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In new memoirs, food writers serve up stories about their beat

[NEW YORK] If critics' faces are ever put on postage stamps, Adam Platt's will be a collectible. The longtime food critic for New York magazine, Platt is tall, bald, large and pale — he resembles a cherubic, sensitive-souled butcher from an imaginary Hitchcock film. (His brother is actor Oliver Platt.)

Real food critics tend to shy away from cameras; sometimes they wear disguises. Five years ago, Mr Platt decided to dispense with the pretense that he wasn't recognized in the restaurants he reviews (he's unmissable), and he allowed himself to be photographed for his magazine's cover. He loomed from the city's newsstands.

The best thing about Mr Platt's new memoir, "The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony," is the way he dispenses with pretense in general. He does not pretend, even though he knows a great deal, to be a super-foodie. He's maniacally self-deprecating. He serves good stories because he doesn't over-batter them.

His father was a diplomat posted to Taiwan and Hong Kong and elsewhere, and Mr Platt and his similarly hungry brothers grew up devouring ramen and sushi and Mongolian barbecue, delicious stuff most Americans wouldn't know much about for decades. He graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and drifted into journalism.

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Mr Platt comes from a venerable East Coast establishment family. This memoir affords a peek into the life of a man who seems to arrive at a different summerhouse, packed with good art and faded first editions of novels, in each chapter. Mr Platt wears all this lightly, too. He seems aware that, when the revolution comes, no one will pound on his door immediately — but that he'd better flee Gotham, armed with smoked fish, within a week or so.

Mr Platt began writing for New York in 2000 and replaced Gael Greene as the magazine's weekly food critic. (Ms Greene slept with Elvis; her memoir is sexier than Mr Platt's.) He had a perch from which to observe the changes about to roil the food world: the toppling of the French-chef hegemony, the rise of egalitarian figures like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, and the arrival of food blogs and listicles and Instagram and what Mr Platt calls "clickbait food crazes." Mr Platt surfs these waves without being crushed or much bothered by them.

One way to judge a memoir is by how well the author writes about people other than him or herself. There's a lovely and extended homage here to Falstaffian food writer and historian Josh Ozersky, a friend of Mr Platt's who died in 2015.

The reason to come to "The Book of Eating" is Mr Platt's eloquence and wit about what being a professional glutton does to his body and to his family. He gets gout. He gobbles "horse-pill-sized tablets of antacid." He begins to wear the kind of "expandable webbed leather belt favored by rotund country club golfers, which grew and shrank with the size of one's trousers." He worries about hitting 300 pounds, which Oliver calls the "blimp line." Umpteen diets are recounted.

There are other hazards. In Tokyo he eats the engorged sperm sac (a delicacy, he is told) of the potentially poisonous fugu fish. His tongue tingles; he fears that he is dying. He gets "pork bloat," whatever that is. At one meal someone accidentally spits a tiny speck of gristle into his eye, and his vision is blurred for weeks. He's often absent at night, and his wife, who is over the whole gonzo eating scene, works to maintain a semblance of regularity in their daughters' lives.

Sometimes this book is too casual for its own good. Mr Platt includes sections of essays he's published previously ("Here's one I made earlier," as the TV chefs say), not all of which fit. Once in a while, the writing goes on autopilot. Nothing is really at stake. But his charm lashes this succession of small plates together.

Mr Platt grew up wealthy and coddled. Ed Levine, author of "Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption," grew up on Long Island, New York, under the Idlewild (now JFK) flight path. His working-class parents were, he writes, "card-carrying Communists." Their son Ed grew up to be a very hungry boy.

Mr Levine is well-known in the food world as the founder of Serious Eats, a celebrated site defined by his obsession with vernacular New York fare: things like pizza, burgers, hot dogs and bagels. Founded in 2006, the site would make stars of talents like J Kenji López-Alt, author of "The Food Lab," and pastry chef Stella Parks.

I've followed Mr Levine's food-writing career since it started, and if you gave me a bumper sticker that read "Ed Levine Is God," I'd slap it on my refrigerator. (Nora Ephron thought he was godlike too; she made him an extra in her food-world film "Julie & Julia.") His new memoir, though, is close to unreadable.

It's a business book more than it's a food book, and that's OK. Levine has a lot to say about the scramble for survival among the food sites and blogs of the aughts and teens. There's a fair amount to learn here about acquisitions and deal structuring and scaling up and monetizing content.

The problem with "Serious Eater" is that it has more clichés per page than nearly any book I've read. The same adjectives are repeated over and over again. He ingests "incomparable meatball parmigiana heroes," "incomparable catfish and hush puppies," an "incomparable pumpkin pie" and "incomparable brisket."

There's a butterscotch budino that "will change your life." There's an egg foo yong that will "change your life," too. In his earlier career as a music producer and promoter, he "produced life-changing shows." The number of times Levine is "blown away" will blow you away.

Clichés aren't always so bad. Susie Bright, who edited the Best American Erotica anthologies, once told me that the way to write a great sex scene is to scrupulously avoid clichés until you can't avoid them any longer. Then all you want are clichés.

That blew me away.

Publication Notes:

‘The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony'

By Adam Platt

Illustrated. 258 pages. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. US$27.99.

'Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption'

By Ed Levine

264 pages. Portfolio/Penguin. US$27.