Tuesday, September 3, 2013


You'll rarely find a more interesting read than the memoir/cookbook/rant, EAT ME: THE FOOD AND PHILOSOPHY OF KENNY SHOPSIN. Shopsin is a tough, eccentric New York diner cook, one of the best in the city and certainly the most articulate. He says what's on his mind. Not every cookbook writer will tell you that in his youth he'd been in Freudian analysis, five days a week, for years. He sometimes uses language that would knock a buzzard off an outhouse. And you can tell that he's a strong family man. His adult children are the energetic crack crew who run the restaurant. This sometimes includes his son Danny, who is a talented artist and is also bipolar. Danny has a home with Shopsin, a job at the store and the protection of everyone in the family, whenever he wants them. You also know, reading between the lines, that Shopsin fears that Danny's mental struggles arise from his own. In Shopsin's young years he suffered intensely from what was then called manic depression.

The restaurant is Shopsin's kingdom, and he makes sure you know it. There are rules. For example, a party of more than four will not be seated. He doesn't want larger parties hogging space in his diner, and he also feels that conversation becomes inferior when the group is big. Don't try to sneak in extra friends a few minutes later. He'll throw you all out, and remember it forever. Shopsin remembers things the elephant has forgotten. Another rule is that he refuses to do substitutions in a listed dish. He figures that with 900 items on the menu, you should be able to find something you'd fancy. He will also sometimes take a dislike to new prospective diners and refuse to seat them, saying, "They're nothing but strangers."

But if you happen to be a very longtime friend, or if he likes your face, or if he just feels like it that day, he might suspend the rules for once. And although he never makes home deliveries, friends who become seriously ill will often find vessels of delicious hot food at their door.

The book is a headlong gallop of Shopsin's redhot opinions and fearless recipes, but there is a peaceful spot for your eyes on rest on, if you need one. This is the portrait of Shopsin's late wife, Eve, on page 100. She has a gentle, kind, dark-eyed face and rich, reddish-brown hair. Apparently she put up with her proudly impossible husband with patience and grace. Shopsin does not wear his heart on his sleeve, but you know that he has one. The book is dedicated to Eve, her name is huge type. And you sense his tenderness for her in his description of a meal they often shared when they were young and poor:

"Around that time Eve and I were in the habit of going to a restaurant on Bleecker Street," where they always ordered a dish called the Brown Rice Special. Kenny goes on, "It was hot rice and melted cheese drizzled with soy sauce and with a bunch of crunchy vegetables and walnuts strewn throughout. They served it on a cake stand: a big gooey mound of stuff all piled there on top of the pedestal."

The hungry young couple would sit on opposite sides of the Brown Rice Special and attack it with forks, stabbing and securing the luscious nuts and vegetables, digging in with such passion that every time, "we'd end up tipping the freaking cake stand over."

Shopsin's advice on how to eat this meal has to be told. It's not much of a stretch to see that he's also giving his opinion about how to savor your life.

"The rice is what I call 'mouth food'...to get a bite you stick your fork through the rice and cheese. You then take your fork and stab through a vegetable, and you score a little lettuce along with it. You now have a bite of every ingredient in your mouth at the same time, and when you chew, all those flavors and texures transform into something that didn't exist until that moment. If you pick at it and separate the ingredience like a persnickety ass, you are not going to have the same experience, and the experience you do have will be inferior."

Shopsin has not been a "persnickety ass" in the way he lived his life. He found relief from severe depression when he bought an old grocery store. He worked incredible hours to revive it, and this seems to have dovetailed with a manic phase which was useful for once. He and Eve developed the store into Shopsin's diner. He found that he could keep his demons at bay by working hard at tasks he loved, projects which made sense to him, every day. And that is what he still does.

And the Brown Rice Special? Shopsin perfected his own recipe as a tribute to Eve. Many a fine valentine is not made out of chocolate. You can figure out on your own how to make a good version of Kenny and Eve's Brown Rice Special, or you can buy Shopsin's book. And when you eat this food, keep in mind all the meals shared by struggling young lovers in their early days--including, no matter how many years ago it was, or how it turned out, your own.