Dara departs, and leaves a memoir in her wake

So, let's get a show of hands: Has anyone out there been reading since my first restaurant column here, which ran in City Pages on April 2, 1997? If so, if not, still I offer you handfuls of gold stars, tears, and flowers, because this is where it all ends.

Since I'm feeling all emotional, let's make this column a memoir of exactly how you make a Minnesota restaurant critic. If you like memoirs, enjoy! If you don't, enjoy it anyway, knowing this canary-cage liner will be my last.

It all started—well, hell, it probably all started in the late 1980s, when I was a 15-year-old haunting record stores in New York City. I was already neck-deep in restaurants, having started washing dishes at age 13 on Cape Cod, which morphed into a job at 14 as an oyster shucker, and a job at 15 as a waitress in a horribly dirty East Village French dive where we refilled expensive wine bottles with jug wine and were instructed to tell every table that we didn't know how to use corkscrews, so that's why the bottles had to be opened in the back.

Check, please: Dara has eaten her last meal for City Pages
Bill Kelley
Check, please: Dara has eaten her last meal for City Pages

At the time, though, restaurants didn't much interest me, aside from the pocket money they provided for buying records and copies of Spy magazine, which I read with an absurd Rosetta-stone absorption. Records, though, provided all kinds of interest. They explained why the world sucked, and they gave you something to talk to boys about. Yet my beloved Cure and Depeche Mode, which had so faithfully steered me through junior high, were beginning to seem too commercial and, worse, popular among kids I didn't like. The staff at Astor Place Records, who no doubt thought I was homeless, steered me toward what they called "post-punk": Joy Division, the Damned, Wire, and, fatefully, Hüsker Dü and Babes in Toyland. Minnesota became, in my mind, an exotic land of rock and truth-telling. It really did.

Time came to apply to college. As it happens, we were reading My Antonia!, the Spoon River Anthology, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in my various English classes, and the upper Midwest had begun to take on a role in my mind as the place in America where people had time and space to Feel Things and Tell the Truth, and so I ended up with a short list of colleges that would have made any Faribault farm family proud: Grinnell, Macalester, Carleton. It turned out that my father, a Wall Street economist, considered Thorstein Veblen, the Carleton economist who penned the theory of conspicuous consumption, to be his hero, and Minnesota became, for one New York teenager, the one place on earth where Truth lived. (What truth? Truth about heartbreak and why things sucked, à la Hüsker Dü, about the melancholy that pierces transcendent experiences, à la Fitzgerald, and about how annoying conspicuous consumption was.)

I guess I should clarify: In addition to my Truth-seeking high school self, there was my working-like-a-dog high school self. From that first dishwashing job at 13, every summer thereafter I climbed the kitchen hierarchy: oyster-shucker and mussel-bearder, prep cook, broiler cook, line cook, and sous chef (which in my world just meant the head line cook). I eventually even became part-time pastry chef at a few restaurants.

I almost literally never left the kitchen in those days. Though I was making four dollars and change an hour, I would frequently be the highest-paid person in the kitchen because I'd work 120 hours a week. Seriously, at one restaurant I used to do day prep, then night line-cooking, then become the main late-night breakfast cook and sole dishwasher. My chef used to let me crash on sofa cushions on her floor from 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning to 11:00 in the morning, when I had to be at work again.

I even thought about skipping college in favor of cooking school, but my chef told me she'd gut me like a fish if I didn't go to college.

Badda-bing, badda-bang, four years later I graduated from Carleton into the George Bush/slacker recession of the mid-'90s.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle: I wanted to write. So I moved into a teeny-tiny little Minneapolis apartment between Rudolph's Barbecue and the highway, and embarked on a life piloting my $5 thrift-store bike between my day job as a telemarketer and my night job as a cocktail waitress at the downtown Chi-Chi's. (I'm the one who dumped a whole tray of strawberry margaritas on the woman in the white fox coat. It was a complete accident, no matter what she thought.) After work I would start on my writing, staying up till dawn to pen a 200-word book review for Julie Caniglia, then arts editor at City Pages. I distinctly remember carrying a floppy disk to Julie on my bike, bouncing over the rocks in the railroad bed after the bike path ended.

Julie and Will Hermes shared a tiny office that was floor-to-ceiling with books and papers. To me it looked like the Taj Mahal—all those free books, all that writing! I took my first clip to Kinko's, where a friend of mine worked, and he made about 50 copies, two inches of text floating in the middle of a whole sheet of paper, with City Pages' logo floating over it like a cruise ship over a guppy.

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