The Gutless Gourmet

High School Nights Bite

Manhattan press events are like so many proms: the bold and beautiful dance all night long, and the rest of us hug the walls. So why does James Beard Award-winner David Leite keep pulling on his blazer?

Even though I’ve been out of high school 28 years, a few times a month I still attend the dances. Not in my dreams—where I’m naked, leaning against a wall, covering my crotch, which isn’t too hard to do because for some ungodly reason my apparatus has shrunk to the size a nubbin—but in real life, where mercifully I’m fully clothed. The most recent dance was last night. You’d think after countless times of flirting with self-inflicted degradation I would’ve learned. But no. The cheap thrill of celebrity proved too much.

It starts yesterday when I get an email from a friend, Karen Montero, and attached is an invitation:

Please join us for an evening with
Famed author and wine raconteur
Jay McInerney
8:30 to 11:00 p.m.

Apparently, McInerney is to talk with Peter Gago, the chief winemaker of Penfolds Wines, at Nicole’s, the restaurant downstairs in fashion designer Nicole Farhi’s flagship store in New York City. (That should have been the first red flag: fashion.) “I’ll be there,” I reply to Karen, thinking how perfectly this will work. I like McInerney, and, well, I just got off a two-week, wine-soaked tour of the Douro Valley in Portugal. My appetite is whetted for anything with 13 percent alcohol.

I flip through my closet looking for something to wear. I remember seeing McInerney at the James Beard Awards last year, and he had on a sensible blazer and slacks. Stylish, but nothing too weird. I pull out a pair of jeans just worn enough on the seat and thighs to look cool but not too faded to pass me off as a fashion zombie—but if I’m to be honest, I really don’t have a choice. I have one pair of jeans, and they’re worn perfectly because I refuse to buy another pair until I lose weight. I tuck in a pink dress shirt but leave the sleeves unbuttoned; I seem to recall seeing that in GQ or Esquire. I shoulder on a blue blazer, slip my feet into a pair of square-toed, dark-brown shoes that The One Who Brings Me Love, Joy, And Happiness made me buy to look halfway decent at parties and funerals. But the mirror ruins the effect: My jeans are about an inch too short, and I can see my blue socks. I’m counting on the dim lighting.

I arrive at 8:15 p.m., 15 minutes before the event is scheduled to start. And I’m the first one there. Shit. Just like walking into the gym sophomore year, the mirror ball tossing off a shower of sparks to “Afternoon Delight” for me and the Sasquatch from the A.V. department. I try to back out up the stairs, but the sylphs setting up see me, and I’m compelled to say hello and explain I’ll come back in a few minutes. I need to get cigarettes.

I don’t even smoke.

Half an hour later, 20 people have appeared. Some mill, others gather in knots. All young, all chic. One guy, wearing spray-painted-on jeans, has thighs as thin as my biceps. He’s perfected the slack stance, in which his stomach, or what should be a stomach, caves into his back, creating a hollow. Hip, bored, heroin-thin. Nearby a woman has on ridiculous white mini-boots with tassels. She reminds me of Joy Kennedy, one of the majorettes in marching band, who, by dint of popularity, had too many pictures in the senior yearbook. A woman with a whippet face points to the boots. “I love them,” I see her bony jaw yammer. Majorette Joy bounces on her toes and giggles. In the corner a normal-looking guy, alone, nurses a glass of wine, obviously uncomfortable. That could be me, I think, but I ignore him. I focus on Majorette Joy and the Whippet. I practice devastatingly droll opening lines to approach them.

The reason isn’t noble, I know, and I’m ashamed, but put us side by side, and I have the higher DQ—Desirability Quotient. He makes me look better.”Which one’s the author?” asks an emaciated Asian man with bad skin who has sidled up to me.

“He’s not here yet.”

Awkward pause. I play with the buttons on my jacket.

“I always promise myself I’ll never go to these things alone, and yet…” I offer by way of explanation as to why I’ve stood in one place for 15 minutes, as though some invisible hand is gripping my spine.

“No date, huh?”

