Kenny Shopsin says Eat Me

I’d never heard of Shopsin’s General Store before, nor had I heard of Kenny Shopsin, but someone, somewhere in cyberspace recommended “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin” on last Tuesday (I know because that is the day I ordered it along with “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, recommended by @EthanSuplee).  I suspect it was someone on Twitter, but since I can’t find it(search sucks for posts older than a few hours), I don’t recall.  So, if you recommended the book on Twitter, thanks.

I had lived in New York, though not in the Village (not even in Manhattan, instead, I lived in Starrett City, Brooklyn, and Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island…but it was New York City, just not the glamorous part) during the 1981-82 time-frame.  Of course, I was also in 5th grade, so that kind of limited my worldliness factor.  Shopsin’s was open at that time, but still a corner grocery store.  The change to a restaurant wouldn’t happen until 1983, though I’m sure most of the items that convinced Kenny Shopsin to change to a restaurant were already being served (Egg Salad, Turkey, etc).  I’m sure if it was close enough to us, it’s the kind of place my mother would have liked.  I’m not sure how I would have been about it at the time, but probably because it was lacking spaceships or robots, I would have not been impressed.

Even today, I’m not sure I would “get it”.  Kenny would probably kick me out anyway.  I’m not even sure I would get a menu and a glass of water first.  He’d take one look and be like “GO!”.  Or maybe not.  I’ve at least seen the menu (and the new menu) and read the book, so perhaps I could avoid breaking one of the rules (discussed in the book and many web pages).  Some of the items sound quite appealing, with many that qualify as “interesting” bordering on “strange” and then some items I don’t think I’d like to try at all.

After reading the book, I find myself impressed with Kenny Shopsin’s philosophy.  Most people, including my wife, probably think he’s a jerk, ASSHOLE (yes in caps), or something worse (my wife had very negative words when I summarized some of the book, but I’m afraid I was too far out of context for her to empathize with the philosophy).  Having done food service for a large chain before, I can truly say that there were times that I would have liked to be able to tell someone to get out.  It reminds me of another book I read called “Ten Commandments of Business and How to Break Them” by William Fromm.  In Fromm’s book, he makes several cases for “firing” the customer when they are too difficult, demanding, or cost too much to keep.  It seems Kenny Shopsin has added a further conditions, but to be fair, it is HIS restaurant, and he doesn’t have to serve you.  I think I’m just nervous because I might not make the cut.

After reading the book, I have discovered there is also a film called “I Like Killing Flies” made in 2003 that is a documentary of the Shopsin’s restaurant.  I will have to get this, especially after reading several of the reviews.  For those of you who want a taste, read Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker piece called “Don’t Mention It“.  This piece precedes the movie by about a year or so, and the book by 6.

All in all, I liked the book, and found it to be a genuinely interesting read.  It was a bit disjointed, with recipes often interrupting the story in such a way to confuse the reader as to where the story picks back up.  Each of these interruptions has a purpose though, as the history of the recipe or an ingredient in the recipe or something about the recipe will tie into the narrative at that point.  There are various pictures throughout the book depicting various knick-knacks, signs and family/store history.  Contrasted to many celebrity chefs (of which, I am sure he would be pissed to be compared to), Kenny Shopsin comes off like the crotchety guy who used to live down the street from you and shake his fist at you yelling “Whippersnappers!”, but in a genuine way.  Tony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Alton Brown and Tyler Florence also posses this genuine feel to me, but I’ve not spent any time with them personally to have a real enough view.  All in all, Shopsin is an interesting character, with a long and storied history.  It’s unfortunate that he didn’t share more stories of the restaurant and it’s famous patrons, but then again, it didn’t really seem like Shopsin treated them any different.  To him a customer is family, and he seems pretty private.  I recommend the book, but I don’t recommend getting the red-eye to JFK and trying to go to Shopsin’s.  You might not get to eat.

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