By Anne Johnson
NEW YORK CITY – As author Arthur Schwartz speaks to our small group of twenty-somethings, the drab, grey classroom seems to shrink away from his booming voice and devil-may-care attitude. While he elaborates to the NYU food writing class on his 40 years of experience in the business, it is clear that this man knows his food. “Food is an expression of art,” says Schwartz. If food is art, then Schwartz is the ultimate curator.
After his 18 year stint as the executive food editor at the New York Daily News, Schwartz wrote 4 books in 3 years. The research is the part he loves, not necessarily the finished the product. Schwartz claims he hated his 2004 book, New York City Food, until it landed itself on the bestseller list. As he sees it, only a fraction of the life-long historical research was ultimately included in the book. A fact the reader would never know.
With all of these literary accomplishments under his belt, the self-proclaimed “Food Maven” is moving away from the written word. So what is he up to now? “I’m trying to do as little as possible,” states Schwartz emphatically. Well that’s not entirely true.
While wrapping up his latest book, he teaches at a cooking school in Southern Italy, consults for a cooking exhibit at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, and continues to give food related lectures at venues across the country. Not to mention the hours he spends perfecting the hundreds of recipes he has acquired in kitchens all over the world.
Although they may seem disjointed, the many directions of Schwartz’s life run along one common theme. His varied experiences bring him invaluable knowledge into the history of cooking and food. Like a fine art exhibition, Schwartz’s collection of food knowledge is unique to him alone, making this gourmet the perfect author for historical cookbooks. Some of his many titles include Naples at Table (HarperCollins, 1998) Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2008).
In 2001, Schwartz met the Baronessa Cecelia Bellelli Bartta and together they started the “Cook at Seliano” cooking school at the Baronessa’s Tenuta Seliano. This farm also acts as an inn, taking in guests who are studying on one of the four annual week-long sessions. His latest book, The Southern Italian Table, is based on his experiences with the local Italian fare and his exposure to the cuisine due to the location of the school. And so his collection grows.
With one look at Schwartz’s website, thefoodmaven.com, it is clear that this food expert’s interest lies more with the history of food rather than with the food itself (although savory bites are not far behind). “I’m more interested in history than I am in food . . . I guess sex is in there too somewhere,” he says with a wry smile.
Today’s restaurant scene does not provide Schwartz with much inspiration. “The food isn’t that interesting anymore because it’s very formulaic,” he says. “It’s all very predictable.” But he sees a change coming on due to current economic affairs. Restaurants are “giving people more options,” says Schwartz. Portions are shrinking and so are the prices.
Where will this food professional find the next source for his growing collection of food facts? As he studies the Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times, Schwartz points out a listing for the Myanmar Baptist Church Fun Fair in Queens. Now that’s my kind of thing,” he says.