What I want to say is: Yes, I have a date, and have had one for the past 13 years, if you need to know. It’s just that one of our cats is spurting liquid from both ends of her five-pound body, and someone had to stay home and chase her with a wet washcloth lest the polished-cotton sofa gets soiled—but I think better of it and reply, “Nope. No date.”

Could this guy be feeling me out? Given his pockmarks, rumpled suit, and too-small glasses, chances are he’s alone, too, and looking for a wingman to help him survive the evening. Which is why I like him. The reason isn’t noble, I know, and I’m ashamed, but put us side by side, and I have the higher DQ—Desirability Quotient. He makes me look better.

Suddenly, a tall brunette in a tight-fitting knit top and riding pants steps up to us. She leans in, and I think she’s going to ask for directions or a light, but she kisses my wingman. What? Then it hits: She’s his date. This gorgeous creature is his date. I watch them walk downstairs without even saying goodbye. He looks up, so does she, then he points. A wave of humiliation prickles across my face. But I follow the line his hand makes; it’s not me they’re looking at, but a dress mannequin hovering high over the bar—just three feet in front of me. It’s as if I don’t exist. As if we never talked.

Cameras flash in another part of the room, and I look to see if McInerney has arrived. But it’s only paparazzi taking pictures of the crowd. Probably for the “Intelligencer” section of New York. Damn it! I want to be in the fucking “Intelligencer” section of New York. And if I were down there, I tell myself, maybe I could be in the fucking “Intelligencer” section of New York; maybe I’d be one of those half-lidded, crocked people in a collage, with McInerney front and center; maybe they’d print a deathless quote of mine, right alongside my face, that’s so frigging good, everyone would be repeating and taking credit for it.

“You didn’t have your hand up, asswipes,” I hear myself saying. “That’s the universal sign for hailing a cab.” But I don’t feel any better. I try again. “Asswipes!I’m finally about to go downstairs when I see Karen get out of a cab. Relieved to finally know someone, I walk toward her, but an impeccably dressed man the size of a linebacker, with so much confidence it’s advertised across the back of his Italian suit, cuts in front and extends his hand. They shake. I can’t compete with Armani and Eau Savage. I huddle in the corner until they pass, then I walk toward Fifth Avenue. My balls ache with fury: I’m mad at McInerney because it’s 9:10 and he’s still not there, and I’m pissed at Karen for shaking that guy’s hand and not seeing me, and I’m furious at that guy because of his swagger—and the fact he knew how to wear a suit so well. Then there’s Whippet Woman and Majorette Joy, sucking down wine, laughing it up with anyone who’ll talk back. Social whores!

On the corner of 60th and Fifth, I’m caught in a blare of blue-white headlights. I defend my eyes with my hand as I cross to the other side to hail a cab. From behind me comes: “Aw, come on, man, we were here first.” A drunk couple weaves back and forth, silhouetted by the Plaza. Finally, someone I can best.

“You didn’t have your hand up, asswipes,” I hear myself saying. “That’s the universal sign for hailing a cab.” But I don’t feel any better. I try again. “Asswipes!” I just feel worse. Awful. I let them have the cab, and I walk home.

“What are you doing back so soon?” The One asks, washcloth in hand, when I open the door.

“Wasn’t much fun,” I mumble. I toss my jacket on the desk, and, like I did in 10th grade, go into the bedroom and slam the door. Lying in bed, I make a promise to lose 70 pounds, get filthy rich, have my own TV talk show—all in time for my 30th high school reunion in two years.


TMN Contributing Writer David Leite has stated a little too emphatically that he is not a food snob. (But we have it on good authority that while other people have moldering hot dog buns and withering mesclun in their fridge, he has been know to harbor lobes of foie gras, exotic mushrooms, and bottles of champagne.) He’s quick to note that he loves plain ole mac and cheese, but he was overseen recently pish-toshing at the waitress until the chef agreed to drizzle it with truffle oil. He’s not above a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish, though. He’s also the publisher of the James Beard Award-winning website, Leite’s Culinaria, and the author of the upcoming cookbook The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors From Europe’s Western Coast. More by David Leite