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November 21, 2008 4:10 PM

The New Yorker Food Issue: (Jane) Kramer vs. (Bob) Kramer -- loved both

Posted by Nancy Leson

Yesterday, Nate was beside himself because his Yoshi slippers finally arrived in the mail (thanks, Amazon!). But I was every bit as excited, because The New Yorker's annual food issue had arrived, too:

As usual, the magazine (cover date, November 24) is full of deep reads, though so far, I've only managed to finish two of them. I've long considered the New Yorker's food issue a collector's item, and if you'd read the original version of Bill Buford's jaw-dropping pre-"Heat" profile of Mario Batali back in 2002, you'd know exactly why I think that. But this year, I was tapping my toes in more anticipation than usual, because I knew the food issue would contain a profile of cookbook authors and Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid -- thanks to a heads-up from Alford, who was in town last spring touting their latest book, "Beyond the Great Wall."

I spoke with Alford at the Cooks & Books event at Culinary Communion on Beacon Hill, where he was standing by a great wall full of cookbooks, nibbling a little meat snack and telling me what it's like to have reporter Jane Kramer (who's a self-described cookbook addict) trailing his family around, asking questions.

Alford described Kramer as "a chain-smoker who's worked for the New Yorker for 40 years," explaining how she'd come to their home in Toronto, where she'd "show up at 9 a.m. and stay till 9 p.m." researching her story, sequestering his kids, his wife, their friends and himself for private interviews -- god forbid any one of them be influenced by the comments of the other.

As I'd anticipated, "The Hungry Travellers" was a stunning read, with plenty of meat and juice and history about Alford and Duguid, whose many cookbooks line my shelves. And I was thrilled that it was written by the woman whose byline I've always been drawn to -- thanks to insights like the one in which she describes a younger Alford, at 31, as "a tall, skinny, ponytailed seeker of truth with a master's degree in creative writing, a passion for the East, a light heroin habit, and a reputation for supporting his wanderlust with tag sales in his parents' front yard."

Of his life's uncommon trajectory, the writer notes:

"His days as a smuggler's courier began in 1981, and they took him from Hong Kong to Kathmandu (where the airport metal detectors were always broken) with, as he usually describes it, `five pounds of gold up my bum.' He made eight hundred dollars for every flight, with two hundred more thrown in for the flight back, which involved the arguably easier job of carring twenty thousand dollars in a money belt."

So, how did it feel to be interviewed by a New Yorker reporter for a splashy profile? "It's like seeing a psychiatrist," Alford told me -- albeit one who shares your secrets with the world.

And it turns out Jane wasn't the only Kramer whose work would capture my attention in this year's food issue. "Sharper," by Todd Oppenheimer, a San Francisco-based journalist, told the story of custom knifemaker Bob Kramer -- one that hit even closer to home, and here's why:

Years ago, when I first started writing for the Seattle Times, my friend Dorothy Frisch kept trying to convince me to write about her niece Leanne's talented boyfriend, Bob -- a local knifemaker. Bob and his story fell off my radar, and when Greg Atkinson profiled the clever craftsman and his knives in Pacific Northwest magazine's design issue in 2005 (read it here), I recall thinking: "Damn! I should have listened to Dotty!"

Dorothy sure was right about the guy (who has since married her niece and taken his skills to Olympia). He's "one of a hundred and twenty-two people in the world to have been certified in the United States as a Master Bladesmith," according to Oppenheimer, who also says:

"Most bladesmiths come out of the ranchlands and hunting hollows of rural America, and they look, speak, and dress like throwbacks to the days of the covered wagon. By contrast, Kramer -- who has been not only a chef but also a waiter, a folk-art importer, an improvisational-theater performer, and, for a year in his twenties, a Ringling Brothers clown -- arrives at knife shows looking like a silicon Valley entrpreneur: button-down silk shirts, neatly pressed slacks, a thin goatee on a sharp face. Now fifty, and a trim five feet ten, Kramer is upbeat and alert, and he moves fast. Talking to him can be like playing with a dog; his face seems to be constantly on the lookout for fun."

I couldn't see the look on Bob's face when I spoke with him this morning, but I had no trouble imagining it when I called to congratulate him on his success (his own line of Shun knives, sold at Sur la Table? Get out!). Then I posed the same question I asked Jeffrey Alford: "What's it like to be profiled in the New Yorker?" "It's intense," he told me. "I'm so incredibly flattered, it's still hard to believe."

Like Jane Kramer, who as a cookbook-lover has a special interest in the "Alford-Daguids" (as she refers to the couple in print), Oppenheimer has a deep interest in knives -- and the craftsmen who make them, says Kramer. And that's how they happened to meet, several years ago, at a Napa knife show. "He's fascinated with knives of all sorts," Kramer says. "It's a guy thing. It's in our genes. The only reason we got here is we used knives for thousands of years to kill animals, to harvest crops, to survive."

Since their first meeting, Kramer and Oppenheimer have developed "something between an investigation and a friendship," according to the bladesmith, and when his friendly investigator approached him many months ago with the idea of doing a magazine profile -- no names mentioned -- "I said, `Are you sure you've got the right guy?'" Next thing Kramer knew, "He called me back and said, `Sit down. We're going to be in the New Yorker!'"

Looking back on his career and the knife-sharpening business he used to run out of a van; his little blacksmith's shop in Pioneer Square; his certification as a Master Bladesmith; the big nod from knife manufacturers like Japan's Shun; the folks at "Cook's Illustrated" who told the world his 8-inch chef's knife "outperformed every knife we ever rated" -- Kramer appears to be as low-key about his success as he is astonished by it.

"It's tough making a living making knives," says the man whose wife, a financial planner, has long "been the main breadwinner" in his family. Of his recent birthday, "I just sailed into 50 with the wind at my back, and it feels great. I feel like I'm just starting. Like I just got my black belt and I can just sink into the craft even more." With his craftmanship in great demand there's a backlog for his knives: He handcrafts an average of five a week, unlike most knife factories, even small ones, that "make that many in an hour," writes Oppenheimer. And with continued exposure, like the kind brought on by the New Yorker profile, Kramer voices a certain amount of awe, one that has him living "a kind of luxury that too few artists have the opportunity to achieve."

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