Don’t be fooled, Ed Levine’s book “Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption” is not a recipe book — although there is a sprinkling of them — but rather a memoir about his life leading up to the creation of Serious Eats, a comprehensive food-related website. His struggle to make it viable is one of triumphs and mistakes he made along the way. His tale of passion and steadfast dedication is an inspiration to us all — regardless of our own pursuits.
Levine, who has made a name for himself through his blogging as the “emperor of deliciousness,” “Nabob of Nosh,” and “Homer of Rugelach,” unfurls his journey with mouth-watering description by mouth-watering description of what he was eating at each step along the website’s journey to viability.
Levine starts his story as a tot, saying, “Right from the beginning, the course I charted was toward the most delicious food I could find … Very early on I understood that not all ingredients were created equal — and that a meal made of the right ones could be far more than the sum of its parts. In fifth grade my sandwich consisted of a quarter-pound of bologna I would get from Merkel’s, the butcher shop a block from my school, and a kaiser roll purchased at Rothenberg’s, the small grocery store around the corner from Merkel’s. It was simple: The bologna was better at Merkel’s, and the kaiser rolls were superior at Rothenberg’s. Convenience didn’t enter into the equation; serious deliciousness was the only thing that mattered.”
Early in his career, Levine pursued his other love, music, and made forays into the production end from a jazz club to records, to even a misguided outdoor music and food festival. But after a circuitous route through business school, advertising, and other arenas, he followed the siren call of food, deciding, just like that basically, to write a book about it. Having written dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, including for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, he authored “New York Eats: The Food Shopper’s Guide to the Freshest Ingredients, the Best Takeout and Baked Goods, and the Most Unusual Marketplaces in All of New York,” which covers where to discover the most authentic, best-prepared and best-priced eateries in the Big Apple.
“New York Eats” was an entrée to a seat at the table with some of the best-known food writers. But although the recognition was great, Levine didn’t make big bucks off the book, or its sequel. He made stabs at various food-related ventures, but in terms of the freelance hustle, he was tired of having to convince editors to write about what interested him, and the not-so-hot remuneration. Levine decided he wanted something of his own, and liberation from editorial control so he could write about what piqued his fancy: “In short order I concluded that the blogosphere was my passport to starting a business based on my passions.” Here, even when telling his wife Vicky the news that would end up changing the course of their life, Levine includes food as part of the ambiance. He reassures Vicky, “’This blogging thing is going to be great. Trust me,’ I told her one night, portioning out the roast pork egg foo yong, no sauce, I had brought home from my local Cuban-Chinese restaurant, La Dinastia. (This egg foo yong will change your life. It has a dark brown, slightly crunchy exterior that gives way to an eggy interior studded with sautéed onions and roast pork chunks).”
His website promoting “Serious Eater” foretells how this pursuit will unravel when he writes that this memoir is the “human story of how I crafted my dream job out of ambition and thin air — and exactly what it cost me. Let’s just say I had no idea what I was in for when I decided to spend a hundred bucks to start a food blog, and somehow convinced myself and my investors that I could make a business out of it.” And, thus began a nine-year journey with almost countless ups and downs and twists and turns.
Levine is nothing if not persistent — and resilient. He created, after a major betrayal by his first collaborators, a “tribe” of immensely talented co-workers whose ardent dedication matched his own. Certainly, interesting food-related content was no problem. What was and remained the issue all along the way was raising the necessary funds for his undercapitalized blog … and he tried everything to keep it afloat. While courting corporate investors, he also sought money from friends and family, including his own. This was where things got particularly dicey, as turning to the latter for investment put a strain on many relationships. Foremost were both his older brother Mike, who figures prominently in his life and the Serious Eats story, and Vicky when putting financial security, their home, and ultimately their marriage in dangerous jeopardy. Levine so totally identified with Serious Eats that he put his life on the line for it time and again.
Eventually, Levine sells the website, getting him off the financial merry-go-round, yet the tale doesn’t end there. Perhaps one of the most fascinating chapters is “The Aftermath,” in which Levine shares all his hard-won understandings of his journey with us. And while the book ends in 2018, you can visit the far-reaching website of Serious Eats today, trolling through recipes, information about techniques, equipment, eating out, ingredient guides, a podcast, and so much more. Whether you like to cook — or just eat — there’s something there for everyone.
“Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption” by Ed Levine, Portfolio/Penguin. The book is available online. Levine will be speaking at the West Tisbury library on August 14 at 4:30 pm.