Anthologies aim for posterity, to set themselves up as markers of greatness. Yet a clue to the considerable element of whim that goes into their compiling can be found in the copyright notice of the newly published Penguin Book of Food and Drink. The editor, Paul Levy, retains copyright not just for his introduction, but for his selection, his choice of the choicest of choice food-writing. The anthology may look weighty, but at heart it is a desert island list, a sort of parlour-game dressed up as scholarship.
When compiling a food anthology, the editor flatters himself with not one but two areas of particularly tender understanding, the first about matters gastronomical, the second about literary merit. In Paul Levy's book, there is a third area, drink, though the chapters on this are so slight as to be almost notional (granted, there is a rather compelling rapture about the virtues of a bourbon cocktail called a Manhattan). Wine- writing, he reckons, tends to fail on literary grounds: the qualities of wine simply elude exact description. As if to explain this, he writes, "As never ceases to amaze people of common sense, very few wines actually taste or smell of grapes."
As for the food-writers, he trusts that all the grands maitres are there, though the omission of the late Jeremy Round is conspicuous, if understandable. In 1988, Mr Round wrote "Utopia", a poem satirising the condescension of Levy's remarks in the Observer "tea, contrary to the belief of the vulgar, is seldom drunk with food in China".
The omission of Round's work is one of the few flaws in the book. If Levy is indeed a snob, he did not become one without also becoming very good at his job. As for the chiding dandyism of his connoisseurship, this goes with the territory. We are reminded by reading his selection, most of them war-time and post-war contributions, what a personal battle the British and American food-writers had against their own dreary tables (and publishers). How they had to set themselves apart, how a distinct and fastidious appetite was part of it.
Occasionally the work is confessional, as in Barbara Kafka's urgent account of how she retreated from the terrors of an alcoholised family life into contemplating food, starting with the plate in front of her at the dinner table as her parents quarrelled. Mostly the emotion serves simply to buoy up observation, as in Elizabeth David's exquisite mixture of affection, wonder and elitism as she reminisces about her friend Norman Douglas, and rages against the cheesy illustrations of the first edition of his Venus in the Kitchen.
More importantly, Levy is jolly. The writing he selects tends less towards authority, more towards merriment, and in the case of Alan Davidson's account of recipe exchanges at Thai funerals, it can be almost madly arcane. The writing is at its best in the courtly irony of Ludwig Bemelmans and A J Liebling. Bemelmans rose from busboy through the dining rooms of the grand hotels of France and New York. His essay, "No Trouble at All", tells the story of Gabriel, maitre of the Cocofinger Hotel in New York in the late 1930s, and his sanguine handling of the birthday party of a Mrs George Washington Kelly of Coral Gables, Florida. A great lagoon had to be constructed in the dining room. It would be a crime against delight to describe what takes place when the midgets pass the cake into the genuine Venetian gondola on Mrs George Washington Kelly's big night.
A J Liebling's food-writing comes from the golden era of Harold Ross's New Yorker. His evocation of meals and the people who serve them is as affectionate, quirky and vivid, whether he describes pre-war Ukranian dining rooms on skid row or prohibition speak-easies. Perhaps most poignant is his account of a series of meals after the liberation of Paris with a Paris impresario named Mirande who, for health reasons, is denied his long lunches of truite bleu, provencal daube, roasted guinea hen and two bottles of claret . He is dying. Liebling gives us tantalising glimpses of the twilight of a bon viveur. For Bemelmans and Liebling alone, this book is a pleasure store.
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