Sometimes, strange forces drive a food critic. Terry Ruscin, a former advertising executive, now makes his living from what he calls “gastro-snobbery” – and he blames what he calls his “persnickety, overly critical and downright ruthless” outlook regarding culinary matters on the position of the stars.
“You see,” Ruscin recently told Xpress, “I am a Virgo, so I cannot help it.”
The offal truth
Ruscin, a writer, photographer, editor, seasoned traveler and professional connoisseur who recently moved to Hendersonville, has scoured the American restaurant circuit for relief from “the dumbing of America and numbing of the American palate.” Ruscin recounts his quest for the Holy Grail of restaurants in his new book, Dining & Whining: Commiseration and Celebration for Gastro-snobs (PublishAmerica, 2005).
At times, it’s clear that Ruscin found himself on a bit of a fool’s errand, searching for that elusive and rare ideal – a well-oiled machine of a restaurant where everything and everyone function smoothly, and the server doesn’t ask, “Still workin’ on that?” Ultimately, he found some solace in such restaurants as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and Hendersonville’s own Inn on Church.
But along the way, Ruscin found a country rampant with culinary blunders and contradictions. In the aptly named chapter, “It Takes Guts,” he writes: “It is amusing, to note that Americans consume tons of hot dogs made from offal – not to mention sausages and cold cuts.” (The word offal, he explains, is “from Old English off + fall, as these pieces were known to fall from the carcass during butchering.”) “Yet, mention to these same folk trotters, tongue or oxtail and they wince.”
For his part, Ruscin is an offal aficionado. “I draw the line with horse lips, also with monkey paws,” he writes, but just about anything else goes. He likes his sweetbreads (thymus or pancreas) sautéed in butter, his kidneys braised in sherry. “Tongue? Love it, simmered slowly in a Dutch oven, presented with fresh blackberries.”
His favorite organ meat, he explains, is fattened goose liver: “When first sex fades from my aging mind, I shall always remember my first bite of foie gras… . By any means of its preparation, I could enjoy foie gras every day, until laid to waste by effects of a massive heart attack or stroke – though, what a way to go.”
Fed up with his native country’s offal deficiency, Ruscin also doesn’t think much of “doin’ Eye-talian in America.” He complains of the overabundance of dried oregano, and a decided “dearth of amore.” It seems that the genuine article can rarely be found outside of Italy, where the author delights in the meats and produce culled from the country’s rich volcanic loam and romanticizes the Italian tendency to “cling tenaciously to tradition.”
In fact, it seems that it is mostly in Europe (where he has traveled every year since 1973) that Ruscin has encountered the kind of consummate dining experience by which all others must be judged. Service there, he says, is generally impeccable. He fondly recalls a restaurant in Spain where he left his umbrella, only to have it dutifully returned to him a year later by a waiter who remembered him and suspected he might return.
Not all of Europe, however, manages to escape Ruscin’s critical eye. For example, he bemoans the “full English breakfast,” which typically consists of “a battery of assaults to the heart and gallbladder: fried eggs, bloated sausages, blood pudding (don’t ask), rashers of flaccid purple bacon thickly sliced, wrinkly ham, and kippers or finnan haddie (smoked haddock)” – along with “bubble and squeak (yesterday’s mashed potatoes fried up with chopped cabbage)” and other gustatory horrors.
Ruscin had his worst European meal at an inn in Luxembourg. “Led astray by an equivocal review,” the author and his Lysol can-wielding Uncle Chuck booked four days there with high hopes. Upon their arrival, they found their beds to be sheetless, owing to some obscure Icelandic custom kept alive by Inga, the proprietor, who apparently believed she was still in her homeland.
The pair fared no better in the establishment’s empty dining room, where they suffered through courses of dry, strong salmon that Ruscin likened to “aquatic leather,” lukewarm asparagus soup he suspected came from a can, and slices of limp, coagulated apple strudel that were as “cold as Inga’s heart.” Ruscin and Uncle Chuck promptly canceled the rest of their stay.
Proud to be picky
Asked how he became a food critic, Ruscin says that “college cafeteria grub and frozen dinners” were excellent motivators. As nostalgia for his mother’s first-rate home cooking gnawed at the university student, he decided to learn to cook. He was aided by members of his college’s foreign student union, who introduced him to Thai, French, Lebanese, Japanese and other regional cuisines.
And then, Ruscin says, he went out to eat – a lot. “I realized my potential as a critic after having dined hundreds of times in homey to stellar restaurants. One hones his or her palate through experience. Tragically, part of this experience includes dreadful food and snotty waitstaff.”
In Ruscin’s opinion, maintaining a poorly trained waitstaff is the greatest culinary faux pas a restaurant can make. “The general rudeness of American restaurant staff vexes me,” he says, citing servers who recite specials ad nauseam or refer to a table of people older than 20 as “you guys.”
He’s also particularly disturbed by “hyper trends,” he adds. “You know what I mean: shock appeal, pairing the most ridiculous victuals for sake of menu appeal, etc. I prefer honest cooking, and a dose of – as Italians say – amore.”
Writing critically about restaurants is one of the ways Ruscin shows his love for food, a point he elaborated on an e-mail to Xpress: “If it weren’t for critics, how would businesses and artists improve? I criticize not for the sake of criticism, but for hopeful improvement of the service or business… . When I detect potential (let’s say the food is stellar, but [the] ambiance [is] lacking – and [the] service stinks), I would hope – through criticism – that the owners/managers would accept my words constructively and hence rectify the problem(s). Wouldn’t you agree?”
The Purple Sage in Hendersonville will host a free book-launch celebration for Dining & Whining on Friday, April 22, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Author Terry Ruscin will answer questions, conduct a cooking demonstration and offer samples.
The Purple Sage is located at 416 North Main St. For more information about the event, call (828) 693-9555.