Between Meals – A J Liebling
By Donald McKenzie
August 14, 2013
Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
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Food and memory are linked together at the deepest level of our beings. A mere whiff of a pot of soup simmering on the back of a stove can take us back to childhood. It’s no surprise that on holiday occasions we pull out tried and true recipes, even if we only eat them once a year. It is not the flavours that we long for so much as the memories that come with them.
Few books capture this idea as well as Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. The book is A. J. Liebling’s love letter to the Paris that he knew as young man in the mid 1920’s. It is an enduring love, one which withstood the ravages of time and the changes brought to the city he loved. Perhaps one reason for this is that even through the advancing years the outline of the youthful beauty that had so thoroughly captivated Liebling lay still visible beneath the city’s altered state.
Near the beginning of the book Liebling gives his credo as a food writer: “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.” On that score it can undoubtedly be said that Liebling practiced what he preached. Between Meals is replete with descriptions of meals that seem fairly lavish, even when they seem to leave there host feeling ashamed.
Enjoying Between Meals
A sample: (taken from when Liebling put in a brief stint as a rowing club member)
So we had, as hor d’oeuvre, only a crock of duck pâte, a crock of pâte of hare, a few tins of sardines, muzzle of beef, radishes and butter. Morin, who sat next to me, was almost abjectly apologetic. Two little girls in pigtails served the dinner. They were daughters of the caretaker.
He was not the best of caretakers, Morin said, but his wife, the little girls’ mother, was an excellent cook…After the hors d’oeuvre we had a potato soup, then a buisson du goujons, a mound of tiny fried fish, for each of the sociétaires. After that, a leg of mutton with roast potatoes, a salad, cheese, and fruit. Red and white wine were there to take à discrétion, and most of the sociétaires had a brandy with their coffee as a digestive. (Between Meals, page 92)
Yet, the book is not only about the food. As the title Between Meals suggests, Liebling found much about Paris to enjoy even when he wasn’t eating. The rest of the chapter from which the above quote is taken, deals with the amusing way in which his time with the rowing club came to an end.
Along the way, Liebling also introduces us to fascinating characters and situations. Liebling took in the culture of Paris, as well as some of the rough and tumble of the city, due in no small part to his love of boxing. As a side note, it is interesting that the 20th century produced a lot of great writing around boxing(Liebling, Mailer, Plimpton, etc.), but that the 21st has yet to produce anything notable around boxing’s popular usurper, Mixed Martial Arts.
Also, To be young and in Paris meant to find romance at every turn, and Liebling’s education was not limited to gourmandising. Yet, when all is said and done, it is the food, that mainly, if not entirely lives on in his memory. Or perhaps better said, it is the meals that link together all of these disparate elements of his life. One thinks that however memorable the time between meals was, it would have been less so without the meals.
Are you mildly interested in food? Between Meals should be on your bookshelf. If good food and good writing are important to you, it is a must have.