R. W. Apple

“I envy the Swedes their social conscience, their gift for design and urban planning and their fish. Especially their fish.”—R. W. “Johnny” Apple

The Times correspondent R. W. Apple died a couple weeks ago, when this blog was slowed by my birthday, my parents’ visit and the orgy of eating that accompanies them. I can’t claim to have noticed his writing on my own—or to be a great follower of his news and political reporting—but, when I learned that he was a Princeton classmate of my father’s and known as “Johnny” Apple, I took notice. My father has some good Johnny Apple legends, and even without Apple’s presence, stories about him have a way of livening up a dinner.

So, as he has been doing more and more food writing over the past few years, we took to comparing favorite stories about him—be that his derring-do in VietNam (where, I am told, his expense reports made as good reading as his journalism) or his account of eating from street vendors in Hong Kong with restaurateur Jean-George Vongerichten. Best of all, I thought, were the accounts that combined both—as in an article about finding good food in a war zone.

When we heard of his death, we talked about his gifts. What made him such a great food writer? His gusto, his generosity, and the sense he imparted in every piece that what you had missed was not just a great meal but a really fun time. But reading him did not excite envy, for, as many of his friends and associates note, he was not secretive about his finds. His willingness to share a tip extended far beyond his cronies at the Times. His references to “my wife, Betsey,” would make for an easily parodied tic if they were not accompanied by such a genuine sense that he had a better time because she was along.

Adam Nagourney has a lovely reminiscence that shares much of what I admire in Apple’s writing and he aptly describes Apple’s gifts. Reading this, listening to some of the audio slideshows, and reading his piece on ten restaurants worth a plane trip give me but a pale sketch of what surely was an amazingly charismatic, big, fun person. Nagourney writes of a dinner in L.A. during the 2000 Democratic Convention:
Johnny offered Mr. Puck a challenge — “We are in your hands,” are the words I recall — and thus began a four-hour blur of plates and platters and bottles of wine the likes of which I had never seen before, or since, at a Puck restaurant. Two hours into our bacchanal Mr. Puck proved that he knew his Apple: out from the kitchen came a plate of pig prepared four ways, precisely the kind of unpretentiously rustic and absurdly rich dish that could make Johnny literally rise from his chair and yelp in delight. That’s just what he did, before proceeding to correctly guess the farm in Pennsylvania where Mr. Puck had purchased his pork.

He goes on to write of Apple’s equal delight in street food and eating home-cooked meals with friends.

I find this, also from the Nagourney piece, heartrending:
His very last e-mail message, sent the night before he died, was a response to a Times food writer looking for suggestions on pancake recipes for a magazine feature. “Just very quickly since I don’t have my files here,” Johnny wrote. “1. American pancakes — Overrated, as you say. You might try the Bongo Room, in Wicker Park, north of Chicago. 2. Don’t forget Breton buckwheat crepes. 3. From South Asia (states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India): they make great dosas.”