An appetite for A.J. Liebling

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. LieblingA few New Yorkers ago, David Remnick wrote a retrospective on the author A.J. Liebling, A. J. Liebling at one hundred. Mr. Liebling's writing appeared in the magazine long before I was even born, and I wasn't aware of him. But Mr. Remnick's article was just the thing to pique my interest. Towards the end of his piece, the author gives passing mention to one of Mr. Liebling's final "masterpieces", Between Meals, "a memoir of Paris and of pleasure itself."

On a whim I ordered it from Amazon, ignoring the reviews who failed to see its classicality and felt, "One star is an over-rating!" I'm happy to report I haven't enjoyed a book so much in ages! Here's a passage from page 62, where Mr. Liebling riffs on current (current being 1959, when the book was written) food preferences:

Personally, I like tastes that know their own minds. The reason that people who detest fish often tolerate sole is that sole doesn't taste very much like fish, and even this degree of resemblance disappears when it is submerged in the kind of sauce that patrons of Piedmontese restaurants in London and New York think characteristically French. People with the same apathy toward decided flavor relish "South African lobster" tails -- frozen as long as the Siberian mammoth -- because they don't taste lobstery...They prefer processed cheese because it isn't cheesy, and synthetic vanilla extract because it isn't vanillary. They have made a triumph of the Delicious apple because it doesn't taste like an apple, and of the Golden Delicious because it doesn't taste like anything.

I'm not so sure times have changed. These days I've been trying to focus on the essential elements of flavor when I'm cooking and eating. I'm growing a whole slew of herbs this summer, and edible flowers, to experiment with in the kitchen. I'm continuing to stick to seasonal, local offerings from the greenmarkets so that I may become an eater who truly tastes the tomato, the ramp, the fava bean. As Mr. Liebling puts it, I've begun my apprenticeship as a feeder, and I hope to be able to share more of the culinary experiences on this site. At the very beginning of his book, Mr. Liebling instructs:

The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol. They are indispensable, like a prizefighter's hours on the road.

The challenge is clear. Let the field work begin!

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