Roger Ebert: No Longer an Eater, Still a Cook
Chaz Ebert, left, with her husband, Roger,
By KIM SEVERSON, NYTIMES
August 31, 3010
[Roger Ebert is now a food writer despite losing his ability to eat.]
THE first several minutes at a restaurant with Roger Ebert are awkward.
It’s not that you can’t find a million things to discuss. Mr. Ebert,
68, has reviewed movies for more than four decades. He’s driven around
with Robert Mitchum while the actor got stoned and lost on the
Pennsylvania Turnpike. He once owned a 1957 Studebaker and still owns
a Pulitzer Prize.
The thing is, he doesn’t eat and he doesn’t talk. Or rather, he can’t
eat and he can’t talk. He hasn’t for four years, ever since cancer
took his lower jaw, and three attempts to rebuild his face and his
In those first few moments at the table, you try not to look at the
empty place where his jaw used to be. You wonder how it feels to
receive your nourishment through a tube directly into your stomach.
You cringe when the waitress offers him a menu and asks if he wants
something to drink.
But soon, in a flurry of hand gestures, glances, scribbles in a little
spiral notebook and patient asides from his wife, Chaz, he’s having a
conversation. You’re laughing. And you get to ask the question: How
bad do you miss eating?
“For a few days I could think of nothing but root beer,” he said about
the weeks after the surgery that removed much of his jaw. He passed
through a candy fixation, romancing Red Hots and licorice-flavored
And he circled back time and again to a favorite meal served at Steak
’n Shake, an old-fashioned hamburger chain beloved in his part of the
Midwest. When he wrote about it last year on his blog, Roger Ebert’s
Journal, people saw that the legendary movie critic for The Chicago
Sun-Times could also knock out some great food writing.
“A downstate Illinois boy loves the Steak ’n Shake as a Puerto Rican
loves rice and beans, an Egyptian loves falafel, a Brit loves banger
and mash, an Indian loves tikki ki chaat, a Swede loves herring, a
Finn loves reindeer jerky, and a Canadian loves bran muffins,” he
wrote. “These matters do not involve taste. They involve a deep-seated
conviction that a food is absolutely right, and always has been, and
always will be.”
He both writes and thinks about food in the present tense. Ask about
favorite foods and he’ll scribble a note: “I love spicy and Indian.”
An offer to bring some New Jersey peaches to his summer home here on
the shore of Lake Michigan brings a sharp defense of Michigan peaches
and a menu idea. “Maybe for dessert we could have a salad of local
“Food for me is in the present tense,” he said. “Eating for me is now
only in the past tense.” He says he has a “voluptuous food memory”
that gets stronger all the time.
“I can remember the taste and smell of everything, even though I can
no longer taste or smell,” he said.
That is, he concedes later, a bit sweeping. He can’t remember the food
at a French spa prepared by Michel Guérard, who has three Michelin
stars. And he can’t recall the last meal he ever ate, because who knew
then that surgeons would never be able to fix it all?
But he remembers everything about the food at the Steak ’n Shake. In
the hospital, he told me, he ate Steak ’n Shake meals a bite at a time
in his mind. Still, what he longs for most is the talk and fellowship
of the table.
“The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss,” he
wrote in a blog post.
The eating itself is a side note, really. Anyone who has put together
a winning dinner party understands that. But food — the cooking and
sharing part of it — still means so much to him that he is publishing
a cookbook this month. It’s based entirely on meals to be made in a
rice cooker. The title is “The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and
Romance of the Rice Cooker” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $14.99).
How can a guy without a working tongue write a recipe?
“It’s all experience, my visuals and friendly tasters,” he wrote to
me. “I’ve used The Pot so very many times I know what everything I
make in it MUST taste like.”
The first rice cooker in the Ebert household was a wedding gift from
the couple’s longtime friend and personal assistant, Carol Iwata. It
wasn’t until Mr. Ebert became serious about losing weight and went to
the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Florida that he began to tinker
with cooking grains other than rice. He went nerdy and deep.
“Whenever Roger learns anything, he becomes obsessed with it,” Mrs. Ebert said.
Soon, entire meals were coming out of the rice cooker. He made fruit
and oatmeal breakfasts and stews for supper, figuring out how to mess
with the settings and stage the ingredients so that everything didn’t
turn to mush.
He took his little three-cupper to Sundance so he could march through
a marathon of movies with something more than popcorn and candy in his
In 2008, long after he accepted that he would never put food in his
mouth again, he wrote a blog post presenting his philosophy of The Pot
as a way for all the people with not much space and not much time or
money to cook for themselves.
“I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room,” he wrote. “You,
shut-in. You, recovering campaign worker. You, movie critic at
Sundance. You, sex worker waiting for the phone to ring. You, factory
worker sick of frozen meals. You, people in Werner Herzog’s
documentary about life at the South Pole.”
