One of America’s great food writers died today. I first came across R.W. Apple’s food writing in the NY Times several years ago. I was vaguely aware that he was a political reporter for the Times prior to that (and till the end of his life). I’m sure I read his byline hundreds of times in all my decades of reading the paper. But he didn’t become a real presence till I started reading his wonderful food columns. He’d travel the world looking for the finest food, best food companions and tell you about them in his charming, insouciant way. You felt like a good friend had invited you over to his house for a bourbon and chat about his latest world travels. You felt that Apple was taking you places you could never go yourself. You felt grateful he would share his charmed good life with you.
I know there is a bit of idealization and perhaps willful suspension of the normal suspicion one should have over such charismatic figures. And according to Todd Purdum (see link below), Apple did have a few warts to his personality. But the other monumental dimensions of his life appear to have more than made up for his vices.
Apple’s globetrotting far surpassed mine. But there was one instance when he actually wrote about a place I had visited: Sooke Harbor House in Sooke, BC. He captured the wonder of the place to a T in his An Escape to Eden on Vancouver Island. I referred to it in my own review of the hotel’s fabulous restaurant.
There also was another point of overlap in our lives: he is a 1961 graduate of Columbia University’s School of General Studies as am I (1975). But unlike Apple, I never had an opportunity to be expelled twice (!) from Princeton.
Johnny, I hope you’re in heaven or at least somewhere with a well-provisioned kitchen and a roaring fire in the hearth so you can enjoy all those wonderful meals with your friends James Beard, Julia Childs and M.F.K. Fisher. Hopefully, I have a lot of wonderful eating ahead of me before I join you. But if I could do so after I leave this mortal coil I’d be grateful.
By the way, in my first sentence of this post I did not mean to convey that R.W. Apple was only or merely a food writer. He was so many different things in his chosen profession. Todd Purdum summed up Apple well in his appreciation:
With his Dickensian byline, Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites, Mr. Apple, who was known as Johnny, was a singular presence at The Times almost from the moment he joined the metropolitan staff in 1963. He remained a colorful figure as new generations of journalists around him grew more pallid, and his encyclopedic knowledge, grace of expression — and above all his expense account — were the envy of his competitors, imitators and peers.
Mr. Apple enjoyed a career like no other in the modern era of The Times. He was the paper’s bureau chief in Albany, Lagos, Nairobi, Saigon, Moscow, London and Washington. He covered 10 presidential elections and more than 20 national nominating conventions. He led The Times’s coverage of the Vietnam War for two and a half years in the 1960’s and of the Persian Gulf war a generation later, chronicling the Iranian revolution in between.