Apple’s America

March 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Johnny Apple is a man of appetites and opinions.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: I’m going to have a couple of oysters just because it’s early in the morning and I haven’t had any breakfast, and then a jumbo lump crab cake, the best in the universe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Best in the universe.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: I’m upgrading it. In the book I say it’s the best in the hemisphere, but I’ve traveled some since then, so I’m going to make it the best in the universe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now you’re sure it’s the best in the universe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two years ago Apple wrote about the crab cakes at Faidley’s Seafood for an article in the New York Times, Apple’s professional home for more than 40 years.

The article, exploring the pleasures of Baltimore, has been expanded into a chapter in a new book, titled “Apple’s America,” an unusual travel guide to 40 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: This is another Baltimore-ism: Rock fish. It is, in fact, striped bass.

JEFFREY BROWN: Faidley’s, a local institution since 1782, is the kind of place Apple loves to write about. Here, he can talk with owner Bill Devine about fish, and learn the art of the crab cake from bill’s wife, Nancy, who handmade a mere 54,000 of them last year. Over some of Nancy’s creations, Apple told me he seeks out a Faidley’s wherever he goes.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Why? Because the history of the city or village is often on display there; people have been in this business here for three or four generations, and you have the same thing in other cities.

JEFFREY BROWN: To what extent is it still true that food determines the character of the cities you visit?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Unless you’re going to haute cuisine restaurants, where the chef is from Italy or France, the food very often is traditional. But far beyond that, for me, personally, I come from a family that owned supermarkets.

So, I was around food. I had a grandmother whom I spent a lot of my time with, who was a fabulous cook. And it’s portable. No matter where the New York Times has sent me — from Africa to Vietnam to China to Utah to wherever — there’s something to eat.

JEFFREY BROWN: R.W. Apple, known as “Johnny,” is well known to longtime readers of the Times; he’s covered everything from foreign affairs to politics to culture. In his book, in addition to history and politics, he loves to point out hidden treasures in cities not known as art capitals — the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: This museum — not the Metropolitan, not the National Gallery, not MOMA in New York — has the best Matisse collection in the country, and probably in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: The reason? A lucky quirk of history: Two Baltimore sisters who befriended Matisse in Paris and bought hundreds of his work.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Behind me is a late picture– very vivid in color, but the earlier ones are equally vivid– and it’s all tied together here, in Baltimore, because the Cone Sisters were from Baltimore. And that exists around the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Local writers, too, are often mentioned in the book.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: It’s how I began to learn about the country. When I was a kid in Ohio, I read Willa Cather and got some vision of what the Great Plains must be like. I read Theodore Dreiser, and got a very strong vision of what Chicago was like.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you’re in this travel writer mode, do you still see yourself as a reporter?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Always as a reporter, and as a reporter you are an amateur. If you think you’ve become a professional, that you can teach lessons to the generals, you can teach lessons to the presidents, you can teach lessons to the museum directors, the chefs, you’re in trouble.

Your job is to represent your reader — go and experience it and try to explain it and relate it to that reader.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve done plenty of this serious stuff in journalism: Politics, and war. Some people would think that travel writing, writing about foods, even museums, is not that serious. Are they wrong?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Well, I think they are. It depends on your definition of serious. Let’s put it this way: Are any of the people in the United States Senate, any of the 100 that are serving there now whose campaigns I might have covered, as interesting and as serious as Matisse? Not for my nickel.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Apple’s America” is a decidedly idiosyncratic take on the pleasures of our country, so we conducted a highly individual travel quiz.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your favorite hotel?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Belair, Los Angeles suburbs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Favorite restaurant?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Oh, impossible. For what? When? With whom?

JEFFREY BROWN: For your last meal.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: You know, I would hope to be able to have lots of last meals. I’d like to kind of slip away over a two-week period. But if I had to choose just one, it might be Peter Lugar’s in Brooklyn.

Or it might well be a really good seafood restaurant like Jasper White’s Summer Shack in Boston, because I could eat clams, oysters, lobster, all the things that I love so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Favorite building — I mean, in terms of architecture?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: I’m not sure how much people are aware of it. We’re in a very inventive and marvelous period in architecture in this country. I’ll give you two, if I may. One: Renzo Piano’s Menil collection in Houston, one of the best museums I’ve ever been in. And another one in a rival city, also in Texas, is Louis Kahn’s Kimbel collection in Fort Worth. And let me sneak just one more in, because it’s designed by a friend of mine: Jim Polshek’s Rose Planetarium in New York, which I think is a marvel.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Johnny Apple’s favorite American city?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: The most characteristically American city, I believe, is Chicago. I’m a Midwestern boy, after all. The most pleasurable, if you define pleasure as hedonism, the most pleasurable American city, I guess, is New Orleans.

If history is your game: Charleston. Why Charleston and not Philadelphia or Boston? Because my wife’s from Charleston, and she has taught me about it in a way that I will never know any of the others.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the personal approach to travel?

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: Indeed. If you don’t allow your own experience to inform your traveling, then you bring nothing to it; you’re just a passive person.

JEFFREY BROWN: Johnny Apple, thanks for talking to us.

R.W. “JOHNNY” APPLE, JR.: My pleasure. Thank you very much.