Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life is Meals

Here's another fan letter to James Salter. 
Salter and his wife Kay Eldridge in 2006 published a food lover's daybook, Life is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days [Knopf]. 
Anyone who has read and enjoyed Salter's novels and short stories--A Sport and a Pastime, Solo Faces, Light Years, Burning the Days--knows how important sensual appreciation is to his aesthetic, as well as what a devoted Francophile he is. As one might have guessed, he and his wife are serious amateur cooks, and love the social occasions, as well as the sensual pleasures, which eating (and dining) make possible. 
Life is Meals is a collection of notes, anecdotes, recipes, historical accounts, descriptions--worthy of M.F.K. Fisher, or James Beard. Gastronomy--or the experience of eating--is rather like the trade of book selling. Larry McMurtry once remarked--though it was not a particularly original idea--that the older a book seller gets, the more knowledge he accrues in his field, and the better he becomes. The same might be said of "eaters" or of anyone who studies food--its qualities, its sources and preparation, its occasions. But careful and perceptive eaters may not always be good at expressing what they feel, and think, about food. 
Since Salter has always idealized experience, and all those aspects of life which may be fully appreciated--i.e., life as a kind of feast--a book about food, for him, is the occasion for thoughts about places, special memories, certain people (and not just cooks), the odd scrap of information and knowledge, tidbits of sage advice. It's the sort of book, in other words, which can only be written in later age, when the accretion of living, tasting, savoring, listening, reading and experimenting has reached a kind of critical mass, a point at which we can be said to have attained whatever wisdom we may possess, that may be summarized, and offered back to the world, as a regurgitation and final accounting: This is what I learned, felt, and saved.    
Salter is a shrewd observer of human foibles, frailty, vanity, but he's at his best in describing the thrall of ultimate release, the giving over, the surrender to desire or pleasure, the sense of the richness of things. The jeopardy, one might observe, is in mistaking affluence for value, juicy fat for protein. In our world, mouth feel commands shelf space. But our senses provide a more accurate guide to what's worthwhile in living in the present, than our moral compass. One needn't be rich to eat reasonably well. And it is true that life is a kind of meal, partaken regularly, of necessity, under conditions of familiarity. If we are willing to address how we eat intelligently, independently, actively, the life we lead can be immeasurably improved.       

Often the simplest repast is the most satisfying. A drink of spring water after a long hike on a hot day is an indescribable pleasure. The water of life, the life of the mind.  

1 comment:

John Olson said...

Odd. Roberta & I were just this afternoon asking ourselves if there were any writers we knew who talked of their enjoyment of food. I will look for this book.