My inadequacy at table
A.J. Liebling makes me feel inadequate. So do Jeffrey Steingarten and Joseph Wechsberg and every other older or deceased male food writer. In fact, the women do, too, including MFK and Elizabeth David. And this is just about everything I’ve read; I have a long way to go in the genre.
The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol…A good appetite gives an eater room to turn around in.
That passage comes from the first chapter of Between Meals, and I can’t help but feel that it’s directed at me. But even Liebling, who came of age in Paris in the 1920s, wrote romantically of the previous generation who could eat even more than he did, people with an “unblemished appetite and unfailing good humor…free of the ulcers that come from worrying about a balanced diet.” Liebling died young, but he lived well and is still worshiped as a writer.
Every book I read about food is full of the author and the author’s friends eating outrageous quantities of food and drinking magnum after magnum of wine (think Bill and Mario in Heat). Elizabeth David writes of drinking a bottle of wine for breakfast, and of hiking up a mountain with her friend and sharing a liter at the summit. Steingarten visits a fruit farm in California and eats several pounds of fruit before sitting down to lunch (and then he eats candy and chocolate for the rest of the day until dinnertime).
Is there something wrong with me? I don’t have room in my body or my day to start a meal with a gross of oysters and a bottle of wine. I consider myself an eater, and I can make it through a multi-course meal, but I’m not a bottomless pit like many of our most celebrated food writers. It’s rare for me to have a second helping of a main course, and Nathan and I can’t drink more than a bottle of wine between us without regretting it. Are we so concerned with our livers that we aren’t living fully? Did these pre–liver era eaters honestly relish eating such gluttonous repasts? I have a hard time believing they ate this way regularly and took the endless pleasure in it that their books describe.