This ran over at Foodspin yesterday. Thought I’d share it with you guys.
A few years ago The Wife and I were introduced to L’Artusi, an Italian place down on West 10th street in the Village. We rarely have the chance to dine out, but we’ve been back to L’Artusi a dozen times since that introduction. We feel welcome there–it’s a place that makes us happy. The environment is elegant but not stuffy, the staff well-informed and attentive, and, oh yeah, best of all: The food is wonderful.
Owned by Executive Chef Gabe Thompson, his wife Katherine, and partners Joe Campanale and August Cardona (all of Epicurean Management and nearby favorite dell’Anima), L’Artusi executes seemingly simple dishes with delicate nuance; both the food and the hospitality are remarkably consistent. Many of its best dishes are the ones that seem simple, even plain at first: We’d made several visits before I tried the spaghetti with garlic and chilies but it quickly became my favorite pasta on the menu. Not many restaurants can make my wife weak in the knees with a side of crispy potatoes. And the olive oil cake, which is easy to pass over at first, is a revelation.
In mid-2012, Thompson stepped back from the L’Artusi Kitchen to concentrate on the development and opening of the group’s new restaurant in the East Village, L’Apicio. Chef de Cuisine Erin Shambura, has run the kitchen ever since. L’Artusi features an open kitchen and Shambura is a pleasure to watch in action; her work is efficient, orderly, and punctuated with obvious joy. She exudes a sense of pleasure in her work, and that transmits to those who work under her direction.
I recently had the chance to sit down with her for a chat and a demonstration of her Braised Boneless Short Ribs over Polenta. Here’s the recipe, followed by our conversation.
Braised Boneless Short Ribs over Polenta
Ideally, this will be prepared a day ahead, as it tastes best after sitting, but it will be wonderfully delicious if cooked and eaten on the same day.
Braised short rib ingredients:
1¼ lbs. of boneless short ribs*
3–4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 cup red onion, chopped
1 cup of carrots, diced
1 cup of celery, diced
1 cup red wine**
2 35-oz. cans of puréed San Marzanno tomatoes
Chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper***
And a few optional choices:
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Three sprigs of thyme and oregano can be added along with a couple of bay leaves. These should be added with the tomato. They can be tied into a sachet with cheese cloth for easier removal.
1 box instant polenta (follow directions on the box)
*I found it difficult to get a 1¼-lb. piece of short rib from my local butcher, so I used 3 boneless short ribs weighing about 1¼ lbs.; this worked just fine.
**Any medium-bodied red wine will do. It doesn’t need to be expensive, just something that the cook would enjoy drinking.
***1 tablespoon of salt and 2 teaspoons of ground black pepper for the meat; 2 teaspoons of salt and ½ teaspoon of ground black pepper for the vegetables
1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
2. Place a Dutch oven on the stove and turn the burner to medium-high for 1 minute. Add the olive oil and heat for another 2 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the meat with kosher salt and pepper. Add the meat to the Dutch oven and sear on all four sides. This should take about 5–8 minutes.
4. When caramelized on all 4 sides remove the meat to a plate.
5. Add the vegetables to the Dutch oven and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, on medium to high heat, until they begin to soften. If you are using garlic and/or hot pepper, add them during the final minute of this cooking time.
6. Return the meat to the pot and add the red wine. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the wine to reduce by half, about 3 or 4 minutes.
7. Add the tomatoes and, if using, the herbs, Bring to a simmer for 10 minutes, uncovered.
8. Cover and put in the oven for 2½ hours.
8. If the meat begins to tear when you lift it carefully from the braising liquid, it is done. This means the meat has been braised long enough. At this point, remove the entire pot from the oven and allow to cool. Remove the meat and hold separately until cool enough to remove any excess fat. This is when the meat can be portioned into individual pieces. The meat can then go back into the cooking liquid until ready to serve. You can cover the meat with foil, but just to tent it.
9. Skim the fat off the sauce. There is no need to strain the sauce, though you can put it through a fine mesh strainer if you want a touch more elegance. It’s likely more work than it’s worth but up to you. Be sure to remove the sachet of herbs.
10. Serve on top of polenta—any instant polenta will do—and garnish with some extra sauce and freshly chopped parsley.
Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about Italian cooking since Marcella Hazan passed away last year. Did her books have any kind of influence on you?
ES: Marcella’s books have been on my bookshelves for years, right beside Julia Child’s. The simplicity and clarity in her cooking has always appealed to me. She showed us sophisticated food doesn’t have to come from complicated cooking.
Q: She believed in simplicity but never let you forget that simplicity doesn’t mean easy.
ES: Executing simplicity takes discipline.
Q: In so many things, especially the arts and cooking, I’m fascinated by restraint.
ES: Sometimes less is a better. Focusing on a few flavors and making them come alive. I like the directness of Italian cooking. People understand it. They don’t know the process, but they get the flavors. As I said it takes skill to execute simplicity.
Q: When did you get into cooking?
ES: Midway through college. I cooked for my friends and it made them happy. Making them happy with something I cooked was really appealing and made me feel good, too.
Q: And did you know already that you wanted to go to culinary school?
ES: No. I intended to get a graduate degree and follow my parents into education. After a couple personal tragedies during my senior year, I did a major reevaluation of what was important and what I wanted to do with myself. Culinary school went from an idea I had toyed with to a serious option supported by friends and family. Everyone told me to go, so I went.
Q: And when did you get into Italian cooking?
ES: I entered the New York Restaurant School without a specific cuisine in mind. The curriculum was based on developing a foundation in French technique and when I graduated I naturally found myself in a French kitchen: Jean George’s The Mercer Kitchen. I stayed at Mercer for more than three years, and was promoted to Sous Chef before I left to take an entremetier position at Del Posto.
Q: And suddenly you’re at a four-star restaurant.
ES: Yes! It is an amazing kitchen to be a part of. My eyes were opened to proper Italian cooking. Up until that point my understanding of Italian food was limited. I learned so much about fine dining, and how to polish the rustic nature of Italian cuisine to its highest level.
Q: And after Del Posto?
ES: Lupa, where I fell in love with traditional Roman cooking. Lupa taught me the vital importance of quality ingredients in great Italian cooking—exceptional product is more fundamentally important than elaborate preparation. Del Posto and Lupa helped define my style and vision as a chef.
Q: Here at L’Artusi, you have success with a series of staple dishes on the menu. Where do you find your own voice in being able to introduce things that allow you to experiment?
ES: Every restaurant has staple menu items that provide a backbone, and L’Artusi is no exception. That being said, I rely heavily on seasonally available ingredients to craft the menu, and we innovate on a day-to-day basis. Specials or new menu items are never improvised, but tested and crafted in conjunction with my team of sous chefs and line cooks. A dish may start as a random thought while I’m out running, but pulling it together in the kitchen is a much bigger process and I value my team’s input.
Q: So you ask for their input?
ES: Absolutely. Sometimes you need a different perspective. Someone can taste a dish and say, “Oh, it needs a little acidity” and then we talk about what that should be—lemon or vinegar. I think it’s crucial to have a team dynamic. I want to create an atmosphere where the staff’s input is valued.
Q: That’s one thing I enjoy about your place, especially sitting near the kitchen and watching you work. But I’m always impressed by how efficient it all looks, and mostly, how there is no screaming or anyone bugging out.
ES: There isn’t screaming or yelling because that doesn’t get the end goal accomplished. Maintaining a balanced atmosphere is essential to a productive kitchen. We’re able to accomplish this because many of our cooks have been trained in multiple stations. This is a huge help during the busiest times because there is a second pair of hands to step in when needed. We have a really tight team right now and it makes my job easier.
Q: Do you ever run into attitude problems with younger cooks who are fresh out of culinary school who have a hard time with going through the ranks?
ES: I’ve seen some of that in the past, but not here. A lot of people go to culinary school and just expect to advance quickly from entry-level positions. Advancement isn’t just handed over, it has to be earned. In our industry you don’t have to go to culinary school to be a success story. I’m fortunate to work with several talented line cooks that started as dishwashers. Success in the restaurant business is based on the effort and time that you put into it. I believe that stems from promoting within. I like running a kitchen where the cooks know they can advance.
Q: Without knowing that, a positive energy does come across when we’re eating there. You know, I love the flexibility of Italian dishes. Especially because everyone is convinced that their version is the correct one. Take Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Marcella makes use of a neutral oil and butter; most recipes call for olive oil. If you use garlic, that’s fighting words in some quarters. Other people use it. Some recipes call for a little white wine for acidity.
ES: I don’t think that there are any real limitations to what can be done with Italian food. There are so many traditional dishes, but most chefs take liberties. We certainly do at L’Artusi. I never feel restricted by focusing on clarity and simplicity, it’s just how I prefer to cook. My focus is creating the best dining experience for our guests. Being adventurous with our selections hasn’t always worked in the past, but I continue to try new dishes. I want our food to be approachable and getting to know the tastes of our diners has led me to create dishes they want to eat. That’s why our patrons keep coming back. Their loyalty inspires me.
I recently had the chance to catch up with him and chat about Phil Jackson and the craft of writing a biography.
Dig in to this holiday Banter treat. Then go pick up the book.
It’s a good one.
AB: This is your sixth book and second biography—the first was on Peggy Lee. What was it like writing another biography?
PR: It was terrific because the first one taught me that to be a biographer, you’ve got to be a very different kind of writer.
AB: Different from being a newspaper or magazine writer?
PR: To write a biography, you have to become something of a different animal. You have to become a PhD in your subject. When Peggy Lee died, and I was asked to write her bio, I said to the editor “Thank you, it’s flattering but maybe you should get someone who knows the music of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.” But he said, “No, we want you to come in from the outside. We think you’re a good enough writer to come in and surround the subject.” And that’s the only good book I’d ever written. When I was approached to write a Phil Jackson biography, and figured I wasn’t going to get him to cooperate — he was writing his own book — it freed me to surround his life objectively.
AB: He’s got a library of books he’s written himself.
PR: If you go into Barnes and Nobles to the sports section there’s seven categories – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, boxing and Phil Jackson. Maverick and Sacred Hoops are worth reading. Mine might be, too.
AB: Don’t be so modest. It is. What have you learned as a writer since the Peggy Lee book that allowed you to do the Phil Jackson story in a way you might not have previously?
PR: That you should never judge anyone, or their actions, or their legacy, before doing everything you can to try and see the events of their life through their own eyes, from their own perspective–but then use that perspective as only one of your lenses. Phil had left behind his books, and gave his approval for friends to talk to me. I’d interviewed him several times in the past and we were cool. I had every lens available to see the guy’s life objectively and thoroughly.
AB: What was the difference between writing a bio of a dead singer, whose career arc had already ended, and someone who’s still got a few chapters left to go in his career?
PR: Peggy’s role in history had been predetermined. She was the only white top 5 jazz singer of all time. With Phil, everybody had ideas about him, but nobody had out them all together for an objective portrait. Some think he’s overrated because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Then there are those who say, “No, the man is a genius.” Nobody had ever gone in and found the middle ground, the third space. The truth is never black or white. And freed of his subjective perspective, I was able to enter this gray Twilight Zone where I could assemble the pieces that led to assembling the puzzle of the most successful coach in the history of sports — if you go by numbers, anyway, which I do. As Earl Monroe says in the book “Sports is a strange animal, in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven’t won the championship, you don’t have the same respect.”
AB: At the same time, Jackson briefly played with a guy named Neal Walk who was comfortable with himself even if he didn’t win. If he lost, he was like, “Oh I’m the first place loser.” Wouldn’t you believe that Neal Walk was a guy who was happy even though he didn’t get a ring?
