Saturday, September 4, 2010

Roger Ebert on Cooking - The Chef and Food Writer - BRAVO!

Roger Ebert: No Longer an Eater, Still a Cook

Chaz Ebert, left, with her husband, Roger,


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

voice failed.

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

fresh fruits.”

“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

chopping wrong?

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.

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