“We have few words for flavor, just as we have few words for desire. This does not mean we do not wish to talk about them”
— Jeff Weinstein. Learning to Eat
Eight in the morning on the West Coast, eleven in Bellport, Long Island, The Village Voice senior editor and restaurant critic, Jeff Weinstein, pads through his living room, cordless telephone in hand. From across the country, his voice is soft and confiding in my ear. In response to my questions, he tells me he's wearing a dark brown rayon shirt printed with large white and green sailboats, white shorts, orange-plastic flip-flops. His dark hair is beginning to grey, he’s beginning to look his age (41). Weinstein, for eight years, lived in San Diego, was a UCSD graduate student and SDSU English instructor and a freelance writer.
He envies me, he says, my living in California. He thinks about San Diego “all the time. Whenever I eat an avocado, every time I buy an Hawaiian shirt, when I feel physically comfortable — because I often felt comfortable in San Diego." He misses the stretch of beach at Torrey Pines, San Diego's Vietnamese restaurants. "But what I miss most about California," he says, "every waking moment, is Mexican food. The smell of lard coming out of a restaurant's exhaust fan.'
"The best eating I've had in the '80s has been in California. The extraordinary inventions going on in the state are not just exoticism but have a conscious ideology." An ideology, Weinstein suggests, that grew out of California chefs' "ultimately utopian search for purity, for unprocessed, chemical-free food, for a world in which you can feel safe and relaxed about what you're eating, breathing, and drinking.
"When California chefs went further, beyond their health-food roots, and recognized that there is a world out there — France, Italy, Japan, and all of Asia — then that initial purity, which can be a little daunting and, in fact, restrictive, began to open up. The results have wrought permanent changes, not only in the way American restaurant food is cooked but in the way we in America think about food."
Learning to Eat, Weinstein’s new book, sits on the floor next to my bare foot. Framed by the jacket's mustard margin, Weinstein's face — in black and white — looks up at me. The hair that, in the 70s, was long and pulled back with a rubber band into what Weinstein describes as “a puritanical ponytail," is now stylishly cut — high on the top, close to the sides. Wire-rim spectacles sit atop a straight, assertive nose. The dimpled chin nestles in his palm. Beneath a mustache — part Groucho, part Chaplin-as-Little Dictator — the full bottom lip, even in black and white, can only be called sensuous. It is a mouth easy to imagine lustered by pink lamb, a fleck of spinach, a pastry crumb in its corner. When I ask about the mustache, Weinstein tells me that to avoid its lower edge making contact with sauces, he keeps his mustache trimmed a bit high, well off the upper lip.
For Learning to Eat, Weinstein selected 72 pieces from seven years (1979 to 1986) of his writing for The Village Voice. He chose, he says, those pieces that gave him most pleasure and that he believed would "hold up best." The majority had their first printing in Weinstein’s column, "Eating Around." Others are book reviews (Orville Schell's Modern Meat) or features ("The Last Cornflake Show," in which Weinstein visits Battle Creek on the day of the last tour of Kellogg's Corn Flakes factory).
Born in Manhattan in 1947, Weinstein grew up in a Jewish-ltalian neighborhood with a Jewish father and Italian mother. At seven he was diagnosed as diabetic. It became necessary for him to pay attention to what he ate and when. From that time on, says Weinstein, he was very aware of food.
His mother was not an indifferent cook, but she tended to regard cooking for her husband, for Jeff, and his younger brother as a chore (about which Weinstein, clearly, is not resentful). The family was served Jewish and Italian cooking, stuffed mushrooms and a terrific Sicilian red sauce among Mrs. Weinstein’s specialties. When convenience foods became popular, she used those. "We were thrilled," says Weinstein, "with TV dinners."
Among cookbooks his mother used was The Settlement Cookbook, by Mrs. Simon Kander. Weinstein characterizes it as something of a "Jewish Joy of Cooking,” and he recalls it fondly for its "lovely cover — a heart and stomach, close together, which seemed to illustrate that old saw that 'the way to a man's heart was through his stomach.' "
The family sometimes ate out, and Weinstein is fond of saying that he "learned to read menus just after he learned to watch television — very early in life.” He has written. "It was through menus, very early, that I realized we were not rich and sometimes had to be careful... I was always gently warned off anything á la carte."
"My father,” Weinstein tells me, "was an honest used car dealer. He loved restaurants. He would often do business in them, and he knew the chefs. Our really wonderful, intimate times, when there was only him and me, were spent in restaurants. I would find myself sitting in the kitchen of a restaurant in Bensonhurst, listening to adults talk about things they didn't want me to hear and watching a man pull a noisy, spattering veal chop from the oven and be as happy as I could possibly be"
During Weinstein's high school years ("happy and unhappy"), in the early '60s, "when JFK was Idlewild and the new 707s were not yet muffled and routed over water" his family lived next to the airport in Howard Beach. The Weinsteins' second-story apartment was "built on fortified swamp." Jets flying over made walls rattle and statuary fall.
At John Adams High School, in Ozone Park, Queens, Weinstein co-edited the school newspaper, wrote the script for the senior variety show. The Wizard of Ozone Park, and — donning a white dress, with a rag mop for a wig — took the part of the Good Witch. After graduation from high school. Weinstein received a scholarship to Brandeis University, near Boston. He majored in biology. He recognized he was "deeply interested in almost everything but plant biology," and after four years at Brandeis, Weinstein went on to the University of California at Riverside to attend graduate school in the sciences. He arrived in Riverside in the fall of 1968, on his 21st birthday.