I always was fond of eating and drinking, even as a child—especially eating, in those early days. I had an appetite then, also a digestion. I remember a dull-eyed, livid-complexioned gentleman coming to dine at our house once. He watched me eating for about five minutes, quite fascinated seemingly, and then he turned to my father with—
“Does your boy ever suffer from dyspepsia?”
“I never heard him complain of anything of that kind,” replied my father. “Do you ever suffer from dyspepsia, Colly wobbles?” (They called me Colly wobbles, but it was not my real name.)
“No, pa,” I answered. After which I added:
“What is dyspepsia, pa?”
My livid-complexioned friend regarded me with a look of mingled amazement and envy. Then in a tone of infinite pity he slowly said:
“You will know—some day.”
My poor, dear mother used to say she liked to see me eat, and it has always been a pleasant reflection to me since that I must have given her much gratification in that direction. A growing, healthy lad, taking plenty of exercise and careful to restrain himself from indulging in too much study, can generally satisfy the most exacting expectations as regards his feeding powers.
It is amusing to see boys eat when you have not got to pay for it. Their idea of a square meal is a pound and a half of roast beef with five or six good-sized potatoes (soapy ones preferred as being more substantial), plenty of greens, and four thick slices of Yorkshire pudding, followed by a couple of currant dumplings, a few green apples, a pen’orth of nuts, half a dozen jumbles, and a bottle of ginger-beer. After that they play at horses.
How they must despise us men, who require to sit quiet for a couple of hours after dining off a spoonful of clear soup and the wing of a chicken!
But the boys have not all the advantages on their side. A boy never enjoys the luxury of being satisfied. A boy never feels full. He can never stretch out his legs, put his hands behind his head, and, closing his eyes, sink into the ethereal blissfulness that encompasses the well-dined man. A dinner makes no difference whatever to a boy. To a man it is as a good fairy’s potion, and after it the world appears a brighter and a better place. A man who has dined satisfactorily experiences a yearning love toward all his fellow-creatures. He strokes the cat quite gently and calls it “poor pussy,” in tones full of the tenderest emotion. He sympathizes with the members of the German band outside and wonders if they are cold; and for the moment he does not even hate his wife’s relations.
A good dinner brings out all the softer side of a man. Under its genial influence the gloomy and morose become jovial and chatty. Sour, starchy individuals, who all the rest of the day go about looking as if they lived on vinegar and Epsom salts, break out into wreathed smiles after dinner, and exhibit a tendency to pat small children on the head and to talk to them—vaguely—about sixpences. Serious men thaw and become mildly cheerful, and snobbish young men of the heavy-mustache type forget to make themselves objectionable.
I always feel sentimental myself after dinner. It is the only time when I can properly appreciate love-stories. Then, when the hero clasps “her” to his heart in one last wild embrace and stifles a sob, I feel as sad as though I had dealt at whist and turned up only a deuce; and when the heroine dies in the end I weep. If I read the same tale early in the morning I should sneer at it. Digestion, or rather indigestion, has a marvelous effect upon the heart. If I want to write any thing very pathetic—I mean, if I want to try to write anything very pathetic—I eat a large plateful of hot buttered muffins about an hour beforehand, and then by the time I sit down to my work a feeling of unutterable melancholy has come over me. I picture heartbroken lovers parting forever at lonely wayside stiles, while the sad twilight deepens around them, and only the tinkling of a distant sheep-bell breaks the sorrow-laden silence. Old men sit and gaze at withered flowers till their sight is dimmed by the mist of tears. Little dainty maidens wait and watch at open casements; but “he cometh not,” and the heavy years roll by and the sunny gold tresses wear white and thin. The babies that they dandled have become grown men and women with podgy torments of their own, and the playmates that they laughed with are lying very silent under the waving grass. But still they wait and watch, till the dark shadows of the unknown night steal up and gather round them and the world with its childish troubles fades from their aching eyes.
