Where do I start? In 1993, I became the features editor at The Tennessean. Feature stories are supposed to be wild, unexpected, entertaining. Ours were decidedly… not. So I went looking for some eccentric, oddball writers. And I found Jeff Pearlman.
Pearlman had been an intern from the University of Delaware. The Tennessean never hired interns. But I hired Pearlman. The only job I had open was a food and fashion writer. Jeff was not qualified to be a food and fashion writer. But I figured I could park him on those beats for a few months until something more suitable to his quirky talents opened up.
So one of his first assignments was to interview a well-known chef at a local restaurant. The chef told him he’d cooked pretty much anything you can think of. “Have you ever cooked human flesh?” Pearlman asked? Ring, ring! It was the first phone call of many I got from people complaining about Pearlman.
Pearlman wanted to write a story about condoms. Okay, now we’re talking. Unexpected! He wanted to use his own personal experience with his girlfriend as the context for the story. No. But then he turned around and wrote the most moving story I’ve ever read about a dying woman’s love for coreopsis and the garden she knew would outlive her. I am certain Jeff had never heard of coreopsis. The story made me cry. Damn him.
Like most twenty-somethings who want to write, but not report, Jeff was barely conversant with verifying facts and checking spelling. After one too many mistakes in those departments, I sent him to night cops. The graveyard of the journalism world. There is no room for creativity. It’s just facts, facts, facts. But not with Pearlman.
He covered a prostitution sting. His lede: “All John Smith wanted was a blow job.” No. He lost an expensive police scanner. No. He crossed a crime scene investigation. No. No. No.
Jeff is a person of Jewish descent from New York. He found the South quaint. Some of his readers sensed this. He wrote a column complaining about private schools with religious affiliations praying before sporting events. Nashville is the Buckle on the Bible Belt. Ring, ring! Once again…No. I must tell you here that I’m not revealing personnel secrets. Jeff has gleefully written about all of this on his blog.
But even with all the grief visited upon me by Jeff Pearlman, I knew he was too good for the Tennessean. And, sure enough, one day he came into my office and told me he’d gotten a job at Sports Illustrated. The long national nightmare was over. Except I loved Jeff Pearlman in the way that a coach loves his star player.
I promise this is related to food and I’ll get there in a minute. Jeff left us. He went on to become a celebrated sports writer at Sports Illlustrated. He wrote a famous interview with some guy named John Rocker. I don’t know who that is to this day, but the story got a lot of press. He then moved to Newsday and finally set out on his own writing books about sports. He’s done pretty well at that. He’s even got an entry in Wikipedia.
So, now on to food. Jeff and I have kept up over the years. He’s still one of my favorite people. The other day we were instant messaging on Facebook and I got to complaining about missing real New York bagels. “You want some? he asked. Well, sure.
Today, a box arrived. It was bagels, hand-packed by Pearlman. And bialys, which you cannot find anywhere in the South. They’re sort of like bagels, but without the hole and with onion and poppy seeds stuffed in the middle. I just love them and it’s probably been 25 years since I’ve had one.
So Pearlman asks me what Southern foods I can send him in return. Grits? No. Ham hocks. NO! How about a t-shirt from Nashville with a food theme, he asks?
So, I found the perfect one. Inappropriate, just like Pearlman. Trumpeting the best of the South: Pork. Just what a good Jewish boy needs to wear to the deli. On the note I sent with it, I simply said: “Eat more pork.”
I know that some of me rubbed off on Jeff Pearlman. I’d like to think a little of Pearlman rubbed off on me. But I always had it in me. He just didn’t need to know.