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.
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.
Soon enough I was one of the contributors to something called Page Three, City Pages' attempt to be something halfway between Spy and the New Yorker's Talk of the Town. Unfortunately, when the writers for those publications wrote about who and what they knew, it was of earth-shattering significance; when I wrote about what I knew, it was mainly about how to subsist on a $40-a-month grocery budget, which is a notably short story of limited appeal. So, I kept the details of living exclusively on dried beans to myself, and instead immersed myself in microfilm at the Minnesota History Center and the Minneapolis public library looking for material for "this day in history"-type stories. I remember finding a 19th-century notice in a St. Paul paper that ran something like: "City fathers demand that the citizens of Minneapolis stop throwing newborn babies into the Mississippi River which distressingly wash up on the shores of our fair city."
Time went on, and the City Pages restaurant critic announced she was moving to California, so they offered the job to me. (One of my freelance jobs had been writing short restaurant reviews for a Microsoft Sidewalk city guide.) I was ambivalent about it. It wasn't a salaried job or anything, just a $150-a-week freelance gig. It paid less than almost every other kind of writing and had no prestige in the newsroom; generally, it was considered drudgework that you took for the team. It's hard to remember that now, but this was long before the days of celebrity chefs and the Food Network, and food writing had the same prestige as obituary, pet, or cute-kid writing, which is to say not much. It was largely a pink-collar ghetto of zucchini-bread recipe editing where ambitious women tried not to end up. However, I had a long history of cleaning out walk-ins and sleeping on couch cushions on the floor, and the romance of having my byline more regularly in a paper I was still in awe of swayed me. I said yes.
That night they fired me and gave the job to Rick Nelson.
City Pages had been bought by Village Voice Media, which had also bought and closed the Twin Cities Reader, where Rick worked, and they needed the job for him. But Rick, now lead critic for the Star Tribune, didn't want the job, as he had just been recruited by the Pioneer Press. I still remember editor Steve Perry's phone call offering me the job for the second time in 36 hours: "Listen, I don't even know what to say...."
Overnight I had crafted a bargaining strategy. "Look," I said, "I don't want to get stuck with all these expenses on my own credit card. I want a City Pages credit card."
"Yeah, that's never going to happen," he said.
I took the job.
And that's how you got stuck with me. Almost 11 years ago. Oh, I feel so misty and nostalgic about it all. A lot happens in almost 11 years. When I look at my first restaurant reviews from 1997 I cringe. The inevitable lutefisk story. Clueless praise of the mediocre (the Alamo Grill! It's like looking at junior prom pictures—I'm just mortified). And the one story that ranks as the single worst idea in my whole food-writing career: a roundup of gyros. Yeah. Seriously. I think I ate 20 in a week. The takeaway: Guess what, all the gyros meat comes from the same damn place, and the pita breads usually come with them. It was like doing a roundup of Cool Ranch Doritos: How do the Cool Ranch Doritos at the Super America on 22nd and Lyndale compare to the Cool Ranch Doritos at the Maplewood Cub Foods?
After a few months, however, the job changes you. For one thing, it beats polite hospitality out of your body, which is crucial. I mean, for nice, normal people the response to anybody providing you with hospitality is to be nice back. So what if the pasta is soggy, they gave you something, and when someone gives you something you smile and say thank you. That's manners. It's also no way to be a critic who is useful to the public.
After about six months I had been to enough restaurants to get a sense of what good service was in this town, what good food was, what pricing was. (All of these things are local. Better-than-average food in Minneapolis is not the same as better-than-average food in Aix-en-Provence or Minot, North Dakota.)
And then in October 1997, I wrote my first slam, of MPLS. Cafe, a restaurant I still dislike, years after it closed. "It had been a long hour since I placed an appetizer order," I wrote, "and I might as well have been waiting for a bus for all the fine dining I was doing. I felt like Pamela Anderson at a NAMBLA convention."
I didn't think too much about the review when I wrote it; it just seemed like the truth. But the response sure got my attention: My home phone rang off the hook. This was unexpected. Cooks, servers, and even one server's mother were all leaving messages on my home phone weeping, calling me a liar, and worse. I heard later someone had posted my phone number in the kitchen. I got an unlisted phone number that day.
But City Pages' response was what mattered to me. They didn't even blink.
In retrospect, I think during the weeks after that review ran was when I really became a restaurant critic, when I dug in and decided that certain rather trivial things were in fact worth going to the mat for: the right to have your water glass refilled, the right to eat lobster ravioli without shells in it, the right to have decent wine at a decent mark-up.
It was funny, all my teenage conflations about the nobility of Minnesota and Truth came together in a Bill of Rights for your water glass. And your pad thai.
Over the years, I've learned that the relationship between columnist and community is more collaborative than I could have known at the outset, and I have been, all these years, dazzled by the letters I get from my readers—my dear, literate Minnesotans with your heartfelt, insightful, funny, or otherwise unpredictable takes on the world of food and Dara.
I guess one thing I wanted to do in this mini-memoir was lay bare some of the behind-the-scenes things from my side of the typewriter, but now I realize there's no room. So much of my life happened these last almost-11 years. I bought a big, falling-down Victorian four-square in a bad neighborhood in south Minneapolis, and, after many years when it looked like the renovation might just kill me, I now have a real house with a porch swing and a rosebush and everything, just like the people Sinclair Lewis mocked. I'm so proud. My dad died, hopefully joining Thorstein Veblen at the great economics conference in the sky. I fell in love with a nice Minnesota boy, who won my heart the night he effortlessly, happily spent a night checking out both a godawful Colombian restaurant in Northeast and a pretentious wine bar in White Bear Lake (both unreviewed; that's another behind-the-scenes thing—all the frogs I kissed that stayed frogs). We got married, we had a bouncing baby boy. Over the years I won a bunch of awards, both for my fiction and my food writing. I launched a freelance career that has given me a small national presence, and I think the next task for me is to leverage that into something bigger. And so I'm off!
It's funny, looking back on all this, as addled as my little teenage brain was, as dreamy and idealistic as my post-college self was, they did me right. Minnesota turned out to be the perfect place for me, the place, indeed, where Truth, or rather Truths, long-winded though they be, are valued by patient, kind readers. So I've been telling my truths as best I can in this space for almost 11 years, and to all of you who came along for the ride, I'm incredibly grateful.
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