R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr., the New York Times reporter who sat at some of world's best tables covering politics and gastronomy, has died at age 71.
I interviewed Apple in April 2005, when he was coming to Seattle to promote his last book, "Apple's America," a travelogue of Apple's domestic reporting-eating-and-museum-going that he did on his newspaper's dime.
While his book snubs Tacoma, Apple knew more about Tacoma –- thanks to Dale Chihuly and the Museum of Glass –- than I figured. I asked him when he was going to retire. He gave me one of those laughs that gurgled, "You gotta be kidding, kid." We had a pleasant chat.
Apple had just returned to Washington, DC, from a trip to South Africa. He told me how his wife, muse and steady-at-the-wheel traveling companion, Betsey, always returned home looking forward to their next trip.
I left that part out of the transcribed interview that ran in the newspaper because I ran out of space.
I post it now because I thought it was really sweet then and bitter-sweet now.
She is a very good sport. She is a fabulous traveling companion. A lot of my best ideas -- whether whole stories or destinations or phrases -- come from her. She's a born traveler. She's the kind of woman that when we come back, there she is, jetlagged, 24 hours after we get back, she's looking at a magazine coming up with ideas on where she'd like -- or not like -- to go next.
Johnny and Betsey Apple recently returned home from Indonesia. Johnny Apple died in his sleep last night.
Here's Johnny Apple's last story.
Below is the text of my interview with Apple in April 2005:
Johnny Apple occupies the best table in American journalism.
While his official title is associate editor of the New York Times, Apple's true job affords him license to eat anything, travel anywhere and analyze any subjects that appeal to his relentless appetites.
R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr.'s resume goes like this: New York Times, 1963-present. Duties: national political correspondent; foreign correspondent; food, arts and travel correspondent. Formerly bureau chief, London and Washington.
Johnny Apple gossip goes like this: He's mellowed, but his ego matches his three-lunch waistline; his peripatetic attention span compares to that of an overgrown 4-year-old boy, which Apple -- bellied, bejowled and apple-cheeked -- is said to resemble at such moments as upon eating the perfect crab cake.
At age 70 and with no stated plan to retire, Apple indulges personal interests and generational ghosts on the Times' dime: On the front page, Apple trudges the Iraq-Vietnam quagmire. On the food page, he lunches with circus clowns. He recently returned from three weeks in South Africa; the $5,000 expense report is not his most outrageous.
His new book, "Apple's America," is a travelogue of major American cities, compiled from Apple's domestic reporting-eating-and-museum-going travels. (Seattle's in there; sorry, Tacoma.) He'll appear in Seattle on Sunday "for a little shameless huckstering."
Johnny Apple called me from Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife, Betsey, his steady-at-the-wheel traveling companion and muse.
What's with your buffet-like approach to work?
I move among politics, foreign correspondence, food, arts and travel. Some may find it silly. I myself find it very, very invigorating to go from one to the other. At this stage in my life, if I had to do one all the time, I don't think I'd be a very happy boy.
What's your one-day eating record -- 18 meals?
Yeah, well. My wife may hear you.
Your wife seems to, but can your editors keep you in check?
I battled like a fiend to try to have an individual voice in my early years at the Times. Now they're delighted to have me as idiosyncratic as I want to be. I don't mean that the Times has decided to allow everybody to write his or her prejudices into the paper. If I suddenly wrote a piece that said, "George Bush likes to eat at Cooper's BBQ in Llano, Texas, which is a lousy place but that's not surprising because he's a lousy president," I don't think they'd like that very well, or should they.
Do you recall your first time in a restaurant?
I believe it was a former speakeasy in the North Hills section of Akron, Ohio, where I grew up called Papa Joe's. What I remember about it is that he took the wrapper off some amaretti biscuits and lit it and it went up into the air like a helicopter. That's what I remember, not the food, but I was only about 6.
That was about 1940. How has dining in America changed?
I used to travel the country with what I called an emergency meal: Shrimp cocktail, strip steak, medium rare, and a Heineken. It was the best you could get at the Salt Lake City Hilton.
Radically changed is what I would have called 30 years ago The Unholy Triangle of American Gastronomy: If a restaurant wasn't in New Orleans, San Francisco or New York it wasn't worth paying attention to. That's way gone.
One generation after the war, Vietnamese food is popular in the United States. Any food predictions from the War on Terror?
I expect a tidal wave of Iraqi food. I'm not being facetious. I think that's the next thing because there will be a lot of Americans who have sampled it who would have never dreamed of sampling it before.
What was the food like when you covered the Vietnam war?
Vietnamese food is wonderful, but let me tell you, it wasn't there. The Vietcong controlled all the roads. So fish wouldn't get to town. The vegetables wouldn't get down from the highlands. I had a friend called Frank Wisner, later our ambassador to India, who was a political officer in the highlands. When he would come to visit, he would bring a great treat: a little box of strawberries. You never saw strawberries in the market in Saigon; they didn't get there.
Did you ever dine with Richard Nixon?
He's not somebody I remember for his gastronomic adventuresness: cottage cheese and ketchup, and the wine served wrapped in towels so that he could have better wine than his guests. That's typical Nixon.
Clinton was a cheeseburger man, but when he got something good to eat he really got excited. Chirac said that after he took him out to dinner that Clinton was a great advertisement for French cooking because he just absolutely devoured it.
I wouldn't describe most politicians as great food lovers. There are a lot of writers who like good food, though.
Even the drug-addled sort like Hunter Thompson?
I had several meals with Hunter Thompson during the campaign that he describes in "Fear and Loathing."
Was the dinner-table consumption limited only to the menu?
For him, no. For me, yes. The most amazing thing about that whole business is that he got me in the wrong campaign. He talks about me in the Florida aspect of the campaign and I wasn't there. So maybe he should have stuck with the food and not enriched it.