PR: Oh, God yes, absolutely. Neal Walk and Eddie Mast were his blood brothers on the Knicks, and neither put all their stakes into winning. Those were the people who were saying to “Phil, dude, cool out, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. You’re a Buddhist. It’s the journey not the destination.” Phil seems to be possessed by an almost surreal degree of competition. He needed Walk and Mast as early role models to temper that mania.
AB: But he was able to combine the two.
PR: You got it. He managed to incorporate and meld all of those ingredients. Here’s the bottom line: He never stopped questioning what’s real and what counts in this very short lifetime. Native American Indian culture, Buddhism, Christianity, mysticism — he kept exploring and he kept questioning.
AB: And that’s authentic right? That’s not an act.
PR: Completely authentic. None of his former players that I spoke with said it was for show. Burning sage in the locker room, giving his players books. Every one of them was affected. Whether it was 10% or 90% they were affected.
AB: I thought it was interesting that for some of them, the gesture was enough, it didn’t even matter if the book spoke to them or not. It was the act of him being thoughtful in that way that did have a certain meaning for them.
PR: Exactly. For a few it was both of those things. I’m thinking Craig Hodges, the three-point shooter who was showed up at the White House after the Bulls’ second championship and chastised George Bush and was blackballed from the game — until Phil Jackson brought him back to be the shooting coach of the Lakers. Hodges told me that the book Phil gave him—The Passive Warrior—changed his life. So yes, it was all authentic — and that’s why I actually wrote the book. I would never have written this book if I thought that Jackson was inauthentic in any way shape or form.
AB: You write about Jackson as a teacher, a searcher, and a survivor. How much of that resonates with you at this stage in your life?
PR: It felt as if it were time for me to write a biography of a guy who, in a weird sort of way, was paralleling my own life, at least in terms of trying to never lose curiosity about everything when you reach Act III of your life. In a way, as I wrote, I sort of thought that not talking to him almost didn’t matter, because the more I read his books and interviews over the last 40 years, and the more people I talked to, the more I recognized this innate need for searching, the more I seemed to understand him. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to him in terms of career success, but I came to quickly sense that we shared a few psychological things in common, both on the ultra-competitive side and the intellectual-searching side. Which gave me the confidence to write the book authentically and truthfully.
AB: Would you have had to force this book had you written it 15 years ago?
PR: Absolutely. It would have been forced even five years ago, truth be told. But now, somehow, researching his life not only vibed with some of the exact questions I was asking myself, but I was finally mature enough to accept the validity, the intent, of some of his teachings and searchings and questions. That’s not to say I lost objectivity; just that, in a way I was finally receptive enough to learn from his philosophies — which only enhanced the book.
AB: Speaking of teaching, one of Jackson’s most important teachers was his coach with the Knicks, Red Holzman.
PR: Absolutely. Red taught Phil just about everything he ever learned about coaching, on the court and off. Phil couldn’t be on that first championship team because he had had back surgery that season, so he was Red’s defacto assistant coach—back then you couldn’t have an assistant coach. Red knew Phil had something going on, intellectually. In the locker room after games, after Red had given his post-game talk, he’d turn to Phil and say, “Did I do alright tonight?” Red knew.
AB: Now, you first covered Jackson when he was coaching Albany in the CBA.
PR: And before that, when I was a weed-smoking teenager and lover of sports, a rebel without a cause, fan of the Knicks, I just loved Phil Jackson. I loved the way he looked, I loved the way he tried so hard, I loved that he was clumsy, I loved that he was different. I’d read those same New York Post columns that I quote in the book. Everyone was so attracted to this guy who clearly didn’t fit the paradox. Fast forward to 1986 when he was coaching the Albany Patroons and I was working for the New York bureau of the Miami Herald. So we met for a column, and I could immediately sense that he was just a normal guy. Unlike any pro coach I’d ever covered. He was so normal, I became normal — not a writer, just a guy I was talking with. I wasn’t there as the sports writer trying to get something and he wasn’t there as the coach trying to give the right answers. It was like a couple of hours “Let’s talk about stuff.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. I hope it works for him.”
AB: Was it that he was necessarily charming?
PR: Oh no, he wasn’t charming–I mean unless we’re all charming, unless you and I are being charming. He was being human and social and friendly.
AB: Did you ask him how come the Knicks hadn’t called on him after he’d won a CBA championship?
PR: Yes. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not political enough, I guess. I don’t say the right stuff, But hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” He was getting ready to leave the CBA, and had no idea what he’d do next, which happened to be opening a health club in Montana. He was thinking of the law, or the ministry. Then, a few months later, the Bulls called. A few years after that he was the head coach. So I profiled him again, for the National Sports Daily, during his first season, and hung around Chicago for a couple of days, and wrote a piece whose gist was basically, “How bizarre! An actual person is a really good NBA coach. A real person you could have a conversation with about philosophy or the triangle or Bill Bradley or Wounded Knee was actually a good coach.” You could tell, just from the way Jordan and Pippen were listening to him.
AB: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you alluded to it already, here’s this guy, he’s a seeker. He’s a curious guy and he’s interested in all these different kinds spiritual pursuits. But the other part of him enjoys throwing quips and keeping people — essentially the press–off balance, as if even that were a competition.
PR: I came to understand him as a man trying to reconcile those two pulls, the pull of the peaceful “mindfulness” and the pull of the competitor. I think he was smart enough to see that when he was questioning all of reality — spiritually, intellectually, philosophically — he also had to succeed in a corporate world, and the fact that he was able to reconcile the two to the degree that he could is what really intrigued me. I think he knows that there’s a third space where it can all work out. Ultimately, the he was able to incorporate that corporate trope, that philosophical trope, that spiritual trope, and communicate it all to his players. He coached hundreds and hundreds of players for many years and every one of them, with a few exceptions, would say “Phil looked at me as if I was an individual” — and that, for me, is the road map for success in life. My guess is that Phil would say he’s a teacher. Not a coach but a teacher.
AB: You didn’t talk to some of the superstar guys, though. Before we get to that, I want to know why you didn’t speak to Jackson’s children or the women in his life.
PR: I didn’t want to.
AB: Why is that?
PR: Because I’m not a writer first, I’m a human being first and I just don’t want to go places where I’m not invited. I wrote a book about Phil Jackson because it seemed like the right book to write and I got offered money for it. But I have rules. I don’t compromise humanity. There’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to step from person into journalist. I just can’t do it. I’ve been told that it has hurt my career. Somebody once told me, “Oh man, you’re such a soft core journalist, can’t you be a hardcore journalist?” And I said, “No I can’t because I’m a person, period.” If I can make money writing books about Phil Jackson and the other people I’ve written books about, that’s really cool, but don’t ever ask me to stop being who I am. Phil Jackson doesn’t want me to find his first wife. I could have tracked her down but I wasn’t going to find her because whatever happened with Phil and his first wife is between them. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson? Yup. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson on my own rules? Yup. Does that mean my books aren’t going sell as many? Yup. Do I care? No.
AB: As a reader, do you like reading those biographies that are lured in that kind of person detail?
AB: So this is about knowing who you are as a writer?
PR: How old are you?
PR: Alright. I’m 60, so when you get to 60 you’ll realize what I mean. There comes a point later in life where you realize that exploiting somebody else’s life for your own advancement is not only stupid, it’s destructive. I have my agenda, the reader has their agenda, but in between, there is a space where you can tell the truth and when you do that, people are going to buy your books, people are going to give you advances to write your books, and you don’t have to break news or have sensational stuff. There’s a point where if you’re just telling somebody’s truth or maybe your own, it works. I really feel as if I surrounded Phil Jackson. I really feel as if I understood him and could show the readers why Phil Jackson could be both a Buddhist, spiritualist, off-the-wall guy and the most competitive insane asshole ever and therefore won 11 rings–the combined total Vince Lombard and Pat Riley. I feel as if I am the first guy to tell it right but I don’t think I compromised any of my inner ethical rules writing the book.
AB: How much of an obstacle was it that you didn’t talk to Jordan, Pippen, Shaq or Kobe?
PR: The two best stories I ever wrote for GQ were about Ray Carruth, who took out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, the number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Jason Williams, the former Net who shotgunned his driver to death. Neither of them talked to me. What I was able to do was approach their stories without them and that’s the best way to approach any subject. To answer your question, at the top, I had an editor who didn’t care that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin wouldn’t talk to me. “This is your book,” he said. “I don’t care about what Scottie Pippin thought about him or John Paxton or Kobe, just tell me what the hell is going in Phil’s brain.”
AB: Stars don’t generally give the most insightful interviews, either.
PR: You’re exactly right. In this case, none of the superstars would have told me anything about Phil that they hadn’t already told a hundred other writers. The last guys on the bench are often more valuable for a writer. They’re all looking at their coach to see what they could learn from the guy — about the game, about what it is to be successful. They take notes in their head. I could go on and list the number of people who have been his 11th and 12th player who have gone on to tremendous success as athletes, as athletic directors, as high school coaches, as really enlightened individuals. Unlike Michael Jordan, who is clearly the unhappiness man on Earth. Do you think we’ll ever be able to talk about how happy Kobe Bryant is? I don’t think so. But talking to those who had seen him through a truly authentic lens—and that includes Diane Mast and his old friend Charley Rosen—I think I was able to get to why he was the most successful coach ever. Anybody who is truly a success is a guy who inspires people to follow him and I think every guy Phil ever coached was willing to follow him. They wanted to follow him out of the foxhole because he treated them as equals.
AB: There’s a great story you tell about Jud Buechler. Jackson asked him how his wife was doing and Buechler was blown away because no coach had ever asked him anything personal about himself. It seems like such a common gesture. It made me think how impersonal and screwed up the world of professional sports is.
PR: If you get a new job at Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, does somebody sit you down and ask you if your wife is happy that she’s moved from Indiana to Manhattan and Westchester, and how’s the school district? Phil did, and he didn’t do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do — because clearly that’s not what you’re supposed to do. He did it because clearly that’s who he was. That’s the point of the book. Phil was a guy who was guided by what you and I are guided by, which is that we’re all part of the same social fabric. If Jud Buechler becomes the 12th man on a team that includes Scottie and Michael , Phil wanted him to know not only that it’s important that he knows his role on the team, but to know that I consider him an equal as a person. That’s a gift, a gift that most people in charge of corporate entities never consider bringing into the equation. I’m not sure that’s why he won 11 rings, but I can’t think it wasn’t part of it.
AB: How did Jackson grow in his second go around with the Lakers?
PR: I’d like to think the time off made him examine how he fucked it up the first time around. He had great players and everything fell apart. He understood when he came back that teaching is a two-way street, and I think Kobe was finally willing to listen to someone who could teach him. He’d grown up, too.
AB: And Shaq was gone.
PR: I don’t think its coincidental that once you lose Shaq, you’ve got to completely reconstruct the entire paradigm. The second generation of Lakers he took over wasn’t as stable as his first go-round but he had Kobe. He needed Kobe to be the guy to hold the shit together. Phil went back in after writing a book that ripped Kobe as uncoachable. But when the two of them came back together, and then produced more championships, that was an example of both of them learning and both of them growing up. The two of them had an understanding and got to a place and that to me is what is great about Phil Jackson. He’s still willing to learn.
AB: I love the thing from the Lakota Indians, where one of the guys said, “Phil saw that for us, spirituality is everything in life — that spirituality is everyday life.” That sort of spoke to me about what Jackson seems to be about.
PR: The difference between Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson is that Lombardi would wake up every morning thinking, “How do I game plan to win next week?” Jackson wakes up and asks, “How can I understand why I’m here?” Weirdly enough, the guy who asks “Why am I here?” every day winds up statistically a greater winner than Lombardi, Joe McCarthy, Red Auerbach or any of them.
