Sunday, August 9, 2009
It started after reading a charming editorial by one of my favorite NYT op-ed contributors, Verlyn Klinkenborg, entitled Some Thoughts on the Pleasure of Being a Re-Reader. In the piece the writer gives a rather long list of books that he re-reads every year. Among his favorite authors is A. J. Liebling, a former journalist for the New Yorker who died in 1963. Since I happened to have Between Meals, an Appetite for Paris by Liebling sitting, as yet unread, on my shelves, I pulled it down and read it from cover to cover. The book chronicles Liebling's student days in Paris during the 1920s and is basically an homage to French cooking, as it seems Liebling ate his way through the time he lived there. I have a serious weakness for books about France in general, but Paris in particular. If the book happens to have a focus on the food, then I probably own it. I may not have read it, but it's there on the shelf. Among the numerous books about French food I have read are A Goose in Toulouse, by Mort Rosenblum, the classic The Food of France, by Waverley Root, in which he divides France into three culinary sections based on the type of grease used in cooking: butter, oil or pork/goose fat and almost everything by M.F.K. Fisher. I've even read quite a lot of The Physiology of Taste, by Brillat-Savarin, who inspired them all. Yet I hadn't read any A.J. Liebling before this summer. I'm also a bit of a sucker for stories of Paris in the early part of the twentieth century. Has any city in history ever been such a symbol of freedom, creativity or the good life? Is there any more romantic image than Paris in the 20s? Has any other city ever inspired so many songs, books or poems? Has any city been a safe-haven to more foreigners? At the turn of the century American artists came to Paris by the scores, to learn at the feet of the French Impressionist and Expressionist painters. Mary Cassatt was the most famous of the lot, but there were many more who achieved prominence and who launched the American Impressionist school of painting. Then came jazz musicians and entertainers. Black performers particularly appreciated the sense of independence and acceptance they discovered in Paris. Josephine Baker was celebrated in Paris in a way she could not have been in New York at that time. Of course the twenties brought writers from all over the world as well. Samuel Beckett found the environment of Paris nurtured his creativity. The same was true for his fellow countryman, James Joyce, who of course couldn't even get his books published in his native Ireland. American writers like Henry Miller, Sherwood Anderson and Ezra Pound found their voices in the City of Light. Gertrude Stien, said "America is my country and Paris is my hometown". She was just one of many Americans who found something in Paris that they could not find at home. Certainly Ernest Hemingway was shaped by the years he spent in Paris. His Movable Feast, which has just been reissued this year, and rather controverisally edited by his grandson, is a wonderful recounting of the 20s in Paris. In my view it's the best thing he ever wrote. Almost all the books written in the 20s about Paris, mention the café culture and rhapsodize about the meals. Food was an integral part of the French experience. A J. Liebling was living in the Latin quarter while Hemmingway and other fellow American writers were populating Montparnasse. He says "The Americans in Montparnasse, sitting at their tables in front of Le Sélect and talking at each other, reminded me of monkeys on a raft." Liebling's views are certainly not in the main-stream. And while he never achieved the kind of acclaim that many other American writers of his generation did, he is a real writer's writer. Reading his sentences is like tasting the meals he so lovingly describes. He famously said of himself "I can write faster than anyone who can write better and better than anyone who can write faster." Between Meals is a very enjoyable read! Liebling certainly expresses some notions about Paris, food and women that one doesn't often hear. For one thing he begins the book by extolling the virtues of a big appetite. He regrets the current fashion in women's figures and praises the large, round and buxom women of his parent's generation. He regards the diminuation in the number of courses at the table (he prefers at least six) as a possible health crisis, as he postulates that losing one's big appetite is the beginning of a descent into death. I got the sense reading him that here is a true glutton. It was a lot of fun to read the book therefore, since gluttony is particularly frowned upon in our time and gluttons so often are over looked and misunderstood. Liebling marks the high point in French cuisine as the early 20th century, before the first war. He says that its decline was already beginning in the 20s, especially effected by the flapper figure and the fear of fat. Julia Child also marks that prejudice against butter which occurred during the mid-twentieth century, as really the death knell of fine dining. Even if Paris is not the same creative mecca it was in the early part of last century, and even if French cooking is no longer the only fine cuisine in the world, Americans still flock to Paris. There are 16,000 Americans who live full time in Paris. There is the American Hospital, the American Cathedral, the American Library and even a store called Thanksgiving where you can buy all foods American. When you walk down the street in Paris, 1 out of every 125 people you pass on the street was born in America. In Saint Germain des Pres English is heard almost as much as French.