Northside SF
An Unlikely Hero in the Gastronomic Trenches
Johnny Apple and his unlimited expense account

The late R.W. Apple Jr. is another Unlikely Hero in the Gastronomic Trenches. Here’s why he gets the nod.

Several years ago, I discovered R.W. Apple Jr., the New York Times foreign correspondent and political reporter known to friends as Johnny Apple. I kept seeing his byline on weighty stories from around the world. What a life, I thought. Then I discovered that R.W. Apple Jr. not only had a nice way with words but a nice way with life. And the Apple story got even better. Fortunately, he not only wrote the news from far-flung battlefields and political back rooms, but because of his unbounded enthusiasm for food and wine, he wrote about this zesty passion as well.

When I finally saw a photograph of Johnny Apple, I knew he was a winner. He was an ample man – remember, he loved good food and wine – nicely rounded but not corpulent, with some good color on his cheeks and a satisfied twinkle in his eyes. 

He worked for the New York Times for 40 years as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, Iran and the Soviet Bloc, was a Times bureau chief in Saigon, Lagos, Nairobi, London, and Moscow, and covered 10 U.S. presidential elections. He died in 2006 at 71.

And if that distinguished career and lifestyle still needed an extra boost, it was confirmed when I read somewhere that in his small black traveling bag, always ready for instant departure, he carried a peppermill. Now that, I thought, is my kind of guy.

It was obvious that during his career as what we used to call an “ace” journalist, Johnny Apple managed to sneak off once in a while to dine – sometimes grandly, sometimes modestly, but always splendidly.

Then, when he set aside his life in the fast lane of mover-and-shaker New York Times correspondents, the newspaper did a most honorable thing. It rewarded Johnny Apple with a monumental expense account and let him travel around, eat whatever and wherever he chose too, and write about it for the pages of the Times or elsewhere. And Johnny Apple did a lot of eating.

When reading Far Flung and Well Fed, Johnny Apple’s last book, I made a discovery that shook me up a bit. In an essay on the Asian restaurants in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, he said, “The climax to a memorable week in the gastronomic trenches …” and he went on to recall when he and friends sampled several Asian culinary outposts in one heroic afternoon.

“Gastronomic trenches,” Johnny Apple wrote; I thought I owned that phrase. I’ve been writing about unlikely heroes (and heroines) in the gastronomic trenches for some time. I suppose the phrase rolled off my tongue and onto the pages of Northside San Francisco because it was just so good.

I never met Johnny Apple, but I wish I had. I would have loved to eat with him. My guess is he would be honored to know I am using his phrase “gastronomic trenches” and proclaiming him one of my unlikely heroes therein. How can you not like a guy who, when writing about Philly Cheese Steaks and how to order them in Philadelphia, said, “If you say, ‘Whiz, with,’ as you should, your sandwich will come with grilled onions and Cheez Whiz ... ‘[w]ithout,’ meaning ‘hold the onions,’ sounds subversive to me.”

If you are a similar Johnny Apple devotee, you probably know that his favorite restaurant was the Parisian bistro Chez L’Ami Louis. For his 70th birthday in 2005, Apple decided to throw himself a big birthday party. He invited those he counted as close friends over his many journalistic years. Yes, the party would be held in Paris at Chez L’Ami Louis, which opened in 1924. One close friend who flew from New York to Paris for the occasion was writer Calvin Trillin – himself an unlikely hero in the gastronomic trenches. Trillin wrote about the experience and quoted a guest who told him, “It’s my understanding that Apple simplified what could have been a terribly difficult choice by telling them to just bring everything.” 

Everything included the bistro’s famed roast chicken, slabs of foie gras on toast; Spanish pata negra ham; escargot in their shells with the requisite butter, garlic and parsley; pommes Anna, sliced and layered potatoes, cooked in butter until they form a brown crusty cake – and on it went. Trillin commented that many guests went on an enforced diet beginning the following day, but not birthday boy Johnny Apple and his patient wife, Betsey. They journeyed to Alsace to give the charcroute garni a vote of confidence. That’s the kind of guy Johnny Apple was.

And with this Apple quote, I’ll rest my case: “It was more than 35 years ago when I first visited La Pyramide in Vienne, south of Lyon, the great restaurant where Fernand Point trained so many of today’s three-star French chefs. It was the formative years of my career as an eater, still relatively slim, as yet unacquainted with 12-course tasting menus and unstructured in the catechism of gourmandize.”


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