AB: That’s funny.
PR: This guy whose entire life who has been built around non numbers, about how you cannot quantify success, happiness, whatever, ends up statistically winning more championships than anyone in professional sports history in the United States of America. At that point you say to yourself, “Why is it that a guy who can’t even show up on the radar of all the barometers and quantifiers of coaching success in American sports, how is it that a coach who doesn’t need any of those things turned out to beat everyone at the one statistic we worship? Is it a coincidence that Phil’s thinking outside of the box and treating his players as people as opposed to product resulted in him winning the marathon? Is that coincidence? That’s why I wrote the book. The guy never stops thinking. He simply doesn’t close his mind to anything.
AB: Not counting the book you wrote with Jerry Weintraub and the children’s book, this is your eighth book. Let’s start with your family memoir, Sweet and Low. Was that the book you always wanted to write?
RC: It’s hard to say exactly because usually when I’m doing a book I feel like that’s the book I always wanted to write and I genuinely feel that way, it’s not just something I’m saying. I think maybe you have to get yourself into that state of mind to do it. Sweet and Low was kind of the thing that I look back at and I say, “I can’t believe I did that, that was an insane thing to do.”
AB: You mean just to be so candid about your family history?
RC: Yeah and about my uncle. I could have got sued in a million ways, horrible things could’ve happened. It was just crazy.
AB: But you were driven a little bit by your mom being screwed out of her inheritance.
RC: Definitely, but it’s like when you get older and you have kids, you just play a little more safe, I think. Sweet and Low really worked well. Everything went really well with it and I’m really glad I did it, but if it went wrong, it could have gone really wrong. You always take that risk with a book, but usually you’re talking like it could go artistically wrong, you could not sell any copies, but it’s not like you could like never talk to your parents again kind of wrong.
AB: Right, or have these horrible lawsuits from family.
RC: Or worse, completely wrecking your family relationships. The most important relationships.
AB: Did you show your parents portions of the book before you finished it?
AB: Really? So you really were taking a risk.
RC: I couldn’t show it to them, especially my father, who would’ve attempted to re-write i. It’s like his story too. I knew I had to finish it and not only finish it, kind of get it almost perfect into my mind at that time and be so it was like unassailable in my mind. I felt really strongly about it.
AB: That’s one thing I always get from reading it. You have a very strong and sure voice narration. Sometimes that can even be when you’re being funny, you’re confident. There’s an authorial confidence that I always get reading your stuff. Did that grow after you did Sweet and Low?
RC: I think the big breakthrough book for me was The Record Men, the book right before Sweet and Low. Something in my head changed, I realized something.
AB: I haven’t read all of your books, but in those two, everything just seems so sound. The tone is really fluid throughout.
RC: Something just happened.
AB: Is writing hard for you?
RC: Of course, it’s impossible for me. Hardest fucking thing in the world.
AB: Good. I know that that’s the case for pretty much every writer that I’ve ever admired. Yet there are some writers that you read and love so much that it is easy to buy into the fantasy that they just wake up and do it with ease. That’s sort of the effect that your books have, there’s an ease to the way that everything flows.
RC: I don’t think it’s true for anybody. It feels that way maybe when you’re writing it, but then you go back and read it again and realize it’s a piece of shit basically. I start with what I call the vomit draft. You sort of put every single thing into it the first time, but I never believe when I’m writing that I’m writing a finished book.
AB: Well one thing that you say in this book which I thought was great–you said that as you’ve gotten older you’ve said that one thing you’ve really come to believe is true is that, I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something like hard work and determination is a talent.
RC: And it’s connected to my own thing because sometimes those qualities of persistence and trying again and again, they’re dismissed because they’re not genius. Then there’s this idea that there’s genius and then there’s the other stuff, but the other stuff – it’s just that the hard work is it’s own kind of genius. That was my point about Walter Payton. You write a book like this and you think about yourself and the people you know in the best possible way. When I came out of a college, I was suddenly in an environment where everybody went to a much, much better school.
AB: When you were aware of wanting to become a writer did you say, “Yeah I want to write books one day?” Was that your ambition?
RC: When I was a little kid, my dad wrote a book, sold a lot of copies. Not really a writer, but he wrote a really big deal book. It was exciting, I was around for it and we’ve always, in my family, held books in the highest esteem. We had a library in our house that you could actually add to that library something with your name on it that you wrote was the greatest kind of achievement. It was just held as the greatest achievement to actually write a book so I had in my head that it was almost impossible to do. My father was in his way, for a guy that had to work all the time, he really liked good writers and he really liked good writing. I always had this idea of really excellent writing and wanting to do that. What happened was I came out of college and I got a job at the New Yorker and I always said I wanted to be a fiction writer. ThenI realized that the stuff I liked at the New Yorker, not just when I was there, but the old stuff, was non-fiction. The stuff I didn’t like about fiction – the whole idea about plot I found maddening and boring.
AB: You were a pop culture junkie as a kid. You’re a huge music fan, you’re into movies, so were you naturally drawn to non fiction just as a way of acquiring information about things?
RC: I really was a big fiction reader but I think what happened was, in high school and in college, and I don’t know if it’s different if you go to a different kind of college, but I would take English classes and you’d read great writers and you’d take history classes and you’d read bad books. I never read the great non-fiction books. So there was this idea that real writing was fiction and the history was writing like the history teachers.
AB: Did you read Pauline Kael and movie criticism or Hunter Thompson or Rolling Stone and Creem or any of that kind of stuff?
RC: I definitely read Rolling Stone and I read Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke and I didn’t really get into Pauline Kael until I go out of college which is too bad because I love Pauline Kael so much.
AB: I sent her a post card once when I was in high school actually and she wrote back to me.
RC: I knew her when I was a kid briefly because I was a messenger at the New Yorker and she was still there. She was like the kind of person that if you’re a messenger, she still treated you like you actually might be a person.
AB: Oh nice. Well so Monsters. The Bears. How did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
AB: So how did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
RC: The really good stories to me are like Sweet and Low. They’re so close to you and important to you. You don’t even recognize them as stories, you don’t even think about it. It doesn’t occur to you and that’s how this was to me because this team was completely essential growing up. You completely thought about this team all day for many years and these guys.
AB: Is this just the ’85 Bears or is this the ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 Bears that culminate with ’85?
RC: Absolutely, I would say probably like really ’79 to ’89 or maybe even ’79 to ’90 or ’91. I was supposed to write a story for Harper’s about my father, but I just couldn’t do it. I was talking to an editor there and she said, “Okay well what else do you want to write about, why don’t you write about sports?” Because I’ve written a bunch of sports stories for them, as you know, because you’ve excerpted that one thing and I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Do you want to write about the Knicks?” I said, “Why the fuck do I want to write about the Knicks? I hate the Knicks.” And she goes, “Well I like the Knicks,” so I said, “Then you write about the Knicks.” She said, “Do you have any sports team that you really love?” I said, “The ’85 bears.” I thought maybe I’d write about the ’85 Bears. One of the problems you run into with sports stories is the guys aren’t that interesting when you talk to them. I’ve written a lot of stories about guys playing now. I decided the first person I’d talk to would be Doug Plank. You’d think he’d be this because he was such a ferocious player and kind of a borderline player, and I called him up and it was like, it was the greatest interview I’d ever done. He had been so thoughtful about his career, what it meant, that time in his life, the game, what the game meant, what it means to succeed, what it means to fail, what it’s like to have to leave the game and your friends continue on without you, what’s it like to barely not win the Super Bowl because he retired too early. All these things about fame and what’s the Gay Talese book–Fame and Obscurity? All the big things not just about football, but about like being a human being and being alive and getting old.
AB: And how reflective the guy is. He talks about–who is the guy, you end that one chapter with him talking about a guy who tore his cartilage?
RC: He never told me the player’s name. He’s obviously protecting the guy and he’s talking about hitting a guy low.
AB: Yeah and he just says that you live with these things for a long time and you kind of–it’s real powerful stuff there.
RC: I thought so and his whole thing about Roger Goodell coming up to him and saying, “You’re a great player.” It’s sort of like that’s what everybody wants–to just really be great at one thing, I think.
AB: What’s interesting to me about that quote is the idea than an authority figure’s compliment would validate him so much, there’s still that adolescent need in Plank.
RC: It’s interesting too because Goodell didn’t play.
AB: That took me back actually because of all the things he said, and this guy’s pretty deep, yet he still craves that Dad kind of approval.
RC: But there’s another way to look at it too. That’s definitely true, but there’s also the idea of how you’re remembered. It’s like what Ditka said. I mean, I read it, I still sort of break up and cry over Ditka’s eulogy of Payton about how he played. It’s like how did they play, that’s just like life. How did you play the game? Did you play hard? Did you play clean? Did you obey the rules of the game you were playing? And all these things and there’s that too in Plank, I mean yeah it’s Goodell so that’s totally true what you’re saying, but it’s also here’s somebody remembering so many years later, you were a great player. It’s so long ago and he wasn’t on the ’85 Bears.
AB: And talk about fame and obscurity—say for instance they didn’t win in ’85 then really who would have remembered him? What I remember most about the Bears that year was that they were like the bad guys in The Road Warrior. They were just terrorists. They’d knock guys out, they didn’t just beat guys, it was ridiculous and they reveled in it too, that was the thing.
RC: Absolutely man. I tried to put that in the book because I was a Joe Ferguson fan for whatever reason because I used to love to watch him run all around. Remember how great he was? I remember him on the Bills. He was also the subject of the greatest, funniest referee’s call ever. Remember that? The guy giving him the business. That was Ferguson, “giving him the business.” Which shows people like to pound on Ferguson for some reason, he’s always getting “giving him the business.” It’s one of those guys who you associate him with one team. Always with the Bills. When Wilber Marshall just laid him out and it was the most vicious hit that I’ve ever seen and they say that the game has gotten so much quicker and so much more violent, I don’t believe it when I see that hit. That’s as violent as any hit you’ll ever see ever. You look at even the size of a guy like Ditka. Ditka could still be a great tight end now, he’s the same size as those guys. When he was playing, if you look at how big he was, now they work out more, but they were big fucking guys. Just to see him like–to watch him kill Joe Ferguson I just suddenly got, “Oh, this is what it must be like for every other team in the league.” To understand the greater context of it, the Cowboys have been beating the shit out of the Bears my entire life. Every now and then we’d get a Cowboy player and he wouldn’t be good anymore. Like Golden Richards came to the Bears, I was like “Oh we got one of these guys!”
AB: Well it’s like you said, it’s like who cares what happened with the rest of the season, win this game. At the time of that game, it’s like a poor man’s version of when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in ’04.
RC: It’s how I used to feel when I was a kid, I was a big Michigan fan and watched Michigan play Ohio State. It didn’t really matter what happened in the Rose Bowl, the main thing was that Michigan beat Ohio State. Woody Hays went psychotic, punched out a cameraman.
AB: I remember the Monday night game vividly. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just Marino, it was Shula and it was maybe the fact that the Bears were a little cocky and that that loss proved to actually be a really good thing for them.
