"What I miss most about California, every waking moment, is Mexican food. The smell of lard coming out of a restaurant's exhaust fan."
“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.'
For his first Reader review, Weinstein chose the downtown Korea House — not, says Weinstein, that he knew anything about Korean food.
"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.
The city, he says, "was my introduction to everything I loved and hated about California. Riverside looked like a big saucer filled with dirty water. The smoggiest place I'd ever been. But the image I most remember is this: my first week in Riverside. I went to an Alpha Beta supermarket. And outside this giant market were stacked flats and flats of just-picked strawberries. I had never seen so many strawberries! And for ten cents a pint! For the first time in my life, I ate more than enough strawberries. I knew I was in California."
But a biochemistry doctorate was not what he wanted. Also, he was lonesome. He had friends from Brandeis in California, but they all attended UCSD. Every weekend he drove — 70 miles an hour — from Riverside to La Jolla. One night, over dinner in La Jolla. Weinstein’s friends convinced him to change his major to English and American literature and to transfer to UCSD. "For me, everything important happens over dinner." says Weinstein.
August 1969, he rented an apartment in Encinitas (he'd later move to Del Mar), enrolled at UCSD, and became a teaching assistant in humanities. At UCSD, Weinstein became a member of the Radical Coalition, a leftist student group. The coalition supported the then-active anti-war movement, women’s liberation, and the United Farm Workers’ lettuce boycott against Safeway Weinstein helped publish North Star, a radical student newspaper.
The Radical Coalition, on weekends, picketed Safeway stores. In Oceanside, says Weinstein, "There was a tough Safeway. People who opposed the boycott would go in and buy lettuce, then bring it outside and throw it at us. A sheriff there one day pulled a gun on us and told us. Never show your little asses here again.' ”
Looking back, what Weinstein feels is the most important event in his years in San Diego was his recognition that he was more attracted, romantically and sexually, to men than to women. Before the late '60s, early ’70s, few gay men or women were public about sexual preference. Young men and women who felt that perhaps they did prefer those of their own gender had few if any models for behavior.
"Growing up." Weinstein explains, "some men know immediately that they are attracted to other men. But some people — and I was one of those people — simply don’t know. It’s almost a matter of figuring out, for yourself, what attraction is." So that the first step in coming out, at the time that Weinstein did. was. he says, "a coming out to yourself," a "private discovery” that it was your own gender to which you were most deeply attracted.
Once Weinstein made and acknowledged that discovery, he came out publicly. He and a fellow student, Melvyn, were the first people in their university community group to do so. “We spoke about our coming out at every opportunity. We created opportunities to talk about it. Other people, of course, followed, which was what we hoped would happen.
“I came out," he says, "with a certain bumpiness. It was easy in a way because we — Melvyn and I — connected coming out to other changes in society. But it wasn't that easy. The Radical Coalition people didn't all like it, didn't understand it. Many of the men in the Coalition were not especially pleased.
"One day, a younger faculty member said he wanted to talk to me. He started walking me around the Humanities library. He said. 'You know that by doing this, you're putting yourself at great risk. Why are you making trouble for yourself and for us?' I took one look at him, and I realized, This is the enemy.' I was being threatened and did not like it. Other people were very supportive."
After he came out. how did he feel? "I felt like a human being. God knows what I felt like before."
In the early '70s in New York City and the Bay Area, male and female feminists, straight and gay, to spark discussion of gender roles, began to cross-dress and, in the case of the males, to wear makeup. Several male members of the Radical Coalition, Weinstein among them, soon began to paint their faces.
Wasn’t it difficult, I ask, to learn to apply cosmetics? Weinstein laughs. "The question was, ‘Do I want it to look natural?’ I wanted to wear makeup to show people I was wearing makeup."
When people questioned him as to why he was wearing eyeliner and shadow, how would he respond? "I’d look at them and say, 'I like the way it looks!' and if they were interested in more yakking from a pompous graduate student, I’d talk about the assumptions our culture makes about gender roles. I really wanted to make people examine these assumptions."
In 1971, Weinstein started attending gay liberation meetings in downtown San Diego. "We met in people's living rooms — men and women — a telephone company employee, students, surfers, department store clerks."
He discovered the city’s gay bars, among them the Barbary Coast. "Typically, my routine in graduate school was this. I’d stay in the library until early evening, then with my friend Melvyn go bar hopping, usually to the Barbary Coast. During the week, the Barbary Coast was a pretty slow and dark and empty place to look forward to, but it became lively on weekends. It attracted a mixed clientele, sailors in and out of uniform, people from all over the city, from San Diego State, even a few people from UCSD.
