OT: When All You Have Is A Spatula

Should there be a “Recipe of Remembrance” for 9/11?  Sam Sifton, New York Times food editor, thinks so.

The first restaurant meal we had in the chaotic, somber days after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center was downtown, in TriBeCa, with an awful, smoky stench in the air and a tiny child sleeping in a stroller beside us. The setting was the Odeon, a bistro that opened in 1980 and for a long time defined the neighborhood’s possibility, back when its streets were empty and dark.

Some people remember 9/11 for the death and destruction. Some for the steak frites.

As that city lay wounded, the Odeon seemed the very best place to take a newborn to dinner.

We had country salad and steak frites that night.

My old pal, Dan Arshack, didn’t really think that tying a recipe to the deaths of thousands was appropriate, and let Sifton know.

This article is horrifyingly inappropriate.

You could have added: A little sprinkle of cement dust and ground human carnage and you can recapture the entire experience!

I don’t think Dan has an issue with steak frites per se, but that the Times thought it appropriate to mark the tragedy with a meal.  In a responding email, Sifton disagreed.

I’m so sorry you found today’s newsletter inappropriate. I’m sorry you think we shouldn’t write about 9/11 in a Cooking column, or about how it continues to resonate in so many parts of our lives and will, no doubt, forever.

But please understand that I believe food plays an enormously important role in our healing process, and has since soon after the attacks, when cooks marched down to the pile to feed the fire and police responders who dug and dug for their fallen brothers and sisters; when families gathered each other close across the nation to feed one another in love; when as the Septembers passed, one by one, each of us recalled moments from that awful time and sought beauty in them as we could, then cooked and ate and hoped.

That’s what motivated me. I’m sorry you didn’t see it that way.

With no reason to doubt Sifton’s sincerity, if not his melodramatic prose, the tenuousness of people feeding the guys who were digging (or “dug and dug,” because repetition makes the heart grow fonder) up the bodies in the pile with Sifton’s having an infant breathe the fouled air so he could go out to eat, and somehow extrapolate his personal gastronomical memory to the firefighters pulling out body parts who never tasted Odeon’s steak frite because, unlike Sifton, they were pulling body parts out of the pile (see, I can learn how to use repetition too).

Should anyone begrudge Sifton’s use of the New York Times cooking soapbox to suggest that he is entitled to bootstrap his enjoyment of bistro fare with 9/11? Is it “horrifyingly inappropriate” to hook a recipe to the deaths of thousands?  Does Sifton’s leaden attempt to leap from steak frites to his cloyingly overwrought explanation suffice?

For New Yorkers, 9/11 is personal.  Perhaps it’s personal to Sifton too. I remember his father, Judge Charles Sifton, EDNY, well. I can’t recall his father using such flowery language.

Sifton’s attempt to explain why his steak frites recipe is one of remembrance for 9/11, the connection between his going out to eat and death, shouldn’t be horrifying to Dan.  Sifton is entitled to remember 9/11 any way he chooses.  That it happens to be through food is hardly surprising, given that his world is wrapped up in food.  When all you have is a hammer, etc.

To those of us less inclined toward the “cooked, ate, hoped” view of the world, the stench of death was stronger than the smell of searing steak, and offering up a recipe as a token of remembrance comes off as trivializing a tragedy.  Kind of like this:


But then, I do so love steak frites.

7 thoughts on “OT: When All You Have Is A Spatula

  1. REvers

    The day Tim McVeigh blew all the papers off my desk, I went to lunch with my office mates. We went to Triple’s. I had a Monte Cristo. We watched the news coverage on the restaurant’s television. We didn’t talk much.

    The memory of this is quite vivid, most especially the memory of the Monte Cristo. I suspect that’s because it was a solid piece of normalcy in a world gone, for the moment, quite mad. It was very nearly the only normal thing about that entire day. I completely understand where Sifton is coming from.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are many things I remember about 9/11 and its aftermath. I remember the body part left on a roof beneath my office window six months later. I can’t remember what I ate that day. Even if I could, however, I don’t think I would sell it in the newspaper as the meal of memory and pretend that my recollection was the equivalent of anything the people in the towers experienced or the guys on the pile endured.

      But that’s just me.

      1. David M.

        Is that fair? He sells it as a meal of memory, his, and doesn’t try to claim it’s representative of or equivalent to anything. Nor does he say it’s something you need to or even should make to commemorate 9/11. It doesn’t come off as tone-deaf or miserly, like the Marriott thing two years ago. I just see a food dork telling about a better memory from a bad time. And if the email to your friend makes him sound earnestly pompous, well… dorks often are.

        1. SHG Post author

          I didn’t find the initial article as horrifying as Dan did. I thought it inappropriate, mostly because it tied 9/11 to Sifton’s post-9/11 restaurant experience, which had plenty to do with Sifton and nothing to do with anyone who died on 9/11. There’s a whiff of ursurpation of 9/11 for one’s own personal aggrandizement about it, like the Nigerians who sold counterfeit NYFD caps at the site two weeks afterward to the tourists from Kansas. Or mini-muffins.

          But it was his “earnestly pompous” rationalization that made me vomit a bit in my mouth. After all, isn’t it Sifton’s enjoyment of steak frites at Odeon months later that really represents the horror of 9/11? Sifton displayed a disturbing lack of modesty. But it was his memory, and isn’t he entitled to his very own “lived experiences”? And no one can question another person’s use of his lived experiences as a reason to post a steak frites recipe.

  2. Rendall

    Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and agree with your disagreers. The article is just someone recounting their personal memory of an awful time because it’s 9/11 memorial day and he has a column to write, and given that the column is about food, that personal memory will tie into food. I would agree with you if he took the opportunity to plug his latest book, or called the recipe “Sam Sifton’s 9/11 Steak Frites” or even pushed a political agenda (which, at the end of the day, is a far more common and offensive use of the tragedy). Instead he gave us a recipe. No big whoop.

Comments are closed.