I just happened to lay my hands on a recent copy of The New York Times’ “Dining & Wine” section that a friend left hanging around. Believe me, I don’t buy the Times. At $2, the copy is no longer good value for starting fires or lining the toucan’s cage.
In typical Times fashion the section had a front-page piece on the culinary taste of one Bobby Seale, 74, former Black Panther chairman, who stood trial for murder and spent two years in the hoosegow for contempt. Guess what—Chairman Seale likes eating “Bobbyque.”
Well, this is the best piece in the section, although there is a lot of Times hand-wringing over dietary guidelines from the federal government, the risks of hypertension, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease arising from a fatty diet. If the Times can’t find a writer who relishes eating, you wonder why they bother with this joyless “Dining & Wine” section. With only four advertisements, it can’t be profitable.
I submit that the word “Dining” is a clue. The only thing worse would be “Fine Dining.” Look out, my friends, when you see these rubriques. Lift your feet, because you are about to be swamped with a mini-tsunami of pretentious bullshit.
Good food writing requires a person with an appetite like the author and glutton Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd. According to The Gossip Family Handbook, he ordered the largest breakfast ever served at London’s Connaught Hotel: porridge, kippers, steak, kidneys, eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, sautéed potatoes, mushrooms, and fruit salad, all washed down with Buck’s Fizz. He was most famous as the “father of the modern obituary” at The Telegraph. He was also briefly the Spectator’s restaurant critic, a gig he gave up after a near-fatal heart attack. That’s what you call devotion to one’s craft.
Another author and glutton was A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker. The best boxing writer since Pierce Egan, he described one of Sugar Ray Robinson’s opponents, a pugilist by the name of Georgie Abrams, as “so hairy that when knocked down he looked like a rug.”
Liebling’s Between Meals (1962) is a classic. He writes that appetite is key. Just look at Proust, he says, whose memory was famously tweaked by eating a madeleine, a cookie with so little brandy it “would not furnish a gnat with an alcohol rub.” In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, says Liebling, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite: “On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.”
Liebling died two months after his 59th birthday. It is said that his fingers, toes, and even his ears were disfigured by gout.
Boswell said in 1763 that Dr. Johnson’s appetite “was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible.” The great lexicographer and literary critic was “not a temperate man either in eating or drinking.”
The classical archetype of the glutton or gourmand as writer is perhaps Archestratus, a contemporary of Aristotle, whose poem “Life of Luxury” has come down to us in fragments and references from later writers. He was a dedicated hedonist who, according to James Davidson in Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Ancient Athens, “sailed the known world of his day for the sake of his belly and the parts beneath his belly.” For the scholar seeking further knowledge, Professor Davidson teaches courses in Greek sex and Mediterranean eating at the University of Warwick, Coventry. Fucking and eating; how come they didn’t teach this stuff when I was in college?
Books by chefs are often boring. I’ve read works by Carême, who was known as “King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings,” as well as Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, but for my money these are how-to tomes. The best writers on eating are not the chefs but the trenchermen.
Among the most scintillating was French judge Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who in 1825 published The Physiology of Taste. He formulated the notions that the right order of eating is from the most substantial dish to the lighter and of drinking from mild wine to the headier.
It was this gourmand-philosopher who memorably said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” And in an obiter dictum that resonates to this day, he warned that “The destiny of nations hangs on the way they feed themselves.”
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