If ever there was a cook who didn’t need yet another writer in his corner, it’s Kenny Shopsin. By dint of being contrarian, profane, articulate, funny, anti-press, and in charge of an eccentric, culinarily ecelctic restaurant in the heart of Manhattan’s Self-Employed Writer District–the West Village–the guy had scribblers practically lining up and taking tickets to profile him. And in his indefatigably Kenny Shopsin-ish way–which is a sort of a Harvey Pekar-ish agitational dyspepsia complemented by a mop of hair worthy of the Heat Miser–he rebuffed them all. All, that is, except Calvin Trillin, who finally got Shopsin to consent to being profiled in the New Yorker in 2002, when his restaurant, Shopsin’s General Store, was being rousted from its original Bedford Street location by the usual suspect, a greedy landlord. (Shopsin’s currently exists as a stall in the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side.)
I was a regular at the old Shopsin’s on Bedford back when I lived right nearby it (next door to Trillin, as it happens). Like hundreds of Villagers before and after me, I was first drawn in by the ramshackle storefront that simply read “GROCERIES” and then enchanted by the home cooking and the encylopedic menu, which offered things as mundane as BLTs and as outré as Senegalese chicken soup and lime ricotta pancakes.
But, witnessing Kenny’s abrasiveness firsthand, I never attempted to profile him, and, indeed, I have never even introduced myself to him. My wife loved Kenny’s cooking but was so frazzled by his energy that we seldom ate there as a couple. I usually went to Shopsin’s solo or with my then-young daughter, who enjoyed the theater and jumble of the place, as well as the attention of Kenny’s wife, Eve, a gentle soul who did the serving and order-taking. (Eve, sadly, died in 2003, when she was only 57. Not long before her death, she proudly showed me a portrait that another regular, Sean Lennon, had painted of her.)
As you can tell, I’ve finally relented and become yet another writer writing about municipal treasure Kenny Shopsin–because, if I do say so, his new cookbook, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, is just f***ing brilliant, as Kenny himself might say, minus the prophylactic asterisks. (Besides, Kenny has become downright media-friendly with the launch of this book, even making an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in which he seemed oddly sedate and compliant, like he’d been commanded not to be himself.)
Eat Me is satisfying in two ways: as a useful, practical cookbook from which you can pinch recipes and add them to your weekly repertoire, and as an excellent night-table read, a joy for its prose alone. I started the book in the middle, randomly opening it up to a recipe called Patsy’s Cashew Chicken. The writeup begins like this:
Patsy was a cook at Shopsin’s, a babysitter to all my kids, and a dear friend for many years until we had a disastrous argument. I said something that offended her, and she didn’t talk to me for three years. During that period I tried very hard numerous times to apologize and make amends, but nothing would cool her. Later she came back and made some attempt at repairing things, but by then I wasn’t interested. I don’t mind having fights with people I love, but don’t cut me off.... I loved Patsy. We were really, really close. She rejected my love. When she finally did come back, I didn’t love her anymore. I couldn’t be in a love relationship in which the love is used as a weapon.
Well, naturally, how could I not want to try the recipe, which is basically a corruption of Chinese restaurant-style chicken with cashews? So off to the kitchen I went to make this remnant of a friendship sundered, following it closely from the very first instruction (“Cut the chicken into strips the size of a baby’s index finger”) onward. And damned if it didn’t turn out just as Kenny promised, with the flour-coated chicken acquiring “a velvety texture when cooked,” with an appealing “sticky brown-black glaze.”
All four members of my family ate this dish enthusiastically, which is saying something. And the recipe, like the others I’ve tried from Eat Me, was easy to follow and execute successfully–an uncommon trait in a 2008 cookbook. Michael Ruhlman recently wrote an excellent post entitled “The Fallacy of the Quick-and-Easy Cookbook” in which he inveighed against a patently disingenuous press release, for a cookbook called Ducasse Made Simple, that promises that “home cooks will be able to effortlessly recreate the world-class cuisine of renowned Chef Alain Ducasse in their own kitchens.” Kenny Shopsin’s recipes aren’t effortless or necessarily quick, but they really are pretty easy.
Beyond its admirably high cookability rate, Eat Me has much to recommend it as a read. Shopsin’s, the restaurant, began its life as a general store in the 1970s, and Kenny has filled the book with vignettes of a heartbreakingly irretrievable time, when the Village had dozens of corner groceries and an authentic middle class. A disquisition on how Shopsin roasts turkeys morphs into a story of the local butchers he used to buy birds from:
Their names were Morris and Sidney; they were from Genoa. Sidney only had fingers on one hand because the fingers on his other hand were chopped off when someone accidentally turned on the meat grinder. Despite all my idiosyncrasies, I like to think that thanks to a combination of psychotherapy and drugs, I am pretty together. Pretty sane. Morris, on the other hand, was out of his fucking brains...
The epilogue of Eat Me, “The Art of Staying Small,” reveals a depth and humanity to Kenny Shopsin that belies the fat-crank caricature. “I know it goes against our capitalist system,” he writes, “but I have never been interested in the normal symptoms of success, such as higher profit margins and expansion of income. I never had a goal to make more money so that I could retire or so that I could hire a low-wage employee to do the cooking for me... Running a restaurant for me is about running a restaurant. It is not a means to get someplace else. I wake up every morning, and I work for a living like a farmer. Running a restaurant is a condition of life for me. And I like everything about this life.”
I like everything about this book.