Now, I’m nobody’s elder, but I did come up as a food writer in another time—a time when Gael’s influence on the form was not ambient but rather a tangible presence. Seismic shifts, though, were already underway. A week before I met her for the first time, Gael’s successor at New York, Adam Platt, had appeared on the cover of that magazine’s January 6, 2014 issue. “The ‘anonymous’ restaurant critic is a concept that’s long outlived its relevance,” he wrote.
It had been a rough stretch for her. A few years earlier she had been let go from New York, and because she didn’t take the hit with grace—because she met it with fireballs (or rather, blog posts) of indignation, because she dared to be a publicly angry woman before that was a thing we all agreed was productive and important—she’d fallen a bit out of fashion in food circles. But Gael was holding fast to her relevance. By then she was publishing restaurant reviews on her own blog BITE, and she continued on there with her hats and her grandiloquence.
Though the tides were changing around her, anonymity seemed to be very much on her mind when she and I met at the Clam, a little Atlantic seaboard seafood place in the West Village. I’d called in every favor to arrange this meeting, and when the evening came, I was dazzled. “Call me Barbara,” she said as she shrugged off a floor-length, lipstick-red marabou coat. The hat that night was also red, loud in solidarity with the coat. Taken together, the effect was not unlike a cluster of anemone swaying with the current. Gael was absolutely kiss-the-ring magnificent that night, but she was not inconspicuous—not enough to reasonably demand I call her by a fake reservation name.
Still, this was Gael Greene! I was just a young writer then, holding together the food section at Time Out New York with bubblegum and shoelaces, and I was having dinner with Gael Greene. She wanted me to call her Barbara. So I did. After dinner “Barb” and I shuffled out onto the street and got her to a cab, and with the door open and the wind up Sixth Avenue setting all the red feathers a-ripple, she grabbed my wrists. “Here we go,” I thought, willing my pores open, the better to absorb her wisdom that was surely, imminently coming. “You remind me of myself at your age,” I was sure she’d say—this woman who, as the story goes, slept with Elvis Presley and then ordered him an egg sandwich on her way out the door. I would follow in her footsteps, Gael bestowing all her secrets onto me. Instead she pulled me close and said “I’d love to see you in my muff. It’s cheetah. You’ll come try it on next week.” It was, I guess, a kind of bequeathing.
When I made the trip to the Upper West Side, her little office was crammed with her objets de vertu. We picked through them together as she told me their stories: piles of kilim pillows, Bakelite compacts, carved wooden snuff boxes, art nouveau lorgnettes, tin confection boxes from King Edward VII’s coronation day, etched perfume bottles, Barbie dolls in Bob Mackie gowns or smart little cardigans.
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