BY DONOVAN RINKER-MORRIS
Food critic for Vogue magazine and author of “The Man Who Ate Everything,” Jeffrey Steingarten was recognized before an audience of 80 as a “celebrated omnivore” and gastronomic explorer at a luncheon March 6 as part of the Traphagen Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series. Stein-garten also had the distinguishing achievement of drawing the largest audience in the history of the speaker series, surpassing celebrities like Mich-ael Dukakis, Casper Weinber-ger and Scott Turow.
Regarding his time at HLS, Steingarten said: “We didn’t feel you would learn anything at Harvard that you would be able to use, at least not until third year.”
A noted humorist, Steingarten said his first use of a legal education from HLS from the “Paper Chase” years was as an effective conversation piece. But the “really disgusting food” available on the street corners in 1968 provided poor training on the importance of a good coconut cake, he said. Steingarten said he recalled an administrative law project in which he read 50 pages of regulations on cantaloupes (distinguishing webbed from unwebbed variants, perhaps a precursor to modern high-tech issues).
Although Steingarten contends his legal research skills were minimal, a feature of his work includes researching topics such as the necessary ingredients for the ideal french fry (Belgians use horse fat, which cannot be imported into America), the elements of caviar diplomacy (in exchange for holding “democratic” elections, Iran was permitted to export caviar to America, but only after an FDA restriction on Borax was lifted) and the legal definition of ketchup (FDA regulations control the speed at which ketchup flows down a slanted surface).
During the discussion, Steingarten asserted a Constitutional right to eat raw-milk cheese, despite the fact that FDA regulations require 50 days of pasteurization. But Steingarten cited no clause in the Constitution providing that right, nor any case law supporting the proposition.
Steingarten did not discuss how he became a food critic, though he did say that he started his career as a legal adviser focusing on mental health issues. He mentioned investigating a Swiss neurological study that claimed that people with an “excessive concern with fine food” have a lesion in the right hemisphere of the brain. Concerned by the study, Steingarten had the researchers conduct an MRI, the results of which made him so distraught that he lost his appetite and limited himself to two or three meals a day. However, a Parisian radiologist provided a contradictory second opinion, thus salvaging his career.
Regarding dietary advice, Steingarten suggested that “you should eat only to tide yourself over to the next exquisite meal.” Since human beings are omnivores, he asserted that “we almost have a religious duty — certainly a biological duty — to eat everything.” He also contended that “food phobias are at least as serious as sex phobias,” even though most therapists would call you crazy if you bothered them with a problem such as, “Doctor, I just can’t eat carrots.” Pointing out the inappropriateness of the priorities, Steingarten mentioned cases in which hypochondriacs actually starved their children to death, whereas people don’t generally die from lack of sex.
Finally, Steingarten mentioned that chocolate doesn’t cause pimples, a relief for those in the audience contemplating their Harkness Catering standard-issue brownies, as well as for those familiar with the only food recommendation that Steingarten was willing to make in Boston: Somewhere in Harvard Square there is a world-class chocolatier. Though the audience responded with a few suggestions regarding the identity of said confectionery, the interests of honest journalism and the spirit of exploration demand further research.