In late February, 1980, I was sparring in a karate class at Yale’s Paine Whitney Gym with a guy named Chris Angerman, who was in the elite director’s program at the Yale School of Drama and was reviewing plays for New Haven’s weekly “alternative” paper, The Advocate. When Chris was done not beating me up (he was a brown belt; me, near-perennial white), I asked him how he got that gig. And he said, “Oh, just go see George DeStefano, he’s the Arts editor, he’ll set you up.”
I had just turned 30. I had spent my 20s involved in a number of activities. One was making the revolution (we know how that turned out). Another was starting a family. A third was very, very frequent cooking. There was also near-daily running and weekly or twice-weekly karate.
For money, I sometimes taught school, I once drove a truck for a while, and I was also an electrician’s apprentice. Mostly I drove a cab. That was the thing I did, in New York, in Worcester, and in Somerville.
I also tried to “be a writer.” I am not sure why the quotes there; it’s just always felt like that: “I want to be a writer.” I didn’t know what that meant, really. I wrote really bad fiction about things I knew nothing about, I wrote travel stories whenever I went anywhere, I wrote about repairing bicycles, I wrote about politics, about making the revolution … I wrote about anything I could think about, and no one was interested. I have some of those writings, and I understand why.
In 1978 my then-wife Karen and I moved to New Haven with our then-baby daughter Kate. I’d taken a “real” job with the company of the father of my best friend from childhood. (His name is Mark Roth, and he now runs the company.) I was a traveling salesman, driving from store to store, on any given day from Danbury to Waterbury to Torrington to Winsted (for example), selling photographic equipment to owners of photo stores.
So for two years, from early 1978 to early 1980, I did that, I cooked for Kate, and for and with Karen, I went running, I did karate, I tried to “become a writer.”
My memory is not bad, at least when I’m paying attention in the first place, but I don’t remember the name of the restaurant reviewers for the New Haven Advocate in early 1980. I do know that they were a couple, and I know I never met them. I also knew that they had no idea what they were talking about. Like: They didn’t understand food, and it seemed to me that I did. It also occurred to me that, having failed to sell any article about anything in those few years, I might try to sell an article about food. I didn’t know how to go about doing that, but eventually I had an idea.
I also know that the day after Chris Angerman didn’t clobber me I walked into the Advocate offices, asked for George DeStefano, and was sent on back. There was no security in those days. (It freaks me out that 1980, time-wise, is roughly equidistant from 9/11 as we are now.)
And I said to George, "I’m Mark Bittman and I want to be your restaurant reviewer."
He: “I already have restaurant reviewers.”
Me: “Yes, but they stink. I’ll be better.” (I sometimes say that I’ve been truly arrogant twice in my life. This was one of those times.)
He: “Ok, write me a review and if it’s better you’re in.”
I swear it was about like that. Maybe if George surfaces he’ll have a different version, but likely not – for me, this was life-changing. For him, it was a day at the office.
I didn’t really want to be a restaurant reviewer; even then, I thought most restaurants were pains in the ass. Needless to say, I’ve been to a few good ones since, but most of the time … well, you can read the piece below and see what it tells you. (Believe it or not, the article was not published online, so we reproduced it on Heated.)
I don’t know what it tells me. It’s opinionated, for sure, which has served me well. How well-informed it is is another question, and while I don’t feel embarrassed by it … well, I hope it shows that I’ve grown into the work. There’s so much more to tell: I turned a restaurant column into a cooking column (and was pretty happy about that), I began writing about wine, I started working for the non-alternative paper in New Haven, and for Connecticut Magazine … but for now, I’m celebrating—today!—40 years of being a published writer.
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