Ruth Reichl, a writer, and editor was the first to report the passing of Gael Greene, the “insatiable” restaurant critic who for 40 years helped to create New York Magazine’s coverage of food. Age-wise, she was 88.
Michigan native Greene, who had previously worked as a general assignment correspondent for the New York Post, was appointed the magazine’s critic in 1968, the same year it was established. Greene’s reviews gained notoriety for their passion, delivering insightful and humorous narratives along with ratings of the meal, in language that could gracefully shift between sensuous appreciation and brutal instrument.
“Le caneton smitane was tender, juicy, superbly flavored duck with a lovely sour cream sauce but our sweetbread addict found le ris de veau au champagne gross and unappetizing,” Greene wrote in a 1969 review of La Caravelle, in a story that opened with a four-paragraph treatise on New Yorkers’ warped psyche. “New York is a mecca for masochists,” she wrote. “It is the Atlantis of our masochist fantasies. How could we live anywhere else? We thrive on discomfort, frustration, and scorn.”
“She created an entirely fresh new voice, one that has never staled,” Michael Batterberry, editor and publisher of the now-defunct Food Arts magazine, told the New York Times in 2008. Of her reviews, the Times wrote: “When journalists questioned the florid tone of her reviews, Greene had a ready response: ‘The same sense that registers pleasure at the table measures the delights in bed: the eye, the nose, the mouth, the skin, the ear that records a whimper of joy or a crunch of a superior pomme frite.’”
New York Times in 1980
When she used the term “foodie” in a piece for the New York Times in 1980, Greene is frequently given credit for its widespread use. (She observed in 2012 that the word had subsequently been added to “everyone’s list of toxic words in food writing…
When I said it, it was a beautiful thing to be.”) Before quitting her position as a weekly critic to write the Insatiable Reviewer column for New York and contributing to her own website, Greene briefly worked as a restaurant critic for Crain’s New York Business and served as an advisor to Foodie.com after being dismissed by New York in 2008.
The memoir Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess, which the New York Times once called a “gustatory napkin-ripper,” highlighting Greene’s talent for fusing sensuality and food, was one of the five volumes that Greene wrote during the course of her decades-long career. (She also published two erotic novels; according to a Montreal Gazette feature, 1979’s Blue Skies, No Candy was “filled with culinary metaphors,” which Greene acknowledged was “totally unconscious.”)
Beyond the page, Greene’s legacy is widespread. Greene and James Beard founded Citymeals on Wheels, a nonprofit that raises money to deliver meals to elderly people who are housebound in New York City, in 1981. In its first year, the organization raised $35,000, and last year it served more than 2.7 million meals.
Nutritious meal at the door for them
“Gael Greene could not live with the idea that a city of such abundance and extraordinary food could not feed its oldest and most frail,” Marcia Stein, founding executive director of Citymeals on Wheels, said in a statement. “For four decades, she used her celebrity, creativity, and genius to make sure there would always be a nutritious meal at the door for them, every day of the year.” In 1992, she received the James Beard Foundation.
Gael Greene was born in Detroit, where her father ran a clothing store. She attended Central High School before enrolling at the University of Michigan after graduating in 1951 and She claimed that while she was an undergraduate, a year spent studying abroad in Paris reawakened her love of cuisine.
She worked as an investigative journalist for UPI and then the New York Post, doing things like pretending to be single and pregnant for a baby trafficking investigation. After her editor liked an article she wrote about chef Henri Soulé, she was promoted to food writer. Soon after the publication’s start in the fall of 1968, she was appointed food reporter.