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Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 14, 2013

3.6 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Sokolov has reported on the world of food and restaurants for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Trained as a scholar of ancient Greek at Harvard, he became a journalist in Paris just at the outset of the great revolution in French cuisine inaugurated by Fernand Point and his disciples. Sokolov succeeded the redoubtable Craig Claiborne at the Times only to find Claiborne an impossible act to follow. His take on the rise of real Chinese cooking in New York earned him no little enmity, and the stresses of restaurant criticism exacted a huge personal toll. He embarked on a freelance writing career and produced one of the great books on the history and making of classic French sauces. Sokolov’s life comes full circle as the Detroit boy discovers in the evening of his career that some of America’s best cooking now appears in innovative, new midwestern restaurants. --Mark Knoblauch


“For forty years, [Sokolov] affirms, he has had ‘a front seat’ at the worldwide revolution in cooking and eating…Watching his formidable mind at work deconstructing nouvelle cuisine or creating a taxonomy of French sauces, it becomes clear just how he has kept that seat for so long.”
The New York Times Book Review

“This entertaining memoir…doubles as a breezy, ranging history of American food, and the sociopolitical events that shaped it.”
The New York Observer

“As gastronomic guides go, you can’t do much better than former New York Times and Wall Street Journal restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov, whose jaunty prose in Steal the Menu gets you a tableside seat everywhere from Tennessee barbeque pits to French haute cuisine temples.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A knowledgeable look at the transformation of fine dining over the past half-century, viewed through the prism of the author’s personal history…foodies will find this book refreshingly different.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Reading Raymond Sokolov’s wonderful Steal the Menu is like having dinner with one’s wittiest, most erudite and charming friend, someone who knows everything worth knowing about food, its history and culture, about chefs and restaurants, about how our cuisine and our kitchens have changed over forty years—and about how to tell an authentic key lime pie from an imitation. Bon appétit!” 
—Francine Prose

Steal the Menu is a lively insider’s account of goings-on in the American food scene over the last forty years. And who better to tell this story than Raymond Sokolov, one of America’s best food writers? With his keen ear for language, Sokolov is by turns authoritative and funny, deeply informed and irreverent. This book offers up a feast for the senses as well as the mind!”
—Darra Goldstein, founding editor, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture
 “Ray Sokolov dines out delightfully on a life of dining out in the Western world’s most ambitious restaurants. His wit seasons his learning, which is considerable on a vast array of subjects, from classical French cuisine, to where to find the best hamburger in the Midwest, to barbecue in Texas. The result is a zesty stew, a chronicle of movements in cuisine across the decades and oceans. As an entertainment, Steal the Menu rates a full complement of stars.”
—Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul
Steal the Menu chronicles Sokolov’s forty years as an observer of the American and international food scene with delicious wit and erudition. Peppered with reflections on culinary history and tales of extraordinary journalistic adventures, Steal the Menu is a thought-provoking and delightful read.”
—Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking
“I read Steal the Menu straight through with pleasure. The writing is stylish, sometimes provocative, always informative, with a balanced perspective on the tumultuous changes at the table we’ve all lived through.”
—Dr. Andrew Weil, coauthor of The Healthy Kitchen
“Raymond Sokolov is very good company on the page. Steal the Menu is proof of that. His writing is witty and engaging, but what sets this book apart is its appreciativeness: food is food for thought, something to be curious about, as well as a huge pleasure.” 
—Naomi Duguid, author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor
 “This is an indispensable book for anyone and everyone who takes cooking seriously.”
—Jason Epstein, author of Eating

