An Immense Honor

UT3PWdRLpAm5htKI am proud to announce that my debut novel, “Soft Target” will be the first selection in the Jodi Arias Maricopa County Women’s Detention Center Book of the Month Club. Ms. Arias plans to form the group as soon as she’s sentenced to life in prison (or so CNN tells me).
For those of you who aren’t serving a life term for slicing and dicing your one true love, you can get it at

The Cartel, Chapter 1

The CartelHere’s a sneak peek at “The Cartel,” the sequel to Soft Target. Due out later this year.

The Cartel — Chapter 1
Sunday, Jan. 27, 3:15 a.m. CDT

“Code 1 for Truck and Ambulance 37.”
The worst time for firefighters to get a call is around 3 a.m.
Most of the guys at Highwood Station 37 turned in by 11 p.m. The two exceptions were Paul Marino and Vito Turso, two hotshot 20somethings who worked at three different departments and maybe slept in their own beds at home three nights a month. When they were working a 24 at “the 37 House,” as Turso liked to call it, they’d sometimes stay up until 5 a.m., glued to the easy chairs in the day room, drinking Mountain Dew, scavenging for leftovers in the kitchen, and playing Call of Duty on the Xbox while they Skyped with friends and posted to Facebook. Like vampires, they’d turn in as the sun came up and sleep the whole next day before waking up in time for a PM shift at one of the other firehouses where they worked part-time.
But for most of the guys at Station 37, they were in the bunkroom by 11 p.m. and it was lights out. They’d toss and turn for another hour or so in the cheap single beds that were separated only by a tall row of scratched up wooden lockers. Some nights it was a loud snorer who would keep them up. Other nights, it was the air conditioning that someone set on sub-Arctic. But mostly it was anticipation that made it hard for them to relax and go to sleep. They’d lay there, waiting for the tones to go off for a fire alarm at one of the dorms at Lake Forest College or a bar fight at the Toad Stool, one of a half-dozen Highwood bars where the rich white kids from Highland Park and Lake Bluff mixed with the working-class Italians.
By 12:30 or so, the men of Station 37 would start to relax. They’d either be too tired to stay awake any longer, or drift off thinking that maybe this would be one of those rare times when they’d get a full night’s sleep. Of course, getting to sleep “all night” in the fire service meant not getting woken up until 5 or 6 a.m., usually for a false alarm at one of the nearby businesses or a “trouble breathing” at the local nursing home. The guys hated the nursing home calls the most. “Trouble breathing” usually meant “this person’s been dead for two hours, can you come do CPR so it doesn’t look like they died because we never checked on them in the middle of the night.”
“Remind me to shoot myself before my kids put me in one of these places,” Marino said after the last 5 a.m. nursing-home call for a full arrest.
“Yeah….no shit,” Turso said as they climbed back into Truck 37.
By 1:30 a.m., most of the guys would be getting their best REM sleep of the night, dreaming about some girl or that call that they never talk about but know will haunt them for the rest of their career. They’d stay that way for the next three or four hours if the tones didn’t go off. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.
“Corner of Llewelyn and Funston…” the female dispatcher’s voice said over the station’s loud speakers. “…for the shooting victim.”
“That’s right out back,” Nick Mattera said as he shook off the sleep, pulled on his pants, and zipped up his black steel-toed boots. “I’m surprised we didn’t hear the shots.”
“I think we’re just getting used to it,” said Red Shift Battalion Chief John Nardini.
Within two minutes, Truck and Ambulance 37 were pulling up to the street corner that was less than a block away from Station 37. Highwood Police Officer Marco Toscano was working the overnight shift and was the first on scene.
He looked exactly like you’d expect a cop named Marco Toscano to look. He was a six-foot, four-inch, barrel-chested, 270-pound mean motherfucker who, at 41, could still bench 475 on a good day. His head was shaved clean except for a thick goatee around his even thicker Mediterranean lips. The cord for his earpiece snaked beneath the collar of his waist-length winter duty coat, the bulk of the inner liner making him seem even more massive than he actually was (if that was possible). The cord snaked down his back to the bulky Motorola portable radio that hung on the thick, black utility belt that still shined like the day it came out of the package. Sticking out from under the elastic band of his coat was an array of tools he loved to use on drunken frat boys as much as Mexican drug dealers. Instead of the telescoping titanium rods that most cops liked to carry, Marco preferred an old-school Billy club.
“My ‘Nigger Be Good’ Stick,” Marco liked to call it.
“Nothing like the sound of wood on skull,” he used to say with a smirk.