The post became the frame for the book. “I am a quick, direct,
practical and simple cook, which is why the rice cooker had such an
appeal to me,” he explained.
“The Pot” follows food obsessions that include a long affair with a
wok and with a Madhur Jaffrey dish that involves sealing a chicken in
a pot with flour paste. Although Mr. Ebert often doesn’t follow
cookbooks, his 150-volume collection includes well-used copies of
“Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer,” which taught him to cook, and a
later edition of “Cooking in Ten Minutes,” published in 1948 by
Édouard de Pomiane.
Most of the recipes came from Mr. Ebert’s head, from friends and from
a dedicated group of blog readers who started a sub-cult built around
him and rice cookers. They form just one of many tribes who have
recently discovered him as a prolific, post-cancer online personality.
He spends hours propped in his reclining chairs at the couple’s homes
in Chicago and here in Michigan, tending his blog and his Twitter
account, which has nearly a quarter-million followers.
“The blog has opened a new world just when I needed it,” he told me.
Dorothy O’Brien, who edited the book, sent the recipes to professional
testers to get the unruly collection into shape. There wasn’t much to
do to the copy, though. It was nearly perfect.
The book, she said, is “more about his philosophy of food and eating
and why we eat.” It also includes comments from his digital followers,
which makes it something of a community cookbook.
“When he says he misses the camaraderie of eating, that’s what he
misses more than the food,” she said.
Mr. Ebert wisely recruited Anna Thomas, the author of the classic “The
Vegetarian Epicure” and the book “Love Soup,” as his culinary
ombudswoman. She decries the limits of The Pot’s two settings —
“insanely high and barely warm” — and argued against the inclusion of
canned soup and powdered broth in many of the book’s recipes. (She
But she salutes the spirit of one-pot cooking and contributed recipes
with smart ways to coax flavors from The Pot with browned onion and
fresh ingredients, like ripe tomatoes in a summer soup with farro.
Health is a sub-theme. Mr. Ebert remains obsessed with grains and
sodium levels, lessons he learned when his wife persuaded him to go to
the Pritikin Center to lose weight. He dropped about 70 pounds just
before he got sick, and another 40 or so during his illness.
The book is funny, too. His list of meats to throw into The Pot
includes chicken, pork, goat and Minotaur. In explaining how The Pot
knows when the rice is done, he writes: “It is an ancient mystery of
the Orient. Don’t ask questions you don’t need the answers to.”
Cooking with Mr. Ebert, who can’t speak but has a very deliberate way
in the kitchen, is both a thrill and a challenge. His physical
condition limits the time he can spend there, but he makes good use of
it, keeping things simple and relying on the Cuisinart to chop
ingredients, even for a salad.
Mrs. Ebert, a lawyer who grew up in a big family and is more used to
cooking for a crowd, designed the huge kitchen in the lake house,
which her husband has owned since the 1980s. It has generous counters
and an oversize table that seats a dozen. They have hosted Fourth of
July parties with 300 people and Thanksgiving for 30.
Since his operations, the cooking has been on a much smaller scale.
The dish we prepared one day last month didn’t have a name and wasn’t
written down anywhere.
Because I had no idea where we were going as we cooked, it rendered
the session something like a “Top Chef” challenge. He started by
dumping water into The Pot with a store-bought blend of rice, grain
and lentils called SooFoo. Then he sent me to chop some Michigan
peaches. “Better use ripe peach,” he scribbled when I was slicing one
that seemed a bit hard. “I handed to you.”
I had to guess what he meant when he waved off the bowl I selected to
hold the yellow peppers I had chopped. Was it the bowl or was the
At one point, I think he got very frustrated. He wanted to make a nice
lunch, but I kept interrupting him with questions. A photographer kept
taking pictures. Mrs. Ebert, who has a rare patience, was getting
He scribbled a few hurried instructions for me and left the kitchen.
He hadn’t taken any nourishment in a while, and his shoulder, whose
muscle had been used in an effort to repair his face, had started to
He eased into the big black recliner in his study, and his wife got
out a can of the Isosource that keeps him alive. He takes about six
cans four times a day, mixed with water. Sometimes he gets fresh fruit
or vegetable juice or a little shot of Pepsi, which helps clean the
While he’s in the chair, I tend to the onions and garlic in one pot
and keep stirring the grains, peaches and pork in another. I mix them
together, as he instructed. I peek into the study and watch him take
his liquid meal, embarrassed by my curiosity.
After about 15 minutes he walks out and scribbles me a note.
“I’m sure you made certain the pork was heated through.”
Yes, chef, I say.
He scribbles again. It’s an apology.
“I come across as a tyrannical chef because I never speak and am in a
hurry because of my shoulder.”
No worries, chef, I say. Then I lift the lid from The Pot.
He pours a little spicy Saigon Sizzle sauce from a bottle and stirs it in.
Then he gives me a thumbs up. It’s time to eat.