"As we kept going there, we started making real friends." He introduced straight friends to the Barbary Coast. "They’d take a good look around, and then they’d started dancing."
He remembers vividly that, at some point, the Barbary Coast must have been considered an important part of San Diego to show to visitors. "It was in the mid- '70s when Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda came to the Barbary Coast, and she stood on the dais there and received a bouquet of roses from the Empress of San Diego, a drag queen."
Weinstein says he wouldn’t want to leave the impression that he spent his years at UCSD just picketing Safeway, eating, dancing, and running around. "Teaching assistants in the humanities had a big teaching load. We meet with classes three times a week. I was thought of as a very rigorous teacher." He also had his own course work formed a union for teaching assistants and served on a panel that examined and made recommendations for curriculum.
What were the writers he was reading in those years "The reading I did most rigorously I did for my as a teaching assistant. Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx. We had always to keep at least a week ahead of our students. In my own work, I was specializing in English Romantic poetry — Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley.
“Apart from classes. I was reading Jacques Ellul, the French Catholic socialist-theologian. McLuhan, although he was out of fashion by then, I liked him anyway. Morris Peckham, Jane Austen, with great pleasure, when I felt uncomfortable and unhappy. Doris Lessing's novels The Golden Notebooks, The Four-Gated City. Lessing's are the books that really changed the way I thought about writing.'’
Then, as now, Weinstein was not known as an exceptional cook. Living in San Diego, his ideal breakfast was organic jack cheese, papaya with fresh lime, and two eggs en cocotte. Like his mother, Weinstein did make "a good stuffed mushroom." For an art opening in La Jolla, he once made his mushrooms for 50 people. “Four hundred mushrooms." he says, “a regular mushroom assembly line."
During Weinstein's years in San Diego, people didn't eat out as often as they do now. As a graduate student, Weinstein had little money for restaurant eating. When he did go out, where did he go? "A Chinese restaurant near route 5 at the end of Pacific Beach. Aztec Kitchens No. 1 and No. 2. In Tijuana, a Basque restaurant near the jai alai stadium. Future Foods, San Diego's attempt at fast-food health food. The Carnegie A440, a charming little restaurant on Carmel Valley Road in Del Mar. I knew the pizza cook there, a UCSD undergraduate and now a fairly well known art theorist."
Through his doctoral adviser, George Szanto, and Szantos wife Kit, Weinstein became formally interested in food. In 1972, while Weinstein was recovering from a back injury in the Szantos' beach cottage in Del Mar, Kit Szanto gave him M.F.K. Fisher's fat and famous volume, The Art of Eating.
"The way those books hit me! Fisher's ambitiousness as a writer, that she would go so far as to mix her learning and her personal life, her love of literature and her love of food!
As a thank-you gift to the Szantos. Weinstein went to Zel's liquor store and bought three bottles of wine — two of them were California wines and the third a bottle of St. Estéphe Bordeaux. "I remember thinking the Bordeaux was old in 1972, so it could have been a '59 or '60. In any case, I spent $12.00 for the three bottles of wine, which at the time was for me a breathtaking sum of money."
Weinstein took the wine to the Szantos’. He and Kit went shopping at the Japanese vegetable farm a few miles from Del Mar, bought strawberries, asparagus. "Kit baked French bread — her bread was so good — we had fresh butter and radishes. I opened the wines. I can remember feeling that I had never before that moment tasted anything."
He believes he remembers that moment. But when he considers it — the strawberries, the wine, Kit’s bread — he is not sure, now, what it is that he remembers. "When you love memories, they change," he tells me. "They change more than if you don't love them."
Recovered from his injury, Weinstein, in the summer of 1972, took and passed the oral and written exams for his graduate degree. He had begun, however, to feel that he didn’t want to become the English professor for which his proposed doctorate was preparing him. "My interest in my academic work had died for me. I was more and more interested in contemporary topics, popular culture.” When one of his professors took him aside, asked him how he could be interested in popular culture, how he could waste his time with "this trivial stuff." when there was important literature to work with, Weinstein says that he realized "this was the fork in the road, and I was going to take the other tine."
I knew, though, at that point, I think, what I would do. Leave the university." He read and re-read M.F.K. Fisher’s books. He wondered if he might not become a writer. When fall came, he did not return to school. He took odd jobs — house cleaning, day labor.
When the Reader began publishing in 1972, Kathleen Woodward (journalist Bob Woodward's ex-wife), in graduate school at UCSD at the same time as Weinstein, wrote a restaurant review column for the paper. One evening, Woodward invited a group of students, including Weinstein, to her home for Indian food. Over curry, Woodward said to Weinstein, "Jeff, we all know you love to eat Why don't you do the restaurant column?"