Hanging on his left side was a 7.8-million-volt Terminator stun gun, the most powerful model available. Snug to his right side was a nickel-plated Kimber .45, hammer back, safety on. With one click, he was ready to unload the full 8-round clip of hollow points into anyone who fucked with him. He hadn’t fired it in 15 years on the job; mostly because one look at him and people knew not to fuck with Marco Toscano. Even the hard cases – the career criminals who took the Metra train down to Highwood from North Chicago and Waukegan for a little midday B&E to feed their drug habit – were scared to death of him. Even if they’d never been arrested in Highwood, criminals on the North Shore of Chicago knew the name Marco Toscano. If the train pulled into the Highwood station and they saw him writing tickets in the parking lot or sitting in his cruiser, they’d stay on the train.
“Fuck this,” they’d think. “I don’t wanna run into that crazy bastard. I’ll go four more stops to Winnetka, where the pickings are easier.”
The lights on top of Marco’s prowl car were spinning around, lighting up what was otherwise a black, moonless night. The blue and white strobes reflected off the windows of the two-story, wood-framed houses that ringed the corner of Llewelyn and Funston. Caught in the flash of lights were the neighbors who’d heard the shots ring out, but hadn’t rushed out for fear they’d see something they didn’t really want to see. But 10 minutes later, they were more than happy to stand on their front porches, wrapped up in blankets and thick fleece robes and dingy house coats, and watch the aftermath of a crime scene that was playing out in their neighborhood with disturbing frequency.
“Whatchya got?” Nardini asked.
“The usual,” Marco said. “Some Spic sellin’ dope where he don’t belong.”
Lying next to the waist-high chain-link fence that enclosed the St. James Catholic School parking lot was Henry Olmos. Dressed in Timberland boots, baggy jeans, a brown Carhartt jacket and a black ski cap pulled low over his tall forehead, Olmos was easily identifiable as one of the low-level street dealer for the Diablos, the Mexican drug gang that had started selling drugs on this corner about six months ago.
The corner of Llewelyn and Funston was a good spot. It was one block off of Green Bay Road, one of the two main thoroughfares through downtown Highwood. You could enter the block – or escape in a hurry – from three different directions. Within a block or two, the avenues of escape multiplied exponentially. And there were alleys behind the houses on both sides of the street.
The Diablos were a Mexican gang that mostly dealt weed and heroin in the first right Chicago neighborhoods of Rogers Park, Evanston and Skokie. Normally, Highwood, some 20 miles north, would be way out of bounds for the Diablos. They stuck mostly to the poorer neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago and the Near North suburbs. But lately, they’d started to move further up the lakefront, encroaching on the turf that had historically belonged to Serrano 13, the violent drug gang based in Waukegan that had direct ties to the Sinoloa Cartel in Mexico. And while this was a bloody scene that played out at least 10 times a day in Chicago, it was relatively new to Highwood. For three decades, local capo Tony Savino and his crew had kept drug dealing out of the North Shore’s most notorious Italian enclave.
“The margins are good, but it’s bad for the community,” Tony and his brother, Carmine, had decided back in the 1980s. “We don’t need that shit here.”
“If the Moolies” – short for moulinyan, or eggplant, the Italian slur for niggers – “want to move that shit through town and sell it to their own people, I’m fine with that,” Tony said. “But they’re not gonna sell to our people.”
“Are we gonna charge ‘em for that?” Carmine asked.
“No,” Tony said. “We’ll consider it goodwill and trade it for something we really need.”
And that’s the deal they’d had for the past 30 years, except now Tony’s agreement was with Serrano 13, which had taken over the North Shore drug trade from the Gangsta Disciples more than a decade ago. As a result of the détente between the Savinos and the Mexicans, Highwood had been mostly free of drugs.
And that’s the way Tony liked it.
The local cops, he could handle. Most of them were on his payroll anyway. But drug trafficking brought in the Feds. That was a whole other headache Tony didn’t want to have to deal with. He had a good thing going here in Highwood. Drugs would only fuck it up.
Sure, there were users and dealers in Highwood. But they mostly bought and sold weed and maybe a little cocaine at Teddy O’Brian’s, Santini’s and a few other bars in town. Tony was OK with that, as long as it was local guys doing the selling. He didn’t want niggers or spics doing business in his neighborhood. But if a few guys in his crew wanted to make some money on the side – discreetly – that was fine with him. What Tony Savino wouldn’t tolerate in his town was meth.
The first time Tony got wind of someone selling “that farmer shit” as he called it, he put Marco and Jeff Ponsinetti on it. Ponsinetti was the director of Public Works in Highwood. But his real boss – everyone’s real boss in Highwood – was Tony Savino.
