Julia Reed Remembers Johnny Apple

The first time I dined with the legendary R. W. Apple, Jr., it was in St. Petersburg in 1997 at the newly opened Grand Hotel Europe. We'd been traveling with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her press spokesman, Jamie Rubin, who was familiar with Apple's gargantuan appetite and gourmet tastes and who had arranged a small dinner with courses that were to be worked out between the chef and Apple himself. Things were off to a good start with vast amounts of caviar and a tasting of the local vodkas when one of Rubin's aides interrupted. Madame Secretary was about to be given a private tour of the Hermitage Museum—would we like to tag along? I was halfway out of my seat when Johnny bellowed, "Hang on!" There was still caviar on the table, he reminded me indignantly, and several more courses to follow. He was genuinely torn between the opportunity to see, up close and without crowds, two of the handful of Da Vincis in the entire world, not to mention the Rembrandts and Rodins, the forty Picassos, or the Winter Palace itself.

Fortunately, diplomacy ruled and Rubin persuaded the chef to agree to simply stop the dinner until we returned. So after viewing one of the world's great art collections we returned to the table, the chef resumed cooking, and by 2 a.m. Apple and I were ensconced in the bar, enjoying our second Armagnac, oblivious to the looming baggage call just five hours away.

It was a window into the life of Mrs. Apple, or his beloved "Betsey," as she is known to a generation of New York Times readers who have vicariously traveled the globe with her and her husband. It was also a window into Apple's seemingly effortless abilities as a journalist. He had made his career covering politics (he was the first to realize that a relatively unknown former governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, might actually be president), but by this time he was hardly a regular member of the traveling White House or diplomatic press corps. In fact, he wrote about pretty much whatever he wanted—politics still, but also art and architecture, and, most vividly, food. At the time of our trip, Albright had recently discovered her Jewish heritage, something she claimed she'd been unaware of, to the point of not noticing during her first official trip to Prague that her family's name was on the wall at Prague's Pinkas Synagogue, where the Czech victims of the holocaust were memorialized. Apple had been sent to chronicle her slightly touchy return to the scene. The resulting page-one piece for The New York Times was a triumph of deftness, but Apple was happiest about the fact that he had managed to get the word "gloaming" into a hard-news piece

He had unparalleled style as a writer but it didn't stop there. He wore tailored English shirts and though his girth reflected his appetite, he was always beautifully turned out. During one leg of the Albright trip, he asked if I didn't have on a suit made by the "young man who took over for Dior." He was referring to Yves St. Laurent, and and my suit had indeed been made by him. In Prague he turned me on to the Moser glass he had long collected and insisted I buy I vase that I cherish still. He knew everything—from where to get the best boudin in rural Louisiana to the finest (if not the only) Italian chef in all of Lithuania. On an Albright stop in the capital city of Vilnius, our colleagues announced that they were off in search of "authentic Lithuanian food." Apple said dryly that he hoped they enjoyed large doses of goose fat and escorted me to a leisurely lunch of freshly made mozzarella followed by spaghetti Amatriciana and copious amounts of Barolo.

He was generous and unstintingly loyal to his friends—as well as to the cities he loved. In April, during a brief break in chemotherapy treatments to treat the thoracic cancer that ultimately felled him, he visited my adopted city of New Orleans and used the vehicle of a long lunch at Galatoire's with his good friend and Tabasco president Paul McIlhenny to write a love letter to the recovering city. The following night my husband took Betsey and him to dinner—at two restaurants. I had told him about the new Cochon and he insisted on sampling several dishes there before moving on to our "real" dinner at August where we had a modest three courses each and only four bottles of wine, no Armagnac, which was Apple's version of not being on top of his game.

Though aspiring political writers still comb through the daunting Apple archive, in his more recent journalistic incarnation, he inspired the worship of a young group of foodies, including John T. Edge, founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance; Corby Kummer, food writer for Atlantic magazine, and Brett Anderson, food critic at The New Orleans Times-Picayune. (I call them the cult of Johnny; they called him "the great one.") After Apple got sick, the group e-mailed each other updates on his progress and conspired to send him all manner of treats, including an okra gumbo from chef "Hoppin' John" Taylor just before his last surgery and some pork sandwiches to the hospital just afterward.

The last time I saw him, in Washington on the Saturday before he died, his actual appetite was diminished for the first time, perhaps, ever, but he was hungry for everything else. He had just finished Bill Buford's "Heat," a chronicle of working in Mario Batali's kitchen at Babbo, and implored me to read his friend Ward Just's new novel, three copies of which was on the dining table. He showed me the Chez Panisse anniversary calendar sent by his good friend Alice Waters and asked for a tiny taste of the andouille sausage in the care package I had brought up from his fans at Cochon. The next day, I planned to be at the reopening of Commander's Palace, which had been closed since Katrina. It was another of his favorite New Orleans haunts, and he instructed me to report back immediately as to the new interior design and menu.

I did, of course. We ordered an Apple-sized amount of food and wine and toasted many times to his health, believing to the last that his iron will and love of life might well pull him through. Alas, though he had beaten the cancer, the treatment had been too much finally, even for a heart as big as his.