Woodward explained that Weinstein would get $35 for the review and an expense allowance of $5 for each meal he ate in the restaurant under review, plus $5 per guest, per meal, for three guests. The idea of a newspaper paying for Weinstein to eat out pleased him. He agreed to try.
For his first review, Weinstein chose the downtown Korea House — not, says Weinstein, that he knew anything about Korean food. At his first meal, he was more aware of his function as host than as reviewer. "I had invited friends to go out with me; I had a responsibility to them. But I wasn't stupid. I realized we would all have to order different dishes and I would need to taste them all.” He also knew, he says, that one visit was not sufficient and went back alone to Korea House several times. "I understood, even then, that the one-shot deal isn’t a review, it’s an impression."
Back home in Del Mar, after he’d eaten his last meal at Korea House, Weinstein, a little bit drunk, sat down with a legal pad and began to write. "I just didn’t know what it was — a restaurant review. Obviously, you had a responsibility to the reader, that was clear. I knew I had to describe the food, I had to say what it cost. But I knew a review had to do something else — give people an idea of the atmosphere, clientele.”
In Weinstein’s first review (published November 23, 1972), there is clear evidence of the eye for odd, telling detail — "The door opened, and we were faced with a perfect parody of a San Diego Brand Beer Bar: two 25-cent pool tables, a clientele which was not too unfriendly and looked like it would die there, and way in the back, a few tables.” There is interest in the food: “... something called Sasyme, which the waiting person (and cook, probably) bluntly described as roughage.’ " About the beef, Weinstein wrote that he suspected it ‘was soaked in soy sauce ... and that accounted for its single-minded flavor.”
By his third review. Weinstein had begun to lay down critical principles. The "Critic,” as Weinstein styles him or her, must do more than suggest good restaurants, warn against bad ones, keep diners from being ripped off. The Critic must "talk about the pleasures of eating and about the act of enjoying food and places and people. And perhaps a Critic can be nervy enough to suggest that we get more pleasure 'eating out’ — or eating anywhere — if we begin to think about, criticize, 'play with’ the experience, so that our abilities to enjoy and understand can grow.”
In a letter to the Reader editor, printed in the December 21, 1972, issue, Weinstein cited two Reader stories, one about racial tensions on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and the other a "quickie survey of the go-go dancing 'scene’ in San Diego, as sexist and racist crap.’ ” Were the Reader to continue in the future to ignore the political aspects of stories it printed, then, wrote Weinstein. "I will of course stop reviewing for it." After March 29, 1973, he did not again review restaurants for the Reader.
In 1974, still out of school, Weinstein took a job as a room-service waiter at the U S. Grant Hotel. The Grant was Weinstein's first look into a restaurant kitchen. "The quality of the food was very high. They only used fresh dairy products, vegetables, fruits. There was a wonderful sandwich lady there who made sandwiches for her 'waiter boys.' so we'd gain weight. She’d pile on the freshest lettuce and tomatoes and cold cuts.”
By 1975, Weinstein had made up his mind. He would be a writer. He joined a writing group and began work on what would become a novella, Life in San Diego. "A question was asked in the writing group: 'How can you write about where you live?' Life in San Diego was my response to that question and my coming out as a fiction writer."
Later, Weinstein would enter, in a Reader writing contest, a chapter from Life in San Diego. The story won Weinstein (by then living in Mission Beach) an honorable mention and $20. (Published in 1983 by Sun & Moon Press, the 73-page paperback Life in San Diego still sells several hundred copies each year.)
In the fall of 1976, Weinstein taught an introductory literature course at SDSU. That same fall, New York City art critic John Perreault was a visiting distinguished professor of art criticism at UCSD. The two men met through a mutual friend. When the semester ended, Perreault returned to New York.
During Christmas vacation, Weinstein visited Perreault in New York. They decided they would live together. Weinstein returned to San Diego, held a yard sale — "I sold almost all my Hawaiian shirts and all my dishes” — and moved to New York.
Early winter 1977, Weinstein arrived in Manhattan. He and Perreault rented a two-and-one-half-room East Village apartment, where they’ve lived ever since, driving on weekends to the house they recently bought in the village of Bellport on the south shore of Long Island.
Weinstein’s union medical plan calls Perreault his "spousal equivalent" "I speak of John," says Weinstein, "as my lover or partner or best friend." Weinstein, until recently chief union steward of The Village Voice shop of District 65 (UAW), is responsible for writing the first union contract in the United States that makes the same provisions for medical insurance for the “spousal equivalent" as for men and women with legal marriages.
