Food & Drink Eating ketchup with de Rothchilds

Liz Smith 'Dishing' on food, high and low, and famous friends

Liz Smith has eaten kidney pie with Elizabeth Taylor, been ill on Tex-Mex with Elaine Kaufman of the famous New York restaurant Elaine's, and breakfasted with the late Malcolm Forbes, who brought his Fabergé egg collection to the table. Her latest book, Dishing, does supply a number of recipes - Katharine Hepburn's brownies for one - but it is less cookbook, or real food writing, than a rambling tribute to the rich and famous with whom Smith has broken bread over the years. As one might expect from the famous gossip columnist, it is a tell-all from culinary and entertaining prowess to predilections and bad manners, written in the same informal, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes catty voice of her columns. Texans may delight in finding that Smith, born in Fort Worth in 1932, never got over her Southern roots and, even though she may dedicate a chapter to tooling around Martha's Vineyard looking for the best fried clams, she always comes back to her chicken-fried steak. At one point, Barbara Walters grows so weary of hearing about C.F.S. that she throws a party in Smith's honor and serves the dish.

The most entertaining parts of the book are the chapters about the people Smith got to know well, which benefit from not only her intimate access to the inaccessible star, author, or restaurateur, but also her true enjoyment of that person. My favorite is a chapter about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, wherein the author reveals the contents of the couple's refrigerator (Dinty Moore canned stew, Sara Lee cakes, cream-style corn, V8 Juice ... ), deconstructs their never-ending meals and comestible-centered banter, and comes to the conclusion that the Taylor-Burtons were hedonists, whose joy was not "married sexual excess" but food.

By Liz Smith
Simon & Schuster
$30.95, 240 pages
ISBN: 0-7432-5156-3
In a chapter about Nora Ephron's dinner parties, Smith is perhaps more admiring and less voyeuristic because the two are friends. She describes a meal in which Ephron served sweet Château d'Yquem Sauterne with roast beef, because Prince Youssoupof, in a book by Jeremiah Tower, had said the two, taken together, were the "epitome of decadence." Ephron was then given the chapter and allowed to add her comments, which are sometimes quite contrary, taking her friend to task over an invented quote and an allegedly re-gifted bottle of wine.

The books low points come in the later chapters, in which Smith seems to run out of steam. For example, in a short chapter entitled "Do Veggies Lack a Sense of Purpose?" Smith admits to not caring for vegetables and then goes on to fill the pages with quotes and dull bits of history. Did Smith's editor force her to write about vegetables? One wishes she hadn't bothered. Similarly, an entire chapter dedicated to preparing and giving toasts, presented in numbered bullets, felt a little too how-to.

So sue her, as Liz would say. She is 83 and probably entitled to pass on some friendly advice. One can only imagine how this little tidbit on hospitality, handed down from her mother (who made Smith and her siblings eat watermelon in the bathtub), must have helped the Grand Dame of Dish: "The best-mannered person in the room is the one who never makes anyone else feel uncomfortable."

By Susan Pagani


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