People who didn’t know Jeff Ponsinetti would often underestimate him. He didn’t look all that dangerous. He drove around town in an extended cab pickup truck that had more dents and scratches than the shovels and pick axes that rattled around in the bed. His jeans were always streaked with grease, dirt and who knows what else. His shirts were filthy (sometimes ripped). He wore a big half-carat diamond-stud earring in his left ear, usually had a two-day growth on his face, and wore his hair in a classic 1980s mullet that he sometimes dyed with purple and pink racing stripes. He was an odd bird, but incredibly smart and resourceful. Anyone who underestimated this tall, skinny, scruffy-looking guy was making a huge mistake. Jeff Ponsinetti may have been half the size of Marco Toscano, but he was twice as dangerous. He could take a guy down and really hurt him in a matter of seconds. And most of the time, the poor bastard would never see it coming.
Tony heard about a guy dealing meth in Teddy O’Brien’s and told Ponsinetti and Marco to “take care of it.” They took the dealer to the Public Works garage on the edge of Fort Sheridan – where no one could hear him scream. They let him live, so that he could tell other meth dealers not to step foot inside Highwood. But they had fun with Ponsinetti’s tool bench before they sent him bloodied and bruised back to wherever he came from.
“You think the quarter-inch hurt going through your hand, motherfucker,” Marco snickered as he changed drill bits. “Wait till I put this nine-sixteenths through your kneecap.”
“I was across town when the call came in,” Marco said to Nardini. “I got here as quick as I could, but I didn’t see anybody on the way over that looked suspicious. I was coming from the south, down near Oak Terrace, so my guess is that they headed back north. Toward Waukegan.”
“Confirm that he’s dead,” Nardini said to Nick.
“Right,” Nick said.
Thanks to Abdullah, the crazy Saudi terrorist who’d tried to blow up half of the North Shore, Nardini and Nick were closer than anyone on the Highwood Fire Department. Maybe closer than any two firefighters on the North Shore of Chicago. Facing life and death together will do that for a friendship.
Shortly after Nardini beat Abdullah to death in the parking lot of the Walgreens and Nick jumped aboard the Metra train and disarmed the bomb that would have blown up a carload of morning commuters on their way to work in the Loop – an incident people had started calling “Highwood’s 9/11” – Nardini was promoted to battalion chief. He moved over to Black Shift to replace Jim Morrison, the fat-faced, backstabbing battalion chief who’d tried to sell out his fellow firefighters to advance his own career. Instead, Morrison was blown to bits in the car-bomb blast set off by Abdullah that basically destroyed the corner of Highwood Avenue and Sheridan Road.
Nardini was only on Black Shift for a year before he asked to be moved back to Red Shift. Mike Gallo, the Red Shift battalion chief, was more than happy to make the switch. The Black Shift schedule made it easier for him to coordinate schedules with his wife Theresa, a busty little Italian who was a charge nurse at the ER in Evanston.
So John Nardini, Nick Mattera, and Paul Marino, the original Red Shift crew, were back together again. Rounding out the four-man crew was Vito Turso, a short, buff, tattooed firefighter who grew up in Highwood but now lived downtown so he could regularly bed the buff, tattooed female bartenders who worked at some of the city’s primo watering holes. Turso had replaced Dino LaRocca, Highwood’s only openly gay firefighter. Dino had parlayed the publicity around the bombings into a sweet six-figure gig in Hollywood as a production adviser on fire and EMS television shows and movies. Instead of chasing calls on the North Shore of Lake Michigan, Dino and his partner, Paul, were living on the 22nd-floor of one of the Santa Monica condo towers that look out over the Pacific Ocean.
Red Shift was a solid crew, but Nardini and Nick were clearly the anchors. They’d worked together for five years, respected each other both as former servicemen and fellow firefighters. But the whole business with Abdullah had really cemented their bond.
Most everyone who joins the fire service likes to think they can count on their partner to be there when they need them. After a few years on the job, most realize that’s not always true. Firefighters are like anyone else – they’re people. Like any profession, there are good people and bad people in the fire service. But when you find yourself on a solid crew, it leads to a level of respect and trust that you can’t find in any other job. The bonds are stronger than most marriages. That was Red Shift.
While Marino and Turso hooked up the heart monitor to the corpse that had been Henry Olmos, Nick turned to Marco.
“Ever remember anything like this happening here when you were a kid?”
“Never,” Marco said.
“Me neither.”
