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Nibbling on the fringes of Western lit: a gastronomic syllabus

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Proust's epic begins with a madeleine. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" asks, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is sloshed from start to finish. And yet these masterpieces are not about food. Comestibles are pretext, metaphor and symbol, but not essence.

Foodies must nibble at the fringes of the Western canon. The best books tend to soar beyond the claims of the body and do not deign even to notice the belly. While literature may depict the sensuality of the happy eater and drinker—Falstaff, for example—it is never about this sensuality.

The Supreme Creators tend to be monkish, hollow-cheeked pencil chewers. Can anyone imagine Eliot tucking into a pizza? Virginia Woolf licking the barbecue sauce from her fingers? D.H. Lawrence, for all his sexual steam, may be the most monkish of all, a Platonist at war with his own transcendental instincts.

Even Orwell, whose Down and Out in Paris and London is the most vivid food-related memoir ever written, belongs to the party of revulsion. Nineteen Eighty-Four gives us the smell of boiled cabbage in the tenement stair, chocolate that tastes "like the smoke of a rubbish fire," a lunch consisting of "pinkish-grey stew, a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of milkless Victory coffee, and one saccharine tablet." Down and Out describes the haute cuisine infrastructure as a "secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man's body" and ends with Orwell's avowal that he will never again "enjoy a meal in a smart restaurant." Orwell's materialism was hyper lucid, but what it revealed was a germy, rancid slough.

Among the consummate writers, the only true gastronome is A.J. Liebling, who spent the crux of the 20th century reporting for The New Yorker. He wrote about boxing, crime, politics and the press, but food—and especially the food of France—was his spiritual calling. His little classic Between Meals is a mock-heroic memoir with Liebling appearing as the portly Quixote tilting at impossibly large, rich and wine-irrigated meals, usually shared with slumming aristocrats, prostitutes and other sensualists of the Paris night. Liebling's prose is a vinous purple, his very language an homage to the sauciers of pre-war France.

Liebling's friend Waverley Root was likewise a fine stylist, and M.F.K. Fisher was probably the most concerted stylist ever to obsess about food. Her prose is at once florid and hard, like wrought iron—mannered and overelaborate sometimes, but always brilliant. A kind of proto-Joan Didion, Fisher can be a little too impressed with her own exquisite privacy, a little too certain of the keenness of her own intelligence, but she's undeniably the great doyenne of the gastro-literary tradition. To my mind, Liebling, Root and Fisher form a triptych of mid-century cultivation. Wires dangling from our ears, we millennials seem unlettered yahoos in comparison.

Amid so much "politically aware" writing on food production and consumption, a cluster of contemporary writers preserves Liebling's spirit. Self-styled gourmands Anthony Bourdain, Jay Rayner, Jeffrey Steingarten and Calvin Trillin replicate his comically unbounded lust to consume, health and normal human activities be damned. Steingarten's and Rayner's best-known titles are, respectively, The Man Who Ate Everything and The Man Who Ate the World, which give the idea. As Mayor Bloomberg wars against the 32-ounce soda, this school defends appetite—that amalgam of sensuality, curiosity and greed—in all its bloated glory.

Jonathan Gold, the only food writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, resists the persona of the Liebling manqué. Committed to the least literary of genres, the thousand-word restaurant review, Gold turns out an endless stream of anthropologically precise and poppingly vivid field reports from the barrios and suburban wastes of Los Angeles. While literary criticism is buoyed by a flow of ideas, restaurant criticism grinds along on the basis of description: partial victories painfully eked out over the elusive taste, look and smell of things. This is shockingly difficult work. Gold makes it seem so easy, as if he's merely slipping into conversation with a stranger on a bus, en route to his next taco.

Like Liebling, Adam Gopnik is a career-long New Yorker writer. He may be the best stylist in contemporary journalism, but the passing years confirm him as an intellectual meanderer, a versatile talent without the forearm to pound his thoughts into permanence. "The answer, I think, is that there isn't one," Gopnik writes, capping some philosophical meditation with the characteristic sanity but also the sterility of his coastal milieu. When he turns to food, Gopnik has no particular hard-earned expertise, but his prose, like an expertly glazed bavarois in the window of a patisserie, is an epiphany of craft in its own right.

Michael Ruhlman, who has co-written cookbooks with the likes of Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, is a tireless loiterer in professional kitchens whose every word celebrates his chef-heroes. Unlike Gopnik, he's a man with an "answer," which runs roughly as follows: 1) "Craftsmanship" epitomizes an entire ethical system and world view; 2) This system is going extinct; 3) The best chefs do something to sustain it, thus ennobling the world and setting an example for the rest of us.

Though his tone is mellow, Ruhlman is essentially a reactionary pining for a pre-modern order, with Keller and Co. cast as medieval craftsmen in a moral drama straight out of Ruskin and William Morris.

The 20 works listed here are my cuisine-related selections for inclusion in a deep-space time capsule. The methane-filtering creatures of Alpha Centauri would surely find it strange that so much of our humanity is contained in the interstice between aching belly and flushing toilet.


The culinary canon

Ranked by culinary, historical and literary interest

1. A.J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962, memoir)

2. M.F.K Fisher, The Art of Eating (1954, memoirs and essays, collecting earlier volumes)

3. George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933, memoir)

4. Isak Dinesen, "Babette's Feast" (1950, story)

5. William Carlos Williams, "This Is Just to Say" (1934, poem)

6. Emile Zola, The Belly of Paris (1873, novel)

7. David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (2004, essay)

8. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, trans. M.F.K. Fisher (1825, treatise)

9. Ludwig Bemelmans, La Bonne Table (1964, memoirs and stories, collecting earlier volumes)

10. Waverley Root, The Food of France (1958, treatise)

11. Michael Ruhlman, The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America (1997, memoir/reportage)

12. Jonathan Gold, Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles (2000, reviews)

13. Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2011, essays)

14. Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000, essays)

15. Jeffrey Steingarten, The Man Who Ate Everything (1997, essays)

16. Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner (2008, memoir)

17. Calvin Trillin, The Tummy Trilogy (1994, essays, collecting earlier volumes)

18. Charles Lamb, "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig" (1823, essay)

19. Rudolph Chelminski, The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine (2005, reportage)

20. Lisa Abend, The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli (2011, reportage)

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