Jim Duncan – 30 years and counting10/31/2018
He’s not your traditional food critic.
“The guys running this restaurant are from Hyderabad, India.”
Now you just have to wait for it, folks. There’s always more. His mind is sparking and firing and making connections. Wait, wait, wait…
“Hyderabad is to India, food-wise, what Parma is to Italy and Lyon is to France and Barcelona is to Spain. It’s where it happens. Osaka to Japan is probably the best example of all. Osaka — you were forbidden royal pleasures or military pleasures, so the only thing to spend money on was food and entertainment. And therefore that’s where it happened.”
What just happened?
Jim Duncan happened.
As I sit with him eating Indian food, I am not surprised that the conversation, in just a few sentences, travels from Des Moines to India to France to Spain to Italy, and then somehow ends up in Japan. This is just Duncan’s mind at work. Connections teased together over a life of travel and stories and writing.
And if you wait a bit, his sly humor will sneak in the door.
So, you graduated from Roosevelt High School?
“I never got anything but A’s at Roosevelt. I got screwed. I had a perfect grade point. I took the toughest courses, and yet I ended up seventh in my class. Tied for first, but they rated me seventh.”
“They justified it as a character issue,” he says with just the ghost of a smile.
Of course, he has character issues. Duh. It’s why I’m sitting there with him. And if you look closely, usually on the edges of his columns in this magazine, this same understated, self-deprecating humor eventually appears.
“Growing up in Des Moines during the 1950s and ’60s, I graduated from college before I knew what an avocado tasted like. Ashamed that I did not know what this fruit was when first offered one, I bit into it as if it were an apple, skin and all. I then claimed I was ‘into whole foods.’ Des Moines has changed a lot since then.” – Jim Duncan, CITYVIEW, 2015.
Ba da bing!
A grizzled man of 71. Hat pulled down over his long hair. Glasses slightly ruffled. Gentle eyes that have no room for cynicism or negativism or pre-conceived labels. He scans past me taking in the bustling restaurant… my guess, he’s looking for hooks to piece together a story. A smile blossoms. Ah, he must have found someone with a story that needs telling.
Duncan has been doing this for 30 years. No kidding. Of course, in that same amount of time the Thirty Years’ War began and ended, Saturn went once around the sun, and maybe, with some luck, you paid off your 30-year mortgage.
“Twenty-five years ago, this publication began subjecting readers to the reflections of an alcoholic who had recently quit drinking. I thought that gave me an alternative point of view, and editors agreed. At that time, this paper was named Skywalker.” – Jim Duncan, CITYVIEW, 2013.
That piece of writing from five years ago was not hyperbole. He pitched CITYVIEW’s publisher at the time, Connie Wimer, on a column that looked with fresh eyes at a world that was quickly changing.
“I always thought I’d be a writer. It took me a long time to actually become a writer. After high school, I only applied to one college, Harvard. And I did not get accepted, which was inconceivable. I had no plan B.”
Duncan laughs softly at his naiveté.
He ended up graduating from the University of Wisconsin. Due to the nature of his major in South Asian Studies, he spent a semester each at five different universities, and then a year in India — where he did a thesis on, of all things, variations in curry found in Indian villages separated by mere miles.
It is no surprise that after graduating he began to seriously write about food… and art and sports and sustainable agriculture and anything else.
“I’ve always had an interest in food. I started cooking my own meals when I was 10. I said something critical to my mom, and she said, ‘Why don’t you just do it yourself?’ And I did. We were both happy.”
And now you’re a food critic among other things.
“True, but I am not a traditional food critic. I have way too much sympathy for restaurant owners. It’s a brutal business without big margins. I know how hard everyone works. I don’t want to cut people down who don’t deserve it. Sometimes the kindest thing I can do is to not review a place. I want to tell our readers where they can find great food or unique food or something special.”
So, you’re a happy man, living the life you want to live?
“Well, I really wanted to be a basketball player.”
“Listen, I’m always just trying to tell a good story. And I like people. What can I say? If I didn’t have stories to write, I’d know fewer people and I’d have a less rich life.”
And so would we all. ♦
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: