Linda Forgosh wanted a really juicy topic for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey.
“We’d had talks on Jews and jazz, and Jews and sports, and Jews and comedy,” she said. “I thought, ‘Food! What goes together better than Jews and food?’”
Forgosh, the society’s executive director, set her heart on getting Alan Richman for the April 29 event. Not only, she pointed out, has he won 16 prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for excellence in culinary writing — more than anyone else — but “he also comes from New Jersey, and for the historical society, that was a must.”
A longtime contributor to GQ magazine, Richman serves as the dean of food journalism at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in New York, where he teaches a class in food writing. (He is not to be confused with Alan Richman, an NJ Jewish News contributing writer.)
The man and the topic, and the “light kosher noshes and desserts,” drew a crowd of around 150 people to the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus, one of the largest the society has had.
“I had to turn people away,” Forgosh told NJJN.
She introduced him as “the Indiana Jones of food writers,” willing, by his own description, “to go anywhere for a meal — even Whippany.”
Her guest, famous — or infamous, according to celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain — for his acerbic pen, claimed he tries to play down his Jersey connection, though he did live for a while in Hillside, not far from baseball legend Phil Rizzuto. He also insisted that it was purely by chance — via a career in sports journalism — that he came to be known as a distinguished arbiter of cuisine.
“You’ll notice that hot dogs have played a big role in my life,” he said.
But passion will out. Richman went from discussing “the slime” around the hot dogs in the family fridge to the sublime — his mother’s excellent cooking (“She was the best Jewish cook I ever knew”) and the top-rated restaurants around the world where he has gotten to eat.
“I really got to have the greatest job in America,” he said.
On the other hand, it hasn’t all been easy. “The reality of being a restaurant critic is that no matter what you do, you can’t make everyone happy, so why even try?” he asked. He recorded the highs and lows in his 2004 book, Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater.
Israel has proved to be one of his favorite destinations. “It used to have really terrible restaurants,” Richman said. “Now the food in Israel is spectacular.”
Kosher restaurants, however, don’t meet his standards. “Perhaps it’s because the chefs grew up never eating in nonkosher places, so they didn’t get to develop a good palate,” he said.
When asked about his most memorable eating experiences, he waxed nostalgic about the Weequahic Diner, a landmark for Newark’s Jewish community. He then turned more serious. With a look of blissful recall, he described ortolan, a French dish made with a tiny bird. “You put your napkin over your head when you’re eating it,” he said. “It’s to keep in the bouquet — or maybe to hide your shame” at eating such a small creature.
His least favorite food? “Sea cucumber is the worst!” he declared.
Following on his JHS talk, he said, he is available to speak to other audiences, and Forgosh volunteered to be a conduit to him; she can be reached at 973-929-2994 or firstname.lastname@example.org.