A writer writing about a writer. Never an easy thing to do, but it makes it so much more difficult when the writer (me) is writing a memorial to one of the best-known food writers of our time.
What we lost when Josh Ozersky suddenly passed away on May 4th, 2015 was not the food personality he became known as but the gifted writer he was. He was the founding editor of Grub Street, the official food writer at Esquire, wrote for The New York Times and Medium. He was also the founder of Meatopia.
Ozersky wasn’t your typical ‘foodie’ writer. He didn’t really talk about how something tasted, he described not only how the food made him feel, but the entire cooking experience. His writing style stemmed from his horror of the prose found in the books and articles of old school food writer, MFK Fischer. If I may, her writing was seriously soupy where Josh tore into an article like a wild boar.
Josh predicted the meat craze way back in 2003 with his first book, Meat Me in Manhattan. Since then America has gone hog wild over everything from Kentucky Dry Cured Bacon to Rocky Mountain Oysters (Bull’s balls y’all). His rallying cry was not just bringing meat back to the table but the need to focus on quality meat that doesn’t come from a factory but is actually raised on a farm. He was the first to bring butchers into the forefront while frying fast food in several of his articles and his book, The Hamburger, a History.
Ozersky came to The Manual when he and his wife, Danit, had moved out to Portland, Oregon so he could focus more on his writing, away from the chaotic pulse of New York City. We were introduced and gave him several suggestions of what we were looking for in terms of video content and he just ran with it. He knew more people in Portland than we did (and we are based here!).
While much of what we have discussed is public knowledge, we wanted to get to the ‘meat’ of Ozersky. We reached out to his widow, Danit, to peel back some of the layers of this complex and wonderful man and here is what she had to say.
Josh and NYC
Josh was born in Miami, but the family’s heart was always in New York. His grandparents were Lower East Side Ellis Island immigrant Jews, smart but poor. And like lots of American Jews, they expressed love through preparing and eating food. So New York, there’s that thread of inevitability. Jewish culture, intellectuals, food, writers etc. are a significant aspect of New York’s identity. And vice-versa: New York is like Jerusalem for American Jews. The center of it all. Clearly there was that element for Josh, too, sort of a birthright, or something.
From a young age, Josh knew that his gift was his ability to write. That’s all he ever wanted to do: write. Everything he did was about becoming a great writer. And, he thought, as with so many other grand pursuits, that if you want to get to the top, you gotta go to New York. He told me that his life always felt like it was in orbit around New York. He moved there after college when he went to NYU for his masters in Journalism, but like many writers before him, struggled to find a home for his craft. So he went to Notre Dame for his PhD and then lived briefly upstate with his first wife. But NYC was always the goal. After his divorce in 2001, he finally moved to New York permanently. He loved everything about New York. He wanted to be a part of it. To make it in the city that never sleeps, etc. etc.
New York rewards ambitious, unrelenting, smart people who know how to hustle and Josh was all of those things. When he got there he didn’t know anyone, but by the end he knew everyone. And they all knew him. As we all know, he was quite a character, utterly unique, and New York is always interested in eccentric people. Like most other writers starting out, Josh didn’t have money, which is the hard part about New York, but he was totally focused on establishing himself as a writer, so he didn’t care. He knew he could not have had his career if he had not been in New York.
But it was no sacrifice, he really LOVED New York.
Making it to the top
It might sound like a cliché, but hard work and talent got him to the top. He also said there was a big element of luck. That first job at Grub Street was where it all finally came together, and that was a job he had applied for. Blind. He didn’t know anyone there or have connections. They hired him based solely on his writing clips. He starting meeting the chefs at the same time and having that access was definitely an important part of his success, but he had to earn that respect from them. Most chefs don’t fraternize with food writers. Josh was not someone you forgot, for better or worse. He was quite a character. Because he wasn’t afraid to voice a contrary opinion, he was sometimes perceived as pretty polarizing, but no one ever denied his brilliance. However, Josh also worked his ass off. He worked every day, tirelessly. Every morning when he woke up, he got right on the computer, took a brief nap in the afternoon, worked some more, went to eat dinner somewhere, then came home and worked until bedtime. But lots of people work really hard. Ultimately it was his talent that got him that job at Esquire.
What he was most proud of
He was a genuinely happy and optimistic person. I think he was very proud of his accomplishments, but there was always a drive to do more. I mean, he wasn’t perfect. Everything he did, he did big, including his mistakes. He would absolutely acknowledge that. He was so much fun to be around. He was an excellent human being. He was a true bon vivant, and I think that joy comes across in all his work. The most beautiful thing about him, what I’m most proud of, is that he lived his dream. Despite early sadness and struggle, he managed to live his dreams and find happiness. Truly remarkable.
There’s also a case to be made that he would have been most proud to have had his obituary in The New York Times. He always believed in himself, but he didn’t know how well known or well respected he was. He would be thrilled. That makes me smile when I get sad.
The article that defines him
The article about his father in Saveur was Josh at his best. He said so immediately after he wrote it and it was obvious to everyone who read it. A memoir was in the works. So many people wanted to know more. And there was so much more to know. He was a fascinating person. That’s what ultimately makes his death so tragic. He had worked so hard to accomplish his goals and he had just finally gotten there. He was on the brink of this major next level of achievement – professionally and emotionally. It was finally all happening, which sucks for those of us who were rooting for him. I was so excited to see what came next. But he died a happy man. He was having fun right up to the end. I miss him terribly.
We miss him too. We are honored to have been able to work with such a talent and are thankful for his brilliant time on this Earth.
To enjoy some of Josh’s brilliance, here is a list of posts he is either mentioned in or he is featured in.
Photo courtesy of Esquire.com