Given that I know next to nothing about gourmet food (I did once absentmindedly refer to some wonderful pate at a cocktail party as liverwurst), I should not be expected to attend a Chamber of Commerce breakfast featuring food writer Pat Tanner.
But last week I did just that. I’m glad I did. As always Tanner took a subject in which I have little interest and made it come alive — it’s a skill that journalists need no matter what their assigned subject matter or beat. Tanner demonstrated the craft last week at the Nassau Club, and I think I even came away with a sense of her secret sauce.
As Tanner shared with us at the chamber breakfast, people think a food reviewer has to have a refined palate and a high-end taste, but she said “I’m just the opposite. I have a plebeian taste. I can’t think of an ingredient I wouldn’t try.” She paused. “Maybe not eyeballs. But I have tried crickets, and they’re really good. And mealworms — but I wouldn’t recommend them.”
Tanner grew up in “a food-obsessed Italian-American family,” but that didn’t qualify her to be a food critic. As she explained in one of her earliest articles for U.S. 1 (August 24, 2005): “ I, myself, did not eat at an actual restaurant — one with cloth napkins and someone other than a short-order cook in the kitchen — until I was 16. (I like to joke that I have been making up for lost time ever since.) Partly this was due to economics: there were seven of us children, which kept my mother at home and stretched thin my father’s paycheck from his job on the bottling line at Anheuser-Busch in Newark, where we lived.”
After becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree, studying elementary education at Newark State (now Kean University), Tanner moved to Princeton with her husband. Early in her career she worked as a corporate trainer at Kepner Tregoe, the management consulting company.
But when her second daughter came along, she took a close look at the out-of-town travel the job required. Drawing on her cooking skills she started Doorstep Dinners, delivering fresh, home-cooked meals to busy professionals. After realizing how labor intensive that business was, she started doing catering. Then she heard about an opportunity to write a food column for the Princeton Packet.
That led to food reviews in the Packet and later New Jersey Monthly, a stint as an editor of the Zagat Review, a radio show, service as co-founder of the Central Jersey Slow Food chapter, and many freelance stories for U.S. 1 and its sister paper, the Princeton Echo.
Her time as a reviewer for New Jersey Monthly, I suspect, was one of the high points of her career. “People were literally paying you to eat,” she said. To be fair to the restaurant being reviewed, she had to visit the place on several occasions. She never let the restaurateur know she was there, and she donned disguises (created with the help of McCarter’s wardrobe designer) to protect her identity.
Tanner normally took three dining companions with her each time. Everyone had to have an appetizer, a main, and a dessert, and no one could have the same as anyone else. And she had to take a taste of every dish. No one was allowed to express an opinion about the food during the meal. But afterward everyone was expected to weigh in with their opinions. After one such dining experience Tanner asked one of her companions what she thought of the various offerings. “Yummy,” she told Tanner. “That doesn’t help me much,” replied the food critic. “It was really yummy,” elaborated the companion.
Magazine and newspaper budgets aren’t the same anymore, but when Tanner was reviewing for New Jersey Monthly, those were, truly, the salad days — and then some. I asked her once how she managed to control her weight. “Small portions,” she responded.
Through it all, Tanner kept the big picture in mind. “I like to talk about the whole experience,” she said of her reviewing process. “What’s it like to eat this food in this setting. The decor, the ambiance, the service, of course.”
For U.S. 1 and the Princeton Echo Tanner has not had the aforementioned budget to write proper food reviews, but she has delivered many entertaining stories about the people who run the dining venues and the food and business strategies that guide their operations.
I grimaced a little a few years ago when I heard that my U.S. 1 colleague, Dan Aubrey, had asked Tanner to write a Fourth of July feature on the all-American hot dog. I hadn’t eaten an ordinary hot dog since I sold them at my Uncle Frank’s Orange Julius stand in West Hollywood in the 1970s. But Tanner’s approach won me over:
“Just one small problem,” she wrote in her lead-in to the story. “Although hot dogs are served in 95 percent of homes in the U.S., I do not personally consume them, either at home or out. It’s not that I don’t, um, relish them, it’s that I know more than I care to about what goes into mass-produced name-brand dogs.” The places she reported on were fascinating.
So were the people she met along the way. At the chamber breakfast she remembered Jim Hamilton, the longtime Lambertville restaurateur who died February 2 at the age of 86. “He was a pioneer,” Tanner said.
Hamilton was the kind of guy who would spice up any food story. Raised in Lambertville, he painted scenery as a teenager for St. John Terrell’s Music Circus. After studies at Brown, Rhode Island School of Design, and Yale and following service in the Army, he founded a scenic design and set-building studio in an old roller rink in Lambertville, where scenery was produced for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Hair,” and “Equus.”` Then he opened an architectural studio, which designed homes, offices, and of course restaurants, including the Boat House, the Swan Hotel Bar, and his own place — Hamilton’s Grill Room, which he and his daughter, Melissa, opened in 1988.
Hamilton’s food legacy is carried on, Tanner said, by his daughters Melissa, who now runs Canal House Cooking, a cookbook publisher and food blog in Frenchtown, and Gabrielle, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Prune restaurant in New York, and the author of a best-selling memoir, “Blood, Bones, and Butter.” (A celebration of Jim Hamilton’s life will be held Sunday, March 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Rago Auction in Lambertville.)
Tanner’s mention of Jim Hamilton made me think of another longtime entrepreneur in the food business who died about a year ago at the age of 88. Jerry Reilly was the founder of Halo Farms dairy and ice cream store, which opened originally in 1975 and later expanded to Halo Pub on Hulfish Street in Princeton. Reilly was another foodie with a delicious back story. He studied (and drank some beer with his roommate, Paul Newman) at Kenyon College, dropping out in 1949 to pursue a career in show business. He tap danced in a show with Ray Bolger, but was drafted into the Army just before the Broadway opening.
A subsequent career in industrial engineering led him to some food-related companies: Beech Nut Squibb, Table Talk Pies, and Ward Baking Co. From there he made the leap to Halo Farms, which to this day is beloved by ice cream fans not only because the ice cream is fresh and good but also because it’s reasonably priced. Reilly’s daughter, Kathy Reilly Arnold, is carrying on the Halo Pub tradition.
By all of Tanner’s standards — ambience, service, decor, etc. — the chamber breakfast at the Nassau Club deserved a rave review. I would add that the conversation was excellent and the food was yummy, really yummy.