Great Writers at the Table
A Collection of Essays from
The New York Times
(Norton)Billy Collins writes a poem to a fish he once ate in Sicily. R . W. Apple, Jr. remembers the Cold War years He lived on anise-scented beef in Viet Nam and black-market cantaloupe ($40!) in the Republic of Georgia. In Iran during the revolution, reporters survived on borscht and "double portions of caviar with blini and vodka."Pico Iyer has warm memories of his mini-market in Japan --- known as Lawson --- where you could get tickets for Neil Young concerts, "tequila-sunrise cocktails in a can," Earl Grey ice-cream, KissMint chewing gum, and a bus ticket out of town.
"A lovely and tiny twig," says my box of Koeda chocolates, "is a heroine's treasured chocolate born in the forest."Unfortunately, the reader can see the deus ex machina in Eat, Memory. You want to cook up a quick book from the Manhattan Publishers Circle? You grab someone from the New York Times ... say the lady who does a food column; you go back and dig up a few columns, complete with recipes by famous or semi-famous writers; and you publish the whole (generous type, lots of white space) with a catchy title ... how about a take-off on Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory? Zounds! you've got yourself a book that just might go through the roof.
Only Eat, Memory is a paste-up: it smells and tastes like one. Of the twenty-six writers, only four or five manage to dig deeply enough in their bread-basket of memories to come up with something worth writing about. Allen Shawn's memories of his once-a-year meals with his twin retarded sister --- let out but once a year to be with her family --- is delicate and good. Dawn Drzal's recollection of meeting the food writer M. F. K. Fisher in 1987 is another winner. Fisher is laid out with Parkinson's and arthritis, but her wit is intact:
"Now you ask me something really profound, and I will give you an answer."
I laugh nervously. "Well, um, I wanted to ask you about food, but just because --- "
"About my first meal ... my mother's breast."
And Billy Collins brings it off, as always: in this case, a verse about seafood in foreign lands:
As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.
I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.
We can also praise Tucker Carlson's memory of summer work at a B & M baked bean factory in Portland, Maine. Double praise for Julia Child's story of her contretemps with Madame Brassart at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, though it doesn't fit the format: it's an excerpt from her graceful autobiography, My Life in France.
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Few of the others are worth a toot, and there's one selection that is so tasteless (in a book about food!) that we wonder how Ms. Hesser, much less the New York Times, ever allowed it to see the light of day. It is Gabrielle Hamilton's story of a man who applied for a job as a line cook at her Manhattan restaurant (an eatery aptly named "Prune.") The writing is not only hard-hearted, it's an insult to the blind, has an undertone of disgust at disability in general.
A man comes to Ms. Hamilton's restaurant desperate for work. He is well-spoken on the telephone, she says, but, in person, "His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby."
I took a mental inventory of famous accomplished blind people. Could playing the piano be anything like grilling fish over open flame, in the midst of hot fryer fat, sharp knives, macho line cooks and slippery floors?
"What was the preferred term for 'blind' these days, anyway?" she asks.
She decides to let him chop parsley at first, "killing his back in order to have his untethered eyes close up to the cutting board." Untethered eyes. Then she puts him in charge of French fries,
He pulled a full fresh piping-hot basket of shoe-string fries up out of the fat with his right hand and turned them out to drain --- not into the waiting stack of giant coffee filters he held in his left hand, but into the thin air directly adjacent, pouring them out onto the dirty rubber mats and his clogs.
Usually each of the writings in Eat, Memory ends with a recipe having something to do with the story just told. Ms. Hamilton's is an exception: this one is not followed by a recipe for shoe-string fries.--- Lolita Lark