I'd been curious about this cookbook since it was published last fall. Shopsin, formerly the proprietor of a general store in Greenwich Village along with his wife, Eve, transformed the store into a restaurant in 1983 after their rent was raised to the point where "we could no longer pay [it] by selling groceries."
Shopsin's was known for its large and malleable menu, its head cook's surliness, and a number of odd rules about dining there -- no parties larger than four, no copycat ordering. (While these may sound like they contributed to the character known as "the Soup Nazi" on Seinfeld, the Soup Nazi is based on someone else.) There is a certain attraction to eating at restaurants that make it difficult for you.
Calvin Trillin wrote an influential New Yorker article about Shopsin's General Store in 2002 that canonized the place, if not Shopsin, who remained clearly prickly.
Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin (Knopf) blends stories from the restaurant, recipes, and unconventional cooking techniques in equal portions. It's not really a cookbook or a memoir, but it is some sort of off-the-cuff hybrid of both. Shopsin does not rhapsodize about food, but he is devoted to it. He does things his way. Shopsin on special orders: "If someone orders something in such a way that I'm not going to like the finished product or I even think that I might not like the finished product, then fuck 'em! I'm not going to do it."
There is the occasional profanity sprinkled throughout the book, just to impart the experience of being at the restaurant. It's not really necessary, but legend is legend.
Shopsin is a short-order cook with a bent for experimentation. The kitchen purist may find much to be shocked about in the recipes. ("I am not an Alice Waters type of cook," Shopsin notes on p. 220, by which time this doesn't really need to be mentioned.)
On the other hand, cooks who like shortcuts: take notes. For instance, Shopsin uses Aunt Jemima's frozen pancake batter for his pancakes, insisting that a good pancake is really about the griddle and how you use it, and that making from-scratch pancake batter is, for him, a bore. (Real maple syrup -- grade B -- is also a must.) His method for making crepes is to take a flour tortilla, dip it in a cream/rum/egg mix, and throw it on the griddle.
The main spark of the cookbook comes from Shopsin's unusual inspirations, like banana guacamole (not bananas mixed with avocados, but bananas subbed as the main ingredient, instead of avocados, in an otherwise standard guacamole), or the egg pizza (eggs stand in for the crust), or mac 'n cheese pancakes.
Many of the recipes don't come across as all that appealing on the page. But Shopsin uses the same trick with his chili that I swear by -- a half-cup of leftover coffee, a detail most people find off-putting when I tell them about it. So if some of these recipes provoke the same reaction, I'm willing to give Shopsin the benefit of the doubt.
For me, the best part of Eat Me is the facsimile of the menu, which takes up a dozen pages in the center of the book. It is the real heart of the story, the inspiration for the curious home cook, the bored meal planner, the inveterate sandwich experimenter. While the recipe for the "gussy" sandwich (fried pickles, spinach, goat cheese and come-back sauce) is not included, the spirit of the book is such that readers should be willing to come up with a decent version of the gussy themselves.
Irritatingly, the book does not have an index. I guess that was to be expected.