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."
Better than the simple listing of names, however, is what Liz does with these ingredients. Here she is a true chef. Widows are never mentioned in her citations without being rewed to the word "merry" (cf. Casey Ribicoff, the widow of the Connecticut senator, and Tita Cahn, "the merry widow of Oscar songwriter Sammy Cahn"). The least meritorious are paired with the happiest descriptions. Thus: "the TV genius Chuck Barris" or--my own personal favorite, a reference to a Sony executive--"the handsome CEO Nobuyuki Idei of Tokyo."
And that's not all. Liz is a master not only of guest lists, but also of what I like to think of as the conditional guest list: "I suppose if Oscar and Annette de la Renta and Nancy and Henry Kissinger hadn't been in the Dominican Republic, they'd have been there with us," she reports of some luncheon no-shows. That, I should add, is about the only tangy dish you're going to get on these or any other celebrities mentioned, because Liz doesn't like to waste her ammunition on a book.
Besides, she's a lady, our Liz. She's perfectly capable of turning words into bullets--"Discomfort Food" is how she refers to the fare of avant-garde restaurants--but usually prefers not to. This is why my own mother warned me against reviewing this book ("Judy, she's been nice to you . . . ").
And full disclosure--something I always prefer to stick at the end of a review--Liz has been nice to me. She once invited me to lunch in New York at Le Cirque, and then wrote "Seen lunching at Le Cirque: Judy Bachrach." She will call a spade a teaspoon. She is probably the only person in the world who uses the word "enlivened" as a synonym for "escorted"--as in "Maurice Tempelsman, the man who enlivened Jacqueline Kennedy's life after she divorced Aristotle Onassis."
I don't really want to enliven Liz's book. But honestly. Anyone who can't stand the kitchen--and then writes about it, at considerable length--deserves a little heat.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.