The motorcycle cop slowed down this time, peering over his sunglasses to get a better look.
The four of us — a motley crew that besides me comprised a former food critic and current wine writer, a food critic visiting from out of town, and a “food ringer” buddy famous for his ability to consume inhuman quantities of food and drink — appeared to be leaning over the trunk of the wine writer’s butter-colored Mercedes Benz, furtively pawing through large white packages and clear-plastic baggies of all sorts of shapes and sizes parked on a side street in a notoriously sketchy Denver neighborhood.
The fact that we were rather nicely dressed and a bit out of place could not have escaped the cop’s notice. That this was his second pass did not escape ours.
After he rounded the corner, we started to laugh, but couldn’t help feeling self-conscious. The truth, though, was that the packages and baggies in the car contained no drugs or anything else illegal — unless some law had recently been passed against half-eaten sausage rolls blanketed in marinara, three-quarters of a stuffed-crust pizza, the congealed remains of fettuccine Alfredo, four kinds of barbecue, half a container of pho, three bags of French fries, various pastries, a leg of lamb, two burgers (one with coleslaw), several salads, pad thai, some soggy fried calamari, a hot dog with one bite out of it, one crunchy-style and one crispy-style fried chicken platter, four different types of burrito, and at least seven Mexican meals in varying combinations.
It was Day Three of what I used to call the “Best of Denver Bingefest,” an annual ritual that foodie friends looooved during year one of my nine-year stint as restaurant critic at Westword newspaper and ran screaming from starting at about year four.
Like so many publications these days, each spring Westword offers a “best of” issue that serves up the staff’s picks for everything from Best Burger to Best Italian to Best Place to Propose. The public eats these things up, but perhaps doesn’t understand that for the food critic on staff, the choosing involves weeks of eating like he may never see food again. And by the time the issue comes out, usually wishes he never would.
This kind of “work” involves cajoling a few friends to drive around town for an entire day, pulling up to each of about 20-30 eateries and ordering whatever item is allegedly “the best.” Everyone takes a bite, and then the remainder is chucked into the trunk. At the end of the day, the vehicle is backed up to a Dumpster (the few spoils worth saving having been divided up), a bottle of Pepto-Bismol is released from the glove compartment, and everyone goes home to sleep it off.
On this particular day, though, the cop came around for a third time and apparently decided it was all too weird to let slide. He pulled the bike alongside the car’s rear bumper, turned off the ignition, and pulled off his gloves.
“How’s everyone doing today?” he asked in that ominously casual, taking-stock way police officers have of trying to assess the situation. He pulled out a tiny notebook and jotted down the license plate of the wine writer’s Mercedes.
The food marathoner in the group smiled sheepishly, his mouth full. He had just taken a huge bite. (The reason for our pulling over was the barbecue from a beloved local dive of a place that had warranted a taste test to stack its ribs up against another’s.)
“We’re doing great, officer,” I said, imagining that a calm female voice would be a good idea. “We’re checking out some ribs from M&D’s,” I added, as though the four of us standing on the street doing that from the trunk of a car made perfect sense.
The cop nodded. “Uh-huh,” he said, and he thrust his chin toward the trunk. “What else you got in there?”
We began telling him, without mentioning why. About halfway through the list, with his eyes wide, he asked, “You eat like this all the time?”
We all started to laugh, and then ’fessed up as to what we were really up to. The cop shook his head, and said, “I got the wrong job here.” He pulled his gloves back on and thanked us but declined the offer of barbecue.
“That’s my favorite place, you know,” he said. “They’d better win.” And then he rode off.
Sadly, M&D’s didn’t win that year. But I wasn’t worried. After all, it wasn’t my Mercedes.
You don’t have to eat at 30 restaurants in a day to be a food writer — you already have what it takes to be an expert on the dining in your town and to write a thoughtful, knowledgeable piece to submit to a local publication. Why? Because you live and eat there all the time.
One of the easiest ways to get started in the food-related travel-writing business is to come up with your own series of “best of” options — things such as Ten Best Spots for Families, Five Places for Romance or Top Brunches by the Museums. Be sure to offer authoritative commentary that establishes your voice, your understanding of the subject and your reasons for choosing the places, and fact-check to ensure credibility.
You never know who may be checking up on you.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]