Thursday, July 23, 2020

Two Essential Paris Books

"If...the first requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite, the second is to put in your apprenticeship as a feeder when you have enough money to pay the check but not enough to produce indifference to the size of the total. ... The optimum financial position for a serious apprentice feeder is to have funds in hand for three more days, with a reasonable, but not certain, prospect of reinforcements thereafter. The student at the Sorbonne waiting for his remittance, the newspaperman waiting for his salary, the freelance writher waiting for a check that he has cause to believe is in the mail -- all are favorably situated to learn. (It goes without saying that it is essential to be in France.) ... The clear-headed voracious man learns because he tries to compose his meals to obtain an appreciable quantity of pleasure from each. It is from the weighing of delights against their cost that the student eater (particularly if he is a student at the University of Paris) erects the scale of values that will serve him until he dies or has to reside in the Middle West for a long period." (Between Meals, pp 51-52)
Two essential books about Americans in Paris:
Between Meals, published 1959.
The Gourmand's Way, published 2017.
Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling is one of my favorite food memoirs. It covers a broad range of topics about Liebling’s life in Paris, especially during his student year there in 1926-1927. I have read it several times, and mentioned it often, but I’ve never written a real review of it until now.

I've started this review with the first paragraph from the chapter titled "Just Enough Money" because the topic of money is always relevant to Liebling's discussions of food in Paris. As a student, he had enough, but no surplus, and describes how he often had to choose how to order to conserve funds: with six francs, for example, he could have "a half bottle of Tavel supérieur, at three and a half francs, and braised beef heart and yellow turnips, at two and a half" or he could opt for "a contre-filet of beef, at five francs, and a half bottle of ordinaire, at one franc."

Besides the freedom to choose the most expensive options, a richer man might never go into the small and unpretentious but excellent restaurants where Liebling learned about real French food in the 1920s. For example, he discovered a wide variety of fish and how to cook them, not just the ones that are served at expensive and opulent restaurants. A rich man's options would be limited by always eating in higher-class places. "A diet passed chiefly on game birds and oysters becomes a habit as easily as a diet of jelly doughnuts and hamburgers." A rich man would seldom see even the pot-au-feu, "the foundation glory of French cooking." On the other hand, a really poor man would have no chance at gastronomic education at all.

Note that it's always a man. Liebling views women as a sort of convenience or acquired taste more or less the same as the food. His century-old attitudes are obviously out-of-date: he often invited young women to eat with him in exchange for their company at meals and then later in the evening. I prefer to pretend I didn't see this part of the book, even though it's just as amusing as the food parts. There's no way to be sure of the actual perspective of the girls that didn't (he suggests) have quite the depth of feelings and grasp of life that he had.

A.J.Liebling (source)
Liebling the student was always able to find perfect little mom-and-pop restaurants where the cook was superbly talented and the traditions of France were perfectly maintained. If he's creating a mythic version of Paris, it's a myth that we can all believe in -- or would like to. His view of a golden age of Paris in reach of a young man with just enough money is irresistible! But after a year receiving his father's generous monthly checks so that he could "study," he had to return to Providence and a job as an apprentice newspaper writer.

Twelve years later, in 1939, Liebling had established himself as a very successful journalist. He was writing for the New Yorker, which assigned him to write the Paris newsletter normally produced by Janet Flanner. For several months, during the "phony war" or "drôle de guerre" before real fighting began, he covered the early days of World War II. Most Parisians had already fled when he arrived, but the restaurants were still serving glorious meals, and he had a generous expense account that allowed him to eat and drink at the best and most famous restaurants in Paris, and at the small less famous but marvelous ones as well.

For example, at a small restaurant owned by the "Bouillon" family, he was told that business was dead for lack of customers, but the markets were full of "game, shellfish, anything you like." The daughter of the family "could make a soufflé Grand Marnier that stood up on a flat plate." He became a regular at the restaurant and sometimes accompanied M. Bouillon to Les Halles where they bought "oysters, artichokes, or pheasants" and drank Calvados or Pouilly-Fumé.  (pp 133-135)

In addition to the meals he enjoyed in 1939, Liebling documented his realization that the golden age of French gastronomy had ended before he had even arrived in the 1920s. The women were better before the first war, too, but let's drop that subject. By the time he wrote his memoir, long after the war, the end of the apprentice system meant that chefs were no longer being trained in the old traditions, and he foresaw the end of the great tradition soon. Did it really end? How will we even know?

The Liberation of Paris, 1944 (source)
In 1944, as the horrendous war was finally ending, Liebling accompanied the US forces as they entered Paris. By chance he was one of the few reporters present at the formal surrender of the German Commandant Dietrich von Choltitz to the French General LeClerc. His dramatic trip through Normandy and into Paris is the subject of the first chapter of Justin Spring's book The Gourmand's Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy.  (blogged here)

Justin Spring's book, like Liebling's, is essential reading for modern-day Paris lovers because it so clearly asks the question of how Americans (and other non-French people) came to see France and French cuisine as an important and central gastronomic wonder of the world. Of course I don't think that the incomparable uniqueness of Paris is only a myth, but it's intriguing to ask why France has such an exalted place in our imaginations.

To wrap up this review, and to share a very important and relevant thought with other participants in the ongoing blog party Paris in July (link), here is the beginning of New Yorker piece that commemorated the 100th anniversary of A.J.Liebling’s birth in 1904. He died in 1963, so this was written long after his death.

A. J. Liebling at one hundred.
“From the start of the American republic, the most tantalizing means of indulging a youthful desire for escape and re-creation has been the sojourn in Paris. It’s a long tradition, amply described. The literature begins with the decorous engagements in the letters of Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams and leads soon enough to the earthier liaisons in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Tropic of Cancer.” Much is promised to the prospective traveller: if not a passage of enlightenment or erotic adventure, then at least a taste for boiled innards and string beans done right.” (source)
It seems to me that this paragraph -- like Liebling's and Spring's books -- captures the very long tradition of the American longing for Paris and the vast number of accounts of how this longing has been satisfied. These many accounts are clearly a great influence on me and on the other participants in Paris in July.

This review © 2020 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com. 
Illustrations as credited.


Lisbeth @ The Content Reader said...

What a fascinating book. I have to try to find it. It is interesting to read reflections from earlier on. One has to like you do, stand above certain remarks about women. I am sure the rest is an interesting reflection of the time.

Lavender and Lime ( said...

Some men still think like that! It would put me off my food, that's for sure.

Jeanie said...

I'd never heard of Liebling until I read The Gourmand's Way, which was one of my best books of 2019. (And I heard about it from you.) Now I want to add the Liebliing memoir to my reading list. It sounds fabulous!

Catalyst said...

Yes, Liebling certainly represented a different way of dealing with the world. But lucky him for his food adventures in Paris.

My name is Erika. said...

I have the Gourmand's Way but haven't read it yet. So many good books to read and never enough time. I have it on my nightstand though so hopefully I will read it soon. Thanks for your review.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I read (and loved) the Liebling book. He makes a wise statement about the value of having some but not too much money when it comes to learning about food.

I've not read the second book. I shall add it to my wish list.

Beth F said...

Both good books!

Jackie McGuinness said...

Thanks, Mae, I just bookmarked one of them at our library.

Marg said...

I definitely long for the idea of Paris! And the reality of it as well.