A remembrance of Diet Cokes past
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Dwight Garner is a celebrated book critic for The New York Times. That’s to say an avid reader. He is also an avid foodie and his upcoming book combines those twin passions – like jam on bread – in the most delicious way. The title says it all: The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, out 24 October).
“The upstairs delicatessen” is a phrase used by critic Seymour Krim to refer to his memory. Garner’s own upstairs delicatessen is well stocked. “Other books have approached food from the context of literature,” he notes. But those tend to regurgitate the same old references, such as Proust’s madeleines or the boeuf en daube from To the Lighthouse. Garner’s overview is more eclectic, leaning towards what he describes as the “Diet Coke and potato chips” end of the spectrum, and a lot more fun.
Having sketched in his formative years as a chubby kid whose after-school reading was accompanied by pretzels and cookies and whose mother’s cooking (“its warm-buttered noodle blandness”) he couldn’t get enough of, we are treated to disquisitions on everything from literary breakfasts (kudos to author Peter De Vries for branding the thinking person’s cereal as “Joyce Carol Oates”) to the “long and generous” working lunch.
There are many life lessons to be found here. How to weather a hangover (the Kingsley Amis way), what you should do with potatoes if you have arthritis (courtesy of Jessica Mitford), how to nail a seating plan (thanks to Tina Brown) and what to do if you’re sat between two bores (what hostess Sally Quinn calls the “gristle” seat). According to writer Virginia Faulkner and diplomat Jerry Wadsworth, questions guaranteed to liven conversation include, “Are you a bed wetter?” and, “Do you like string?” Try them some time.
Garner’s book also dishes up examples of how not to live. Don’t, I suggest, take part in a “Mazola party”, the game played by friends of Julia Child that required a dozen men and a dozen women, a tiled room, Mazola cooking oil and everybody taking their clothes off.
Ruminations on sex abound, including this salty aside on poultry: “Michael Ruhlman has a roast chicken recipe that says: put the chicken in the oven; go have sex; when you’re done, so too will be the chicken. I once mentioned this during a panel discussion… The critic Daniel Mendelsohn drily commented, ‘Whenever I try that, my chicken gets burned to a crisp.’”
Like a good meal, some titbits will stay with you forever.