It was a tough call to make: a perfect panna cotta with a ricotta base, some gastrique action and an ingenious ham cookie, or the Old World crumbcake, hard as a true shortbread, with ricotta cheesecake ice cream and hickory-smoked syrup.

I try not to rely too heavily on the desserts at Competition Dining dinners, but competing chefs noted years ago that a strong final course could undo lots of mistakes in the first two. And maybe because I was in dire need of a sugar rush, or maybe because I hadn’t had this kind of dining experience in a while, but just like all the other hooples I scored the desserts highest on my card.

I’ve been off the food beat for a couple years now, but I worked it from the beginning, when I started taking freelance assignments for the Gambit in New Orleans and parlayed that into a restaurant-critic gig for a new monthly called Where Y’At?

It’s the most marketable skill in a feature-writer’s trick bag; food writers have survived the newspaper apocalypse when foreign bureaus, dedicated copy desks and film critics did not. Every publication — monthly, weekly, daily, whatever — has a food section, even the Wall Street Journal and High Times. At Triad City Beat, our food and drink coverage (helmed magnificently by Eric Ginsburg, who assumed the mantle when I stepped down) regularly outranks everything else we do, sometimes to our dismay.

But even when there’s a crazy election going on, people still gotta eat.

I loved the food beat because writing about food is writing about history, art, family, agriculture, business, chemistry, etiquette, personalities, trends, government… sometimes all in the same story.

I loved it because of the opportunities it afforded — and sometimes still affords — me: sneak peaks at new restaurants, access to special menu items, perks like my seat at Competition Dining on Monday.

Years ago I stood in the kitchen of Emeril’s shortly after it opened and watched Chef Emeril Lagasse preside from atop a folding chair over the meticulous breaking down of his kitchen, organized and precise as a military operation.

And just last week, I got to eat hot dogs for an entire day — see this week’s cover story, “Weiner wars of Winston-Salem,” beginning on page 16 for the result. In both cases, I felt pretty lucky just to be doing my job.

Nothing beats the food beat. The whole thing is dessert.

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