1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published September 1949

S is for sad …

…and for the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem breaking and our lives too bleakly empty. Like every other physical phenomenon, there is good reason for this hunger, if we will be blunt enough to recognize it.

The prettifiers of human passion choose to think that a man who has watched his true love die is lifted above such ugly things as food, that he is exalted by his grief, that his mind dwells exclusively on thoughts of Eternity the Hereafter. The mixture of wails and wassail at an Irish wake is frowned upon as merely an alcoholic excuse by the sticklers for burial etiquette, and the ancient symbolism of funeral baked meats is accepted, somewhat grudgingly, as a pagan custom which has been Christianized sufficiently by our church fathers to justify a good roast of beef and some ice cream and cake after the trip to the family burying ground.

The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers: They want a steak. What is more, they need a steak. Preferably they need it rare, grilled, heavily salted, for that way it is most easily digested, and most quickly turned into the glandular whip their tired adrenals cry for.

A prime story of this need is the chapter in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, just after Ben has died, when his two racked brothers begin to laugh and joke like young colts, and then go in the dawn to Ben’s favorite all-night beanery and eat an enormous, silly meal. Another good example is in Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, as I remember. There are many more, all of them shocking and yet strangely reassuring, too, like some kinds of music.

Perhaps that is because they are true, far past prettiness. They tell us what we then most need to be reminded of, that underneath the anguish of death and pain and ugliness, hunger and unquenchable life are facts, shining, peaceful. It is as if our bodies, wiser than we who wear them, call out for encouragement and strength and, in spite of us and of the patterns of proper behavior we have learned, compel us to answer, and to eat.

More often than not, in such compulsory feastings, we eat enormously, and that too is good, for we are stupefying ourselves, anesthetizing our wrought nerves with a heavy dose of proteins, and our bodies will grow sleepy with digestion and let us rest a little after the long vigil.

I tried to say this once to a man who, being well raised and sensitive, was in a state of shock at his behavior.

It was late at night. He had been driving up and down the coastal highway, cautiously and, in a numb way, almost happily, ever since a little before noon that day, when his love had died. She was one of the most beautiful women in the world, and one of the most famous, and he loved her for these reasons and even more so because she loved him too. But he had to watch her die, for two nights and a day.

When she was finally in peace, he walked from her bedside like a deaf blind man, got into his car, and headed for the coast…and in the next hours he must have stopped at four or five big restaurants alongside, and eaten a thick steak at each one, with other things he usually ignored, like piles of French-fried potatoes, slabs of pie, and whatever bread was in front of him. He had a flask of cognac in the car, but did not touch it; instead he drank cup after cup of searing black coffee, with or without food, in a dozen little joints along the road and then left them humming and whistling.

By the time I saw him be was, literally, bulging and had loosened his belt futilely against the load in his middle. He put his head in his hands and shuddered and said, “How could I? How could I—and she not yet in her coffin!”

It was a helpless protest he made, and I tried, more plainspoken than usual, to cut through his digestive fog, to tell him how right he had been to let his body lead him on this orgy, how it would tide him over the next hours, how his hunger had made him do what his upbringing had taught him was gross, indelicate, unfeeling.

He soon went to his bed, staggering, hardly conscious, certainly uncaring for a time, at least, of his own or the world’s new woe. But years later, so strong was his training, he would think back on that day with a deep embarrassment, no matter how candidly he could admit the basic wisdom of his behavior. He would always feel, in spite of himself, that sadness should not be connected so directly with gastronomy.

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