A recent New York Times review of North End Grill restaurant includes mentions of pumpkin-crab soup, hashed Brussels sprouts and lentils, halibut with pine nuts, green raisins and clams and a bacon-shrimp burger with spice-dusted fries - and that’s all before the mile-high lemon meringue pie with candied almonds.
But when former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni publicly announced his own gout diagnosis last week, he and his fellow professional eaters had a bitter truth to swallow about their career’s potential health implications.
Bruni is currently an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, but served as chief restaurant critic from June 2004 through August 2009. In his March 22 column titled “Red Meat Blues,” Bruni revealed he learned of his condition in November of last year.
The Mayo Clinic describes gout as “a complex form of arthritis.”
“An acute attack of gout can wake you up in the middle of the night with the sensation that your big toe is on fire. The affected joint is hot, swollen and so tender that even the weight of the sheet on it may seem intolerable,” explains the Clinic.
Gout is caused by a build-up of uric-acid crystals. The crystals accumulate in joints - especially the big toe - and ultimately result in intense pain and inflammation. Foods rich in purines - a colorless crystalline compound your body breaks down into uric acid - can trigger flare-ups.
According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, foods with especially high purine content include: anchovies, beer, bouillon, brains, broth, consommé, goose, gravy, heart, herring, kidney, liver, mackerel, meat extracts, mincemeat, mussels, partridge, roe (caviar), scallops, sardines, sweetbreads and yeasts (baking and brewing).
Take a quick glance through the reviews filed by Bruni's successor Sam Sifton in 2011 and you’ll find mentions of roast scallops at Craft, grilled monkfish liver at Sushi Yasuda, a torchon of duck foie gras at Per Se, sweetbreads at Empellon and sardines marinated in oil and vinegar at Boulud Sud.
To your average American consumer, partridge and heaping portions of offal are hardly on the weekly grocery store checklist - but it’s the fare critics positively eat up.
Bruni – despite his ferocious appetite – has since completely reformed his diet, severely decreasing his admittedly substantial alcohol intake and taking an extra lap in the bread basket instead of the jar of pâté.
“Pasta dishes are a godsend for an additional reason: they often incorporate some red meat, but not a crazy amount. So they let a meat lover like me get flavors he or she cherishes in a lower-risk way,” he writes. Since his diagnosis, Bruni notes he has not consumed more than 16 ounces of red meat in any one week. This is a stark contrast to his usual porterhouse for one; “a cruel joke” he says.
Bruni certainly doesn’t blame his career path, citing his uric acid levels were naturally on the high side even in his 20s. Gout was mentioned in his check-ups, but he says his doctors never exhorted him to remember it.
“It didn't stick in mind as this looming threat. Only when I got the diagnosis did I remember: ‘Oh, yeah, this had been mentioned to me.’ They never said: 'You have a predisposition to gout, so you should avoid x, y or z.’”
And for those who earn their living at the end of a fork, the notion of putting their health in jeopardy is something to chew on.
“I am, of course, nervous, and Frank's news makes me a bit more nervous than before,” says Pete Wells, the current Times critic, who took over the job in early January.
“When one of the professional eaters actually has health problems, you have to face the facts that you’re asking a lot of your body,” he says.
Earlier in his career as the paper’s previous Dining Section editor and a writer at Food & Wine Magazine, Wells says it was easy to focus on the cosmetic hazards, particularly the weight gain. However, announcements like Bruni’s make him realize the occupational hazards might go beyond mere vanity.
Ryan Sutton, the restaurant critic for Bloomberg News, says his weight has fluctuated around 30 pounds during his six-year tenure. He was also recently prescribed Lipitor for high cholesterol at the ripe age of 32.
“I feel for food critics. Their jobs seem to be about tasting everything while not finding that tipping point. Who knows when that one dietary hit will push them into a blocked artery, a stroke, or an insulin shut down? I’d think twice about throwing those dice for a living,” says Levin.
Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle critic, says she’s “pretty much resigned to living with the 20 extra pounds I've put on over the decade I've been reviewing weekly again.” Like Sutton, her cholesterol levels are higher than her doctors would like, although she has not been prescribed any medication – yet.
Cook adds: “If I've got to go, I want to go having eaten and drunk well.”
And that very act of eating and drinking well is often met with its own criticism on online dining forums – with commenters claiming that those in the profession practice gluttony and excess and therefore reap what they sow.
“I understand the social argument, that we feast at the top of the food chain when so many have so little,” says Cook. “But there's another social argument, too: that thoughtful food writing makes readers aware of the food chain, its importance, its fragility, its variety. You can connect readers with their region and its possibilities, and that matters, too.”
“Restaurant criticism ought to be about deliciousness and sociology and art. It shouldn’t ultimately be about nutrition,” wrote Sam Sifton, Wells’ predecessor at the Times, about criticism and calorie counting.
“Food critics eat lavishly because their job is to be emissaries, canaries, proxies for the reader, and that means visiting certain restaurants, partaking of certain dishes and doing it at a night-after-night frequency,” Bruni adds.
“There's no other way to be a food critic.”