The Goodbye Girl

I'm sitting at my keyboard, nibbling on pate de foie gras and sipping champagne as I mull over how I'll say farewell to the Weekly Planet Food column. Goodbyes are a time to speak honestly, from the heart, so let me begin with a confession — it's not actually foie gras I'm snacking on, but liverwurst, which is pretty much the same thing except for the price tag, no matter what food snobs tell you. And I do have an empty champagne bottle before me, but that's left over from last night's going-away party. The sparkling libation gracing my wineglass right now is actually Alka-Seltzer. Here's my last food-critic tip to you — never sniff the bouquet of Alka-Seltzer when you have a hangover. It feels like dwarves in golf shoes are kicking your nose. Ow. On the CD player is a Simon and Garfunkel disc I haven't listened to in years, but this morning I've had a craving to hear a single song over and over, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," just to hear that part where the music swells and Art Garfunkel raises his voice, strong and sweet and pure, singing, "Sail on silver girl. Sail on by. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way." That single line, so passionate, so poignant, so full of joy and promise, expresses everything I'm feeling as I pack up my grocery bags at the Weekly Planet and prepare to sail off in a new direction. This is a move I intended to make more than a year ago, but as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Plus, any idea of changing the course of my career came to a crashing halt when I found myself thrust into the role of caretaker for ill and elderly relatives. It was a situation so tragic, so consuming, and so exhausting, that by the time it came to its sad end, I barely had enough vitality to crawl into a corner and lick my psychological wounds. Troubled waters, indeed, but now, finally, I've passed over them, and my glad spirits are once again rising up, bright and silvery as a new star. Surely, my time has come to shine.

Still, amid the excitement of a new beginning, I feel a gentle tug at my heartstrings as I say goodbye to you, my funny, intelligent, ardent and outspoken readers, and to the many dear people I've worked with, especially Susan Dix, who, as my editor and publisher, gave me unprecedented freedom to create a form of food reporting that shattered the boundaries of the tired old "ate-this-drank-that" formula, and Susan Edwards, my current editor, whose integrity, courage and passion epitomize everything that inspires true alternative press. And most certainly I'll miss Julie Garisto, my copy editor, who patiently saw to it that my work appeared before you in its best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. Under their combined guidance, I brought home two journalism awards, something the Food column had never before accomplished

I came to this column in May of 1997 as a fling, thinking I'd have fun with it for a year before moving on to more serious writing pursuits. Instead, I found my interest, and my heart, captured by the people I was reporting on. Chefs and restaurateurs are a fascinating lot. Almost without exception, they are intelligent, passionate, self-determined, cantankerous and creative. The best of them are true artists, possessed by demons that tantalize them with visions of Tampa Bay's table as it could be, if only they would drive themselves harder. So they work 12, 14 hours a day and more, forgoing days off, missing out on their mother's birthday, their kids' soccer games, pushing themselves fast and hard and furious to win the approval of one all-important critic — you. These are people I grew first to respect, and finally to love.

You may well be asking, as many of them have, "If you love us, why are you leaving?" Because for years, writing coaches have been telling me, "With a mind like yours, you should be in advertising!" and I've finally decided to listen. It seems there's little room in today's sterile press for those of us born under the astrological sign of Stan Freberg, but the world of advertising welcomes us warmly, and makes good use of our oddball talents. So I'm setting off as a freelance copywriter and creative hired gun where, in a way, my work will be much the same. In these pages, I've used language as a vehicle to drive you into the Tampa Bay area's many fine, independent restaurants, where I believe you'll find the best food, the best experience and the very best value for your dollar. I'll still be doing that, but now I'll be using radio and television and other forms of print as my media. In fact, by the time you read this, I'll already be pulling together the production of my first TV commercial. Some fear the small screen will never be the same.

I'm leaving the Weekly Planet Food column, then, but I'm not leaving the area. With the exception of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, I can't think of anyplace I'd rather live and work than in Tampa Bay. And I'm not leaving the field of journalism. You'll continue to see my work, not only in commercial copy, but also in human-interest stories, including an upcoming Weekly Planet feature on the privatization of care for the mentally ill. Now that I'm unmasked, and no longer need to be anonymous, don't be a stranger. You can contact me by e-mail, [email protected] or at my new office number, 727-323-6810. And now, my dears, as I used to think Roy Rogers was saying, "Happy trails to you, until we eat again!"