March 9th, 2012
I started this book feeling a little grumpy: when I finish reading a novel and pick up a work of nonfiction, it requires a little adjustment—and maybe this is especially true when switching from a novel to episodic nonfiction like this book. Eating started not as a book but as a recipe column in the Style section of The New York Times, and it feels it: it’s not exactly a chronological memoir, as Epstein goes from talking about Paris circa 1954 in one chapter to lobsters in the next to cooking Chinese food at home in the next. It’s a very snacky sort of book, and at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
The way that Epstein integrates recipes into the text took some getting used to, too. “Recipes should be more like stories than like maps or formulae,” he writes in the first chapter, and his recipes are indeed story-like: they’re in prose and are process-based; they don’t always give precise measurements, and they’re often in the first person and sometimes in the past tense: he’s telling the story of something he made (as in: “I boiled a three- or four-pound lobster for fifteen minutes or so in just enough water to cover and a glassful of white wine”) (3, 90). The style was interesting but also tricky for me: when I read some books with recipes, I skim the recipes until or unless I find something I’m really interested in. But here it felt like that would somehow be cheating, since the recipes are prose, not lists of steps and ingredients. But it’s hard work, isn’t it, to read that kind of recipe? I mean, to really pay attention to it, to actually think about its components, to imagine, say, a man in his kitchen making pasta: the water boiling, the oil heating, the smell of garlic, jalapeño, oregano. Pleasing, but the sort of thing I can only read in small bits or else it all becomes a blur. And, too, there were moments where Epstein seemed to be writing for a fairly limited audience of city-dwellers, which is OK I guess, but slightly off-putting, even though I’m one of those city-dwellers. Like, in one recipe he says to use “only very fresh mozzarella, made the same day”—well, sure, here in Brooklyn I actually can walk to the Italian store ten minutes from here and buy very fresh mozzarella, sometimes still-warm, but not everyone lives somewhere where that’s possible. And the recipes assume a certain level of competence in the kitchen, or at least a willingness to seek out complementary recipes that are more step-by-step: there’s more than one recipe that mentions using homemade mayonnaise, without actually telling you how to make it.
Still, all these quibbles aside, I found myself quite enjoying this book after all. Epstein is really good at capturing specific meals as well as the atmosphere of a particular time and place, whether that time and place is New York City after 9/11 or Maine in the years around WWII. It was wonderful to read about Epstein’s food memories: lobster rolls or fried clams on Long Island, a hamburger from a lakeside shack in Maine, sundaes from the now-defunct Bailey’s in Boston (where he would get vanilla ice cream topped with hot fudge, marshmallow, and pecans: oh my goodness I want one right now). There are passages like this, about Hamburger Heaven in the ’50s and ’60s:
In those genteel surroundings, where Holly Golightly might occupy the next seat, one was served at the counter or at seats along the wall with hinged trays, like infants’ high-chair trays, by stately black waiters in white coats who delivered our hamburgers like a sacrament with ketchup and bowls of sweet pepper relish and raw onion. After lunch on days when the Queens or Caronia had landed, I would walk across Park Avenue to the Holliday Bookshop to buy the latest Henry Green or Ivy Compton-Burnett. (25)
Other highlights include a satisfying chapter that talks about/quotes M.F.K. Fisher (not so much about food as about life in Europe on the edge of the crisis of WWII) and a description of a 1953/1954 transatlantic boat trip Epstein took (on this boat), courtesy of his job/combined with his honeymoon. I loved this sentence, from his description of arriving home in New York at the end of the trip: “On deck as we approached our pier, an Italian father was holding his two small sons in his arms, pointing to the Manhattan skyline and shouting, “Fantastico, bambini, fantastico.” (74) I think that sentence captures what I liked best about this book, actually: Epstein’s eye for detail and sense of romance.