The accidental journalist

Sara Peterson ’96 shares a pink office with two restaurant critics who are teaching her the secrets to writing for a magazine.

The accidental journalist

Sara Peterson ’96 shares a pink office with two restaurant critics who are teaching her the secrets to writing for a magazine.

At an upscale noodle bar that recently opened off Dallas’ Greenville Avenue, I watch Nancy and Mary poke their chopsticks at a fat pile of sticky rice. It was the only dessert on the menu worth ordering, they told me, before I got the chance to ask what it was. Not that I would have objected. A quick glance at my own chopsticks — still wrapped in their paper packaging, my fork guiltily dripping peanut sauce — confirms that I am not the person in charge here.

Our dinner courses fared well — the Japanese Grand Udon Noodles, the Lemongrass Filet Fish, the People’s Pad Thai. All three of us approve of the restaurant’s ambiance — bird cages housing blue light bulbs and an open kitchen as brightly lit as the set of a sitcom. But the sticky rice still has to be judged, and I am nervous for it, the cocoa-colored lump, as if it’s about to stand up and give a speech. I want it to do well. Personally, I thought it was delicious, sweet without being too sweet, but I’m not going to say anything out loud. I’m new.

Mary and Nancy take their half-bites — tiny tastes that allow them to decide the sticky rice’s fate which will come in the form of a clever phrase or sentence crafted in less time than it takes to set free a series of sneezes. I’ve seen them do it a hundred times. They can probably write 500-word reviews in their sleep, wake up well rested and find perfect passages scribbled on their pillows. Tonight, the sticky rice has two foreseeable futures: immediate fame or instant death. As restaurant critics, Mary and Nancy don’t believe in in-between, a dish is either rewarded or persecuted. There is no such thing as Purgatory for this pilaf.

We write for a magazine, Mary, Nancy and I, and we share an office together — a pink office. The two of them painted the walls the shade of watered-down Pepto Bismol one weekend when I wasn’t looking. They are twice my age, possess twice my wit, talk twice as fast as I do, and sometimes I have trouble keeping up with them. Mary’s cocker-spaniel-colored hair is long and frizzy, and she has facial features that make it easy to picture what she looked like as a child: a button nose, soft skin, and round cheeks. Nancy is pretty, pert and the same age as Mary, 43. She wears neckties like Annie Hall and is always checking the state of her lipstick, if it needs refreshment, if it’s stuck on her front teeth. Every inch of the pink office — not counting Mary’s sequined Haitian voodoo flag — is covered with photographs of Nancy’s favorite vacation feasts: gnocchi in Tuscany, peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches on a Kenyan jungle picnic, scones at a Penzance bed-and-breakfast.

I don’t write restaurant reviews. Two years ago I graduated from college and I still think of food as a line item in a budget, like a phone bill, not as a form of entertainment worth describing in detail. I write about whatever my editor tells me to write about — a ruthless headhunter, a psychic speedwalker, the myths of acupuncture.

I am an accidental journalist. I just thought, since I like to write and since I also like to get a steady paycheck, I’d try the media route. Now I share a pink office with two restaurant critics who I suspect were separated at birth and who are teaching me, quickly and quietly, the necessary things to know about writing for a magazine. I’m not sure if Mary and Nancy also want me to learn the intricacies of fine dining or if they just know that their salary is a pint to my half and enjoy treating me to a meal every once in a while. I never add an objective opinion to their final assessment of a restaurant, though. I always say nice things about whatever we’re eating because for me it’s free food, and I can’t complain about anything that’s free — even if it’s undercooked.

I hog the table talk, complaining about an excrutiating interview I had that afternoon with a man (a local politician) who thought (somewhat rightly) that I was too young to be asking straightforward questions about an embarrassing incident that happened to him in the 1970s, when his high-profile career was just taking off and I myself was preoccupied with my Barbie Dream Mansion. Instead of answers, he left me with a cassette full of guttural laughter and pathetic knock-knock jokes.

“How was I supposed to handle this guy?” I ask my co-workers, vexed, half-dreading they’ll pat me on the back and say, “Well, you gave it your best shot, but clearly you’re barking up the wrong career tree.”

Instead they laugh. They jump in with their own interview horror stories from the days when they were cub reporters. Mary talks about a celebrity chef who played his trumpet the entire time she was asking him about his famous fajita recipe; Nancy rambles about an immature maitre d’ who kept interrupting their conversation to insist that her voice reminded him of a muppet, only he couldn’t remember which one, could she?

They’re not following my direction of thought here so I intervene. “What I mean is, when did you guys really know that you wanted to do this for a living, for every. . . single. . . day?”

Then they get quiet, cocking their heads like punished puppies. “It’s not like one day we woke up oh-so-sure of ourselves,” says Mary. “Writers and women thrive on self-doubt. It’s how they get things done.” (Mary prefers to speak in declarative sentences; it leaves less room for argument.)

“You do what you do…and then you do it some more,” says Nancy, dramatically toasting her Merlot to no one in particular. “And then it’s time to retire.” I roll my eyes, decide to finish what’s left of the sticky rice. Suddenly I’m starving. “Just tell me it gets easier.”

“It gets easier.”

“Just tell me I’ll get better at dealing with flopped interviews.” “You’ll get better.”

“Just tell me one day I’ll meet a politician who will answer all my questions or who can at least tell a good joke.”

“Have another glass of wine, Little Bit.”

“All right, all right. Just tell me you liked the sticky rice because, personally, I thought it was an exotic gastronomical delight. . . or something like that.”

It was, they agreed, and they didn’t mind me saying so.

Sara Peterson ’96 is a staff writer at D Magazine, the city magazine of Dallas/Fort Worth.

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