James Ward later went onto fame as the ABC 7 critic with the catchphrase "Ciao, ciao for now." Credit: ABC 7

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You probably already suspected this, but being a food critic is the most exciting job in journalism. Forget being a war correspondent. For a food critic, every day is fraught with peril. Every assignment is a descent into the unknown. Hostilities fly from both sides, the readers and the chefs. Not even a food critic’s home is a sanctuary. No wonder they have to go around in disguises!

It was an even more dangerous profession 40 years ago, at least as Toni Schlesinger described it in her 1980 article “Dining For Dollars.” Schlesinger spent time with the city’s major food critics. She watched Allen and Carla Kelson of Chicago magazine resort to the sort of ridiculous-sounding spy tactics people had to use before smartphones (they appeared to speak all their notes into Allen’s necktie, under which they’d concealed a miniature microphone). She listened to the Sun-Times food columnist James Ward wax dramatic—though he was probably aiming for poetic—about his profession as he paced the floors of his 106-year-old Old Town town house while waving a cigarette holder. She exposed the identity of the Sun-Times‘s pseudonymous critic Terry Hunter: “The features department would send sportswriters, political writers, anyone who wanted a free meal.” She found out how much it cost to operate a dining section: $135,000 a year at Chicago, not counting the $92,000 in lost advertising after the Kelsons panned Seven Continents, the fancy restaurant at O’Hare that happened to be owned by Carson Pirie Scott department store.

But that wasn’t the worst of it:

The job is dangerous. [Sun-Times suburban dining columnist Don] Rose wrote he was served an “overcooked fish” at a new seafood restaurant in Oak Brook. The next day the chef called the Sun-Times and screamed and said he was going to stick a knife in Rose.

Ward opened his front door last year and was confronted with a pile of excrement and a note that said, “Stop writing that shit about restaurants.” . . .

Ward thinks people are so excitable about food because “next to one’s private parts, the palate is the dearest thing there is.”

This is quite possibly true. Those amateurs on Yelp don’t know the half of it.