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March14, 2006

There is only one writer we know who could compose this sentence: "For me the two greatest discoveries of the twentieth century were the Cuisinart and the clitoris."

If you're constitutionally a harrumpher, you probably didn't crack a smile from that line - one that could only have been penned by Gael Greene, New York magazine's longtime restaurant critic. Everyone else will probably have the same ear-to-ear, cover-to-cover grin that we did reading her new autobiography Insatiable - Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess (Warner Books, available in April). For the record, she doesn't talk much about the Cuisinart.

No writers have done more to fan the foodie flames in the past several decades than Greene and Ruth Reichl. It's not overstating the case to say that their knowledge of, and passion for, food, and their chronicles of the city's dining scene, helped transform the way this country eats. Their writing styles and approach to criticism couldn't have been more different - Reichl is wry, trenchant, the observer, while Greene, equally incisive, is the life's-a-banquet voluptuary. Reichl was the Dolly Levi to Greene's Mame.

Befitting Greene's more associative, mad-hatter style, the book doesn't follow a strict chronology, dipping back and forth through time and place among several threads: how Greene learns about food after Clay Felker makes her his typically brilliant, unpredictable choice for New York's restaurant critic; how Greene's passion for food inspires a city (and country) that is ripe for it (though she says "I almost never recognize a trend until it starts annoying me..."); and the equally passionate pursuit of love and sex.

You go along for the ride as she builds her taste memories during the '70s and '80s at the likes of Bocuse, Troisgros, Chapel, Vergé, and Girardet and begins to champion restaurants in New York and eventually the chefs themselves. About The Palace restaurant, the "great glory" of the '70s, Greene writes, "I loved the Palace. There were stumbles, and misunderstandings. But I loved it. Loved the Scottish salmon rolled around crème fraîche. Loved the magnificent cream of mussel soup with threads of saffron and tiny bay scallops bobbing. Swooned over the angel-hair pasta doubly truffled in a chiaroscuro of black and white, the aristocratic côte de boeuf with classic truffled chicken dumplings afloat in its Madeira sauce. Too much. Too much. Too much. Just enough."

What's dispiriting about so many of the current crop of restaurant critics (and very apparent among food bloggers) is how little any of them have traveled to the great gastronomic temples around the world, how little they have filled the gaps in their culinary education in other ways, how muted their enthusiasms are, how wan their writing style is. Greene may have started off, as she says, as an amateur, but her hunger for experience and thirst for knowledge are truly, admirably insatiable (she calls the "countless wine seminars" she attended "divine kindergarten"). And her energy! What other critic would routinely go out for a major review meal followed by a late night of dancing?

It is a life force to behold and we haven't even gotten to the sex part. Much of the fun in Insatiable is Greene's rip-roaring (even bodice-ripping) saga of many men and many beds. Along with the slow and painful dissolution of her first marriage to editor Don Forst, she writes candidly about her relationships and trysts with Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, a Playboy editor, a Rothschild, Gilbert LeCoze, Jean Troisgros, and porn star Jamie Gillis. Good God, how did she find the time?!

There are also memorable portraits of Craig Claiborne, Sirio Maccione, and Yanou Collart (a Parisian über-flack), the details of a glorious boondoggle in France with, among others, Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein, and a hilariously mundane encounter with an elderly M.F.K. Fisher. Greene also writes about her work with Citymeals-on-Wheels, the program she and James Beard started in 1981 that now serves over two million meals a year to the homebound and elderly.

Insatiable is so filled with too much/just enough
pleasures - the pleasure of lively writing, the pleasures of good food, good friends, good sex, and good work - that you may feel a certain wistfulness as it draws to close. But not Greene. She ends the book this way: "I fully expect to go on eating and critiquing forever and that on my deathbed my last words will echo those of Brillat-Savarin's sister, who cried, 'Bring on dessert. I'm about to die.'"

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