A Book Critic as Wild for Food as He Is for Literature
Pity the freelancer tasked with reviewing for The New York Times the intimate and joyful new memoir by the esteemed Times book critic Dwight Garner. Unqualified praise in these pages for “The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading” will never be entirely trusted. Fortunately, after my third reading of Garner’s eccentric bricolage of literary anecdote and autobiography, I did come up with a few qualifications.
First, not everyone is going to enjoy this book. I can list the people in my life, all skinny, who will see no appeal whatsoever in strolling down the aisles of Stop & Shop with a free-associating book critic “in sweatpants and a moth-eaten cardigan and flip-flops.” My second qualification: Those of us fascinated by Garner’s thoughts on apples (he always looks for Cox’s Orange Pippins, because they’re the only kind an Iris Murdoch character eats) and Émile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris” (“Western literature’s great groceries novel”) will wish he’d made a longer trip.
Garner valorizes an unpretentious and hungry way of reading and living that, although it is deeply familiar to me, I’ve never seen described with such candor and specificity. He’s divided his freewheeling book into six chapters: breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinking, shopping, and an interlude about swimming and napping. I downed it all in one greedy swallow and wanted more.
Garner grew up in West Virginia and Florida, raised on, as he puts it, the “Cool Whip side” of the cultural and gastronomic chasm that began to yawn in the 1970s. Anyone who was a child at the time will know what he means. In some ’70s kitchens you found carob chips and an earth mother steaming brown rice. In others, Hydrox cookies and Jell-O carried the day. Such was the kitchen of Garner’s childhood home, and he lovingly recalls suppers of “sauerkraut with sliced-up franks; spaghetti with fried ground hamburger and a sauce made from Hunt’s canned tomatoes, served with a gleaming green shaker of Kraft grated Parmesan cheese.”
Given the tenderness Garner lavishes on shelf-stable powdered cheese, it is no surprise that he was a chubby boy. His descriptions of his body constitute some of the sweetest and funniest passages in the book. “I was a soft kid, inclined toward embonpoint, ‘husky’ in the department-store lingo,” Garner writes. “If I’d been a cat, my undercarriage would have swayed while I walked. … Everyone else was thin and tall, like bottles of German wine.” (Well, not quite everyone, buddy.)
Garner’s early appetite for everything from Bugles to blue crabs was matched by his equally wide-ranging appetite for literature, encompassing Miami Herald sports columns, scavenged copies of Oui magazine and the novels of Robert B. Parker. He tells of returning from school, fixing a sandwich “sodden with mayonnaise, cheese slices poking out like a stealth bomber’s wings,” and settling in under the ceiling fan for three or four hours of bliss. He would eradicate all traces of his activities by the time his father, who “would have preferred to see his son outside in shoulder pads,” came home.
What’s refreshing here is that Garner never problematizes his eating and reading habits; they were and remain the engine of his vitality. Pretzels and Calvin Trillin books didn’t serve as a numbing mechanism or an escape from life; they were an extension and intensification of life. He was, as he puts it, an “omni-directionally hungry human being” and he read not to escape — or to please English teachers — but to mainline illuminating data about the glittering world and glean clues on how to be a person in it.
“I’ve looked to novels and memoirs and biographies and diaries and cookbooks and books of letters for advice about how to live, the way cannibals ate the brains of brilliant captives, seeking to grow brilliant themselves,” Garner writes. The lessons he learned were largely lessons in cultivating gusto. His heroes are “people who liked to tuck into life,” such as the rumbustious characters in the novels of Jim Harrison, zesty and unpretentious, who relish “game birds and truffles but are just as happy to find a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli.” Garner himself likes to tuck into life, but he comes across as a relatable and domesticated carouser, a bon vivant who regularly goes on diets and appears happiest at home with his family, a stack of cookbooks, his 900-song Sonos playlist and a Gordon’s gin martini.
Books serve many purposes and one of the purposes they’ve served in Garner’s life is as goodie bags. It is our good fortune that he likes to share. This book is packed with anecdotes and quotations from his decades of reading, but it also abounds in actionable recommendations and opinions that — if you are a suggestible reader — will occupy you for months.
I am the most suggestible reader you could ever meet and now own two bottles of Garner’s hot sauce of choice (Marie Sharp’s, an incendiary elixir from Belize), have made his most beloved sandwich (peanut butter and pickle), read a George Orwell essay on how to make tea (“among the best things this vastly intelligent and earthy man wrote”), devoured a cracked but fascinating Q. and A. (“one of the great interviews of the new century”) with the novelist Gary Shteyngart in the magazine Modern Drunkard, and ordered a copy of “The Theory and Practice of Lunch,” by Keith Waterhouse (“a copy belongs in your back pocket”). A dozen more action items from the book are on the horizon and I couldn’t be happier.
One final qualification: Occasionally Garner shoehorns in a quotation or anecdote too many. Does Jessica Mitford’s mother’s comment that giving birth feels like having an orange forced up your nostril really enhance Garner’s meditation on a supermarket citrus display? Perhaps not. But this excess of enthusiasm, this desire to cram in one more excellent line, even if it doesn’t quite fit, underscores the book’s ethos of gusto. Garner is like an irrepressible host who loads a final tempting dish onto the groaning board, saying, I know, this is Thanksgiving, but you’ve just got to try these gyoza, aren’t they great?
Yes they are. For those of us who live to read and eat, this book is a feast.
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