Gael Greene, the “insatiable” restaurant critic who shaped New York Magazine’s food coverage for 40 years, has died, as first reported by writer and editor Ruth Reichl. She was 88 years old.
Born and raised in Michigan, Greene was named the magazine’s critic in 1968, the same year the publication was founded, after an earlier stint as a general assignment reporter at the New York Post. Greene’s reviews became known for their sense of zeal, offering full narratives of wit and humor alongside assessments of the food, in language that could pivot beautifully between sensuous appreciation and blunt instrument. “Le caneton smitane was tender, juicy, superbly flavored duck with a lovely sour cream sauce but our sweetbread addict found le ris de veau au champagne gross and unappetizing,” Greene wrote in a 1969 review of La Caravelle, in a story that opened with a four-paragraph treatise on New Yorkers’ warped psyche. “New York is a mecca for masochists,” she wrote. “It is the Atlantis of our masochist fantasies. How could we live anywhere else? We thrive on discomfort, frustration and scorn.”
“She created an entirely fresh new voice, one that has never staled,” Michael Batterberry, editor and publisher of the now-defunct Food Arts magazine, told the New York Times in 2008. Of her reviews, the Times wrote: “When journalists questioned the florid tone of her reviews, Greene had a ready response: ‘The same sense that registers pleasure at the table measures the delights in bed: the eye, the nose, the mouth, the skin, the ear that records a whimper of joy or a crunch of a superior pomme frite.’”
Greene is often credited with popularizing the term “foodie,” which she used in a column in New York in 1980. (In 2012, she noted how the word had since gained a place “on everybody’s list of toxic words in food writing... When I said it, it was a wonderful thing to be.”) In 2000, Greene stepped away from the weekly critic role to write the Insatiable Critic column for New York and contribute to her own website; after being let go by New York in 2008, she would hold brief roles reviewing restaurants for Crain’s New York Business and as an advisor to Foodie.com.
Over the course of her decades-long career, Greene also published five books, including the memoir Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess, which the New York Times once described as a “gustatory napkin-ripper,” noting Greene’s skill at mixing sensuality and food. (She also published two erotic novels; 1979’s Blue Skies, No Candy was “filled with culinary metaphors,” per a Montreal Gazette profile, which Greene noted was “completely unconscious.”)
Greene’s legacy extends beyond the page. In 1981, Greene, along with James Beard, co-founded the nonprofit organization Citymeals on Wheels, which raised funds to send meals to homebound senior citizens in NYC; the organization, which raised $35,000 that first year and served more than 2.7 million meals last year, has long had a strong tie to the city’s chef and restaurant community. “Gael could not live with the idea that a city of such abundance and extraordinary food could not feed its oldest and most frail,” Marcia Stein, founding executive director of Citymeals on Wheels, said in a statement. “For four decades, she used her celebrity, creativity, and genius to make sure there would always be a nutritious meal at the door for them, every day of the year.” In 1992, she received the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award for her efforts.