Eat + Drink

You couldn’t keep our food critic on the farm after she got a taste of the world

Updated: 2008-12-20T12:27:22Z

By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA

The Kansas City Star

Regular readers of Lauren Chapin’s restaurant reviews and food columns knew she grew up on a farm near Weston, where seasonal eating was simply a rhythm of life.

Her family, friends and co-workers will gather Saturday to celebrate her life and her contributions to food journalism.

A few days before her death last week at age 50 of a brain aneurysm, she shared with Star readers that the stuffed-and-mounted animal decor of a Smithville steakhouse didn’t bother her a bit. She was, after all, a proud member of a “hunter-gatherer clan.”

Like her grandmother, she raised chickens. Like her mother, she put up preserves. She was an accomplished cook and had begun to teach her daughters Brenna, 16, and Maren, 14, how to cook.

By contrast, I grew up in suburbia. Unlike her, I had never dug in the dirt for potatoes, hunted in the woods for morels, harvested grapes or considered lard an essential pantry staple.

Lauren’s keen and adventurous palate first made an impression on me during a wine class we attended many years ago. As we stuck our noses in our glasses, master sommelier Doug Frost coaxed us to come up with descriptive words or phrases to describe the liquid sensation.

“It smells like linseed oil,” Lauren blurted out.

When have you smelled linseed oil?” I asked incredulously.

“My grandmother used linseed oil,” she replied.

Later we signed up for a basic foods preparation class at Johnson County Community College, where we learned how to prepare the classic sauces and convert recipes to banquet proportions. The lab part of the class required us to stand on our feet for hours and work faster than any home cook can imagine.

As the semester passed, Lauren continued to warily eye the gleaming, razor-sharp chef knives, while I was intimidated by the high-powered gas ovens, having cooked only on electric at that point. But, in the end, we were relieved to earn the highest grades in the class.

After Lauren became The Star’s restaurant critic in 2000, we always shared a room at the annual Association of Food Journalists’ conferences, an avenue that continued to deepen our knowledge of food.

While in San Francisco, Lauren managed to snag us a late reservation at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and, to our surprise, Alice was eating with her daughter, Fanny, and a few of Fanny’s friends.

In Vancouver we hopped a bus and headed for Little India to eat kulfi and buy bangle bracelets.

In Puerto Rico we developed an abiding love for the mojito after touring Casa Bacardi. In Las Vegas, shortly after 9/11, we ignored warnings to report to the airport three hours early, opting instead to check out the restaurants at the Venetian and nearly missing our flight.

In Boston we spent a day eating our way through the Italian North End.

Just last month we shared designer margaritas and listened to music in Houston.

As news of her death spread, food friends from across the country called to offer condolences and share their own memories of Lauren. Kathleen Purvis, food editor of the Charlotte Observer, made me laugh through the tears of loss.

“Lauren announced at lunch that she was trying to find a moonshine source,” Kathleen recalled in an e-mail. “And one of the servers immediately hollered out that she had one. Proud moment for a Carolinian, I can tell you.”

That same curiosity for what made the food or drink of a particular region special also powered Lauren’s passion for all things local. From top-flight restaurants to mom-and-pop joints, she delighted in writing about farmer-chef relationships, and her disdain for instant mashed potatoes, limp lettuce or “prefab” food was something she never tried to hide.

But when it was time to write a review, Lauren was always aware of the power that was attached to her job as restaurant critic. She frequently performed an “autopsy” on the meal she had eaten the night before: She’d open up her plastic foam containers and place the food on a flowery china salad plate she kept in a top desk drawer.

After reheating the remnants in a nearby microwave, if something was particularly delicious, she would stand up, walk over to my cubicle and stand over me with her fork poised to make a landing. “Here, taste this,” she’d say.

If I agreed it was delicious, she’d coo, “Isn’t that good! This guy’s really got talent.”

Never mind that sometimes she managed to dupe me into tasting an entrée that had gone terribly wrong, although I assume most of the really bad stuff went to feed her chickens.

Sometimes we’d try to figure out how the chef had lost his or her way. A few times she actually got a thank-you note or phone call for a negative review. One manager told her it was just the sort of ammunition he needed to motivate the kitchen staff and revamp the menu.

Always the student, for her first review of a Brazilian restaurant, she called on my husband, Otavio, a native of Brazil, for a crash course in feijoada and fried yucca.

And when she was reviewing Jasper’s Restaurant and she knew my grandmother, Celeste Anello, was visiting from Colorado, she invited us to join her for dinner. She needed a “real” Italian grandma to consult with about the sauce. My grandmother, an exacting cook, was only too honored to give her two cents.

Lauren had a knack for making friends through food. Through the years she wound up sharing the occasional meal with a rabbi, a plumber and an NFL player. No joke.

Thousands of local readers who never met her felt like they knew her through her regular columns and food stories. Her work contributed to the Food section’s national recognition in recent years, including best section awards from the James Beard Foundation in 2004 and from the Association of Food Journalists in 2007 and 2008.

But it was Lauren’s Cream of the Crop column, which was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2005, that truly captured her heart and palate. Her folksy snippets of life growing up on the farm gave the column a special charm.

Since her death, I have taken some comfort in re-reading many of those columns, and I can still hear her voice — a voice full of passion for the next sip of wine or bite of something truly divine.

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