RC: Yeah like if the Patriots maybe a couple years ago had not had a perfect record. Maybe it would have been good for them. Sometimes you go in kind of arrogant and it’s like the Bears were rigid. They were rigid because Buddy Ryan had this idea, which was right that year, but look at what happened to him later. He was a rigid guy. He would draw up his plan and he wasn’t a pragmatic person, he was an ideologue. Rex is a little bit like that. Ditka, that’s why they were really complimentary, Ditka is the ultimate pragmatist, he doesn’t give a shit, if he goes to a team that has a great running back, he’ll run the ball every play. If he goes to a team that’s got a great receiver, he’ll throw, whatever he can do to win, he’ll do it. The 46, Shula figured out how to beat the 46 for one half, that’s all he had to do because the Bears didn’t score a lot of points and McMahon was hurt and the Bears had this idea that Marino was immobile and he just couldn’t move and they designed roll-outs and they suddenly had Wilber Marshall having to cover Nat Moore down the field and he just couldn’t do it and Marino was one of the best quarterbacks ever and that was it. If Buddy Ryan had switch to the nickel, which he finally did in the second half, they could’ve probably stopped him because not only did he have 46, but they also had great players, four hall of famers, three on defense I guess. Some of those guys could have been like Wilber Marshall.
AB: Well it’s like the Big Red Machine. It’s like the guys who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are still pretty fucking awesome.
RC: Right and they’re not in the hall of fame and they’re the reason why the other guys are in the hall of fame.
AB: They can’t put the whole damn squad in the hall of fame.
RC: Exactly so you have McMichael who is borderline and even a guy like Fencik who I guess is nowhere close, but if you look at the amount of interceptions he had and the amount of tackles he had.
AB: Now Fencik sounds like a great interview too.
RC: Well Fencik is a really smart, kind of regular kind of guy. Plank would always joke and Fencik would say the same thing and say, “Hey it’s Gary Plank.” They played side by side for a whole bunch of years. They were kind of like mirror images of each other. They’re both these like little, not very fast, hard-hitting white guys who would run around and completely crush people. I was watching a game the other night and they were trying to use the safety like that. It just wasn’t good enough. They would pick him up and he would suddenly be trying to get by a guy who was 100 pounds heavier than him and they just didn’t and as a result there was somebody open down field. It was a disaster. But just to see when you’d see Fencik come creeping up just before the snap and suddenly he’s the extra guy coming through on the safety. In that game against the Rams, the first tackle is made by Fencik of Dickerson in the Rams backfield. That’s crazy.
AB: Absolutely. The only drag to me about the way that that season ended, well there’s two drags and you go into it in the book. I was pissed they didn’t give the ball to Walter Payton to score a touchdown, but I actually understood it a little bit more, reading your book that he was a perfect decoy.
RC: When you go back and watch the game–I didn’t really write about this too much because I didn’t want to and I basically agree with you, but he did get the ball a lot by the goal and he didn’t score. He didn’t have a good game. He just didn’t have a good game and if you look at it, I counted at one point, there were five or six times he was given the ball inside the three. You know what I mean? Even one time when he was throwing the ball and he like dropped it in the end zone. Basically he was pissed at himself I think because he knew he had a shitty game and one of the reasons he had a shitty game was because he was triple teamed every time he touched the ball.
AB: That’s the one thing they could do.
RC: Right, the one thing they said, “Okay, we’re going to stop Payton, we’re not going to let Payton beat us. We’re going to make McMahon beat us” or whatever.
AB: What’s interesting was the way that Payton handled it, which wasn’t graceful. Finally he won the Super Bowl and he was kind of pissed in the aftermath, but also that Ditka was so swept up in the moment that it didn’t even occur to him to let Payton score a touchdown.
RC: Here’s the thing for me. I was at the game and I was a kid, so I didn’t even notice any of that. It’s amazing when you’re at the game–I mean, I noticed that Payton didn’t score, I noticed that bothered me, but I didn’t notice that Payton wasn’t handling it well because I couldn’t see his face. I realized it later and then I read the Jeff Pearlman book a couple years ago and he really went into it, but the thing is when I interviewed McMahon, McMahon who remembered every single tiny detail, McMahon like Ditka said, “I didn’t even realize until after the game. I didn’t even get it.” He was so focused on winning the Super Bowl and he said that the play that he scored that his first touch down was designed for Payton. He looked up and Payton was completely covered and there was a big hole so he just ran into the end zone and that’s the football play.
AB: Absolutely. The other part that I remember about that season being disappointed with was that the Dolphins didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.
RC: I didn’t really write about that in the book because it was a shame. The Dolphins were probably going to lose, but you had a sense that–
AB: Right. Well the Dolphins, I just remember when they lost in the playoffs it was like: the season’s over. They were the best chance to put up a fight against the Bears. That would have been a sort of worthy -
RC: Not only that. As a Bears fan, there was a blemish on the season and there is a blemish and the blemish could have been removed. That’s why it was a bummer. The Bears had a chance–that would have been the perfect Hollywood ending, if the Bears beat the Dolphins. Even looking back on it though, it was so thrilling and it was so fitting that they completely trounced New England, if it had been a close game against the Dolphins. I was listening to The FAN in New York around Super Bowl time and they were just talking about the greatest Super Bowl teams and they didn’t even bring up the Bears. How could that be? Then realized, oh, because all the teams they’re talking about are teams that won in great games, that’s why they remember them. The Catch, the Ice Bowl, the Steelers and Cowboys going back and forth, your team, your era, my era too, Bradshaw, Staubach, and all that great stuff and the Bears game was never close.
AB: If I had to name one of the best teams of all time, I would certainly think of the ’85 Bears. Their offense I think is kind of underrated, but forget their offense. Their defense was an offense.
RC: Absolutely, the defense scored more points than the offense. It was Mike Francesa, I think it was his show. It was just an oversight. I know if you were to talk to him because he was just naming–when you started listening to the teams he was naming, they were all teams involved in great games. He was remembering great games. I heard him recently, somebody was saying the Jets have a great defense right now. This was a couple days ago, somebody was saying that, and he was saying, “Oh, they’re not a great defense, a great defense is the ’85 Bears, a great defense is the ’77 Steelers.” He clearly, on his ranking, has the Bears at the top of all time best defenses, as they should be. I think they’re the best ever. I was thinking about the fact that–If it had been the Dolphins and the Bears in the Super Bowl, and not a team that seemed like they just got hot for a couple of games, under weird conditions and if they had an actual game, then it just would have been the perfect ending. It’s sort of like when you get something you wanted to happen very easily and at first you’re really happy that it wasn’t as much work and then later you’re like you wish it was a little more of a struggle. That’s a little bit what it was like.
AB: After they won it’s almost like, what now? Okay, you’ve climbed a mountain. Now what?
RC: Right. It’s really especially cute, I think and maybe I’m wrong. For Chicago, there had never been a winning team in Chicago my whole life. In my entire life.
AB: That’s another thing. This is all before Michael the Bulls run.
RC: You had to go back to ’63 Bears which was five years before I was born and at that point, football was much less of a big deal than it became. One team did win and the media tried to blow it up into a big deal, but nobody cared, and it was the Chicago Kings in the indoor soccer championship and they tried to make it a big deal and the press went to the airport and there was nobody waiting for the team. There was like one guy waiting for the players like, “Hey you’re the soccer guys man, you won something, congratulations, good job!” Iit always seems like it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. Just the year before that in ’84, the Cubs were 2-0 one game away from the World Series, they lost three games in a row. That was just crushing and the year before that, even though I wasn’t a White Sox fan, I sort of rooted for the Chicago teams, but I got kind of into it when the White Sox won their division by like 20 games. Then they maybe won one game against the Orioles.
AB: I got WGN so when I was in middle school I watched the Cubs all the time just because they were on after school so I was kind of familiar with those Cubs teams in a way that I wouldn’t have been with a lot of other teams.
RC: They’re real fun. There’s that Steve Goodman song, “The Cubs Fan’s Request.” First of all, Chicago has variations, just like every city of accents, so the one they do on Saturday Night Live, like the Super Fans, that’s a real accent, it’s like a South Side accent. Where I grew up is sort of like the North Shore and it’s like heading towards Wisconsin and then ultimately to Minnesota and it starts to be almost like a Minnesota accent, but it’s very particular to like a few towns and Steve Goodman has that accent, so it always makes me feel very warm to hear it. He’s talking about his funeral, what he wants for his funeral, it’s just really great. But he’s listing the things that he wants it to be, Wrigley Field, day, no lights, and he wants of all things, he wants Keith Moreland to drop a routine fly. He just dates it exactly. I think Keith Moreland has a son now and he plays baseball.
AB: So when you, you said that this started with something at Harper’s. Did it start as a magazine piece or did you think this could actually be a book?
RC: It started as me saying I was going to write a magazine piece about the ’85 Bears and then calling Doug Plank and then talking to him for three hours and Brian Baschnagel too, Baschnagel was another great guy. Then deciding, this a book, this is a book I’ve always wanted to write. Then I just talked to my editor and told him I want to write this book and he basically said go, do it.
AB: How long did it take you to do it?
RC: I have to think about exactly when I started. I probably spent about six months or a little more just going around and tracking down and interviewing players and hanging out with Brian McCaskey who is one of Halas’s grandsons. Then I probably spent like another year or whatever writing it, or something like that. Then it’s actually been published, from when I turned it in to when I published it, it was a really short period of time. I just turned it in in the spring, I never had that experience. That’s became if we didn’t make this spring, I would’ve had to wait until next football season which I really didn’t want to do. Plus it’s not really, but things happen, things become dated really, really quickly.
RC: The weird thing about McMahon is he’s alright. When you talk and when you hang out with him.
AB: I was a little surprised actually because having read that piece, I was expecting it to be worse. I didn’t know what your approach was going to be, but you ended up handling that subject dead on. That was like the subject you couldn’t avoid, right?
RC: As a fan, you can’t avoid it either, the more stuff you read about it. You think about it, you have kids, you think about it, but when you go deal with McMahon, you’re dealing with McMahon and how he is and he seemed like he always seemed. He remembers everything, that’s a short term memory thing, the fact is every now and then I get in touch with him and he always e-mails me right back and seems to know who I am.
AB: The other interesting thing about McMahon is that he plays the part of such a hick but actually did well with his money.
RC: He did a really smart thing, which is, all these guys were getting sports agents and he met Steve Zucker who just lived where I grew up basically and he said, well you represent me, he’s not an agent, he’s a really smart guy. The guy said I’m not an agent. He ended up being an agent because he did so well from McMahon and he ended up representing a bunch of Bears, but he said I’m not an agent and he said I don’t care it’s just that you’re smart and you know the people in Chicago. He said okay because he thought his kids would think it was really cool that he represented Jim McMahon. Steve Zucker was such a smart guy and McMahon told him what he wanted, which was when he stopped playing, he didn’t want to have to work ever again. He invested his money, took care of his money, told him what to do in such a way that–it wasn’t just that McMahon was pulling an investor, but he found a guy he could trust and trusted him. That’s like the same kind of thing we’re talking about, about like hard work. Don’t discount how rare that is. That he knew not to go with the biggest deal, biggest name agent. That didn’t mean shit to him. He just wanted somebody who was local in Chicago and somebody who was smart and seemed to have his shit together.
AB: How did you decide how to weave in the memoir stuff with the interviewing of the players and then include a general history of the Bears?
RC: I think that the structure, I hate to give it away because hopefully people can’t even see it, but underneath it all, all the structure is super, super simple, which is what I always like to have, a really simple structure. The structure is just–it’s almost like the history of the Bears from the time they were started until they won the ’85 Super Bowl. That’s really the underlying structure of the book. Then it’s really in thirds. The first third of it is the history of the Bears, then the history of the league because the history of the Bears and the history of the league are intertwined. So it’s the history of the Bears and it’s also a biography of Halas because it’s all intertwined. That’s the first third. Then the second third is the ’85 season and the last third is what happened after.
AB: How did you have to condense the team’s rich history to fit this story?