In those first months in New York, Weinstein carpentered together jobs — proofreading at The Village Voice, teaching a poetry and creative-writing class at the College of Staten Island. Perreault, at the time an art critic at the now-defunct Soho Weekly News, suggested Weinstein take his Reader clips there and see if they'd hire him to review restaurants. They did. for $35 a week and some expenses. Weinstein added to that a job as Soho Weekly News' production manager, then associate arts editor.
In 1979 he was offered a twice-per-month restaurant review column in the The Village Voice (at $100 per week plus some expenses). For a time, he kept his editing and production positions at the Soho Weekly News and wrote his Voice column. In 1982 Weinstein’s Voice restaurant review became a weekly feature. Since 1984, Weinstein has been a Voice senior editor, editing art criticism and the twice-yearly art supplement. He has recently begun writing a Voice consumer column, "Consumerismo."
When Weinstein returned to restaurant reviewing this spring, after an 18-month hiatus, he found he needed a month merely to amass a list of restaurants for possible review. Although he believes New York has more good restaurants than any city in the country, and more restaurants, period, it’s not that easy, he says, to find good restaurants. "I called upon all my friends in all neighborhoods, asked, 'What restaurants are opening? Is there a place in which I must eat and haven’t?’ "
At least five nights per week, Weinstein eats out. To maintain his waistline — at 5’7", he typically weighs between 140-150 pounds — he tries to nibble, not gorge.
On the first visit to a new restaurant, he chooses what his intuition tells him will be "either most disastrous or most pleasurable, saving the category of typical for the optional future.” During these initial trial visits, Weinstein "eats a great deal of bad or mediocre food." He carries charcoal tablets to mitigate the effects of the occasional food poisoning. Only one restaurant in five will tempt Weinstein to return.
Occasionally, he will choose to review a restaurant that seems beyond the pocketbook of most of his readers. "I have to find a way to explain to readers who cannot afford to eat in such a restaurant why it may be important to know about it. That almost always has to do with innovation in the kitchen."
He gives Chanterelle, in lower Manhattan, as an example. "The prix fixe was $65 when it opened in the early '80s and now is a good deal more. It was run by a chef who was taking certain tenets of California cuisine and transforming those tenets for the East Coast and, at the same time, not ignoring the methods of France. A restaurant like that had to be contended with, since what the chef there was doing would affect every restaurant that has opened since. Even more important, it has affected the way people think about food."
Weinstein rejects the idea of a food critic’s "expertise” and prefers "the ‘instructor’ to the expert,' for the paradoxical goal of reviewing should be to enable readers happily to evaluate on their own.” As for best-restaurant guide books, Weinstein suggests that he wouldn’t trust their claims. "How can you, when critics all go to the same restaurant and each has such different experiences?"
In his writing, Weinstein is concerned to be accurate. He does not want to be snide. "This is a business — restaurants — that employs many people. It is not so much that you can affect the business. Food critics are not as powerful as they are made to be. I don’t think you can close or open a restaurant. I do think you can create a mood that will affect the feel of a restaurant for readers when they go into that restaurant, and that can change the way in which a restaurant will grow. I have always to remember that you have to treat a restaurant almost like you would treat a person. I wouldn't be nasty to a person unless there were a strong reason to be so. The same goes for a restaurant."
What anxiety Weinstein feels about his work, he says, has ceased to be about the writing. "It’s about simply finding restaurants about which to write. And it’s about the increasing cost of eating out."
When Weinstein began his Voice column, the high ticket for a typical meal in a "white-tablecloth restaurant” was $25 per person. Now, the high ticket is $50 or more per person, which will include a "not expensive” bottle of wine. "At some point I may be chased out of my business."
No, he never wearies of eating out. “The excitement has never stopped. Sitting at a restaurant table is unique, because you're in public in a way you’re not in public anywhere else. You are seeing other people, you are all eating food cooked by the same people, you’re all depending upon the goodwill and skill of people in the kitchen.
"In some ways. I am a romantic utopian, and eating out, to me, speaks of better things. It's a good in itself, and it hints of the community for which I am always looking. I am very attracted to restaurants that somehow give the signal ’All are welcome,' restaurants that open a ‘wide door’ and let a lot of people in.
"In New York, middle-class life appears integrated. But the city is not that well integrated in restaurants. As a gay man, that there are restaurants that will clearly welcome gay men and lesbians as clientele, of course, pleases me. One of the delights in New York is to find a restaurant in which the doors are wide and you can sit and see the community that the city could be."
