Talk Show Host (Subject, Food) Opens His
Telephone Lines and His Heart
By Molly O'Neill
"Hello, this is Arthur Schwartz, " purred the newest voice
in New York City talk radio. "You're on 'Food Talk.'"
Weekdays from 12:15 to 1 P.M.: on WOR (710
on the AM dial), Mr. Schwartz, a cookbook writer and freelance restaurant
critic, takes calls from anyone who wants to talk food. They usually
end up discussing their love lives, work situations, weight problems
and health concerns. Mr. Schwartz opens his heart when he opens
his telephone lines.
He has been at it for only three weeks,
but already he has hit controversy. He has had truck drivers growling
like down- shifting diesels when they couldn't get their customary
eggs-over-easy on the New Jersey Turnpike. Mr. Schwartz understood.
"I could see a warning, but a state regulation about egg cooking?"
he told the caller. "Who is the Government to impinge on people's
right to get sick?"
And then there's Mark from Manhattan. Mark
calls regularly to report unsanitary conditions at local delis.
"There probably is a law against counter people handling filthy
money at the register and then slicing you cheese, Mark," Mr. Schwartz
told the caller one afternoon. In a telephone interview after the
show, he said, "Mark is a sweetheart, but he's a hygiene freak."
Mrs. M. from Brooklyn calls to ask where
her 24-year-old son can take a date. An ancient female voice with
a tremble weighs in whenever she needs support in her plea for the
scrambled eggs that her cook refuses to prepare. And Bob calls from
Manhattan to find out where he can buy a Japanese chef's knife,
The things that concern people when the
subject is food range as far as the WOR airwaves, and on a clear
day "Food Talk" can be heard as far away as Virginia and Ohio.
"It's Wednesday; that means it's complaint
day," announced Mr. Schwartz, who listens to callers' peeves most
Wednesdays and Fridays. Those are the days that he calls the show
"Kvetch Radio!" a perfect day for a guest to be in his studio.
"What's the worst thing that ever happened
to you in a restaurant and what did the restaurant do to make amends?"
he said. "The lines are open."
Within two minutes, the 14 lights on his
telephone were blinking. An assistant listed the calls on a computer
screen for Mr. Schwartz. Joseph, on a car phone, had found a roach
in his salad. Marie in Manhattan didn't get the dish she ordered.
Jane in Rockland County was served bad food. Lisa on Long Island
was served salty crab legs. Rose from Queens got sick from a restaurant
meal. Gary from Nanuet wanted to talk about "a bad encounter with
"You listen to their voices and you start
to see their lives," said Mr. Food Talk, leaning toward his microphone,
his thick eyebrows knitted.
Born and raised in the Marine Park section
of Brooklyn, the 44-year-old Mr. Schwartz learned to cook from his
grandmother and honed his skills as the social chairman of his fraternity
at the University of Maryland. He taught kindergarten in the Bushwick
section of Brooklyn before beginning his food career in the 1970's.
"There was an ad for a food editor of a
suburban newspaper and I wrote that I had no experience, but I did
have good references," he said.
The references included these:
"Arthur's oysters Rockefeller saved our
marriage." - Elaine Rothseid (his wife).
"Arthur's pot roast is even better than
mine." - Sydell Schwartz (his mother).
"Arthur's chocolate soufflé aggravates
my diabetes." - Eva Rothseid (his mother-in-law).
He got the job. He learned a lot. Few people
know as much about cooking as Mr. Schwartz. And he loves talking
about what he knows.
"I love to talk," he said. "I talk a lot.
I have lost friends because I talk so much, and here I get paid
to talk and stick my nose into everybody's business and I think
I help people."
On the air, and in his most recent book,
"What to cook When There Is Nothing to Eat in the House," (HarperCollins,
1992) Mr. Schwartz is a sort of culinary Ann Landers, one part yenta,
one part consumer advocate. Sometimes he strokes his short black
beard in a Freud-like gesture as he listens "Yeesss," he says understandingly.
"Hmmm," he says contemplatively. And then he switches into a clear,
"Call the Board of Health," he admonished
both Joseph of the roach-ridden salad and Rose who claimed a case
of restaurant- poisoning.
Rose sketched a portrait of a quiet life
of rare and precious rendezvous, with little money for restaurant
meals. "The worst part is that I nearly lost friends over this,"
Mr. Schwartz, sounding like a big brother
ready to take on his sister's errant suitor, said, "What's the name
of this place?" When his caller demurred, he said: "I name names
here. Don't be afraid, Rose."
Mr. Schwartz's policy of exposing bad or
overrated restaurants is one reason chefs and restaurateurs tune
in. Within three minutes, Ahmed, who owns a restaurant in Manhattan,
wanted to respond to the roach issue. Jim, a pastry chef from New
Jersey, had a tip for cleaning copper pots.
Then, Gary from Nanuet was on. "it was
an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet," Gary related. "And at 2 P.M.,
when I still had a tuna roll left, they confiscated my soy sauce.
Now how was I supposed to eat my tuna roll? Maybe they thought I
was going to eat too much. I do weigh 320 pounds, so it is a logical
concern. But that particular day I had only taken one plate."
Mr. Schwartz said, "Did you ask them if
they stopped serving at 2?"
"Yes, and they said they did, and I said
they should post a sign to that effect," said Gary from Nanuet.
Mr. Schwartz agreed. ("What's the name
of this place?") And then he moved on to what he saw as the real
issue. "What are you doing about your weight, Gary?" he said.
"Well, not much right now," came the reply.
"it is not going real well."
"Boy do I understand that," Mr. Schwartz
said. In his yellow-gold shirt and double-breasted taupe jacket
he looked like a large Cornice pear leaning toward the stem of his
microphone. "I'm heavy myself, Gary, and the secret is exercise.
Get out and do some walking. It'll make you feel better."
"Well, I'll try...." Gary said.
"Call me back and let me know how it's
going, Gary," Mr. Schwartz said, breaking for the show's final commercial.
He wriggled in his chair to the samba beat of the Food Talk theme
song, "Food, Glorious Food,' and signaled that he would talk to
Mrs. M. from Brooklyn after the show.
Mrs. M. was still concerned about a restaurant
for her 24-year-old son. It was his first date, it had to be some
place where he didn't have to eat because he doesn't eat in public
and it had to be a place where there was a lot of activity because
her son didn't know how to make conversation.
"A restaurant with no minimum required
and no conversation possible ," mused Mr. Schwartz, who later said
he thought Mrs. M. should let he son run his own social life. But
standing in his studio as the red on-air light faded and the 14
telephone lines continued to blink, he asked another question instead.
"What neighborhood are we looking for here,