Back in the years when we began to favor chicken over steak, I lived with a man who had a vociferous overreaction to what he considered one of my bad habits. He hated the way I ate chicken. We'd usually finish about half of a crisp, rosemary-seasoned bird with a bottle or two of Chardonnay, and I don't remember a time that I could wrap up the leftovers without popping the rest of the crackly skin into my mouth. John, the boyfriend, would go wild. Depending on how much wine he had drunk, he'd accuse me of being selfish, bad-mannered or downright gluttonous. I argued that since it was my chicken (I had bought and roasted it, after all) I should be able to do anything I wanted with it. And besides, eating cold chicken skin the next day is pretty unappealing.
After one particular incident, I began to wonder if my behavior fit into some larger pattern. I realized that whenever I could, I shamelessly filched crispy bits—the end slice of a pound cake, the blackened corner of a meat loaf, the firm top of a muffin. It then became clear that my entire life had been a quest to eat all things crunchy.
These morsels come in various shapes and forms. They can be parts that crisp while cooking, such as the tops of dessert crumbles or the crusts of soufflés. They can be items that once melted and later hardened, such as the cheese that escapes the edge of the tortilla in a quesadilla and becomes crisp lace on the griddle. Fried food, cooked in oil hot enough to avoid greasiness, falls into a category all its own: pommes frites (my favorite kind are double-fried in duck fat), zucchini and lemon chips, fritto misto.
While John and certain other friends, who shall remain nameless, may consider me to be a selfish eater, I would like to point out that I was not raised a Calvinist. I get pleasure where I can—and besides, I don't usually do it at the expense of another person. Isn't politely taking exactly what one really wants an expression of heightened self-esteem? And is that such a bad thing? I don't think Bill Gates got where he is today by worrying about whether others thought him rude when he took whatever he liked best. After all, who has not, in a moment of passion, put her own satisfaction ahead of someone else's? And so it is at the dinner table. I say take what you like and leave the rest.
My passion for crispy foods is practically genetic. My father taught me how to quietly take all of those bits I loved. "Tout doucement," he'd always say, or "very gently," so that nobody notices, as we pulled the tops off popovers and left the mushy parts in the muffin tin. But as the years have passed, I must admit I have grown bolder. Every year as my birthday approaches, I think back to the time I was taken to the old Le Cirque in Manhattan to celebrate. Sirio Maccioni, the owner, was delighted that my table of friends satisfied their appetites with such gusto, accustomed as he was to the habits of the X raythin Ladies Who Lunch. When my crème brûlée appeared, naturally I ate only the crackly top. This did not escape Sirio's watchful eye, and he asked politely, "Does the crème brûlée not please Madame?" I told him that it was my birthday indulgence to eat only the perfectly burnished sugar. There and then I experienced one of the most rewarding consequences of my having been, as the French say, mal élevée (badly brought up). In no time at all, Sirio brought me five more crème brûlées, and I ate every crispy top.
It hasn't escaped my notice that most people are not like me. They love juicy rare slices of roast beef, the tender breast meat of duck, and a good center slice of roast pork tenderloin. For those people, I am the perfect guest. I'm all too eager to urge my hosts to serve themselves the rare slices while I take the brown, well-done tips that they would otherwise throw to the dogs.
I try to be generous, but when it comes to serving Christmas turkey, I only care that no one else gets that first slice of skin at the tip of the breast or the exposed part of the stuffing at the opening of the cavity—dark and crumbly but still moist from the bird's juices. I whisk it away as if it were unfit for anyone else and then enjoy it while my guests start on the rest of the turkey.
Let's leave comfort food to those who need it. Let them eat their oatmeal, soups and rice puddings, while I head out into the world to prowl for that as-yet-undiscovered crispy tidbit. Then again, perhaps I need those eaters. Maybe what I really want is someone to follow me around and consume the squishy centers I've left behind. Then I'll have found my perfect match.
—Peggy Knickerbocker can be caught filching crispy bits in San Francisco and Paris.