RC: That’s like the vomit draft . I don’t know how many words the book is. I knew at one point, it’s probably about 85,000 words or something and the first draft was probably 200,000 words. I completely freak out, lose my mind, think it’s a piece of you know – go through everything and then you keep cutting and cutting and the first cutting is easy because it’s obvious, but then it gets harder and harder so like I said, I had this whole chunk on Red Grange. It was just–Red Grange’s story was so much like Sid Luckman’s story I thought you only get one of those and Sid Luckman was more interesting because he was so important to the history of the way the modern offense evolved and Grange wasn’t. Also, Luckman was still around in ’85, he was still there and those guys knew him and he taught Ditka how to catch. He’s completely intertwined. He’s still in a conversation in a way that Grange is almost like Babe Ruth. He’s so distant from such a different era. Then you look at it and I wrote the Butkus and I wrote the Sayers and you sort of say, this book isn’t the whole encyclopedic history like you said, but at the same point it is a history of the Bears and can you really have a history of the Bears without Butkus and Sayers. I kind of thought–I always need a title, I always want a title to be Monsters–and you sort of thought as long as they’re one of the monsters, they belong in the book. That was true Sayers and that was true Butkus, they both belonged in the book. Also, they were the guys, the Bears from before I was born until they started getting good in the early ’80′s went through this long fallow period, that was my entire childhood and the last two great Bears, who never won because they played in that period were Butkus and Sayers. I’m just justifying this in my head but it all fits within and I wanted it to be–the memoir stuff was sort of like it just fits where it fits, the beginning scene with the Super Bowl and the end story, that’s like a bookend, it’s outside the structure, but it’s like a bookend and it’s a really funny way. It’s what really happened, but I thought it was a really funny story about getting on that crazy plane.
AB: I loved that. It begins the story in such such high spirits. That’s the thing for me that ends up being interesting about the story. I learned about a city that I don’t know a lot about. Great story when, after a loss, the cop yells at you guys and he says, “Pick your fucking head up, it’s another fucking day.” That was like okay that’s the city’s ethos or whatever it is.
RC: Absolutely and also, I didn’t want it to be like, it’s not like even though I love these books, it’s not like David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 or whatever–
AB: Well you wanted it to be–In your previous books, your sense of human, you definitely descend from Buddy Hackett’s blue shows. I always get the sense that you like some good vulgarity in your humor.
RC: Yeah I know and I constantly–you should see how many, those are the letters I get from people I sent the book to, “You probably want to take this out.”
AB: I’m glad you didn’t because that’s the fun part.
RC: I know, it’s just getting back to what it really is and what really makes it great, which isn’t–that’s how I felt about it–which isn’t just the statistics and the numbers and the fantasy football and all that shit and all the graphics, it’s a guy running for his life. It’s such a crazy game. This guy trying to through the ball 30 yards down the field as five guys are coming to kill him. What it takes to stand up in the middle of that and know you’re going to get completely flattened and still do it.
AB: The Bears are a great team because again, there was something so primal and awful and they were almost like a comic book. But there are two cases in your book, Tony Easton and Ferguson. … These are guys that you want to talk to who had particularly embarrassing incidents with the Bears. The Ferguson hit and Easton’s poor performance in the Super Bowl. You even mention Joe Morris too, who got the mystery migraine in the playoff game, but you couldn’t find these fucking guys and I wonder, do you think that there is something about football defeat that’s worse than being a goat in a different sport? Bill Buckner comes to mind.
RC: It’s public humiliation for anybody and if you’ve ever had it at all, it’s an awful thing. You never ever get over it. It’s like getting burned. For these guys who are masters, I mean, every one of them is an unbelievable athlete, the greatest athlete at every level just about. That’s what is interesting about Plank and Fencik, they were not. They were never. Like Tom Brady, they just were not and then they kept getting better but most of these guys like Buckner, he was an incredible player from the moment he came into the league and to sort of have this act of being–and he’s a graceful guy and to be in public in the biggest moment in his life and it’s a clumsy thing. I don’t think it’s just football, I think it’s everything and I think sports is just a magnet. That’s why good sports completely resonate because it should be what you live in a confined area in a really heightened way. You do mention Saul Bellow—I’m a big Saul Bellow fan. He had a line about explaining his books and he said it’s just heightened autobiography. It’s kind of like sports are when they’re working. There was a great hockey player even before my time, but legendary guy, Eric Nesterenko.
He was in the movie Young Blood, he actually teaches Rob Lowe how to fight in that movie and when I was at the New Yorker, somebody there, Adam Gopnik, he’s from Canada, he gave me this story which I’ve never heard of, called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and it was about how at the end of his career, Nesterenko got in a fight with, now I’m spacing out on his name, but sort of the enforcer of the Canadiens who later became a coach for the Devils. Nesterenko got the shit beat out of him and it was on national hockey net in Canada and Nesterenko was like 42. The guy he was fighting was like 24. The story is all about–the writer’s a big Blackhawks fan and the guy who beats Nesterenko up is on the Canadiens and it’s like he feels as if his own father is beating him up and he has this realization about his dad and his feelings about his dad and his life gets better at this point because he realizes and all this stuff. A friend and I went skiing in Vail in 1993 and we’d heard that Eric Nesterenko was a ski instructor in Vail and we hired him for a lesson and we spent the whole day skiing with him, talking to him about the NHL. We invited him out to dinner and we went out to dinner with him and at the end of dinner, we’d all been drinking a little bit, I asked him if he’d ever heard of the story called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and he lwent fucking berzerk. He’s like, “I fucking heard of it, some fucking candy-ass writer, some fucking asshole, I get my ass beat up, I get humiliated on TV, my kids watch that, my family watches that, and this guy has an epiphany about how he doesn’t like his dad? Fuck him.”
AB: You can’t undo that. What happened to him was a big deal for him, but you take that and you put Tony Easton in the Super Bowl–
RC: And for Nesterenko even though it was a nationally televised game, it wasn’t the biggest game in the world.
AB: You’re not surprised that a guy like Easton would just say, screw it?
RC: Right, I don’t want to talk about it again, you know? Same with Ferguson and I tried to phrase it as somewhat probably dishonestly, which is I want to talk about your entire career and then maybe we could talk about the ’85 Bears. And by the way, I really was a Joe Ferguson fan, so I probably would want to talk about him in Buffalo and if he had talked to me, maybe that would have been part of the book, more about Ferguson. He at first, he called back and he said he would talk to me and then he just blew me off, then I told Fencik about it and he said, “He’s never talking to ya.”
AB: Well Fencik and Plank are great because they are like anchors for the book.
RC: I felt like especially Plank because Fencik—I went and I interviewed and I talked to him and stuff, but Plank I spent a lot of time with. He’s the first guy I talked to and he’s the guy I still talk to. I really felt like he became the moral voice of the book because he’s the underachiever who becomes the most ferocious Bear who creates this spirit of the defense who makes the team what it is. He wears the number, he gives it a name, he doesn’t get to the big game himself, but he doesn’t hold any–there’s no pity.
AB: That’s genuine, that’s not like an act, right?
RC: No, that’s completely genuine, that’s who he is, he’s like one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. He’s like truly a great guy, just like you’d want him to be. In an early version of the book, I drew the diagrams of the single wing, the T formations, sort of the kind of alignment the Bears had when I was a kid, and a spread, and then most importantly the 46 for the book. I’m like, shit, man, I’m a fan, I’ve read everything, I’ve really thought a lot about it, but I’m not a football coach and this is the kind of thing I could’ve had these things wrong. I’m just going to get a lot of grief over it even if it’s a tiny bit wrong and I can have all these people check it, but who can I have check it. I’m like, fuck I’ll have Plank check it. What better source to check that shit than Plank, who is not only a great player, but who is a coach? And was a coach on the Jets and all this stuff. I sent it to him and he was really, really great and then he actually drew the 46 for me and that’s what’s in the book. Plank’s rendering of the 46 and a long description which I ran, I don’t know if it’s in what you saw, but the caption is Plank’s description of the 46. It’s just so great that I have that, it’s almost like a historical document.
AB: Were there any of Bears that were either difficult to deal with?
RC: Well a bunch of guys just didn’t want to talk to me, they don’t give a shit, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. One of the guys who was sort of difficult although he was okay, was McMichael who I talked to on the phone, but he wouldn’t sit down for an interview because he was so pissed off about the Jeff Pearlman book. He’s like, “Look all we have is our reputations basically and that’s it because we don’t play football anymore and we know and I don’t trust you fucking guys anymore.” They were like really hurt so everybody I talked to was sort of–and I’m like, “Hey man, I’m a Bears fan.” I was there in ’85.
AB: And that didn’t matter?
RC: It mattered to some of them. I’ll tell you what, what’s cool about the Bears is that they are a bunch of guys from Chicago and they completely get who I am. So like Kurt Becker who was McMahon’s roommate and the right tackle I think, right guard, he’s from the West Side of Chicago, he’s knows who I am, he knows where I’m from. He knows I’m a Bears fan. Same with Fencik, who grew up in Barrington.
AB: You pull off kind of a neat trick in that it’s not a puff piece because you have to be, there’s unsavory things about some of the guys, Ditka, Buddy Ryan, whatever. I always though that Buddy Ryan what an asshole without knowing anything about him, but the way you describe him is kind of sympathetic but not soft.
RC: He is what he is, which he’s a product of an older America that really doesn’t exist much anymore.
AB: When you talk about he would check out guys to see who was wasting water when they were shaving, that tells me what kind of guy this guy is, or calling Singletary names.
RC: “Fat Jap.”
AB: “Fat Jap,” right. So just that.
RC: And by the way Singletary is not in any part Japanese, which I sort of assumed he was because I think he’s part Cherokee, I think that’s what it is.
AB: Was he interesting at all?
RC: I didn’t talk to Singletary, here’s the other problem. A bunch of the guys are coaches, like full-time head coaches, so you could get to them in a press conference about you know, so that’s in a testament to the team, so Singletary was because he was coaching San Francisco, then in Minnesota, and Ron Rivera is head coach, and Jeff Fisher is a head coach, and Leslie Frazier is a head coach, and then those other guys I spoke to, like Dent I spoke to and Otis Wilson was really great actually. He was a great one.
AB: He was from Brooklyn right?
RC: Brownsville. He’s one of my favorite players. Very charismatic guy when he was a player. Some guys are just great talkers, even a guy like Jim Morrissey, who is really from Michigan, but half of his grandparents lived basically where I lived, where I grew up, and he used to spend every summer where I grew up so he kind of was a Chicago guy really in a lot of ways. It’s just like a guy working for some brokerage firm making trades on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange now and he played like 11 years in the NFL as a linebacker, as a starting linebacker, which is a big deal. He was just a rookie on that team and he was just one of those guys who was really observant, watching everything, and could explain it really well. So you had the guys who were the great players, but they might not be a good interview. Like Dent who was a hall of fame player, but he’s not going to remember exactly–you know what I mean? Whereas Otis Wilson did, and Otis Wilson has a big complaint against Ditka, he was kind of angry. Morrissey did, and Brian Baschnagel, who was really one of the great players on the team when they were bad and was still with them in ’86, and he was just really interested in what was going on.
AB: And Ditka was pretty good with you too, wasn’t he?
RC: Yeah Ditka’s great. I mean, Ditka’s Ditka though. He’s like, “Why do you want to talk about ’85, why not about ’63? We had a pretty good team in ’63, why doesn’t anybody want to talk about the ’63 team?” Just stuff like that.
AB: I won’t keep you too much longer Rich, but there are two other things I wanted to touch on. Was Kahn’s The Boys of Summer a template?