One exception to the "wide door": "I have been in famous restaurants in Manhattan that still, in 1989, will not seat a single woman. I find that repulsive and sexist." Such a refusal on a restaurant’s part, explains Weinstein, is “a throwback to a time when a woman eating alone was considered to be a hooker.
"The '80s were the most creative time in restaurant kitchens, the time to be eating out. Why this now seems to be slowing down has to do, in part,” says Weinstein, "with AIDS, and in part, with homelessness."
"I can’t say this in terms of numbers, because the same number of people are eating out as were three or four years ago. But the mood of eating out has changed dramatically since the mid-'70s.
"AIDS has created, among other things, this mood. The sense of responsibility has become very important. Eating out, like it or not, is festive. It is impossible to be festive and happy at the same time that people you know are dying. The sybaritic delight in going out has changed, has been reduced. You cannot but face the fact of the world of poverty and homelessness. It, more than anything else, makes me question my job.
"Going out, buying things, is not going to stop. People will eat out, people will buy things. And," he adds, "the restaurant world has responded fairly generously to raise money for AIDS and even more for the homeless."
"When people you know are dying around you all the time, you become even more interested in what a community could be. It can also be affirmative to the community. It is important, for those who can afford to eat out, to do so. It is important to the creation and maintenance of community.
"I do think that people often don’t recognize what pleasures are available to them. Too many people, I fear, feel that pleasure is only something 'to get on the side.' That never made sense to me. Some of the most pleasurable times in my life have been when I was doing political work, when the food wasn’t good but the company was."
One of Weinstein’s proudest accomplishments is his involvement in organizing a trade union for free-lance writers. "There hadn’t been such a union in the United States since the '30s. In the early '80s about a dozen of us, angry free-lance writers of many different sorts, met in the offices of The Nation magazine. It took us a year to get it off the ground, but we did, ultimately, form an active national union which now has several thousand members."
In Learning to Eat, Weinstein writes that he was once "scorned in print by a journalist who measured the foolishness of the Voice by Weinstein’s attempt, he thought, to join 'politics’ with restaurant reviews."
I ask about this "joining" of the two. He answers in a voice that lets me imagine he’s throwing up his hands in disbelief that anyone wouldn't — immediately — see the connection. "When you’re writing restaurant reviews, you eat m the world. A restaurant is not some sort of closet with food in it. You eat in the world.
"Even if you were only writing about an orange, it would be difficult to keep the way that orange came to you out of that writing. You can't shut the world out of eating. I can’t be a handmaiden to silly hungers, to people who want to hop from pleasure to pleasure in a world for which they don't feel responsible. If restaurant reviewing is a part of that attitude, then I don’t want to do it. I don’t."
Reading Weinstein's work, one becomes aware of his fascination with, his obsession for, the recently old and his fear that the flavors and objects that serve as "tags that help us remember everything else" will vanish.
"Foods are disappearing. When a food disappears, a certain history disappears. When you think about Willapa oysters or, in La Jolla, abalone. In the '70s, there I could have a fried abalone sandwich for $2.50, and now you can’t get abalone for love or money. Abalone is almost gone. A world in which people don’t have control over food they love is a world over which they won’t have control over anything else. One reason to eat rare foods is so that, ultimately, they won't be rare"
In San Diego, Weinstein had dressed, as male and female, in clothing found in thrift shops and Goodwill. In New York much of his free time is spent at flea markets. Listening to Weinstein talk about his forays through flea markets, one feels he is trying to save everything from the ash heap. He collects dishes, postcards, Hawaiian shirts, menus. "Old menus from ‘rich’ restaurants are not that difficult to find. The menus from restaurants where working people ate are the real treasures. Most working-people's restaurants didn’t even have menus. They would have been too expensive. Instead, there'd be sandwich boards, blackboards. So I started searching them out. The first time I opened up a menu from Leon’s Coffee Shop in Kansas City, I got such a thrill. It’s something saved that really shouldn’t be saved, something so well used, stained, so thumbed. The idea that there's one put away in some corner. I especially like an old menu with the rusted paper clip attaching to the menu the little ‘special daily edition' that offers the Virginia Ham Special — 85 cents.’ "
He doesn't want to leave the impression he's not just as interested in new objects, new tastes, novel tastes, as he is the old. Particularly, he says, in the case of food, we need new flavors. "Flavor is one of the ways we imagine our own continuity. But the memory we have of foods we tasted long ago isn’t a real memory, it is sort of an imagination of a memory. When I encounter a new taste, a novel flavor, the old memories become real. Without novel tastes, the old ones lose their life.”