AJ Liebling was food writer for the New Yorker magazine and the book deals mostly with his time spent in Paris during the period after the Great War. We hear of great feasts and great gourmands. He recounts the story of a friend who going to a restaurant for a ‘sensibly light meal’ of a dozen oysters and a thick chunk of steak topped with beef marrow is instead greeted by the proprietor who has set aside two portions of cassoulet (a rich slow cooked casserole) for him knowing his usual heartier appetite well. Should he turn away the cassoulet and hurt the proprietor’s feelings or forgo the steak? Solution, he ate the two portions of cassoulet first (eating one portion only might similarly have offended his host fearing the cassoulet to be sub-standard) and he then went on to eat the steak. We’re also told that ‘the oysters offered no problem, since they present no bulk’.
It will come as little surprise to most therefore that Liebling, a big man whose girth meant that others found it difficult to walk alongside him on the pavement died aged just 59. His memoirs nevertheless suggest it was a life worth eating.
The book though as you might expect from a New Yorker columnist has greater depth than just a food or restaurant guide as it charmingly chronicles the changes in food fashions and those derived there from. His cultural observations span the rise of vodka (no colour, no taste, no smell), the appearance of medical doctors in dictating dietary habits and that of women’s appetites driven by the shift in the figurine ideal, from curves to sticks.
Liebling himself was considered by women as ‘not handsome but passable’ which is clearly sufficient and when a local once suggested that ‘we Frenchman made love with our brains’ his retort that ‘we others utilise traditional material’ highlights him as an agreeable wit.
The wit flows readily, like the suggestion that society women ‘kissed as if they were sipping crème de menthe through a straw’ but it is ultimately the excess of eating that we read the book to secretly admire. One of Leibling’s own gastronomic heroes, Yves Mirande, is described as ‘one of the last of the great around-the-clock gastronomes of France’. He would describe M. Mirande as dazzling his juniors by ‘dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of Champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac’. In the battle of man versus food, in this round, man was the winner. Liebling, we salute you.