RC: Yeah, Boys of Summer. As far as football books, and I’m not a completist, you know what I mean? I thought Paper Lion was a great book and one of the things that’s great about it is that Plimpton was a really excellent writer. He got this firsthand experience of catching a punt kicked by an NFL punter, and especially before ESPN and Hard Knocks and all that stuff, he went inside a place no one could go. I think it’s a great book and I think, though it’s a novel, North Dallas Forty, I think is a really great book, funny book. As far as football goes, I think the Michael Lewis book is really good about describing the offensive line.
AB: The one football book that I really was moved by was by John Ed Bradley who played at LSU and then was a writer for the Washington Post and then for Esquire and GQ for a bunch of years and SI, but he dropped out and became a novelist. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium is a memoir about John Ed growing up in Louisiana, his daddy was a high school football coach, and playing at LSU. He could have played in the NFL, but decided he wanted to be a writer. The book is about how for 20 some odd years, he couldn’t go back to LSU. He couldn’t talk to the people he played with because it was such a good time, it was such an elevated time, that he would never be able to get there again and it’s really a melancholy book, but I thought of that, his whole book is summed up into one sentence by Plank where he says, “If you’re lucky enough to experience something that intense when you’re young, you pay for it with the rest of your life.” That’s John Ed’s book. That’s fascinating to me that for some guys they can’t–and Plank seems to have gone on with his life and he was able to see that and sort of articulate that was really powerful.
RC: Well that’s why he was so great as a resource because he was both. He wasn’t a guy on the sideline, a guy on the periphery, he wasn’t a mediocre player, he was a great player, he really was. He was a heartbeat of the defense before he got hurt and he thought a lot about it. It’s just his description to me of when he got cut or basically got cut because he’s never going to be the same and he’s leaving the locker room and he sees Jeff Fisher and he tells Jeff Fisher and the whole look on Jeff Fisher face just changes like alright.
AB: You’re a civilian now.
RC: Yeah we’re not teammates and it’s over and how that registers is so sad for Plank, he just registers it.
AB: There’s a lot of sadness in sort of the idea, it’s not depressing really–
RC: It’s melancholy man, it’s melancholy.
AB: It really is, it’s sort of life moves on and you did this 25 years ago and sometimes even the idea of–I could almost imagine myself being a player and being like–
RC: Well, that’s the thing, like the shit about Walter Payton and what a hard time he had retiring, like it’s a surprise, how could you not? You put any human being in that situation where you give him that much adulation and control your life to that extent and it just ends and the fact that so many of these guys do so well is amazing. It just shows how strong they are. The fact that Doug Plank then while the Bears are in the Super Bowl, he’s running a Burger King, and he’s not screaming his head off. You know what I mean? And everyone’s talking about the 46 defense on TV and they don’t know it’s Doug Plank is in the Burger King.
AB: Well that’s one thing I think you do successfully in your book, I didn’t know what to expect. You touch on the big Vikings game in the ’85 season, the Cowboy game, you talk about games, but it’s like “and then in week two”–
RC: That’s what I’m saying, if people are expecting that, they’re going to be disappointed.
AB: To me that’s what’s so horrible even about baseball writing. “And then he hit the 2-2 pitch and laced it for a double,” even the language is horrible. How do you write interesting and lively prose about stuff that has been so clichéd over time?
RC: It’s really been a challenge and that’s what I mean when I say that there’s been books–every book I’ve read about a football season, they’re all like that. It’s like a blow–by-blow-by-blow of something that happened long ago that only means something and is only interesting if you’re a complete fanatic or it resonates in some bigger cultural way. That’s why Boys of Summer still resonates to people. Even if they haven’t read it, they know about it. Have you read it?
AB: I have, but to me it’s–I have mixed feelings about it but I’m still taken by Kahn’s ambition to write a great book. It’s melodramatic in parts but still powerful.
RC: That’s what’s good about it, like for me. It’s an imperfect book with a lot of flaws. You know what it’s like, when you read certain magazine writing and it’s so slick, you’re like I could never write that, but then you read something like Ian Frazier, who’s like a–I love him, you could tell a person made it, it’s like made by hand.
AB: What’s amazing reading it now is that Kahn had access to his subject that doesn’t exist anymore. The relationships that he had with these guys and the fact that he’s writing about the ’50s just as the whole ’50s craze, the whole Brooklyn thing was starting and it’s the last major thing ever written about Jackie Robinson before he dies. It set a standard that kind of book.
RC: You can’t sell what he’s selling anymore because for all the reasons you say, no one has that kind of access and what’s more, cameras are everywhere so people have seen, and also the fact that the guy made no money and you didn’t know what happened to them after they retired, they vanished. A guy working in the World Trade Center and putting in the elevators. The reason why–I agree with everything you’re saying, that’s why it was helpful for me because first of all it was totally imperfect and all kind of fucked up, yet so great. So you could sort of see how he put it together so obviously. Underneath it’s an incredibly simple structure, when you’re reading it you kind of forget that. For him, you’re always aware. It’s divided into thirds, it’s the history of the Dodgers up until when he was kid then it’s his own memoir, then it’s his season, culminating in his season with the team, which is not the season they want. So his season with the team, where the manager was Charlie Dressen, who was the first quarterback of the Bears technically. Then the ’55 season, like you expected, and then the last third—it’s not even integrated, it’s like separate chapters, separate essays about where are they now, about whatever it is, five or six guys culminating with Robinson, and that’s it, and it’s so simple, and it completely works. So that’s why it was–it’s not that it was the great be all and end all; it’s that he did something really really interesting, really really great and it’s very simple to see–to me–the structure of it is very plain. It’s like seeing a building and being able to see how it was put together. If you look at the sports books that had bigger culture resonance, Friday Night Lights does too. I thought that was actually a great book, there’s another book that’s sort of like not perfect, but it’s like Dreiser or something; it’s like the whole magnitude of it and the ambition is really interesting.
AB: So lastly, you write about the mixed emotions about the violence in the game. You love big hits but you love Dave Duerson more. Do you find that you don’t like football as much as you used to? You have three kids right?
RC: Yeah, but you know what though, I go back and forth about it because as a product as watching it, it’s just about as good as it’s even been, I believe. Part of me thinks there’s too much scoring because it becomes inflationary. I love hockey because there’s so much tension, who’s going to score? That’s kind of–some of these games seem like the Nerf football games you play as a kid and you say okay whoever scores next wins, but you don’t keep fucking score, everybody scores every time, so whoever is able to stop the team once is going to win. It seems like, as a Bears fan, you love defense and the defense had been so disadvantaged by the rules, partly to protect these guys and partly because people love to see goals, I mean people love to see points. When you see a guy, I remember when I was a kid, that Darryl Stingley had happened and it just really freaked me out, scared the shit out of me and then he came back and he was a paraplegic, it was just so awful. It is, it’s a tough thing.
AB: Now, when you did this book, you’re describing these guys walking around. You always talk about Plank’s titanium shoulders.
RC: The idea that Jim McMahon can’t play catch with me because he can’t fucking throw his keys—he’s all fucked up. So they made these decisions themselves. They had a choice and they made these decisions. A lot of them even knew because it wasn’t like if you were a player on the Bears and you were a rookie in ’85, all you had to do was look at Ditka, he was a fucking mess. He was a very physical player. He played for a very long time. But the fact is when you’re 22, you can’t make a decision like that. That’s why you need other people to protect you than yourself because you’ll do stupid shit, you’ll drink and drive, you’ll take drugs. You’ll do everything you’ll pay for later because you’re an idiot, you’re a kid. You’re just thinking about the next 10 minutes and you’re not thinking that other things–you haven’t lived long enough to realize that other thing is going to come around before you know it and you’re gonna have, you know. It’s just like what’s going to look good in the next. If you watched how a guy like McMahon played, he played like a guy who believed that it didn’t matter what happened in three years.. He’d dive head first. He would do it all the time and he loved it and he obviously was a guy who loved getting hit. There’s guys like that. We all grew up with them. He’s like sort of–
AB: He’s like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He’s nuts.
RC: Yeah and that’s his whole thing and and especially now, it’s the coach’s job and the owner’s job and the GM’s. They have to protect that guy from himself. You’re using that quality he has to make your team great and to make this game exciting, but you also at the same time have a kind of responsibility to protect them from his own stupidity, that he can’t see what’s coming but you know because you’re 20 years older than him. Ditka would say, “Well I couldn’t change him—it would have ruined him.” That’s probably true to some degree. Now though it’s like watching a game, it’s like willing suspension of disbelief and you don’t think about it because you get into it, but when a guy gets really–when you see a bad hit, the kind you used to see 10 times in an ’85 Bears game you sort of have this moment of, what the fuck am I doing here. That’s what the league has to protect itself from because that’s what’s going to hurt the league.
“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)
Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.
What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.
Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?
Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.
BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.
PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.
BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.
PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.
BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?
PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.
BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.
PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.
BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?
PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.
BB: Did you get along with your editors?
PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.
BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.
PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.
BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.
PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.
BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?
PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.
BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?
PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.
BB: Was it a big transition for you?
PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.
BB: How so?
PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.
BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.
PD: Yeah, that’s right.
BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?
PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?
BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?
PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.
BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?
PD: No. Good Christ. No.
BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?
PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.
BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?
PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—
BB: Like your speaking voice—
PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.
BB: Kosher, huh?
BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?
PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.
BB: Did you write back to the guy?
PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.
BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?
PD: Read them? Sure.
BB: Did you enjoy them?
PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?
BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?”
PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.
BB: In your own life?
PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.
BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?
PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.
BB: The immediacy of it?
PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—
BB: Part of something.
PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.
BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.
PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.
BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?
PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.
BB: So it was a social thing, then.
PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.
BB: Was it like a locker room?
PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.
BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?
PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.
BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?
PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.
BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?
PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.
BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?
PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.
BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?
PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.
BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?
PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …
BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?
PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.
BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?
PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.
BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.
PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.
BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?
PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.
BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?
PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.
BB: When you go back, is it a different place?
PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.
BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.
PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.
PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.
BB: How is newspaper reporting different?
PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.
BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.
PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.
BB: Because of the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.
PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.
BB: What exactly was that?
PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.
BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.
PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.
BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?
PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.
BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?
PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.
BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.
BB: A nice thing to do.
PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.
You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.
Earlier this year, my wife and I went to L’Artusi, in the West Village, and had a wonderful meal. We were taken with the place, the food, of course, but also the warm and enthusiastic service. We especially loved the olive oil cake and I found myself returning to the place just for another taste. It is the creation of Katherine Thompson, who grew up in and around Washington D.C. She learned to cook from her mother and from watching Julia Child on TV.
After graduating from William and Mary with a major in business and minor in fine arts, she lived in Seattle for a few years, unsure what she wanted to do, while entertaining her friends and cooking for them. She was spellbound by Alfred Portale’s cookbook, “12 Seasons,” and decided to move back east where she attended the Culinary Institute. After she graduation, Thompson came to New York and started a career in the restaurant business that took her to from places like Per Se and Italian Wine Merchants to Del Posto. She married Gabe Thompson and is involved in two restaurants with him, Dell’Anima and L’Artusi.
She was kind enough to sit down with me recently at L’Artusi. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.
BB: How long is the program at the C.I.A?
KT: It’s a little less than two years, with an externship in the middle. I did the externship in D.C. at a casual American restaurant called Chef Geoff’s. What was great about that place is that it taught me speed. It wasn’t high end in terms of the food but it was incredibly busy. It was exactly what I needed because when I showed up I was the slowest person in the world and I got my ass kicked. There are skills that I learned there that I still use today, like piping pounds and pounds of butter into ramekins.
BB: So you were at school, then Chef Geoff’s and then back to school.
KT: Yeah, school for nine months, I think, then to D.C. and then back.
BB: What was it like going from being a home cook to a competitive cooking atmosphere?