Marco was about 10 years older than Nick, but they’d basically known each other all their lives. They both came from big Italian families with deep Highwood roots. They saw each other at backyard barbecues, weddings, birthday parties. They were as much a part of the fabric of this community as the bocce courts and the tortellini soup at Del Rio. They both worked for the city, and were proud to serve and protect the neighborhood they’d grown up in. But they weren’t naïve. They both knew what went on at Savino’s Italian Grocery. They knew it was a front for Tony and Carmine’s bookmaking operation. Hell, Marco was one of Tony Savino’s enforcers for Christ’s sake. But Nick and Marco also knew that Tony Savino was good for Highwood. They knew that despite all the crooked shit he was into, Tony was part of the bedrock of this very unique Italian-American community. They all were. Tony, Marco, Ponsinetti, Nick, the grocery store, Nite n’ Gale, Buffo’s. They were all part of what made Highwood the safe and secure little Italian neighborhood it had always been.
Until now.
Standing around the crime scene, the snow crunched underneath Marco and Nick’s feet as they rocked back and forth to try and ward off the February chill. A steady breeze was blowing in off the lake through the leafless trees, making it feel about 10 degrees colder than it really was.
“I can remember when we were kids,” Marco said after a few moments in which they were both thinking the same silent thoughts. “This corner was our whole world. We’d come here at 9 o’clock in the morning and play until our moms called us for dinner.”
“Yeah…us, too,” Nick said.
For generations, all the Highwood kids had come here to play. And their mothers took comfort in that. All they had to do to check on their kids was listen to the sounds of their games echoing through the neighborhood. When it was time for dinner, they’d step out onto the porch and yell.
Usually only once.
Sometimes twice.
Within five minutes, their kids would come running into the house, out of breath, their backs damp with sweat and their hair matted to sticky foreheads.
For four generations, the voices echoing through this neighborhood had been Italian.
“Marco! Andiamo!” his mother would shout.
These days, you were more likely to hear, “Juan! Regresa!”
What had once been a town made up almost exclusively of Italians from northern Italy was now about 50-50. Increasingly, it was home to the (mostly illegal) Mexican landscapers, roofers, remodelers, and day laborers who worked on the multi-million-dollar estates in tonier lakefront suburbs like Lake Forest and Winnetka. A few more years and Highwood wouldn’t be known as an Italian neighborhood anymore, but a Mexican neighborhood.
And although the names and accents had changed, the St. James Catholic Church parking lot had pretty much stayed the same. But these days, instead of Italian kids playing kickball and tag, now it was Mexican kids playing soccer. The goalies would stand in front of the fence at each end of the parking lot, defending an imaginary goal whose exact parameters were known only to them.
“That was wide,” someone would yell, setting off an argument that could last 10 seconds or 10 minutes, depending on how close the score was.
Like the kids from Nick and Marco’s era, the Mexican kids liked going over to the Walgreens. A trip there had a sense of adventure to it because you had to cross the Metra train tracks. They’d go there on hot summer days to soak up the air conditioning and get a cold pop or candy bar. Sometimes, on a dare, they’d shoplift something. Just as Nick and Marco had done in their day. It was harmless. As much a part of growing up as skinned knees and bee stings.
But about six months ago, a new gang of kids started hanging out on the corner of Llewellyn and Funston, on the edge of the St. James parking lot. They weren’t from Highwood and they weren’t there to play ball. They were Diablos, and they were there to sell drugs.
“Let’s keep an eye on Funston & Lewellyn,” Police Chief Gino Baldissi had said one day at swing shift roll call. “We’re seeing a lot of gang activity there.”
Since then, there had been a few scuffles between the Diablos and the Serrano 13 crew from Waukegan. The Serrano crew was smart enough to know not to deal drugs anywhere in Highwood, much less within three blocks of Carmine Savino’s house. They’d hoped they could scare off the Diablos before things got out of hand with the Italians. When a good beat down didn’t work, they tried baseball bats and knives. Then, a month ago, Black Shift got a call around 11 p.m. Mike Gallo ended up calling in an extra ambulance from Highland Park to help transport the three guys – two Diablos and one Serrano – with serious knife wounds. One bled out and died in the back of Ambulance 34, the Highland Park rig that came into town when things got busy. Now the Red Shift crew was at Funston & Llewellyn, this time for a DOA who took three 9 mm rounds to the chest. Things were clearly heating up between the Diablos and Serrano 13.
“I’ve got asystole confirmed in two leads on the monitor,” Marino said to Nardini.
“OK, I’ll call it in and get a time of death.”
“So why do you think the Diablos are moving into Highwood, Marco?” Nick asked.
“Seems kinda stupid, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Not only are they starting a turf war with Serrano 13, but I imagine Tony isn’t too happy either.”
“Yeah, no shit,” Marco said.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on, Nicky,” he said. “They’re fighting over turf because street sales are down ever since our jack-ass president legalized dope.”
“You think all this is happening because of what Dawson did?”
“Yeah,” Marco said. “I do.”
He wasn’t the only one.

