My All-American Bacchanal’s Deep-Fried Remains
My first meal as a luxury editor was Tuscan boar, shot in the vineyards that once served as the front lines of the wars between Sienna and Florence. The chef dished its grilled flank alongside a chianti bottled at Castello Di Bossi, the 21-bedroom castle at the heart of those vineyards. Our host, who had purchased the fortress with the profits from a jeans-making business, boasted about pulling the trigger on the beast himself.
Food is a signifier of wealth. You order the porterhouse-for-two when you're flush; you ask for the Value Meal when you're reduced to that last buck-50. On the afternoon that boar lunch took place — more than three years ago — the Wall Street titans who formed our company's core readership seemed to believe the universe was only in the business of serving premium steak, at least to them.
And why not? The stock market was bubbling merrily towards its zenith, the showrooms along Park Avenue glittered with Porsches, and dozens of Caribbean backwaters had been bulldozed flat in anticipation of becoming the next ultra-exclusive getaway.
Millions of those frothy dollars went towards meals — and as editors at Doubledown Media, we devoted whole columns to describing that culinary fat of the land. On the private jets it was the packages of Milano cookies tucked in the leather cabinets beneath the seats, and beef with a chili-and-paprika sauce ready for microwaving in the galley. At a banquet table set at the Antiguan high-tide line it was lobster claws and champagne. In Capri it was gnocchi, in a delicate baked shell that split apart at the first fork-stab. Back in New York it was Stellatus caviar, paired with Skyy 90 vodka.
"The problem with trying to write about all this," I told an intern one winter morning, as I stared down the mocking whiteness of a new Word document, "is that you're tempted to drive straight off the cliff into hyperbole."
"What's wrong with hyperbole?"
"This is editorial," I said, "not ad copy. I mean, at least that's how I think of it."
Particularly with Trader Monthly, our flagship publication, we managed to insert a fair amount of snark into the lifestyle text — a wink and nod over some of the absurdities at hand. (One article I wrote described the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron 16.4, then the world's fastest production vehicle, as capable of tearing "through your local wildlife sanctuary or deaf-child zone at speeds up to 253 mph.") Even so, a dreaded floridity managed to creep into some of my pieces, particularly when it came to food:
Hailing from the Caspian Sea, birth-waters of many a caviar variety, Stellatus is a sevruga, among the world's most expensive roes. Matured 11 months as tested, it offers a sharp taste heavily reminiscent of the sea, delivered with a high smoothness.
Two months after I gifted that little gem to history, the economy — its arteries clogged with junk assets — collapsed. As Doubledown Media bled advertising dollars, our executives performed triage: first, by cutting most of the staff. When that failed to close the wound, they chopped the survivors' salaries in half.
"Stick a fork in us," one of my colleagues said, after a particularly bad meeting in November 2008. "We're done."
"Maybe I need to think about growing my own food," I told him. "You know, consider ways to best self-sustain."
Time to leave this party, I thought.
I finally managed to escape, back into the world of technology news, a few weeks before Doubledown's final implosion in February 2009. On my way out the door I stuffed a cardboard box with the valuables from my desk: three boxes of premium cigars, an unopened bottle of Knob Creek, and a snapshot of the red sun rising over Tuscan hills. I felt relief at having a new job, and some guilt over my miniscule role in this latest Gilded Age.
For dinner that night I decided on sweet-and-sour chicken, from a highly questionable takeout place down the street from my apartment. I paired it with a Coke bottled wherever. On the second-to-last page of the notebook I used for work trips, the one filled with notes about rattlesnake gumbo and highest-grade sashimi and single-malt scotch from 1965, I jotted:
Hailing from a Western chicken mega-farm, birthplace of many a McNugget, this once-in-a-lifetime meal offers a tantalizing combination of white meat and aged high-fructose corn syrup.
"I guess you'd call this a market correction," I told the empty room.
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