“[Sokolov] is a good traveling companion. Reading his writing is like being driven in an old, comfortable roadster, top down, evening falling, balmy…with the promise—because Sokolov always does his homework—of something really good to eat just down the road.”
The Christian Science Monitor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (May 14, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307700941
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307700940
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,448,507 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I wanted to like this book. I am a fan of Ruth Reichl's writing but do find that foodie books can be a bit hit and miss. I would have thought this would be a goody and am only 27% of the way through it but I suspect won't finish it even though I should LOVE this book. For starters I find the language really inaccessible- yes I understand the big words but I think they are unnecessary and pretentious. Journalism is about writing directly and accessibly. I read on (say at about 25%) I realised what the main problem is- it's all me,me,me. And this is why this book is so inaccessible- he's a classics scholar, falls into a food reviewing job and is so clever and boring that I can't be bothered. I also think there is nothing personal in this memoir- it's heavily filtered- possibly I might like the man who wrote it, but by 27% I didn't feel any closer to knowing who he is. Oh and it's also heavily Amero-centric- those of us who are not from the USA do get used to this and know more about the place than most Americans know about our countries and cultures. But there's a line where a book starts to become a bit incomprehensible- and this book crosses that as well, which of course adds to its inaccessibility. Which is what surprises me the most- this man writes for a living- he writes for audiences-in the US and around the world- but he missed the boat with this book.
Instead I'd recommend you read the newly published Life from Scratch by Sasha Martin- it's accessible,lively and heart warming- and there's more than food in her bid to find wholeness by cooking her way around the world's cuisine.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'm not really a foodie, but I have enjoyed reading Raymond Sokolov. I first began reading him when he was a columnist for "Natural History" magazine. I( have forgotten or missed the essay where he wrote about cannibalism and then gave a recipe for brains. This essay was actually sent out to anthropologists for peer review. Scathing reviews came back because at the time it was fashionable among anthropologists that cannibalism was rare among primitive peoples. His editor laughed and published the article anyway. One of his essays was about key lime pie which my wife had never had. She used the recipe and has continued to make key lime pie several times a year with it.
Sokolov has made a prosperous career of traveling extensively at other people's expense in order to write about food. It has cost the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other publications a fortune so that the rest of us can read about food even if, like me, you seldom dine in a four star restaurant.
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Format: Hardcover
Like Patric Kuh's Haute Cuisine book, it contains valuable, albeit forgettable culinary history, even though, like Kuh's book, it wanders all over the place, at times muting the most important parts. How Ray's chapters on how he put together the sauce book and his Thomas Keller stories are particular stand outs. Serious editing with chapter divisions, and time sequences would help. And like most intellectuals, he has left out the "real" places, like the still-standing Lou's deli in Detroit. And, sadly, in contrast to Anthony Bourdain, he seems to miss the spirit of those who cooked for him... indeed missing the heart of the experience.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This isn't a book for everyone. It is written in a very personal style, almost as if mr.sokolov is sitting next to you at the table chatting about his life, his experiences, his meetings with people who changed the way we eat. To appreciate this book you need to appreciate its informality, the way it meanders. Give yourself to it and you will be rewarded with sokolov's humor, ability to laugh at himself and others. The book traces our history as we learned how to appreciate food, to learn how to use a wide range of ingredients, to go from bunn burned coffee to waiting in line for expresso without complaining (he doesn't tell that story, but to me it tells a lot). It also describes his various jobs in the food review world and retells anecdotes from his assorted columns. Relax and enjoy
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Format: Kindle Edition
Titled after a sage piece of advice from Craig Clairborne (but also harkening to the title of Abbie Hoffman's more recognized than read Steal This Book), journalist and gastronome Raymond Sokolov recounts his life and career in Steal the Menu.  

Sokolov’s meandering career owes equal parts to luck and personal connections, which makes for a fascinating story in how a graduate student in the Classics became one of of the most prominent food writers in the US. Sokolov even returns to his unfinished dissertation in his 60s to finally earn his PhD. During his multifaceted career are such plum jobs as his several year stint has food editor at the New York Times and later Leisure and Arts editor at the Wall Street Journal. Both were high expense account gigs that let him travel the country and the world eating at the newest and the best. 

Besides giving us insight into Sokolov the man, he also discusses several of the mega trends in the food world.  Midway through the book, Sokolov  explains what "nouvelle cuisine" really is. This much maligned food development is put in the context of culinary history.  Rather than sparse servings with stylized arrangements, we see it as a response to both globalization of gourmet influences and plates for individual diners rather than elaborate platters carried table side. Sokolov gives an appreciation for the real movement behind the media hype. Likewise, at the end of the book, Sokolov addresses  modernist cuisine. Once again, he is able to tease away the flash and hype from the genuine staying power in the culinary innovations. For example, the ubiquity of sous vide cookers underscores their utility. 

If I had one complaint, it is that the personal part of the memoir fades in the second half of the book.
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