Rick Nichols: Something stirs . . . adieu

The food columnist, most satisfied, moves on, writing a new menu to live by.

Nichols polishes off a few plates with chef Marcus Samuelsson at Washington Square restaurant in 2004. (Archive staff photo)

Once upon a time, many years ago, I set sail from Coinjock, in North Carolina, down the Intracoastal Waterway and, blithely, into the seething chop of an angry Albemarle Sound.

I'll spare you the details, but we were a crew of rank incompetents, no match for the wallowing, broad-beamed old skipjack, named, by its hard-drinking captain, The America.

We had nearly made the crossing in one piece - the mouth of the Alligator River yawning safely in the distance - when the entire expedition went to pieces: The captain, in his cups, pitched overboard and quickly drifted away; the boom traveler splintered, leaving the sail flapping like a flag; and the old Chrysler engine that was there for backup power refused to be coaxed into action.

Was it scary? Use your imagination. The only good news was just as the captain seemed to be slipping beneath the swells for good, a powerboat came to the rescue, and then inexplicably left with him, stranding us in the spiky cypress knees that guard the fringes of the Great Dismal Swamp.

It's a hoary tale, often retold around campfires, and after strong drink. But we survived. And made landfall more than a day later at a rambling waterfront inn in Belhaven that was endowed that fine afternoon with one of the most sumptuous buffets I'd ever encountered.

I remember it more in general outline than in specific menu. But in memory, it was laden with skillet-fried chicken and sweet, Dixie-cut coleslaw, various fish and local shrimp, roasts of beef, that special vinegary Carolina pulled pork that is, and remains for me, the only barbecue worthy of the name, and greens of the salad and the stewy collard variety. I'm sure there were also (There must have been!) hush puppies. And sweet tea.

We were famished, having bobbed overnight on the edge of the swamp, missing several meals. It was like staggering off the desert island straight into the feeding trough at Harrah's. But a Harrah's with honest-to-goodness, down-home cooking.

I filled my plate. Then I went through the line and filled it again. On the third go-round, a gray-haired gentleman sitting near the buffet spoke up: "My dear man," he said, with slight British accent, "I've seen a lot of eating. But this is recidivism of the worst sort."

It was not just the five-dollar word recidivism, but the disapproving delivery of it that has stuck with me all these many years.

I'm not sure why this story welled up in me this week, though I've been thinking some about setting off on crazy adventures again, and about the unpredictability of life, about being hungry, and then, suddenly, overstuffed.

I've decided to relaunch myself, leaving my plum post as The Inquirer's food columnist to do some writing on my own, to continue my university teaching, and to log some long-distance biking miles with my wife, the storied and brilliant Washington Post editor.

So this is my last column in my official staff capacity, though I've been invited to keep sending in occasional dispatches. And, yes, I'm happy to do that.

A lot has gone and come since 1995 when I left the editorial board here and took on what for several boffo years had been Jim Quinn's popular food column in the newspaper's Sunday Magazine.

Neil Stein was ascendant with his post-Bookbinder's Striped Bass. (Stephen Starr, with his overflowing basket of cafes, steak houses, pizzerias, and pubs, would soon eclipse him).

Sidewalk cafes, still illegal 15 years ago, have put rouge on the once-drab streets of the city.

The artisanal hand, long waning, suddenly found its grip again: Capogiro revived handmade gelato. La Colombe roasted stellar coffee beans. Metropolitan Bakery baked beautiful bread. Craft-beer breweries tiptoed back, as tentatively at first as the shad testing the Delaware's cleaner waters.

Even chocolate got the human touch. But the industrial Wilbur Bud, blessedly, didn't disappear. (It was my mother's favorite chocolate drop. She's gone now, but I still treasure her worn wooden spoon to stir my carrot soup and caldo verde and copper pots of chicken paprikash.)

Hey, even the oysters got better, the Wellfleets in particular. The Reading Terminal Market started bringing in more local produce. And steak houses have stalled in their march to take over the town, blocked by feisty storefront eateries - Salt & Pepper, Bibou, Barbuzzo, Pumpkin - joints too small to fail.

My tenure would probably have been far shorter, and a lot less fun, but for the sustaining good humor and camaraderie of my pal Craig LaBan, my human Google Mike Klein, and the warmth and high spirits of our esteemed food editor, Maureen Fitzgerald.

Incredulous colleagues and legions of loyal readers have reacted with one voice to my decision to jump ship: "Are you nuts?" they keep asking me.

So permit me to respond the way my long-departed aunt would when she wanted to deflect second helpings at the table, or likely had she been there, in the line at a seaside buffet.

"I've had a delightful sufficiency," she'd say. "Any more would be a superfluous abundancy."

And so with a tear in my eye, I bid you goodbye.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.