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Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner?
Phyllis Richman has always played it coy. After 23 years of doing restaurant reviews, she still takes the time to hide in plain sight. She sneaks into some new eatery, moving stealthily behind a pack of friends and an innocuous-sounding reservation—but the waiters, chefs, and owners go into DEFCON 4 as soon as she takes a seat. When Richman went on tour for her most recently penned roman a cleavers, she wrapped herself in a floppy hat and giant glasses like so much invisible juice. It didn’t work then, either.
So, after I called her some weeks ago about her rumored retirement, I wasn’t exactly shocked when Richman left a carefully worded phone message that said that although she was “flattered” by my interest in her career, she was going to be doing what she had always been doing: writing a restaurant review column for the Washington Post Sunday magazine, “for the time being.”
That time is almost up. The Post’s biggest brand name, the name that’s on the hungry lips of more readers than any other byline at the paper, is putting away her knife and fork later this spring. This time when I called—it was announced at the paper last Tuesday—she didn’t demur.
“Have you ever had anybody tell you that you could have all the foie gras you wanted? I can’t eat anymore. I love this job, but I have done it for so long that everything that I love about it, I have enjoyed a dozen times over,” Richman explains.
For more than two decades, Richman has set brawny chefs quaking with her column, which has the ability to rip the wings off a newborn restaurant with a single snap of the napkin in her lap. Not that she’ll admit it.
“Restaurants that get raves tend to credit their own abilities for their success, and the ones that fail tend to blame critics for their failure, but I don’t think there is that much power in the job. I can’t make or break a place,” she says.
Tell that to all the weeping men and women in aprons. Or the hordes of Stepford diners who have converged, robotlike, on the places she has hyped. But all that says more about Richman than it does about the crippled psyches of local chefs or the people they feed. Readers rely on Richman because she is reliable. That might not sound like much of a feat for someone who is paid to stuff things in her piehole, but you try to do something for 23 years and not be just a little co-opted by your beat. Richman has her idiosyncrasies—she can be horrified about virtually everything that ends up on her plate but never seems to come out and butcher a place. Still, people know how to read her after scanning just a few of her columns. Her boredom on the beat actually is one of her strengths—those kitchens that can’t come up with anything more than a new gloss on the same old food end up in Richman’s spanking machine. And the relentless ass-kissing she receives at many trendier restaurants in town doesn’t seem to get in the way of her advocacy on behalf of the consumer once she sits down to eat or write.
“Phyllis is not really replaceable, as such,” says Glenn Frankel, editor of the Sunday magazine. “I am under no illusions that [filling the job] is going to be an easy task. She is one of the most recognized names in the pantheon here, in part because she always managed to be pretty artistic while getting her point across.”
There will be a “global” search committee for her replacement, according to Frankel, but look for the hunt to end right in the middle of Tom Sietsema’s desk. Sietsema, who is currently working in the food section as a staff writer, was Richman’s assistant from 1983 to 1998, and he went on tours as a foodie for newspapers in Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Seattle. He eventually came back to Washington in 1997 to work for the now-defunct Microsoft Sidewalk site.
“That was just happenstance that Tom returned here recently. I’m a big fan of his, but
it’s just a coincidence,” Richman suggests. She sounds sincere, but, come to think of it, she sounded pretty forthright back when she told me she wasn’t retiring.
Richman, 60, is working on a third book, tentatively titled Who’s Afraid of Virginia Ham? It continues the punny narrative of the other novels she has cooked up: The Butter Did It and Murder on the Gravy Train. She says she will crank out the book, freelance (she recently did a big piece for Gourmet), and continue writing at the Post, although she doesn’t come up with much in the way of duties upon inquiry.
There are a couple of things she won’t miss about the job. “People used to call me for restaurant recommendations. At home. On Sunday mornings,” she says, with just a small emulsion of revulsion.
Back when she had just taken the job, back before anybody had any idea what a free-range chicken was, she worked as a hostess/captain in a restaurant. She had been writing reviews for a month, and one of her customers was spouting off about some of the places she had just reviewed.
“I asked him where he had learned about these places, and he mentioned the person I had taken the column over from,” she recalls. “And then he continued by saying that [the predecessor] had been replaced by this awful woman who had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t let him know who I was. I just went on smiling and listening.”
Fisher Takes the Bait Richman isn’t the only columnist disappearing from the Sunday magazine. Marc Fisher, who has been writing a biweekly column in the mag for a year now in addition to fulfilling his duties as an alpha writer on Page One, will be heading over to Metro, where he will assume the twice-weekly slot vacated by suburban diarist Steve Twomey early last year.
“Well, I will be filling that slot, but it will have a fairly different emphasis. I think everyone, including [Managing Editor] Steve [Coll], felt that Steve [Twomey] was hamstrung by the fact that it was defined as a suburban column. Mine will be broader in conception. I will cover the city, the region, and if I want to hop on a hot national story, I am free to do that,” Fisher says in a phone interview.
Fisher’s Sunday column, which has alternated with a column by Liza Mundy, has been successful by most accounts, including mine. But the tyranny of a twice-weekly column deadline has laid plenty of talented writers low. Fisher’s never been short on confidence, though, so he’s looking forward to getting started. Metro Editor Jo-Ann Armao reportedly came up with the idea of rounding out Metro by grabbing from the Page One team. The column will begin sometime in April.
“I’ve wanted to do something like this since the dawn of time. I am extremely skeptical of punditry of all sorts, but I’m eager to spend time looking into my own life—and the places that people congregate, whether it’s online, or in schools, or elsewhere in the community—and come up with something that people will be interested in reading.”
