Adventures of a happy feeder
special to northside san francisco
By Ernest Beyl
With all the tiresome attention devoted lately to superstar chefs, bigwig cookbook writers, and defunct food magazines, it’s too bad we don’t have A.J. Liebling around to keep us from drifting into the gastronomic doldrums.
About once every six months or so – to clear my palate – I reread the incomparable Liebling’s Between Meals. And, if we need a San Francisco angle for an excuse to write about Liebling, his mother, Anna Adelson Slone, was born here.
An erudite, Rabelaisian man of many and high appetites, Joe Liebling was the incomparable reporter and essayist who wrote for The New Yorker about food, boxing, the press, and whatever else struck his fancy. Soon after he began his career in the 1920s as a young newspaper reporter, his father, a prominent New York furrier, sent the 22-year-old to Paris to study at the Sorbonne – and to provide him with a little saucy seasoning. Later Liebling said that it was during that time in Paris that he began his development into a world-class gourmand. Later he revised the word gourmand to “eater” and still later to “feeder.” Liebling loved to eat.
To employ the over-the-top, hyperbolic Liebling style, I would say Between Meals is the absolutely best book in the world to read if you are serious about “feeding.”
In Between Meals, subtitled An Appetite for Paris, Liebling tells of eating in that great city with his friend Yves Mirande, a French playwright he hadn’t seen for some time. Liebling writes: “On the occasion of our reunion, we began with a truite au bleu – a live trout simply done to death in hot water, like a Roman emperor in his bath.” The trout was accompanied by a bottle of Alsatian wine. Liebling continues: “After the trout, Mirande and I had two meat courses, since we could not decide in advance which we preferred. We had a magnificent daube provencale, because we were faithful to la cuisine bourgeoise, and then pintadous, the young guinea hens, simply and tenderly roasted – with the first asparagus of the year, to show our fidelity to la cuisine classique.” The pair had three bottles of red wine and Liebling adds “… one to our loves, one to our countries, and one for symmetry, the last being on the house.”
Liebling was a journalist who liked to eat and frequently said he could write better than anyone who could write faster, and faster than anyone who could write better. Who can write better?
He loved to write about what he termed “the sumptuary arts.” He wrote in a mock pedantic style of comic but formal eloquence, and his sentences fizzed and bubbled like this one in which he describes Lillian Russell, the enormously popular actress and singer of the late 19th and early 20th century: “She was a butterscotch sundae of a woman, as beautiful as a tulip of beer with a high white collar. If a Western millionaire … could have given an architect carte blanche to design him a woman, she would have looked like Lillian. She was San Simeon in corsets.”
From 1935 until his death in 1963, Liebling wrote more than a hundred essays of elegance and wit for The New Yorker. During World War II, he served as a war correspondent for that magazine, and those pieces, although obviously dated, still are relevant and place readers squarely in the middle of battle. Over the years he did attempt a few short stories and even a novel called The Girl with the Cauliflower Ear: A Romance. Pity he never finished it.
But it is Liebling’s writing about food and restaurants that keep drawing me back to him. Gay Talese, himself a master reporter and essayist, said, “Liebling glorified gluttony.” And he paid the price. Kidney and heart problems and the glutton’s scourge, gout, destroyed him in 1963. He was 59, but he lived a lot in those 59 years.
Here’s a tip from A.J. Liebling (from Between Meals) and a tip from this devotee:
“If you run across a restaurant where you often see priests eating with priests or sporting girls with sporting girls, you may be confident that it is good. Those are two classes of people who like to eat well and get their money’s worth.”
Second tip: Find the book and read it now.
North Beach writer Ernest Beyl classifies himself as a “feeder” like his idol A.J. Liebling.