Despite being inundated with suggestions for reductive regimens, not least in the pages of this newspaper, I have yet to embark on a New Year diet. The reason I have not joined in the communal mortification of the flesh is that I am still consuming my Christmas present to myself. Not that reading Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food & Drink (Random House, $29.95) adds calories per se, but it is more or less impossible to essay a diet while digesting the 50-odd gustatory paeans selected from the magazine's 80-year history. At least, I have not found it feasible to adopt starvation rations while ruminating on "six huge steaks, boneless and fatless, averaging three inches thick and 10 inches long" (p6), "a torte of 50 baby pigs' noses" (p92), a Dijonaise casserole of tripes that "hissed and sizzled with delicate authority" (p112), a pastrami sandwich from Langer's Delicatessen in Los Angeles, "soft but crispy, tender but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but tangy ... a symphony orchestra" (p438).
Those intent on astounding the world with a newly svelte silhouette would be particularly well advised to avoid 35 pages at the start of this toothsome anthology. They comprise two contributions by A J Liebling. A fine writer on boxing and an acclaimed war correspondent, he was also a heroic trencherman. "Each day brings only two opportunities," he lamented in 1959, "and they are not to be wasted minimising the intake of cholesterol". To underline his point, Liebling cited the example of his friend Yves Mirande (1875-1957), a playwright described as the "last of the great around-the-clock gastronomes of France". In a succulent passage, we are informed that Mirande "would dazzle his juniors by despatching 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 and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot – and, of course, a fine civet made from marcassin (young wild boar)." At the time, Mirande was in his late seventies.
Born in New York in 1904, Liebling developed an insatiable passion for French cuisine in 1923 when he spent a year at the Sorbonne supposedly studying medieval literature. Reminiscing about this period in a late memoir called Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, Liebling recalled a valuable tip from another impoverished gourmand: "If you run across a restaurant where you 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." It is a moot point if the presence of sporting girls (the term does not refer to prowess in track or field competitions) guarantees good dining value these days, though I'd venture that ecclesiastical dining à deux remains a promising sign.
In matters of diet, Liebling was a determined advocate for the opposition. He blamed the death of Mirande at 82 on "moderation making fatal inroads on his resistance". Pondering the unwelcome intrusion of diet into the modern world, Liebling asserted, "Before the First World War, the doctors of France had been a submissive and well-mannered breed, who recognised that their role was to facilitate gluttony not discourage it. They returned to civilian life full of a new sense of authority, gained from their habit of amputation."
Insisting that "a good appetite gives an eater room to turn round in", he recalled the predicament presented to a "Monsieur L" (which we can take to stand for Liebling) at the Restaurant Pierre, which still exists near Avenue de l'Opéra. "His mind was set on a sensibly light meal: a dozen or possibly 18 oysters and a thick chunk of steak topped with beef marrow", but he heard the owner remark to the headwaiter that two portions of cassoulet were reserved for him. "Monsieur L was in no difficulty. He ate the two cassoulets, as was his normal practice; if he had had consumed only one, his host would have feared it wasn't up to standard. He then enjoyed his steak. The oysters offered no problem, since they present no bulk."
It would be gratifying to report that Liebling followed the pattern set by his friend Mirande and continued stowing away vast feasts into his eighties, but this was not to be. "In the end," an acquaintance reported, "he destroyed himself through gluttony with kidney and heart trouble and his fingers, toes and even ears disfigured by gout." Liebling died in New York aged 59. Given the choice between death or diet, a period of moderation seems not entirely unappetising, just as soon as I've finished this book.