A Bite in the Apple: A Conversation with Un-Foodie Gary Rosenblatt
Illustrative image: Vegetable soup, one of Gary's favorites. Pixnio
I recently had lunch with Gary Rosenblatt, who is stepping down as editor and publisher at the end of September after 26 years on the job. We ate at one of his favorite restaurants, My Most Favorite Food, on West 72nd street in Manhattan. Over a huge steaming bowl of (brown) vegetable soup followed by a salmon Caesar salad (for him) and chopped salad (for me), we talked food: what are his favorites; memorable meals; and the role food has played in his life as an editor in the Big Apple.
Gary Rosenblatt has never let food get in the way of a good story. That’s because he isn’t really wild about most kinds of food. Unless it’s brown. Or tuna fish.
“One day,” he said, “I will write a piece about the tuna fish I have known,” he said with a smile. “I tell people that I have so much mercury in me,” he noted, evoking the concern that tuna has high levels of mercury in it, “that I don’t need a thermometer to take my temperature.”
He has always had a tenuous relationship with food. When he entered seventh grade, he left home in Annapolis, Maryland, to live an hour away in Baltimore with his grandparents during the week so that he could attend yeshiva there. His bubbie took it upon herself to fatten him up and get him to eat.
“She kept giving me bread that I thought was slathered with margarine. I learned later that it was schmaltz, chicken fat. My bubbie thought it would help me put on some weight. It didn’t, and I must have had more cholesterol in me than any other 90-pound kid.”
He loved his bubbie’s cooking – her roast chicken, kugel, cholent – Old World, eastern European food which, he pointed out, was all brown. “My favorite food color. Colored food didn’t come into my life until later on.”
The list of what Rosenblatt won’t eat is long. No to sushi. No to deli. Hates hot dogs. Won’t touch broccoli or cauliflower. Has never had a cup of coffee. Doesn’t drink alcohol.
In the 1980s, Rosenblatt became friends with the journalist, Sidney Zion, who later wrote a column for The Jewish Week for a while. “He was from the old-school ‘get me a rewrite’ days of reporting, a wonderful tough guy, loud, and well known in local bars,” he recalled. One afternoon Zion took him to the Yale Club. “We walked into the noisy, crowded bar. Everyone greeted Sidney. The bartender asked if he wanted his ‘regular’ to which he nodded. He then turned to me and asked what I was drinking.”
“Ginger ale,” I said.
“What?! What kind of journalist are you?” bellowed Zion as the bar grew silent.
The answer to that is a journalist who doesn’t enjoy the hard stuff. Give him a ginger ale to drink and tuna mixed with mayo in a sandwich, with a slice of tomato, a piece of lettuce, and maybe a slice of green pepper on the side, and he’s happy.
Several years ago, an important community leader invited him to lunch. When the man’s secretary called him to set the date, Rosenblatt told her that he kept kosher. Would there be something there that he could eat? No problem, he was assured.
So, he arrived at the restaurant, one of the jewels in the crown of the New York restaurant world. His host was seated at his regular table, complete with personal maître d to assure that all went smoothly.
Rosenblatt perused the menu. Not a thing for a kashrut observer to eat. He beckoned to the maître d’ and asked quietly, “Do you have any tuna? In the can?” The maître d’ shook his head, aghast. For his lunch that day, Rosenblatt ended up with a fruit plate. “It was probably the most expensive sliced pineapple ever,” he mused. “When I left, still hungry, I stopped off for a cheap kosher burger.”
As a youngster, Rosenblatt enjoyed his mother’s cooking, especially the Shabbat meals – chicken and salt-and-pepper noodle kugel – and the meat and chicken pies with mashed potatoes she often made for Sunday dinner. He remembers his first restaurant meal was at the late and great Lou G. Siegel’s on West 38th Street. He was 10 years old and was with his parents and older brother on a visit to New York.
“I was amazed that we could eat in a nice restaurant and the food was really good.”
His foray into the world of green (food) was tied to a baseball memory. Rosenblatt collected baseball cards, and he loved the Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Duke Snider. On the back of the card, he read that in the off season, Snider raised avocados. Until then he had never heard of them, much less sampled one. Salads at home in those days, he said, meant lettuce and tomatoes.
How does he deal with all of the organizational lunches and dinners he is invited to as part of his job? “Lunch is easy. Every Jewish lunch has tuna fish. It must be written in the constitution of the Jewish people. So that’s a help,” he said. “The big Jewish organizational dinners are challenging because they take so long and usually, you only get to talk to the person on your immediate left or right.
At some point he developed a strategy: come for the cocktail hour, make a circuit around the room, schmooze with people, shake hands, nibble a bit, and then go back to his Times Square office.
Since he doesn’t eat little hot dogs, sushi, and a host of other foods, what does he eat during the cocktail hour? “Carrots, celery sticks,” he said, with a shrug. And later, home for dinner with his wife, Judy, whom he praises as “a wonderful and innovative cook who tolerates my limited horizon of food choices,” noting that it has gradually expanded over the years.
Before lunch was over, a meal that started with a brown food but featured, uncharacteristically, salmon and green salad (proving that his food horizons have, in fact, expanded), I asked him what he will eat going forward, now that he is retiring from full-time work.
“I will mostly be writing from home,” said Rosenblatt, “which is a whole distraction in itself.” He looks forward to enjoying more meals at home with Judy and doing the dishes, which he finds relaxing. And he can always reach for a can of tuna, Bumble Bee or Starkist, and make a tuna salad.
“It’s an amazing recipe, all my own, but I’ll share it with you,” he said. “Can of tuna, a little mayonnaise, maybe a little egg, and chop it up. Got it? But don’t tell anyone.”