For a Hungry Book Critic, Every Word Is a Feast

For a Hungry Book Critic, Every Word Is a Feast

It is a hazard to read on an empty stomach. What is it about words that makes things taste so delicious? I can still recall the twelfth-grade English class, held just before lunch, in which we were cruelly called upon to analyze, well, lunch: the sumptuous one described by Virginia Woolf at the start of “A Room of One’s Own,” involving soles in cream, partridges “with all their retinue of sauces and salads,” sprouts “foliated as rosebuds but more succulent,” and a pudding so spectacular that to “relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult.” I had never tasted partridge. I still have never tasted partridge. Described by Woolf, it is my favorite food.

Reading while hungry is not a predicament known to Dwight Garner, because, as he tells us in “The Upstairs Delicatessen,” his winning new book, he cannot read without also eating, and, as a book critic for the Times, he reads quite a bit. The association between these two sustaining pleasures began long ago, during his boyhood in West Virginia and Florida. Garner takes a good hard look in memory’s mirror and tells us what he sees: “a soft kid, inclined toward embonpoint, ‘husky’ in the department-store lingo, a brown-eyed boy with chafing thighs.” Riding his bicycle home from school beneath the blazing Gulf Coast sun, “sizzled crisp and pink with sweat,” he sounds fairly edible himself.

Garner’s early reading tastes were indiscriminate; the library kept him well stocked. His eating habits were necessarily narrower, dependent on the supplies his parents had in the kitchen. He liked pretzels, mayonnaise-and-cheese sandwiches, Hydrox cookies with milk, and potato chips. The bread was white; the drink was red, made from a mix. “Everyone wasn’t a sophisticate,” he writes. His father’s people were “coal miners and gunsmiths, all of them hunters.” Their freezer was full of venison. Fascinatingly, Garner’s paternal grandfather was a follower of Horace Fletcher, a.k.a. the Great Masticator, one of those freaky food influencers of the Victorian era, who advised chewing a meal until it turned to liquid in the mouth. Garner’s mother was not an enthusiastic cook—her cuisine was heavy on Kraft and Cool Whip—but, many years later, he remains devoted to the memory of her egg foo yong.

From these undistinguished origins arose Garner the gourmand. He loves to eat and to drink, to cook and be cooked for, to stay in and to go out. Some of his tastes, he feels, demand defending; he gives a few paragraphs over to the furor that erupted when, in 2012, he declared his love for the peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich. But his credentials are convincing. He belongs to something called “an offal club,” has slaughtered at least one rooster in his time, and suffers from gout. In a past life, he delivered pizza for Domino’s.

A really good eater, like a really good reader, must have two qualities in abundance: curiosity and capacity. Plainly, in the food department, Garner has both. When he lived in Garrison, New York, he indulged in an impressive ritual on his commute from the city: a Martini at Jimmy’s Corner, the legendary midtown boxing bar, followed by oysters at Grand Central Oyster Bar, and then, upon arrival at home, a steak dinner prepared by his wife, the writer Cree LeFavour, who was then working on her cookbook “The New Steak.” One of the big subjects of Garner’s book is happiness, and much of his seems to be owed to LeFavour. She grew up in a family of adventurous restaurateurs. “In the kitchen, Cree and I are opposites,” he writes—she cooks by feel, he by recipe—and the same goes for them as eaters:

She’ll have the in-season fruit with yogurt; I’ll take the
three-cheese omelet with home fries. She has never, to the best of my
knowledge, eaten in a food court or on an airplane because it wouldn’t
occur to her. Why not wait for something better? I smell the warm
cookies in first class and can’t wait for my little tub of indistinct
protein—is that a belly-button lint cutlet?—to arrive in 23D.

Needless to say, the relationship has thrived.

Garner is a good host; he doesn’t just talk about himself. Memoir, thoughts about food, and literary criticism are stacked, in “The Upstairs Delicatessen,” like the bright layers of a Venetian cookie, in chapters devoted to breakfast, lunch, drinking, and dinner, plus one on grocery shopping (Garner eschews the easy romance of the greenmarket for the frigid, fluorescent abundance of the American supermarket) and another on swimming and napping, two activities that provide a necessary break in his daily dining project. (One quibble: where is the chapter about cleaning up?) Garner’s literary cellar is vast, and he always has just the right quote or anecdote ready to decant. In “Breakfast,” for instance, we learn that Thomas Hardy’s favorite morning meal was a stew of parsley, onions, and bread that bore the unappetizing name of “kettle-broth,” and are given convincing evidence that “no writer has attended to mornings and their promise as closely as has Toni Morrison.” In “Lunch,” a riff on the place of hot dogs in American life skips from H. L. Mencken to Philip Roth, Audre Lorde, Larry McMurtry, and Vivian Gornick. One nice thing about Garner’s book is that he doesn’t just go for the classics. Younger or more recently published writers like Bryan Washington, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Anthony Veasna So all have a place at his table.

Reading Garner got me thinking about the literary food I have loved. There are the preposterously lavish feasts of Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education,” like one that Frédéric, the novel’s hero, is treated to soon after his arrival in Paris: “He had ten sorts of mustard to choose from. He ate gazpacho, curry, ginger, Corsican blackbirds, Roman lasagne; he drank extraordinary wines, lip-fraoli, and Tokay.” On the other end of the spectrum is the earthy meal enjoyed by Aimée, the female con artist in Jean-Patrick Manchette’s noir novel “Fatale,” who celebrates the completion of a job by rubbing herself with stolen banknotes and eating a choucroute “which smelt like piss and sperm.” Then there is picky Mr. Woodhouse, father to Emma in Jane Austen’s “Emma,” who feels that food was put on this Earth to kill him. “While his hospitality would have welcomed his visitors to every thing,” Austen writes, “his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat.” Every so often, he makes an exception. “You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together,” he tells his daughter—a ghastly invitation, warmly extended.

One of the best-ever openings of a short story can be found in Grace Paley’s “The Used-Boy Raisers,” in which Faith, the narrator, cooks breakfast for two men, her husband and her ex:

There were two husbands disappointed by eggs.
I don’t like them that way either, I said. Make your own eggs. They sighed in unison.

Paley had a way with verbs. In the same story, Faith does not brew a pot of coffee but kindles it. Later, after the men have finally, thank God, left, she will pour some into a mug that says “MAMA” to enjoy a private moment with her thoughts. “How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals,” Iris Murdoch wrote. And how fortunate, too, to be word-consuming ones, because reading, like eating, never ends. ♦

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