World Dinner Club

World Dinner Club
World Dinner Club

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Moveable Feasts I

In honor of Anthony Boudain's return to Paris for the 100th episode of No Reservations, I'm digging up something I wrote five years ago, reflecting on my own first visit to Paris during a summer internship in graduate school.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

E. "Papa" Hemingway, "A Moveable Feast"

Well it appears there’s no light ahead of me to walk towards…. Oscar Wilde said that all Americans that are good, when they die, go to Paris. Indeed, the literary culture of the Twentieth Century is rife with bored and drink-deprived yanks spending time, nay decades, in Paris. The “Lost Generation” that was immortalized in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and in “The Sun Also Rises” clearly could have done much worse. I never understood Hemingway’s love of Paris and his dislike of London, which he did not think really compared with Paris. In “True at First Light” (edited by grandson Patrick and published posthumously), he largely ignores, when stalking lions in the Kenyan Highlands, the discussion of the joys of city life in London between his second wife and his English hunting guide. A consummate and if somewhat reluctant anglophile such as yours truly cannot get excited about most things Gaullois, but yet people change.

Going through tumultuous and traumatic job change brings out all kinds of new resolutions and resolve, well, that or a drinking problem. I’ve avoided the latter. In the Barnes and Nobles bookstore at West 66th and Broadway in New York, I decided to get serious about something I enjoyed most about the Sunday paper, namely the travel section. I felt I needed to immerse myself in another place. And so I picked-up Peter Mayle’s seminal book, “A Year in Provence.” Most days-spent-at-the-beach and commotion-at-the-bazaar travel writing I’d known before was trite and dull in the end, despite the authors good intentions to make something interesting of it. I have always thought of Mayle’s books the way Tom Wolfe described the Sunday New York Times in that reading his books is like “slipping into a warm bath.” Mayle has an extraordinary gift. The first part is that he has a masterful command of the elements of wit and an expatriate Englishman’s bemused attitude, albeit stiff upper lip for the idiosyncrasies and dry irony of life in the South of France. The second is a love of food and drink that he approaches with enormous zeal: part anthropologist, part adventurer, but mostly glutton (which without question is what I find to be a most endearing characteristic). The third is a benign, yet sincere affection for his subject; for Mayle loves Provence, loves the Seasons loves the olive trees, and even loves his neighbor with the unruly dogs and the perfect recipe for stewed fox. Having been influenced by nuances of Asian cuisine, my appreciation for the rich heritage and unique craft of French cooking came to me later in life than for most.

A Year in Provence was the first of many books by Peter Mayle that I have had the great pleasure to read. All of them have wonderful things to say about le gastronomie francais. A perfect storm arose that first year out of college. I was living in New York, and had for the first time something called disposable income. I like the term "disposable income,” because that’s oh so appropriate for young person in New York. Spending product of one’s ungainful employment is unavoidable. So after years of dinning hall food, I dined out and enjoyed the dimensions of street food and different world cuisines—both high and low--that as far as I’m concerned make New York the culinary capital of the planet. But France? That was genesis. That was the primordial ooze from which came fourth the basis for the existence of great food. Now I can’t tell you much about the great triumphs of Escoffier or Bocuse, but I’ve read some M.F.K. Fisher, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Alan Richman and that represented my early “education” or lack thereof in New York.

Finally, whether ignorant or enlightened, it doesn’t really matter much. The palette knows the truth that the mind can only yearn to understand. (Sounds like something Brillat-Savarin would agree with non?). My first meal in France was, in retrospect, rather cliché: escargots and coq au vin followed by almond and caramel meringue. Accompanied by several bottles of a superb ‘98 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The escargots happily surrendered their garlic, buttery flavor. The chicken, mushrooms, shallots, and wine produced a sublime symphony that made my side of potatoes the luckiest spuds to ever get puréed. The evening ended after a what seemed like several stout efforts to drain a bottomless glass of wine and stories about eating exotic invertebrates in China from a business development guy who picked-up the tab. I went to bed happy, my brain swimming in sulphates and arteries reveling in what could only have been good cholesterol.

To be continued…


  1. Just don't ever watch A&E's attempt to make a series based on Year In Provence. It's quite gawd-awful.

    BTW, don't you think that the follow-up Provence books seemed very much like contractual obligations (similar to Bourdain's Medium Raw...). It just lost the magic, and was more of a series of unrelated streams of consciousness that served to pad someone's wallets, but also just to erode all the magic that the first book created.

  2. We watched the BBC/A&E program earlier this year. You are quite right. Nothing like the book, but a distraction from a snowy winter in Washington.