New Firefighting Book from Tim Olk

RiverwoodsIf you went to a fire on the North Shore of Chicago anytime in the past 20 years, you were guaranteed to see smoke, fire and Tim Olk. A renowned photographer, Tim has a new book, “Northern Illinois Fire Ground Photograpy,” and I highly recommend it.
“Olkie” — as most of the guys call him — took his first fire scene photos when he was 13 years old. He took the pictures into the station and met Assistant Chief/Fire Investigator Wayne Luecht. Tim eventually took professional photography classes and learned how to photograph fire scenes from Wayne. Eventually, Tim became a Paid-on-Call Firefighter as well as certified in Advanced Fire Scene Photography by the Fire Investigators Strike Force.
Today, Tim is the Midwest US Region Director for the International Fire Photographers Association. Many of his photos have been featured in Fire Engineering, Fire Chief and Fire Rescue magazines. In 1999, Tim lost his mentor and friend when Wayne Luecht died of injuries sustained on duty.
Tim is one of the greatest advocates for the men and women in the fire service. Ask most any firefighter around Chicago about Olkie, and they’ll tell you that he was there photographing their fire academy class, he was on scene for their first fire, and because of the guy he is, he was probably invited to their retirement ceremony.
“Northern Illinois Fire Ground Photography” features hundreds of photos in a hardbound coffee table style book. Olkie captures the lives of the men and women in the fire service from over 50 areas and departments, including the grizzled veterans and young hotshots at the Highwood Fire Department. The full-color book includes photos of fire scenes and rescues, academy graduations, training, dive calls, department events, holidays, group shots, and more.
Tim is a great guy, this is a great book. I highly recommend you buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Steal the Menu at the 92YTribeca

If you’re in lower Manhattan on Friday, don’t miss a discussion at the 92YTribeca with Ray Sokolov, acclaimed food critic and author of the just-released food memoir, “Steal the Menu.” Here’s the promo from the Y:
Former New York Times restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov traces the food scene in America from the publication of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” through today’s diverse culinary world.
Along the way, he touches on the impact of French chefs like Paul Bocuse; the introduction of nouvelle cuisine; the halcyon days of Lutece; and centers of modernist food like El Bulli.

Among Ray’s accomplishments over the years: Raymond Sokolov was food editor at The New York Times, a food columnist for Natural History and arts and culture editor at The Wall St. Journal. He is the author of Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food.

The discussion begins at noon. Bring an appetite, because after Ray talks about all the great food he’s eaten over the years, you’ll be hungry.

Capturing Gettysburg

burgBy Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal

Harrisburg, Pa.

Say “Civil War” and “Pennsylvania,” and Gettysburg immediately comes to mind. Visitors to that site know the cyclorama by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux, a massive work that measures 27 feet high and 359 feet in circumference and currently hangs in the new visitor’s center near the battlefield. Now, just 40 miles north of Gettysburg, “Objects of Valor: Commemorating the Civil War in Pennsylvania,” a new permanent exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, is bringing the war and its most famous battle alive through a rotating selection of smaller but still compelling objects from its collections.

Shown on the walls of the large, one-room gallery and in nine display cases are the battle flags, pistols, swords, uniforms and cannon balls one would expect to find in any battlefield retrospective. Among the more impressive pieces now on display is a regimental drum from the Logan Guards, a Lewistown, Pa., unit that was one of the first to answer President Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms. Also shown are the Colt revolvers presented to Gen. Joseph Knipe by his Seventh Cavalry staff, resplendent with nickel-plated frames, gilded cylinders and ivory grips; a chair from Union Gen. George Meade’s Gettysburg headquarters; the musket used by 69-year-old civilian John L. Burns to help hold off the early Confederate advances; and a kepi with a bullet hole in it worn by Private George W. Linn.