Given the current salience of D.C.’s racial divide, Metro columnist Courtland Milloy has occupied an important place in the debate, but fellow columnist Donna Britt seems content to write about the last movie she saw—and, in the process, look after the needs of her syndicators, as opposed to her local readers. The Metro page could use another strong oar in the water.
Fisher’s old job, which was pretty much built around him, was officially titled “deputy A1 features editor.” It meant he could kibbitz with editors from all over the paper while he shopped for stories that he deemed worthy of the front, or take a whack at writing something when he felt like it. Nice work if you can get it. Look for an unseemly skirmish once that plum gets posted.
Musical Chairs A faux musical about the Elian Gonzalez affair ginned up by Style’s Hank Stuever last Saturday mushroomed into a mini-opera when Jim Romenesko’s Web site MediaNews pointed out some eerie similarities to a fictional libretto written by Ben Greenman, posted the day before on the McSweeney’s Web site. Greenman’s casting for the boy of the hour? Jonathan Lipnicki. Stuever’s? Lipnicki! The mom? Both authors cast Jennifer Lopez! And Andy Garcia made an appearance in each—as the dad in Greenman’s version and as an uncle in Stuever’s. Same concept, similar ethnic casting—are we talking the Big P?
Not so fast, says Greenman: “When it comes to humor, I’m willing to extend the broad benefit of the doubt.”
For his part, Stuever admits that the idea wasn’t his. It came from his editor, Coll, who reportedly got the notion from his spouse. Stuever was assigned on a Monday, which was days before the posting on McSweeney’s.
“It was one of those really snowy days, and I had the choice between writing a story about the meaning of snow or making up a musical. I picked the musical,” Stuever says.
Stuever’s piece was framed as a Disney animated feature, whereas Greenman’s was a straight-up musical. Both were funny enough, although the most inspired casting goes to Greenman for slating Mandy Patinkin as Fidel Castro.
Greenman has written two other musicals off of current icons—Gates and Trump—but says the affair Elian was tailor-made for send-up. “I mean, the grandmas—fer crying out loud, who could beat that? If Fidel is behind this, he did a wonderful job of casting it.”
Erase Baiting Last Tuesday, Post Op-Ed writer Benjamin Wittes wrote a piece recalling the Tulsa Tribune’s central role in igniting a race riot in 1921 that killed anywhere from 100 to 300 people in that city. The riot, he says, was incited by a sketchily reported incident. “But that didn’t stop the Tulsa Tribune from running an inflammatory news story and what survivor accounts say was an editorial calling for [the perpetrator’s] lynching,” Wittes wrote.
Wittes went on to say that the offending piece is missing from the archival record and hence hidden from a state commission trying to shine light into a piece of ugly Tulsa history.
“It is, apparently, possible to spark a veritable massacre—what we would today call ethnic cleansing—by publishing an editorial and then to keep both your name and your precise words from ever becoming known,” Wittes wrote.
But in the process of talking about the importance of remembering, Wittes did a little forgetting of his own. It would have also been worth noting that the paper he works for—under different ownership back then—played a similar role in catalyzing the race riots of 1919 right here in D.C., a conflict that claimed the lives of 30 to 40 people (“Lost Riot,” 4/3/99).
On July 19, 1919, the Post offered its own sketchy incident, in which a black man allegedly tried to steal the umbrella of a white woman. The Post had the flamethrower going full-bore from Day One: “NEGROES ATTACK GIRL…WHITE MEN VAINLY PURSUE,” read the headlines. Two days later, the Post issued a not-so-veiled recruitment to join in putting the Negro back in his place by any means necessary: “It was learned that a mobilization of every available service man stationed in or near Washington or on leave here has been ordered for tomorrow evening near the Knights of Columbus hut on Pennsylvania avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets.”
Wittes says he considered mentioning the local analog, but made an editorial decision that the column was mostly about the destruction of history.
“It’s a fair argument that it might have been included. It wasn’t an oversight so much as a decision that I made with the limited space I had. It was enough of a tangent so it would have been hard to fit it in,” he says.
In Like Flinty The Granite State seems to be long on some other rocky deposits, to judge by one of its other big exports: huge clouds of gaseous emissions from journalists doing weigh-ins on the primary. In Sunday’s Post, both Tony Kornheiser and David Finkel, stylistic opposites if there ever were any, made it sound as if New Hampshire were one big silica-n alley.
“But you’ve got to hand it to those New Hampshirites for their flinty ingenuity,” wrote Kornheiser.
Finkel arrayed the stony metaphor over a single old cuss he found: “In comes Ned Marsh, first customer of the day. Flinty Ned Marsh. Independent-minded Ned Marsh.”
You could chalk all this flint-inflected word flinging up to envious effetes slagging the rustics to the north, but it was the staid Midwestern Chicago Tribune that actually won the flint follies.
On the same Sunday, the Tribune wrote: “Whatever the outcome, this state known for its flinty, contrarian voters might also shed its image as the place where shedding a tear can cost a presidential hopeful an election.” The day before, it suggested, “The trouble for Keyes is that a message that may have played well in Iowa, where he finished a strong third, might have little resonance in New Hampshire, a place where flinty Yankee individualism is a far more potent force.”
Earlier in the week, the Trib said, “As candidates landed in New Hampshire in the predawn darkness, just hours ahead of the snowstorm, they faced a notoriously flinty electorate that is as likely to ignore the Iowa results as it is to embrace them and traditionally makes up its mind just days before the balloting.” And on the Sunday of the week before, the paper first struck up the metaphor: “New Hampshire is no longer the flinty bastion of anti-tax conservatism.” Look for another round of the match game, four years hence, same state, same flintlike electorate. —David Carr
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