The Magazine

The Gossip Gal

Liz Smith loves to eat, schmooze, and drop bold-face names.

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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Great Dish--and Dishes--from America's Most Beloved Gossip Columnist

by Liz Smith

Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25

"ABOUT ALL I DO in my kitchen is use the saucepan for soup, hit the buttons on the microwave, and make coffee," Liz Smith, New York's premiere gossipeuse, informs us pretty much straightaway in her newest book, which contains, oddly enough, recipes. And not only recipes. Treatises on some very peculiar foods. Liz has eaten somewhere or other, almost inevitably in the company of someone famous or if not really famous then really self-aggrandizing, which is almost as useful. The kind of person, in other words, who inhabits Liz's column, invariably attached to kind and inapt adjectives.

(Liz is often kind. This accounts for her professional longevity and a few of her gossipy coups. If your name is Ivana, say, or Nora, and you intend to divorce someone hopelessly unfaithful, famous, and loaded, it's best to call Liz right away--yes, even before your lawyer. That way you, and not your ex, will be the one to receive the kind and inapt adjectives.)

But back to food, about which I have a personal bias. (I like it a lot. And I love to cook.) Why a determined non-cook's thoughts on meal preparations were turned into a book is anybody's guess, but ultimately--sandwiched somewhere between Prairie Oysters and Rocky Mountain oysters, stuck between the Salmon Soup and Chicken Fried Steak--the popular columnist gives us a valuable hint: "Many writers now include descriptions of meals and feats of cookery as therapy."

Well, yes. Many writers now do. And a very bad, promiscuous habit it's becoming, too. Years ago, the writer/director Nora Ephron started the trend, dotting Heartburn, her roman-a-Carl (Bernstein), with a ditsy array of recipes; at least one of which--a baked mess of lima beans assaulted by cored pears and molasses--Liz herself reruns in her book because her late lover invented it. Then everyone got into the act, scattering odd and irrelevant recipes throughout their books with such profusion, it became the modern-day equivalent of the pathetic fallacy: a lazy writer's literary device.

(As Liz points out, fans of Patricia Cornwell's heroine, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, are offered--usually about the time Kay is threatened with instant massacre--the fictional pathologist's recipe for beef stew. As Liz does not point out, this is pretty weird, when you consider Scarpetta's creator has a history of battling eating disorders.)

Liz, of course, has no such problems. She inhales everything, bless her. Deep-fried Snickers bars, which are meant to be served with fudge or caramel sauce, watermelons from her native Texas, their skins green as lettuce, lobster rolls with plenty of mayonnaise, slatherings of beluga caviar even atop baked potatoes, and the Elvis Potato Sandwich (photo included), about which the less said the better.

But mainly Liz loves Bold Face Names, and although Dishing doesn't literally change its typeface for the likes of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Conrad Black, Lucullus, Brad Pitt, Tom Wolfe, Betsy Bloomingdale, Donald and Ivana Trump, Napoleon, and "the grand actress Christine Baranski" (a dispatcher, we are informed, of "incredible tequilas with the worm in the bottle")--in fact it is they, and not the undercooked bacon peeking out from underneath the melted cheese of the potato sandwich (I couldn't resist), who provide the drama for this book.

There's disenchantment: Some years before his death, Liz visits Henry Grunwald, whom she touchingly believes to be "the last of Time's great editors" and her "idol," only to discover that he despises watermelon. There's tragedy on an epic scale: "What are you? Some kind of terrorist!" wonders Julia Roberts when Liz brings up the subject of biscuits and red-eyed gravy made from ham, while the actress is dieting. There's--oh hell, I don't know what to call this, but at some point Liz's dinner partner is Evelyn de Rothschild and the next thing you know, Liz turns 80 and he sends her a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. (All the reader derives from this encounter, however, is what Liz calls "a typical menu" from the Rothschild family, which includes something called green pea blinis and also "Roast Breast and Leg of Poussin.")

Celebrity is the food of Liz. Fame is her banquet. Big names--even medium names--are Liz's Frito Pies, which, the reader learns, the author discovered at the local Dairy Queen in Gonzales, Texas, and decided they were (quite like Ivana, when you think about it) "quick, cheap, crunchy, hot with fire and pepper, and totally satisfying."