But the centerpiece of “Objects of Valor” is Peter F. Rothermel’s “Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge,” which measures 16 feet high and 32 feet wide, and is the largest depiction of the battle on one canvas. It took Rothermel three years of research and 18 months of painting to complete the work, which was commissioned by the commonwealth for $25,000 in 1867 and debuted at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music on Dec. 20, 1870.

About 10 yards in front of the painting is an interactive kiosk that explains the painting’s history and allows visitors to focus in on certain historically important aspects of the battle scene. For instance, the kiosk explains that Rothermel’s deliberate perspective puts the viewer 125 yards from the copse of trees just below Cemetery Ridge in an area of the battle line known as “the Angle,” a jog in the stone wall defended by the Philadelphia Brigade. The viewer is facing the Union line, a perspective that Rothermel thought was important in depicting the Union’s repulse of Confederate forces.

The artist did painstaking research on the battle, interviewing participants of high and low rank, and some of his early sketches and maps are on display nearby. While he went out of his way to get faces and uniforms right, he decided to include critical leaders and events that happened over several days rather than to capture a single moment. So, for example, he included Gen. Meade, who was not at the scene of the battle, and action on Little Round Top that had actually taken place the day before Pickett’s Charge.

A year after the painting was completed, the work traveled to Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago, where it was damaged in the Great Chicago Fire. It was carried back to Pittsburgh, where Rothermel had it relined, and was later shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Afterward it hung in Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park for nearly 20 years before being relocated to the new Executive Building in Harrisburg in 1894. It found its current home in 1964.

Hanging alongside Rothermel’s signature piece are four 5½-by-3-foot companion pieces by the artist, all part of that $25,000 commission and painted from 1871 to 1872.

“Charge of the Louisiana Tigers and Repulse” takes place at sunset on the second day of the battle and shows the Fifth Maine Battery raking the left flank of the Confederate assault on East Cemetery Hill. “Pennsylvania Reserves at Plum Run” takes place on the evening of the second day and depicts the counterattack into the “Valley of Death” below Little Round Top. “Battle of the First Day and Death of Reynolds” shows Union Gen. John Reynolds in the foreground on a stretcher, dying from the head wound he suffered at Herbst Wood, a geographic feature in the center of the painting that was crucial in delaying the Confederate advance. And “Repulse of General Johnson’s Division by General Geary’s White Star Division” depicts the seven-hour battle for Culp’s Hill, a piece of strategic high ground that was basically the last thrust by the Confederate forces against the Union right flank. Gen. Geary is on the right side of the painting under the White Star flag, amid his troops, who stretch from the bottom of the canvas and up the right side. Across the top two thirds of the painting is the futile advance by the Confederate forces.

One final work, Rothermel’s “Charge of Pennsylvania Reserves in Plum Run,” was commissioned by the adjutant general’s office in 1881. It is larger than the other four paintings and shows the battle from behind the Union lines. Several Union officers are depicted on horseback and on foot, pointing their swords—and their men—toward the Confederate lines, which are blurry in the distance, partially obscured by smoke but visible enough to show that the Union forces are decimating the Confederates.

An impressive work in an impressive show.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

Liberace and Christopher Guest

LiberaceGlad Comcast screwed up my install and I have six months of HBO for free.

Looking forward to the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, tonight, starring Michael Douglas (no, that’s not a typo).

I’m also looking forward to this, from Christopher Guest.

Not only does he write and act in great satire, he gets to go home to Jamie Lee Curtis every night.

New Gig

NarlinsI’ve started writing for an auto web site, Web2Carz.

It’s a great site for car reviews and lifestyle pieces on music and travel.

I’ll be writing for the Lifestyle page (or, since it’s online, I guess that’s the Lifestyle Tab).

Here is my first piece for them, about how to have fun in New Orleans without stepping foot on Bourbon Street (well, almost).

He Ate What Was Put in Front of Him

SparkyIf you would have walked into a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1971 and asked to see the small-business accounts manager and told him that you wanted to start a cable television channel that was about nothing but food, you would have been shown the door (and not too politely). Today, of course, food seems to have consumed us all (pun intended).

