only person covering restaurants in Las Vegas was the mother-in-law of a certain newspaper owner. She belonged to the “My friend Mabel had the chicken soup and she thought it was a bit salty” school of food writing, and was avidly followed every week by what few society matrons there were in town.

So, I stepped into the breach. It took a year of hounding media outlets, but finally, in October, 1995,  I got a shot at being the Nevada Public Radio food critic — a position I pretty much invented for myself and a gig that lasted until 2011. Did I know anything about radio? Absolutely not. But I knew a helluva lot about food, and could put two sentences together, and looked great in a button-down shirt. As I like to say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. For five years I was the only game in town when it came to critiquing serious restaurants in a serious way. It would not be until 2001 that our main newspaper hired a full-time food writer, and in keeping with tradition, they made sure she was of the “My friend Edna had the steak and she thought it was a little chewy” school of food writing.

The Nineties brought multiple trips to France and Italy, and writing for all sorts of magazines and guidebooks. It was then that I honed both my palate and my writing. It took a decade plus, but only after all those meals, travel and reviews did I begin to appreciate my subject matter and my relationship to it. Food is the most intimate relationship we will ever have, and allowing strangers to cook it for us is an oddly perverse ritual which many struggle to understand. (It’s the reason so many people have a chip on their shoulder when they eat out.) Giving over our bodies, our health, and our mouths to persons unknown, and paying them for the privilege of feeding all three, is surrendering an inordinate amount of power to a stranger — and paying them money for the privilege of taking advantage of you. It is this curious dynamic that continues to fascinate me, as much as anything that I shove in my piehole.

As for the food, then and now the ingredient-driven Italians and technique-driven French have always fascinated my palate. French food — more than any other on earth — is driven by the extraction, concentration and layering of flavors. Italian cuisine — in all of its regional glories — celebrates the simplicity of the raw material, while a Frenchman tries to make it taste even more like itself. The yin and yang of these philosophies still hold me in their thrall, and, of course, they both make the best wine on the planet (sorry Spain and California).

Enter Japan. Japanese food is about the quest for perfection, and in many ways, eating Japanese food in America and Japan has refined my tastes even further and eliminated my helter-skelter insatiability. No longer am I a galloping gourmand, happily ingesting everything in sight. Now, in my sixties, I seek the unobtainable grail of the quintessential. Like a Japanese chef, I take interest in the details of the divine.  A wasted meal, or even an ingredient, puts me in a bad mood. I have eaten so much of everything that I now simply want the best of anything — be it in a street taco, a glass of wine, or a piece of fish.

I am no longer an “oh, goodie goodie,” and I am certainly not a slob. It is said that to become a gourmet, like becoming a first class horseman, you have to start young. I am an epicure and I started very young. But there are many more steps before me, and it is this mountain that I continue to climb.

Food is life itself, the rest is parsley. – Alan Richman