KT: It was hard and intimidating. I was worried that everyone was looking at me like, ‘What’s this girl doing here?’ I was 25 at the time. But everyone there had been around the block a couple of times and I was green. They were worried that I was going to chop my hand off kind of green. But everyone was great to me in the kitchen. Someone would come to me and say, ‘Instead of doing it this way, why not approach it that way?’ I listened and I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to be wasted space in the kitchen.
BB: In that atmosphere were you pushing yourself because you don’t want to be seen as the weak link?
KT: I also wanted to prove to them that I belonged. It was hard but after a month or two, it worked out. I kept my mouth shut and did what I was told.
BB: Did you have a better sense of what you wanted to do when you graduated?
KT: No. I had a degree, I had student loans to pay, but didn’t know what I was going to do. I looked at job postings at the CIA. Some were dream jobs and I didn’t think I had a chance. One was for an assistant to Jeffrey Steingarten, so I sent a resume and got called back for an interview, and was like ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe I got called for an interview, I’m going to meet Jeffrey Steingarten.’ Also, there was an opening at Per Se, and they had just gotten four stars, so since I was going to be in New York, I dropped off my resume with them. I met Steingarten and didn’t get the job but Per Se called me up for an interview. I was pinching myself. They asked if I wanted to interview for front of the house or back of the house. I interviewed for front of the house because it was more money and in the kitchen…
BB: You don’t get rich working in a kitchen.
KT: No, you don’t. At all, ever. I had front of the house experience and thought that would be the right fit. I went through a long process, they offered me the job and I took it. They call their food runners kitchen servers. It was the most stressful job, one of the jobs where I couldn’t mentally get over it. I was so intimidated by everything, the food, the dinning room, the china, all of it.
BB: And the pressure of having not to fuck up anything.
KT: And I did fuck up. I fucked up so bad once and they had an all staff meeting about it. Brought the whole restaurant together. They didn’t say my name but they talked about what happened and everyone knew I was involved in this one mistake. It was horrifying. We screwed up a course on a table. It was a hard job, but I’m glad I had it. Not only did I meet a lot of great people and see a lot of amazing food it made me realize I don’t want to do front of the house and I don’t want to do four star dining.
BB: Because of the stress?
KT: The pressure is unrelenting.
BB: How long were you there?
KT: Not very long. Seven months. What’s interesting is that the minute I gave two weeks notice, all of sudden the job was easy. I realized that I put myself in the mental weeds the entire time. That job actually wasn’t that difficult. I’d be, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m shaving these truffles that are worth thousands of dollars, I can’t drop it on the floor.’ The mental image on dropping a truffle on the floor was enough to give me a panic attack. Really, it’s not that big of a deal, it’s a softball that you’re grating on a grater. But I couldn’t think of it that way.
BB: What came next?
KT: I went to work at Italian Wine Merchants. Mario Batali was involved with it at the time. It’s a retail wine store but they do private events in the back. I helped run the private events program there, so I’d book the event and then help cook for it. That was my first experience cooking Italian food. I learned about making sauces and fresh pasta. I was there for two-and-a-half years and did a lot of cooking. I also learned how to develop a private events business and that’s a very specific job. After that, my cousin opened a wine store in Tribeca and I helped them open. But there was down time as we waited to open, and that’s when I went to work at Del Posto in the pastry program. I fell in love with it. Del Posto was amazing, the pastries were amazing.
BB: Del Posto is a four-star restaurant, too. What was the difference there?
KT: Well, it wasn’t four-star yet. I was friends with pastry chef a the time. I felt comfortable with the staff. It was a little more relaxed, not quite as strict. At Per Se, I was too uncomfortable to let myself have a personality, whereas at Del Posto it didn’t feel that way. It wasn’t as daunting. Plus, I was doing pastry, which I loved and which was easier to do than talking to people in the dinning room. So I went back-and-forth between Del Posto and the wine store and then moved to the wine store full time and developed their events and cooked for them. But after awhile, I got burned out from it, booking events, cooking for the events, it’s a day and night process. When I left, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had nothing lined up. And I had just met Gabe. When I left Del Posto, my friend Elizabeth, who had also worked with me at Italian Wine Merchants, was still there. She became friends with Gabe who came to work at Del Posto’s and she introduced us and it was one of those love at first sight things. He also left Del Posto. It was the summer of being ridiculously poor, not having any idea of what was next, and we would cook for each other.
BB: This was when?
KT: ’07. Spectacular summer. In Brooklyn. I lived in an old brownstone in Boerum Hill, had three roommates, big kitchen. We’d have impromptu dinner parties all the time. Then in August, Joe Campanale, our wine guy, who I had worked with at Wine Merchants, contacted me about the Dell’ Anima space. They wanted to open something. They knew about wine but not food and they asked if I could help them find a chef. I knew I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t have line cook experience. So I told them, ‘I’m sleeping with this guy and his food is delicious.’ Not only did I fall in love with Gabe’s personality but I fell head over heels for his food.
BB: That is romantic.
KT: It’s funny, right? I introduced them, he cooked for them, and it was the right match, so it worked out and we opened Dell’ Anima in October ’07.
BB: And what were you doing there?
KT: This is where my life gets complicated. I helped open the restaurant but I didn’t initially work there. Officially. I took a job at Brasserie 44 in the Royalton Hotel as a pastry sous chef because my old pastry chef at Del Posto was there. I really wanted to do pastries. Also, it was so earlier in my relationship with Gabe.
BB: Working together could get tricky, right?
KT: We’d just met each other, so working together, maybe that’s a little much. Maybe I need to do my own separate thing. But after work at the Hotel I went to Dell’ Anima to help out. They didn’t have a pastry program and when you open a restaurant there is stuff to do around the clock, it’s never ending. I was going back-and-forth between the two jobs and a few months after they opened, they realized they needed front of the house stuff done and since I was there all of the time. I transitioned to Dell’ Anima, where I was the manager and the pastry chef.
BB: Were you far enough into your relationship with Gabe that it worked?
KT: Yeah, it was perfect. It was one of those things were we had such a great relationship that it made it easier. In most restaurants there is a division and conflict between the front of the house and the back of the house. I was the bridge. Especially in that space where there is no wall between the two, so you are in each other’s face no matter what. But we were so comfortable talking to each other that there wasn’t any conflict. Plus, I don’t think that some chefs understand what when a manager asks as bizarre request, they’re just the communicator, they just want to make the guest happy. Gabe never questioned that. Which makes such a big difference.
BB: Were you living together?
KT: Yup, in Brooklyn. Studio apartment, 12 feet by 12 feet. A place to sleep. And we decided we wanted to get married and simultaneously, our investors decided that they wanted to open another restaurant.
BB: What was the reception like at Dell’ Anima?
KT: When we opened, Gabe and I wondered if it was going to work. Italian had been done a thousand times, why open another Italian place, we’re sick of Italian. So true. But people still like to eat good food and people love pasta. As long as you do anything well people are going to gravitate toward it. We were busy from the minute we opened which is, knock on wood, unbelievable.
BB: I know the space is cozy and the food is tasty but how can you account for that kind of immediate success?
KT: The neighborhood embraced us. We instantly had regulars. We never got reviewed. [Frank] Bruni blogged about us a couple of times but we never got reviewed. Partly because we were so small and partly because people didn’t necessarily see it as a legitimate restaurant. Is it a wine bar, what is it? Plus, nobody knew who Gabe or Joe were so nobody cared about the names. Still, we were busy, and it went well. Then, Alfred Portale came in to eat, and he’s my idol. That was wonderful. We also made the decision to stay open until 2 am, so we’d serve a full dinner until 2. Our perspective was it would become an industry place. When our friends got off work, and it was midnight and they’re hungry, they can come in and get a great glass of wine and a big bowl of pasta. So there were cycles of time when entire staffs would show up at 12:30-1 am. We really wanted our peers to enjoy what we were cooking and get their feedback. The downside of that was that we weren’t getting off from work until 3:30-4 am, every single night, living in Brooklyn, we were lucky if we got home before 5:00.
BB: And then came L’Artusi.
KT: Yeah, it was back-to-back. Gabe and I got married in the fall of ’08, went on our honeymoon, and when we got back we opened L’Artusi. Lehman Brothers collapsed when we were on our honeymoon so that economic shitshow went down as we were opening up this huge restaurant.
BB: How much bigger is it than Dell’ Anima?
KT: Dell’ Anima is 50 seats this is 124 seats. A lot more money, a lot more pressure. At Dell’ Anima we could get away with being more adventurous with our food. Even though it was a smaller restaurant. It was such an industry place that people would come in and go, ‘Oh, sweet breads!’ and really want to eat it. We foolishly thought because we have a bigger kitchen, a bigger place at L’Artusi, we could do more of those things, and we realized when you are feeding more people you have to make food more approachable for bigger groups of people.
BB: How long did it take to recognize that?
KT: We opened in December of ’08 and the reviews started coming out in January, February and they were scathing. So we asked ourselves, ‘what are we doing wrong?’ And that was such a good process because we learned from it.
BB: And what was the initial business like here compared with Dell’ Anima?
KT: It was slower in that it’s easier to fill a smaller restaurant. Percentage wise we weren’t doing as much as we should have been and then the bad reviews didn’t help bring people in. The first six months were hard. It was a delicate act of working on the food and making sure we didn’t have too much staff if we weren’t busy.
BB: Were you working front of the house and pastries here too?
KT: No, I decided to just do pastries because the kitchen was better equipped here and we still do all of the pastries for Dell’ Anima here. So I was doing that for both restaurants and I was thrilled to stop doing the front of the house stuff and we hired Kevin Geary to be the general manager and he’s wonderful. He had so much experience than I did and he really knew what he was doing.
BB: When did things start coming together?
KT: With the menu, slowly but surely, we started putting together things that people really loved.
BB: Was it trail and error?
KT: Yeah. You put something on the menu and see how it sells. Sometimes it takes a while before it takes off. Our friends and the front of the house staff would taste things and we listened to their feedback to get a sense of what people wanted. Then we started getting busier and busier. People started showing up two or three times a week, so Gabe and I figured we were doing something right. It was really satisfying when we got the Zagat review this year and we got a 26—score—and we’d started off at 21. That’s the mark of our neighbors reviewing us.
BB: How did the olive your cake, your signature dessert, come about?
KT: Gabe deserves a lot of the credit for that. The thing with us is that we help each other out with our menus. If I didn’t have his feedback my pastry program wouldn’t be what it is. We have complimentary pallets. Sometimes, I’ll think of dessert in a specific way, not realizing that it could be done differently, or one less step. And he can point stuff out.
BB: Is there something about the nature of Italian cuisine, which can stress simplicity that reinforces that idea?
KT: There are times when you over-manipulate food and it’s just fluff that is lost on the final product. You also don’t want to be too simple or rustic so that there is no finesse behind it. That’s what’s tricky about Italian food, is finding a balance. With the olive oil cake, for example, Gabe had the recipe, and we tried it, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s go with the raisins and the crème fraiche mousse would go well with it.’ I really wanted a simple slice of cake, that’s all I wanted. At that point in time, all anyone cared about in the dessert world was foam and all that molecular stuff was popular. I wanted to do the opposite of that. But when we did friends and family, I served it and when we first opened nobody bought it. I said to Gabe, ‘Nobody is going for it, should I just try something different?’ And he told me not to give up on it just yet. And within a week it became the most popular dessert on the menu and it is to this day.
BB: So you have to have faith in things and let them play out.
KT: Yeah. Over the summer, Gabe put on a tomato panzenella salad with watermelon and pickled watermelon rinds and pancetta. The first two weeks, it didn’t sell. But Gabe and I knew it was good. We knew it would eventually sell because you can’t go wrong with tomatoes and bacon and watermelon. And sure enough…
BB: On the other hand, have their been dishes that you liked but didn’t work?
