1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 3 of 3)

As for me, I sometimes think wistfully that it would be pleasant to be able so completely to limit myself! I have too much to read…

I have a fine, fat pile of menus, actual ones dating from 1929 and book ones for the past five thousand years. Among them are the last dinner served chez Foyot, the ink already very faded, an illuminated parchment limned by George Holl in San Francisco, the gold sull bright although the round, witty gourmet is now i;one, a smudged paper from a Nazi Bierstube in Mexico, and another from a Loyalist cafe in Zurich, where we drank out of bottles like udders, in squirts from the little glass dugs, as in a Hemingway story…

And there are so many books!

Why can I not limit myself to gastronomical novels, for instance Imperial Palace, by Enoch Arnold Bennett, and Work of Art, by Sinclair Lewis, and all the stuff about hotels by Ludwig Bemelmans; or to Huysmans and Saltus and Petronius and all those scribes, new and old, who wrote of man’s excesses…or Virginia Woolf, who wrote perhaps better than anyone in the Western world about the feeling of being a little drunk, or of being a hostess, in things like The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Why not make it that simple?

Or why not just cookery books? Why do I not just have what I think are the best work-manuals and read them carefully when I need them, which I do constantly because I need them constantly? But no. I have everything from Mrs. Simon Kander’s Settlement Cook Book through all of Sheila Hibben to the latest throwaways from baking powder and refrigerator companies, with their flossy culinary triumphs in full Kodachrome. I have them in rows and piles. Fortunately, I also have the common sense to limit my working manuals to a maximum of twelve inches of shelf space…but the rest! They go on for countless feet, through European titles and Hawaiian and regional, through Suzanne Roukhomovsky and Trader Vic and André Simon, some of them good and a lot of’ them absolutely phony, except for perhaps one invaluable recipe or hint here and there.

And then the other books the ones I have kept because they are bound in shagreen or mottled with age or smudged with the adolescent gorgings of boarding school! All have a gastronomical significance, some of them to no other human being but myself. They mean exoticism or respect or gluttony. Perhaps they should be shed at regular intervals, like a skin. But they sit safely on my shelves, a strange company bolstered by nostalgia, curious indeed, and a dead giveaway to anyone curious to know their owner.

I do believe sincerely, recognizing strength of character in my fellow men if not in myself, that a gastronomical library is more signicant than mine could ever be, if it is sternly limited. That is, I think a collection of menus from the! Regency to the First Republic or vice versa, as served in one town or one district, say Dijon or Seine-et-Oise, might prove to be intensely interesting to gourmets of the whole world. It might even have a fine building erected around it and provide bookwormish nourishment for a score of dyspeptic curators. As for my own magpie collection, it can, do little but bewilder…

Few but me can ever know, or care why this one frayed, paper-bound edition.of Paul Reboux’s Plats du Jour means high zest and adventure in Burgundy in 1930. Perhaps no man in the world speaks truthfully who says he knows where this one-shilling copy of Farmhouse Fare came from, and why its recipe for butter brine brings me close to weeping. And how about Notes on a Cellar-Book and why I keep this new, shiny, vulgar edition rather than the “first” I gave away? George Saintsbury would know. I know. But it does not matter in the least that no one else does, at least to me.

I look at my crammed shelves and feast with artful reflection, for no meal is good that cannot be reflected upon with pleasure. It comforts me to know, in this distracted world, that thanks to my motley library I could be well fed in I any of this world’s distracted prisons.

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