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Alan Richman

From Pagano's to Pop's:
Alan Richman Remembers Penn Food of the '60s

Do you remember the Pub Tiki restaurant on the corner of 18th and Walnut Streets? GQ magazine's food and restaurant critic, Alan Richman, C'65, who is also the co-host of Dining Around (8:30 p.m. ET) on TV's Food Network, even remembers what was on the Tiki's menu when he took his first dinner date there in his senior year. "One of their specialties was Sesame Chicken Aku Aku," Richman recalls, savoring the name as if it were itself a delicacy. "White meat chicken in a white veloute sauce with sesame seeds on the top. Sesame seeds were the most exotic thing anyone had ever tasted back then," he adds.

"Another offering was Shrimp Bongo Bongo, which had both red and green maraschino cherries to recommend it." Even though it was way off campus, the Pub Tiki, with its exotic dishes, waterfall, and glowing map of Polynesia, was the restaurant of choice for this College student who wanted to impress his date in 1965. And while the enormously expensive dinner ($15 for two) failed to win the lady's heart, the Shrimp Bongo Bongo and the Chicken Aku Aku introduced Richman to the exotic fare that would figure largely in his future.

Alan Richman's memories of Penn have the flavor of a Woody Allen monologue -- devastating events and traumatic circumstances recounted at the pace of a high-spirited rollercoaster ride. The words describe pain but what registers most loud and clear is the humor. His first reminiscence of Penn was of a summer biochemical research project spent doing paper chromatography of porphyrins in a tiny, unventilated room, using a solvent called pyridine. He cheerfully assured me that today's faculty would react with horror when told about the conditions under which he conducted his research. "Two drops of pyridine on the floor near you and the smell would be so bad you'd run from the building screaming." He first claimed that this experience turned him from biochemistry into an English major but later confessed that a lack of first-rate math skills made the crucial difference.
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Richman came to Penn from New York as a General Honors student in the first year of the program's existence. Instead of being honored by his selection, however, Richman found the whole experience daunting. "It was quite weird, because the program somehow became divided into the smart kids and the dumb kids. After spending your whole life preparing to go to college and be a smart kid, you find yourself in a small subcollege of about 30 people, and I was one of the dumbest people there. And so, I spent four years being a dumb kid. It was really tough."

To make things worse, Richman's roommate and fellow honors student, Jack Finarelli, C'65, was a natural at chemistry. "When Jack took organic chemistry, which was invented to make people suffer, he understood it without studying," Richman remembers. "Jack could look at the page and the molecules moved for him; he looked at a problem and knew the answer right away. Meeting someone this smart was a novel experience for me, and it made me feel really dumb." (Jack Finarelli went on to get his Ph.D. and is currently working in research and development for the Central Intelligence Agency in Virginia).

Traumatic as it was, it was also formative. Richman turned to the Daily Pennsylvanian for solace and found the positive reinforcement that drew him into journalism. By his senior year he was co-editor of sports. After graduation he fulfilled his ROTC obligations by doing a stint in the army, and then ended up at the Portland Indiana Commercial-Review, working for fellow Penn alum Dan Rottenberg, C'64. In 1968, when Lyndon Johnson recalled the reserves in the midwest, Richman did a tour in Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star. (When asked to talk about the experience, he demurs, saying only, "I'd like to say it was for bravery, but I'm afraid it was awarded for consistently showing up for work.") He then came back to Philly and went to work for the Bulletin as a sports writer. One of the highlights (or perhaps lowlights) of his Bulletin days was covering the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers -- he dubs them "the worst team in the history of sports" in a recent article in Philadelphia magazine. After that, Richman went on to write for some of the country's best-known publications such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and People magazine, before landing at GQ.

Given the lack of food options on campus in the '60s, it's not surprising that Richman had trouble recalling Penn food. Food trucks, so much a part of today's campus cuisine, were scarce. "I don't remember them, but even if they were around, I probably wouldn't have gone there. I have a Jewish mother who, to this day, believes you can die from the germs that land on food that is eaten outside. I rarely ate in Kelly and Cohen because my place was Pop's, a tiny hole-in-the-wall on Spruce Street that served amazing sandwiches. Pop's was the greasiest spoon I've ever seen but, since it had a roof on it and kept the soot out, it fulfilled my criteria for cleanliness. Pop cut all his meat on the same meat slicers, without ever washing it, and the cheese was free. To this day I still dream of Pop's sandwiches."

Pagano's was still on Walnut Street, and Richman remembers his pizza-eating contests with Jack Finarelli. Although Jack was the smaller of the two and had to wait until the pizza cooled, he always won the contest. "I'd always start first because it was too hot for Jack. He'd just sit there smirking, like a cocky gunfighter knowing he has plenty of time to draw. I would get two pieces down before he would even start, but when he started to eat," Richman recounts in a reverential tone, "he would have it finished before I had two more pieces eaten." And the quality of the pizza? "They tasted exactly like frozen pizza. They had this horrible crust and gummy cheese, and we ate them constantly and loved them."

Since the food options were limited, Richman cooked for himself and roommate Finarelli. Ground beef (at $.35 a pound) got made into meat loaf, which was accompanied by a box of frozen veggies (usually Unity brand corn or beans at $.10 a box). The beverage of choice was a packet of Koolaid ($.05). Richman remembers the prices because he could make a whole meal for $.50. Was he a good cook? "It was so disgusting that I'd only eat one piece. But Finarelli, who could really eat, would finish the whole thing. What I cooked was truly horrible, but I continued to make meat loaf once a week throughout my Penn career."

For a year Richman was a member of a Jewish fraternity but left because of the food. "The chef's name was Eddie Goldstein, and although I wasn't Kosher and didn't pay much attention to the laws, Eddie managed to offend even me. The first Passover meal that Eddie served had bacon in it. "Ed, this is Passover, what's with the bacon?" Richman queried. "What are you passin' over," Ed wanted to know. "Your food," Richman snapped back with what may have been his first and shortest critique.

On the masthead of GQ, Alan Richman is listed as Special Correspondent, not as the food and wine critic. This more accurately describes Richman, whose journalism career has covered all the bases. In fact, his food and wine writing began as side ventures, mainly because he didn't want to specialize in such a low-paying field. Richman had been doing the GQ wine column on a freelance basis when he joined the staff. He agreed to continue and estimated that it would take about 30 percent of his time. "Then," Richman explains, "I started doing well and winning awards, and now it takes up 90 percent of my time."

For many of us, this has to be the ultimate dream job, and Richman concurs. Unfortunately, he has no tips for replicating his success. "I believe that what you do has to find the right place -- the right fit -- and what I do belongs here. It's as simple as that -- plus some good luck. When I freelance," he adds, "they edit the hell out of me. But here at GQ they don't, so I've really found the place where I fit. It took quite a long time and I moved around a lot before I found my place. And I keep expecting it to change: I'm a pessimist who always expects the sky to fall on my head."

And he fits with the audience as well. "Most critics think, at least to some degree, about how healthy food is, but I never do. I've decided to be totally hedonistic about food since so many of the things that are supposed to be unhealthy turn out to be fads. I'll tell you if it's disgusting or if it is boring, but I don't focus on the health aspects." Richman also confesses to having a palate that people can relate to. "My food tastes are pretty mainstream: the things I like, other people like; the things I don't like, they don't like either. I got a big laugh out of Ruth Reichl, the food critic for the New York Times by telling her that she'd give any restaurant three stars if it served sardines. She laughed and kind of agreed. But I would never do that," Richman adds ingenuously, "but then I don't like sardines enough, and that's certainly a mainstream attitude."

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