But before the Food Network and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, there were newspapers and magazines and the people who filled their pages with reviews, recipes and profiles. One of the most intrepid chroniclers of food – where it came from, what it was supposed to taste like, and where it was going – was Ray Sokolov. He was my editor at The Wall Street Journal; he is my friend today. His new book is “Steal the Menu.”
The premise was pretty simple: For the past 40 years, Ray has been at the advent of nearly every new development – good and bad – that made our food culture what it is today.

Today, we take for granted a lineup of star chefs transmuting remarkable ingredients of the highest quality into novel dishes tangentially based on the dusty classics. The closest America had to a TV top chef then was Julia Child performing coq au vin for an audience of home cooks eager to learn to make French dishes correctly. Julia’s breezy, offhand manner enticed a generation away from the stultifying distortions of the home economists who ruled at most food magazines and newspaper food pages. She was also an authentic counterforce to “continental” menus pushing fancy food with no roots anywhere except possibly American hotel kitchens, flaming steak Diane and butter- oozing veal francese.
Forty years later, after the ancien régime in French cuisines gave way to the nouvelle cuisine of Michel Guérard, the Troisgros brothers and Paul Bocuse, and then passed its baton to a global network of master chefs, Daniel Boulud, a classically trained French chef, presides with star quality over a small empire of inventive restaurants that bear his name. The meal I ate in 2010 at his informal Bar Boulud was a model of a modern meal, of a cosmopolitan way of eating that has spread from Paris all across America, and to Lima and Manila as well.
That lunch at Bar Boulud was typical of the radical sophistication of our bustling creative food scene, with its nonclassic ingredients (arugula), lighthearted plating (boudin noir— blood sausage— sculpted into three squat cones), the non-French waitstaff of both sexes, wine from what General de Gaulle might have called “all azimuths.” And yet all of these radical departures can be traced to changes in French restaurant kitchens that radiated around the world and have now been absorbed by “native” cooks from Iceland to Patagonia.”

After growing up in post-war Detroit, graduating from the Cranbrook School and Harvard, and bumming around Europe on a culinary odyssey, Ray became, at a very young age, the food critic at The New York Times. He then wrote books and columns, most notably his dispatches for Natural History magazine on the ethnography of food. This led to his outstanding book, “Why We Eat What We Eat,” which explains how the Age of Discovery impacted cuisine, from the Philippines to Puerto Rico to Pisa. In his final professional days, he was the Leisure and Arts editor at The Wall Street Journal, where he encouraged young journalists like Amy Gamerman, Julie Salamon, Heidi Waleson and me. It was a remarkable career, punctuated by remarkably engaging writing.

If I have a criticism of “Steal the Menu,” it’s that there’s not enough Ray in there. What I mean by that is that he’s incredibly modest about his impact on the food world.

My personal intersection with this historical arc has not been casual. I was in the middle of various revolutions in food, recording them as a journalist, participating in them as a cook and eater.
I had a front seat for all the action: the nouvellisation of French and then other cuisines; the role of television, starting with Julia Child on PBS and exploding into the era of the “top” chef; the emergence of the foodie, educated by cheap jet travel and ever-more-reliable cookbooks; the globalization of food ideas (fusion) and ingredients; the rise of politically correct notions of proper nutrition and ecologically sensitive food production and transport.
My life in food encompassed all of these developments, with a privileged professional three years of residence abroad, and very extensive gastronomic travel from 2006 to 2010, while I was writing a biweekly restaurant column for the Wall Street Journal.
So, in this memoir, I’ll be filtering the unprecedentedly fast-moving history of food since World War II through my direct encounters with it. However, I cannot and would not want to claim to have been a primary actor in the making of these events and trends. I was there, and I ate what was put in front of me.”

Certainly, it could be argued that others could have stood where Ray stood – in nouvelle kitchens in California witnessing the genesis of the locavore movement; lining up outside the mysterious Szechuan restaurants that began to appear in New York in the early 1970s and forever changed the way we thought about Chinese food; and, perhaps most importantly, the truly revolutionary bistros in the outskirts of Paris and scattered across rural France that literally changed the way we think about food. But no one else could have seen what Ray saw, and reported it the way that he did.

Indeed, quite a few people knew by the late 1960s that an upstart young chef in a classic chef’s toque named Paul Bocuse was literally changing the definition of classic French cuisine in his little revolutionary outpost near Lyon. But it was Ray Sokolov who booked a table “at a little place called Le Pot au Feu, in a gritty Paris suburb, Asnières, where another young chef, Michel Guérard, was creating a sensation with radically simplified versions of traditional food.”

