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The Sorrow and The City

If I were forced to pick my favorite literary turn on food criticism, I'd have to go with T. Coraghessan Boyle's short story "Sorry Fugu" from his 1989 collection If the River Was Whiskey, a marvelous sliver of a book I was introduced to -- along with the rest of...
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If I were forced to pick my favorite literary turn on food criticism, I'd have to go with T. Coraghessan Boyle's short story "Sorry Fugu" from his 1989 collection If the River Was Whiskey, a marvelous sliver of a book I was introduced to -- along with the rest of Boyle's work -- by Tom Finkel, managing editor of this paper and a keen admirer of the New York-born, transplanted California novelist. The protagonist of the story, a caustic restaurant critic named Willa Frank, regularly fires culinary missiles fierce enough to cause severe gastric distress. (Indeed, as a critic who's often accused of causticity, I was impressed.) Here are three examples: "The duck had been reduced to the state of the residue one might expect to find in the nether depths of a funerary urn"; "For all its testy piquancy, the orange sauce might just as well have been citron preserved in pickling brine"; "Paste and pasta. Are they synonymous? Hardly. But one wouldn't have known the difference at Udolpho's. The `fresh' angel hair had all the taste and consistency of mucilage." Wonderful stuff.

Boyle's story underscores a fundamental tenet of good criticism: In the pursuit and maintenance of high standards, a critic can turn the worst experience into a recreative and entertaining chronicle -- even if the armed torpedoes strike at the poor restaurateur's livelihood. There's a big "if" here, to which I shall return in due course. For now, keeping in mind that she's a fictional character, there's little doubt in my mind that the "restaurant" I visited last week -- on two consecutive days -- would have taxed Willa Frank's reservoirs of vitriol to the limit.

Were Ms. Frank, rather than your faithful New Times glutton, to write the critical column, she might characterize the atmosphere in this fashion: "A mosquito-laden arena of such moist and dank misery as to turn the rind on a wheel of camembert a moldy green. The noise factor, a consequence of the hyperactive hubbub and caterwauling at every turn, makes the pitiable patron long for the contrastingly harmonious hum of a dentist's drill. Never has there been an eating space so surpassingly dull, undistinguished, or spare. Rarely has a dining environment so thoroughly tipped its hat toward perishability and disease. And of the service: its presence is no more welcome than is the elusive self in a Zen Buddhist's meditative trance."

On the matter of food, La Frank would conclude that "slop of this order is not without culinary precedents, though you'd have to retread the murkiest quagmires of human history -- famine, war, plague -- to discover anything remotely akin to the oleagenous savories and half-sweet blandishments here ladled indifferently onto serving trays and cardboard platters. This is a diner's apocalypse. Or to put it another way, the creme de la crap."

Not a bad crib, if I do say so myself.
The difference between such fictionalized bravado and the real version is that while the above observations would certainly be fair game when directed at a regular restaurant offering such improbable boons for a price, they can scarcely be registered in relation to the site I attended, sat in, ate at, and left with a heavy heart and half-empty stomach last week -- the tent city of Harris Field, Homestead. Perhaps even Boyle's galloping gourmand would be moved to restrain her poisonous penmanship in light of the horrors visited upon the men, women, and children of Homestead; only the novelist knows for sure. But for those of us who traipse uneasily over the leveled properties and agricultural wastelands of Andrew's wake -- especially those of us who report what we see to others -- there's no flip side. It is, very simply, a tragedy of monumental proportions.

Tent city is no sidewalk cafe. It is a sprawling -- and, as of ten days after Hurricane Andrew, mostly unattended -- compound with military personnel, TV media, and a few odd survivors seeking food and shelter as its featured players. Food is served three times a day by soldiers in mobile kiosks. For two days I saw massive, industrial-size cans of pork and beans, sliced apples, mixed vegetables, and tomato soup, along with handfuls of potato chips, served at Harris Field. All of it free, all of it hastily and ritualistically rendered. Having tasted once, I confess I had no stomach for a second bite -- I was one of the lucky ones with a home and a fridge and a stove. But the recognition that so many feasted on this palpably vile nourishment -- and some soldiers told me of worse: seven days on cold MREs -- without complaint proved Cervantes's time-worn dictum that there is no sauce to compare with hunger to make for a memorable meal. And it also showed that loss of power, telephone, cable television, and property damage such as that weathered by many of us north of the storm's eye was nothing to carp over.

The most moving aspect about Harris Field, for this onlooker, is this: With the exception of some perennially disgruntled TV producers who are choreographing the news around the green tents as if it were end-of-the-world ballet, a telegenic brand of theater, the actual victims of the hurricane -- plus the volunteers and army coordinators -- evince a good cheer and positive spirit that tugs at the very heart. A little girl who had just finished her helping at lunch smiled and said simply to me, "It's food." A teen-age private told me his biggest regret was that more people weren't taking advantage of the food and shelter at Harris Field, but affirmed that sooner or later they'd come, and the army would be ready for them. When I asked a saucy woman donning a T-shirt from Michael J. Peter's strip bar, Solid Gold, where she'd gotten it, she winked and bellowed out, "I don't dance there, baby." (She didn't offer any further explanation.) Life goes on, even when you're looking over the precipice of uncertainty.

A remarkable esprit is present in the surrounding devastation of Homestead. Properties that have been decimated by 167-m.p.h. winds now bear graffiti: "Damn You, Andrew"; "You Loot, We Shoot"; "Where Are You, God? Where Are You, Prudential?"; "Only The Strong Survive." It's almost as if the Homestead-Florida City axis had been turned into the Old West, with its prairie resilience and mythologically American grit, something George Bush and Bill Clinton would doubtless like to draw votes from, but have little understanding about its true source and nature -- the difference between people and politicians.

Tent city, then, is no culinary palace. But it is a palace for refuge and observation. I cannot end on a serious note, especially given the fact that the media circus currently under way at Harris Field does provide free entertainment for its civilian custodians. Here's a way to improve on the food: Start roasting the anchors. I'll tell you this: If tent city's tenants make a plan to barbecue one or two of our choicest TV hounds -- say Rick Sanchez, high on his director's stool amidst the rubble -- I'd be tempted to make a return visit come suppertime and feast on his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(Don't lose your cap, Rick. Just kidding.)

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