Choking the Critic

A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker magazine writer who made the pithy observation back in the 1950s that "freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one," was also a connoisseur of restaurants. In his book on the Louisiana gubernatorial election that pitted Earl Long, brother of Huey, against Jimmy Davis, Liebling made several asides about the wonderful dinners he had in venerable New Orleans establishments such as Antoine's and Galatoire's. He also made several asides about the dreadful cooking you encountered as soon as you left the city limits of the Big Easy.

In the period covered in The Earl of Louisiana, the late 1950s, establishments that an American foodie could recognize as a serious restaurant existed only in New York City, New Orleans and San Francisco. Throughout the states of the former Confederacy, you could encounter, here and there, choice examples of the one great American contribution to the world's cuisine: barbecue. For the rest of the United States, there was only what Vladimir Nabokov referred to in his second American novel, Pnin, as "the sadness of balanced meals" and the unbalanced offerings of the nascent fast-food industry.

Houston was no exception back then. A restaurant critic would have precious little to do in the Big H apart from comparing the steaks at Maxim's to those at Hebert's. Texas liquor laws, prior to Governor John Connally's pushing through liquor-by-the-drink in the early 1970s, encouraged the wealthier locals to patronize private clubs rather than public restaurants, further depressing the industry.

Houston's leading daily, the Houston Chronicle, was shaped to be the bully pulpit of its owner, businessman Jesse Jones. Typical of the Texan publishers of his day, Jones did not think the job of a newspaper was "to print the news and raise hell" -- as one pioneer publisher phrased his paper's motto. The paper's job was to boost Houston's image and, by extension, its economy. This mission has handily survived the passing of Jones, ownership by the Houston Endowment and the sale of the paper to the Hearst Corporation.

The Chronicle hired Ann Criswell to be its food editor in the late 1960s. She retired earlier this year, having run the section for 34 years. Her career spanned the period from when Houston -- and, really, all of the United States -- went from regarding eating as an act of pure nourishment to thinking of it as an adventure, entertainment, status display and, perhaps, for the organic/ vegan set, a daily ritual of pagan piety and moral uplift.

Throughout this long period, the paper's coverage stayed consistently the same, with a strong emphasis on convenience foods for home cooks. (See "Thanks for Nothing," by Lisa Gray, November 25, 1999.) The paper did add a wine writer, Michael Lonsford, and humorist Ken Hoffman began commenting about junk food with the same conflicted enthusiasm that Joe Bob Briggs brings to reviewing drive-in movies. During the latter part of Criswell's tenure, a sportswriter and "horse racing reporter," Alan Truex, began writing restaurant reviews. Truex left the paper earlier this year as part of a settlement of the writer's federal lawsuit that claimed the Chronicle refused to pay him overtime. (See "Winner in OT," by Richard Connelly, May 25, 2000.)

While Truex's sportswriting did win an award from Hearst, Esquire restaurant critic John Mariani, who is among the best food writers working in the United States today, gave Truex in 1999 "The Mayor Giuliani Award for Hick Journalism." The Great Man's ire had been inspired by an observation that the then-new -- and Mariani-anointed -- Scott Chen's (now known as Scott's Cellar, 6540 San Felipe, 713-785-8889) had entrée prices that would give a New Yorker pause. In fact, they were not remarkable, by Manhattan standards at least.

Those who had a chance to hear Criswell discourse on food topics found her to be both witty and knowledgeable. At a symposium on the then-hot topic of nouvelle Southwestern cuisine in the mid-1980s, Criswell began her lecture by observing that a traditional Texas cookbook required only one page. On it would be printed the injunction "Fry the sucker!" Such irreverent aperçus did not, however, appear in the paper's food section.

When the Chronicle hired John DeMers as its food editor, it seemed the city, which by the paper's own stats has more than 8,000 restaurants visited by the average Houstonian 4.9 times a week, would soon join the ranks of nearly all the other major dailies in the United States in having a serious restaurant reviewer. DeMers, a native of New Orleans and author or co-author of cookbooks, is certainly qualified to be one of our city's equivalents of New York's erstwhile Gael Greene or Ruth Reichl, Boston's Corby Kummer or even, dare we write it, John Mariani. Since DeMers joined the staff, the editorial assumptions about what the paper's audience can understand and appreciate have certainly become more sophisticated. The problem is that one cannot be a mystery shopper -- and isn't that what all good restaurant reviewers are? -- and a public figure at the same time. The position of food editor is a very public one.

Under DeMers is "restaurant writer" Dai Huynh. Once again, a good reporter who tries to cover a large territory, she is a restaurant newsperson and thus a public figure. With 8,000 eateries to cover, the sole remaining daily in America's fourth-largest city, after more than 100 years of existence, has yet to hire its first proper restaurant reviewer.

"Considering the quality of journalism at the Chronicle, it's a blessing in disguise that there's not a restaurant reviewer working for them," says Mickey Kapoor, owner of Khyber North Indian Grill (2510 Richmond, 713-942-9424). "Had they had a food reviewer, most of us would be eating one name brand: Purina."

DeMers did not return our telephone call. But a senior editorial staffer at the Chronicle did opine that since the paper went into a hiring freeze recently, there's a possibility it will bring on its first full-time reviewer once the economy cycles through what Wall Streeters like to term a "correction."

In the meantime, if you want regular restaurant criticism in the Chronicle, you'll have to turn to the Whine & Dine section. Each Friday on page two of the Dining Guide, readers offer their opinions on Houston-area restaurants. It can be lively reading. But more important to the Chronicle bean counters, the criticism comes free of charge.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
George Alexander