Saturday, October 18, 2008

`Great Pride in His Appetite'

From the strip-mall parking lot the Indian restaurant resembles a dry cleaner’s or a dealer in wholesale plumbing equipment – mansard roof, hand-painted signs, dusty windows the size of pool tables. We came for the lunch buffet on Friday as the place was filling quickly with Microsoft workers. Both of us made two trips to the steam tables for vegetable pakora, chicken tikka masala, lamb saag, cucumber kootu, hariyali kofta curry and naan. Food was plentiful, amply spiced and delicious. I thought about A.J. Liebling because it was his birthday, and how much he would have loved the menu though I don’t remember him ever mentioning Indian food. His culinary predilection was French but he was no snob; rather, equal parts gourmand and gourmet. His friend and longtime colleague at The New Yorker, Philip Hamburger, wrote a marvelous foreword to Back Where I Came From when North Point Press reissued it in 1989. Of necessity, much of it is devoted to food:

“Elaborate preparations were always made when Joe was about to come to one’s own house for dinner. His culinary standards were high and vast. If chicken was to be the order of the day, a chicken was ordered for all the other guests, and two chickens for Joe. The same with lobsters: one each for the regulation size stomachs, and two and perhaps three doomed crustaceans for the honored guest. In a sense Joe expected this special attention. His self-esteem included great pride in his appetite. Hosts unaware of his peculiar talents in this department often were unaware of his keen disappointment if the table at which he sat was not laden to his complete satisfaction.”

How Liebling would have detested our nagging national obsession with cholesterol and carbohydrates. I’ve watched so many meals curdle as fellow-diners dissected every forkful and whined about their next penitential visit to the gym. Frank Wilson touched on this recently:

“…a preoccupation with one's own well-being equates to a preoccupation with self, and therefore practically precludes a capacity for love, which necessarily shifts attention away from the self toward the other. That's one reason I try to avoid people who spend too much time in the gym or at spas and who are always going on about what is healthy or what isn't, always in the thrall of some fad or other. Bloody self-centered bores.”

Read any page of Between Meals, one of Liebling’s masterpieces, for a reliable antidote to the food prigs:

“In the heroic age before the First World War, there were men and women who ate, in addition to a whacking lunch and a glorious dinner, a voluminous souper after the theater or the other amusements of the evening. I have known some of the survivors, octogenarians of unblemished appetite and unfailing good humor – spry, wry, and free of the ulcers that come from worrying about a balanced diet – but they had no emulators in France since the doctors there discovered the existence of the human liver.”

I’ve met two writers who knew Liebling in his later years – Tony Hiss and James Salter. Both acknowledged he was often depressed near the end of his life, but he remained a deeply amusing, generous, joy-giving, pleasure-loving man. He must have been first-rate company, as he still is in his books.

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