I sat in the tiny dining area of Le Pot au Feu for a meal of staggering flavors concealed in dishes of deceptive informality. At another lunch, I ate old- fashioned dishes at Alain Senderens’s L’Archestrate. Some of them, like the fourteenth-century eel stew called brouet d’anguille, had been resuscitated from the earliest days of French cooking. Senderens also revived the intricate classic treatment of head cheese, tête de veau en tortue, and invented a subtle treatment of turnips in cider with a puree of celery on the side.
Paul Bocuse was the most theatrical of these Young Turks, as a person and in the kitchen. He served me a whole sea bass encased in puff pastry that looked like a scaly fish, with a tomato-tinged béarnaise sauce, what Escoffier called sauce Choron. But it was Michel Guérard’s twenty- seat hole-in-the-wall that served the most forward- looking food.
A slice of foie gras des Landes, fresh foie gras from southwest France prepared in the restaurant, had arrived entirely unadorned, without aspic or truffle or even parsley. But this foie gras was of a smoothness and puissance to stand alone. For those who wanted something more varied as a first course, there was the salade gourmande— deeply green beans mixed with slices of truffle, fresh foie gras, chunks of artichoke bottom and an evanescent vinaigrette dressing.
Guérard’s ris de veau Club des Cent presented a sweetbread in one imposing lobe chastely topped with matchstick truffle slices and a clear, light brown sauce.
Some days chicken, some days duck came in a highly reduced sauce made from chicken stock, veal stock and wine vinegar. The light but intense sauces, the minimalist plating, the hyperdramatic focus on a single ingredient, the ironic refurbishing of cliché classics (fricassee, green bean salad)— all the elements of the new cuisine were there at Le Pot au Feu, the future ready to roll out and roar.

Forty years later, Ray intrepid sense of what’s right and wrong with a dish hasn’t waned. If anything, it has only gotten keener with experience.

In 2009, I got a chance to see a real top chef invent a dish, and it was a very different, careful improvisation. With over twenty Michelin stars worldwide, Joël Robuchon is arguably the planet’s most successful restaurateur. Three of his many branches have the red guide’s highest ranking, three stars: one in Macao, one in Tokyo and one in Las Vegas, in the MGM Grand Hotel.
Four times a year, Robuchon visits Nevada to redesign the menu at this fabulous, small pinnacle of gastronomy. I arranged to meet him there and watched him tweak a crab recipe for his new spring menu.
The world’s most decorated chef was drinking a Diet Coke as he entered the immaculate kitchen, followed by a small entourage of underchefs. He inspected a small circular tin of osetra caviar and then pulled apart an Alaskan king crab the size of a puppy.
“Where is the coral?” he asked, setting off nervous scurrying and whispers. Coral, the red, deeply flavorful female crab’s egg mass he needs for the sauce, was found in another big crab. The kitchen had previously prepared cooked meat from king, Dungeness and blue crabs, which Robuchon tasted in different mixtures, pulling out samples with his fingers. In the end, he decided on a mélange of king and Dungeness.
“For me it’s all about the texture,” he said.
The new spring menu was centered on shellfish.
“Americans really love shellfish,” he told me, as if to congratulate me and more than 300 million other compatriots for our good taste.
He went on to build his new dish by layering the crab mixture with strips of yellow-brown Santa Barbara sea urchin, which he extracted from a neat pile. The crustaceans were only the beginning.
Minced raw white cauliflower was also a major ingredient. It would lurk within the crabmeat mix as a stealth carrier of crunch, which Robuchon said he believes makes this dish a no-grain marine cousin of tabbouleh, the ancient Near Eastern salad based on bulgur wheat and mint. To carry the edible metaphor all the way, the chef added mint to his crab creation.
The diner who ordered this crab- and-cauliflower “tabbouleh” at the start of the 2009 spring menu received a small caviar tin, inside which only black osetra eggs were visible. But when he attacked them with his fork, the action unearthed a chamber symphony of crab, cauliflower and mint, the faux tabbouleh concealed under the caviar emerged, and everything merged on the tongue in the most unexpected and beautiful way.
“I just had this idea in my head,” Robuchon explained, without, of course, explaining anything.

It’s a great book. I encourage you to read it. You won’t be disappointed.