Mine is a family of enthusiastic “feeders,” as A.J. Liebling describes anyone who eats for more than mere sustenance, so such decisions are never made cavalierly. As Johnson cautioned Boswell, “he who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.” In Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962), a book I read every year or so, Liebling says: “In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus [that is, the famous madeleine], 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-shell 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.”
Earnest, morally minded eaters are appalled, of course, and will triumphantly point out that Liebling, a year after publishing Between Meals, died from the effects of his over-indulgence in food and drink. But no one wrote better about the pleasures of the plate. You can call it pathology; I call it inviting friends and strangers to the table. Some readers, including W.H. Auden, have celebrated the food writing of M.F.K. Fisher. I’ve always come away peckish from her books. Like Chesterfield, Liebling satisfies. He writes later in Between Meals:
“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. They are indispensable, like a prizefighter’s hours on the road.”
George Orwell, no one’s idea of a trencherman, observes a related phenomenon in his “As I Please” column for Dec. 20, 1946:
“The literature of eating is also large, though mostly in prose. But in all the writers who have enjoyed describing food, from Rabelais to Dickens and from Petronius to Mrs Beeton, I cannot remember a single passage which puts dietetic considerations first. Always food is felt to be an end in itself. No one has written memorable prose about vitamins, or the dangers of an excess of proteins, or the importance of masticating everything thirty-two times. All in all, there seems to be a heavy weight of testimony on the side of overeating and overdrinking, provided always that they take place on recognised occasions and not too frequently.”
Which only makes sense. Guilt-dripping “smart eating” comes served with a rich sauce of didacticism, a well-known appetite-suppressant. Pleasure alone moves writers and readers about food. Rice cakes and sprouts may arouse admiration but not joy. We’ve narrowed tonight’s choice of dining venue to Mexican. Or Italian.