- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005


By R. W. Apple Jr.

North Point, $22.50, 430 pages, paper


R.W. (for Raymond Walter but everyone calls him Johnny) Apple Jr. writes about politics, food, travel. He is a man of all seasons, known for his Falstaffian appetite, his interest in culture and his keen observations of the political scene. In his many years as a newspaperman, he has been everywhere and done everything. His is an elegant yet down to earth style, and his reporting and analysis are intelligent and well-informed.

For more than 40 years, Johnny Apple has been writing for the New York Times as a correspondent (covering the world, presidential campaigns and his favorite restaurants), Washington bureau chief and now associate editor. Two decades ago he published “Apple’s Europe,” a highly personal account of his favorite places in Europe, the sights, the food.

Now comes “Apple’s America,” described on the book’s cover as “The discriminating traveler’s guide to 40 great cities in the United States and Canada.” But this is not merely a guide book. The reader is not told where to go, what to do, opening hours and prices. Rather, “Apple’s America” is a straightforward introduction to what has made America’s cities, what they were and what they have become. It is a portrait of the history, humor, growth and decline, culture and most of all, what makes the heart of a city beat fast or slowly.

There’s a short section at the end of each chapter with a few recommended hotels and restaurants, but most are expensive five star hotels and upscale restaurants. Some local food specials are included. Johnny Apple, after all, is known for his taste — he’s a modern gourmand, gourmet, historian, observer and sometime philosopher rolled into one. No bruised grapes for him.

The book is a compilation of articles written for the New York Times over the years, brought up to date where necessary. It dedicates approximately 10 pages to each of 20 large and 20 small cities. The exception is New York, which he deliberately omitted, noting in his introduction that he “could have written a New York chapter … but it took E. B. White an entire volume … to describe what he called the city’s ‘steady, irresistible charm,’ and [Mr. Apple] had no desire to go head-to-head with the master.”

In his journey across America, Mr. Apple has found celebrity: Jimmy Carter in Atlanta, Calvin Trillin in Kansas City, Wolfgang Puck in Los Angeles, Hodding Carter in Miami, Walter Mondale in Minneapolis, Arlen Specter in Philadelphia and John McCain in Phoenix among them.

Most chapters begin with an amusing comment. For example, Buffalo “[l]ike a dowager in decline, … still has good bones to remind people of her more prosperous and glamorous days.” He notes that the city obtained its name thanks to the Niagara River which the French explorers called “beau fleuve” or beautiful river, which became “buffalo.” Atlanta “is a city without a historic core, a city in constant evolution — a Deep South version, you might say, of Los Angeles.” Chicago is “the quintessential American city: muscular, inventive, wonderfully diverse, and as unpretentious as its prairie-flat vowels.” “Despite a riverside site of uncommon beauty and a history of uncommon achievement, Cincinnati has always had a reputation as a stick-in-the-mud. Toronto the Good, “people used to call it, with a sneer; it was so pious and proper that a man had trouble buying an aspirin on Sunday.”

Having drawn his reader into the city, Mr. Apple goes on to give a bit of its social, economic and political history, smattered with familiar and unfamiliar names of shakers and movers. In the Toronto chapter, for example, he is up-to-date in discussing the effects of the 2003 SARS outbreak and “Hollywood North,” as Toronto is called by American filmmakers, yet does not neglect the city’s history as a French trading post, founded in 1750 and the Bata Shoe Museum where “you can jump into pop culture with both feet.”

“Food, food, glorious food,” as young Oliver would sing, plays an important, if not central, role in this entertaining book. Given his enjoyment of all things culinary, Mr. Apple tells us that in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner, “[t]he definitive crab cake — the finest on earth — is made at Faidley’s Seafood in the Lexington Market, which was established in 1782.” Maryland, he informs us, was the only one of the original colonies founded by Catholics. We learn that the term “java” for coffee “comes from [the name] of the java-loving mate in Moby Dick.” He advises “if you want to experience the definitive Kentucky fried chicken and explore the Bourbon belt, the best thing is to head south to Bardstown, one of Kentucky’s oldest communities, founded in 1775, the year of Paul Revere’s ride in far-off Boston.”

Mr. Apple points out that the Bostonians call their city “Bean-town, after their beloved baked beans, which gives them something in common with the inhabitants of Florence, another historic city, who call themselves ‘mangiafagioli’ — bean-eaters.” In describing the Hampton Roads area and “the surrounding swamp where the settlers struggled to survive, now inhabited most visibly by herons,” he “put some flesh on the cardboard figure of John Smith,” explaining that “[l]ong before he reached the American wilderness … he had fought in Hungary, been taken in captivity in Turkey, been sold into slavery in Russia, killed his master, escaped and made his way home to Britain.” He does not resist the occasional witty jab: “They say that Charlestonians [South Carolina] are like the Chinese, in that they eat rice and worship their ancestors, and I admit that the Pinckney-tude of Charleston used to get my goat … .”

But the real thrust of “Apple’s America” is his analysis of the cultural scene in each of the cities he writes about. The opera companies, theatres, architectural wonders, museums all make up the main part of each narrative. His interest in cultural issues is extensive; his research exhaustive and his presentation filled with anecdotes. Whether speaking of the San Francisco Opera Company and its “autocratic” former director Kurt Herbert Adler; “peerless Harvard, the oldest institution of higher education in the United States,” (he would get an argument at William & Mary), the Seattle Experience Music Project designed by Frank O. Gehry; Las Vegas’ version of “high culture” with O, the Cirque du Soleil’s “unlikely combination of circus and ballet, theatre and pantomime, with synchronized swimming thrown in;” or a presentation of each city’s art museums and the paintings contained therein, including his own favorites, what he has to say is illuminating and interesting and whets the appetite of the reader to go and see for himself.

The darker side of the cities is not ignored. Crime, urban blight, ill conceived urban renewal all are included, but such is not the focus of the book. One minor factual slip: George W. Bush was not part owner of the Houston Astros, but of the Texas Rangers; he omits the extraordinary Mural Arts program as part of Philadelphia’s renaissance. But such errors and omissions are minor indeed in a book full of accurately told fascinating information.

Take his hand, and let him guide you through these 40 great North American cities, and delight in what you read. No matter how well informed you may be, you’ll learn something. His chapter on New Orleans is especially poignant: “[t]hey have their own music … their own drinks, seldom found elsewhere … their own sandwiches, like muffulettas and po’boys, their own sauces, like remoulade and ravigote, derived from but not really that similar to the French originals … their own accent … their own legal system … their own way of burying the dead.” Of course, New Orleans must be rebuilt: he tells us why we couldn’t do without it.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer.

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