KT: Yeah. When we opened Gabe put on a bruschetta with thinly slicked tongue with a cabbage slaw and an aioli kind of dressing. It tasted like a Rueben. It was absolutely delicious. It wasn’t thousand islands but it tasted like it could be, it wasn’t saurkraut but it had the cabbage. It was so tasty but it looked awful. The color of it was muddy and unappealing. We didn’t use nitrates so the meat didn’t have that pinkish quality. But for a long time we kept it on the menu because it was so good. If I was desperately hungry that’s the thing I wanted to eat. It was the most satisfying thing we had on the menu. So we tried to hold onto it but finally we knew that the only reason we kept it is to make us happy and not anybody else.
BB: I know Gabe cooks seasonally but how often do you decide to change things up on the dessert menu?
KT: We both reevaluate every season. A certain amount of items aren’t seasonal like the olive oil cake. Olive oil and raisins never go out of season. And it’s nice to have those. I know when I go to Lupa I’m going to want to have the tongue, and if it wasn’t on the menu I’d be annoyed. But because we love the seasons and new ingredients a large chunk of the menu is seasonal. Summer gets tricky because it’s so plentiful so we switch things out quite a bit. Sometimes, we’ll bring things back because it worked last year, or we’ll bring it back but tweak it a different way.
BB: Do you and Gabe still enjoy that kind of shorthand that you developed in the kitchen over the years?
KT: Yes, but since we had our baby, I’m away from the kitchen more now. I miss being there and I go through phases when I want to be back in the kitchen but I also want to be with my son. But today, I’m here during the day, Gabe is at home, and we’ll both be home tonight.
BB: It might also work that if you are away for a little while, when you come back you’ll have a new freshness, too.
KT: That already happens. I come in with a perspective that I wouldn’t necessarily have if I were here every day. And our son Luke is really cool about showing up with us to the restaurants. He can really roll with it. We also live not so far, in a fourth-floor walk up.
BB: That keeps you in shape.
KT: It does.
BB: I’ve been meaning to ask, how are you not a complete fat ass working here?
KT: Well, I like to exercise for one, but also, I’ve gotten tired of pasta so there are other things I eat.
BB: You mentioned that Dell’ Anima was a hangout for other cooks. Where do you guys like to go to eat?
KT: Okay, we love the Spotted Pig. We’re addicted to it. We love April Bloomfield’s food, all of her places. We also love Casa Mono and Lupa.
BB: Do you ever cook at home?
KT: Before we had the baby, the only thing we had in our fridge was a bottle of champagne. We didn’t even have condiments. Now that I’m home with the baby, I’m cooking for him and cooking for myself, instead of ordering takeout. But our kitchen is small. We don’t even have a counter. Our cutting board is on our sink, so it’s a challenge to cook there and not use every swear word I’ve ever known. What’s been great about it, though, is that I’ve rediscovered home cooking.
BB: Especially in a small kitchen.
KT: Right. I think about how I can make a really good meal for myself with just a few ingredients and have it be healthy and taste good.
“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”
JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.
I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.
BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?
JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?
BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?
JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.
BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?
JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.
No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.
I met Pete Dexter last fall when he was in New York promoting his seventh novel, Spooner. Dexter was a wonderful newspaper columnist and is now one of our greatest novelists. First thing I noticed about him was that he was wearing a pink Yankees cap. So when I had a chance to interview him the Yankees were the first thing we talked about.
Here is our chat, which covers a lot more than the Bombers.
Bronx Banter: I had no idea you were a Yankees fan.
Pete Dexter: No, it’s true. I’m a big Yankee fan. It started out as a way to irritate Mrs. Dexter who is a Yankee fan from way back. And so when they’d win I’d get into it just because it irritated her so damn bad, but then I started to look at them and–
BB: When was this, during the ’90s?
PD: Yeah. So when I found out that it irritated Mrs. Dexter I did it more and more. There have been a lot of teams in my life that I’ve rooted against, but I have never rooted for a team in my life before I rooted for the Yankees, including teams I played on.
BB: And the Yankees of all teams.
PD: Yeah, strangely enough. I didn’t even like baseball until the mid-’90s. And I enjoy it more every year. We get all the games on the cable. It’s the only thing that’s worth all the money I spend on cable.
BB: So can you deal with Michael Kay?
PD: Is he the “See Ya” guy?
PD: He’s okay, it’s the other two guys from ESPN that drive me crazy.
BB: Joe Morgan and Jon Miller.
PD: Jesus, the go on for hours and hours. Morgan was one of the most exciting players I ever saw and just absolutely the most boring human being on the face of the earth.
BB: Just goes to show there’s no correlation.
PD: Yeah, none at all.
BB: So, did you want to be a writer when you were growing up?
PD: No, never. I took two writing classes at the University of South Dakota but it was just because I found out that I didn’t want to be a mathematician. I started looking through the student book there and saw Creative Writing and figured if I can’t bullshit my way through that then I don’t deserve to graduate, even from the University of South Dakota. But I never took it even semi-seriously. I mean I didn’t read anything until…it’s a true story than when I wrote Deadwood [Dexter’s second novel], my brother Tom called me up and said, “You’ve now written a book longer than any book you’ve ever read.” And that was absolutely true. I stumbled into a newspaper office in Fort Lauderdale. I was 26 or 27 years old and in those days you could actually stumble into a newspaper office and get hired as a reporter. But I don’t have to tell you what it’s like now.
BB: Did you take to reporting pretty quickly or was it just another job?
PD: I hated it. They had me doing–I thought it was a joke actually at first–they came over the first day and gave me a list of seven or eight things and said, “These are your beats.” And I thought it was some kind of initiation rite. You know, juvenile court, the hospital district, poverty programs and tomatoes. There was agricultural products—tomatoes was a separate category. But there were literally seven or eight of them, none of which interested me even remotely. Hell, they gave me a county health thing and there was a doctor who ran the county health department. He was a nice guy and I’d call him up every Sunday night when I came in and ask him if he could stretch something into an epidemic. And he’d say, “Well, we’ve got four cases of measles…you could call that an epidemic.” So every Monday I’d have a story in the paper about a new epidemic. The bigger paper down there was the Fort Lauderdale News. It got the big guy there fired because I kept coming up with new epidemics and he couldn’t come up with any.
I had the chance to talk to Stout about the book. Here is our conversation. Enjoy.
Bronx Banter: I know you are comfortable writing about history, especially in the first part of the 20th century. What drew you to Ederle?
Glenn Stout: Her story is seminal, as central to the story of American sports in this century as that of Red Grange, Babe Ruth, Jack Johnson or Jackie Robinson, yet to most people Trudy, aka Gertrude Ederle, is unknown. I wanted to change that. In many ways she was both the first modern female athlete and one of America’s first celebrities. Had she not done what she had done, which is not only to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but in the process to beat the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, the entire history of women’s sports would be radically different. You can, I think, break down the history of women’s sports in this country into “Before Trudy” and “After Trudy.” Before Trudy female athletes were anomalies, and their accomplishments, with just a few exceptions, primarily took place out of the public eye. Many early female athletes, like Eleanora Sears, and Annette Kellerman, were sometimes seen as publicity hounds who performed stunts, and not serious athletes. The question of whether or not women were either psychologically or physically capable of being athletes was still a topic of debate – at least by the men who ran sports. Although there would still be some who would stubbornly cling to that belief, by swimming the English Channel and shattering the existing men’s record, Trudy answered that question quite definitively.
She was the answer. One can argue that had it not been for her women would not have been allowed to compete in track and field and many other sports as early as they did – women competed in track events for the first time at the Olympics in 1928. It may have been another generation – until after World War II – before there was any acceptance of female athletes. I am old enough to remember when women could not play little league, or run marathons, and when school sports were pretty much limited to gymnastics and basketball. Now of course, women can and do play everything. Without Trudy that happens much later than it did.
Trudy also has a compelling personal story that I think resonates with any reader. She grew up in New York, the daughter of German immigrants and overcame anti-German prejudice in the wake of World War I to become arguably the most famous woman in the world. At the same time, she was partially deaf, and was able to overcome that challenge. Swimming the English Channel, while perceived to be somewhat commonplace today, is still extremely difficult – it was the first “extreme” sport. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the Channel, and most of those who try to swim the Channel fail. In most years more people will succeed in climbing Everest than in swimming the Channel. When I first began to research the book, that really, really surprised me, and made Trudy’s story even more compelling.
BB: Why isn’t Ederle remembered like Grange, Thorpe, Ruth and the other greats of the first great era of sports? For someone who had such a profound impact, why has her legacy faded?
GS: Hopefully, my book will help rectify that, but there are several reasons. Trudy herself soon discovered she just wasn’t cut out for the spotlight. Within 48 hours of her return to the United States, where New York gave her an enormous ticker tape parade, she was in the fetal position in her bedroom, completely overwhelmed. She was both slow and reluctant to “cash in” on her achievement. Her attorney mis-managed her career, turning down easy money for a grueling vaudeville tour. By the time that got going a male swimmer had broken her record, and a second female swam the Channel, which stole some of her thunder – the public began to think that swimming the Channel was far easier than it is, something that holds true today. She also had increasing trouble with her hearing – she was partially deaf since a bout with the measles as a child, and that made her less comfortable in the public eye. And few years after the swim she fell and was virtually bed-ridden for a time. And let’s face it, swimming simply isn’t a big spectator sport like football or baseball.
BB: What is Ederle’s reputation in the world of women’s swimming? Is she properly recognized?
GS: Swimming historians certainly recognize her as one of the all-time greats, but in a sport like swimming, records have been broken so many times that it is difficult for any swimmer from her era to remain in the public eye. Her only contemporary recognized b y the public today is Johnny Weissmuller, and that’s because of the Tarzan films. But in the world of swimming, she has to rank as one of the top seven or eight swimmers of all-time. No one else combined her success at shorter distances with open water success, and in the world of open water swimming, I think she’s right at the top. Anyone who has ever swum the Channel, or thought about it, knows about her.
BB: How did Ederle manage to beat the existing time of swimming the channel by such a great margin? That seems almost inconceivable.
GS: There are a couple of reasons. For one, she used a stroke known then as the “American Crawl” essentially what most people recognize as the “freestyle” today. Her coach with the Women’s Swimming Association was one of the strokes pioneers and its greatest advocate. And although it had been used for about two decades, no one believed it could be used for long distance swimming – it was thought to be too demanding, physically. Long distance swimmers usually used the breast stroke at the time, with occasional use of the side-stroke and trudgeon. The crawl was much faster, and Handley recognized that women in general, and Trudy in particular, although not as strong as a man, had just as much stamina. She was the first swimmer to use the stroke in the Channel, and proved the superiority of the stroke. Secondly, her trainer for the Channel swim, William Burgess, was a real student of the Channel currents and tides, and he found a somewhat new route across that was something of a breakthrough. Also, before Trudy most of the people who tried to swim the Channel simply were not great swimmers. They had great stamina, and desire, but as swimmers were rather pedestrian. Trudy was world class at every distance from fifty yards on up. She was simply a far, far, far better swimmer than anyone else who had swam the Channel before. For a swimmer of her ability to take on the Channel would be the equivalent of Michael Phelps to do so today – if he had her stamina. And lastly, while Trudy was growing up she spent summers in Highlands, New Jersey, where she spent hours and hours swimming in the ocean. She developed a very special relationship with the water, once saying “To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.” When she was swimming, she was in her place, right where she wanted to be, and where others found only torture, she found joy, and when you love what you do, well, there are no limits.