I see pale corpses tossed on white-foamed waves, and death-beds stained with bitter tears, and graves in trackless deserts. I hear the wild wailing of women, the low moaning of little children, the dry sobbing of strong men. It’s all the muffins. I could not conjure up one melancholy fancy upon a mutton chop and a glass of champagne.
A full stomach is a great aid to poetry, and indeed no sentiment of any kind can stand upon an empty one. We have not time or inclination to indulge in fanciful troubles until we have got rid of our real misfortunes. We do not sigh over dead dicky-birds with the bailiff in the house, and when we do not know where on earth to get our next shilling from, we do not worry as to whether our mistress’ smiles are cold, or hot, or lukewarm, or anything else about them.
Foolish people—when I say “foolish people” in this contemptuous way I mean people who entertain different opinions to mine. If there is one person I do despise more than another, it is the man who does not think exactly the same on all topics as I do—foolish people, I say, then, who have never experienced much of either, will tell you that mental distress is far more agonizing than bodily. Romantic and touching theory! so comforting to the love-sick young sprig who looks down patronizingly at some poor devil with a white starved face and thinks to himself, “Ah, how happy you are compared with me!”—so soothing to fat old gentlemen who cackle about the superiority of poverty over riches. But it is all nonsense—all cant. An aching head soon makes one forget an aching heart. A broken finger will drive away all recollections of an empty chair. And when a man feels really hungry he does not feel anything else.
We sleek, well-fed folk can hardly realize what feeling hungry is like. We know what it is to have no appetite and not to care for the dainty victuals placed before us, but we do not understand what it means to sicken for food—to die for bread while others waste it—to gaze with famished eyes upon coarse fare steaming behind dingy windows, longing for a pen’orth of pea pudding and not having the penny to buy it—to feel that a crust would be delicious and that a bone would be a banquet.
Hunger is a luxury to us, a piquant, flavor-giving sauce. It is well worth while to get hungry and thirsty merely to discover how much gratification can be obtained from eating and drinking. If you wish to thoroughly enjoy your dinner, take a thirty-mile country walk after breakfast and don’t touch anything till you get back. How your eyes will glisten at sight of the white table-cloth and steaming dishes then! With what a sigh of content you will put down the empty beer tankard and take up your knife and fork! And how comfortable you feel afterward as you push back your chair, light a cigar, and beam round upon everybody.
Make sure, however, when adopting this plan, that the good dinner is really to be had at the end, or the disappointment is trying. I remember once a friend and I—dear old Joe, it was. Ah! how we lose one another in life’s mist. It must be eight years since I last saw Joseph Taboys. How pleasant it would be to meet his jovial face again, to clasp his strong hand, and to hear his cheery laugh once more! He owes me 14 shillings, too. Well, we were on a holiday together, and one morning we had breakfast early and started for a tremendous long walk. We had ordered a duck for dinner over night. We said, “Get a big one, because we shall come home awfully hungry;” and as we were going out our landlady came up in great spirits. She said, “I have got you gentlemen a duck, if you like. If you get through that you’ll do well;” and she held up a bird about the size of a door-mat. We chuckled at the sight and said we would try. We said it with self-conscious pride, like men who know their own power. Then we started.
We lost our way, of course. I always do in the country, and it does make me so wild, because it is no use asking direction of any of the people you meet. One might as well inquire of a lodging-house slavey the way to make beds as expect a country bumpkin to know the road to the next village. You have to shout the question about three times before the sound of your voice penetrates his skull. At the third time he slowly raises his head and stares blankly at you. You yell it at him then for a fourth time, and he repeats it after you. He ponders while you count a couple of hundred, after which, speaking at the rate of three words a minute, he fancies you “couldn’t do better than—” Here he catches sight of another idiot coming down the road and bawls out to him the particulars, requesting his advice. The two then argue the case for a quarter of an hour or so, and finally agree that you had better go straight down the lane, round to the right and cross by the third stile, and keep to the left by old Jimmy Milcher’s cow-shed, and across the seven-acre field, and through the gate by Squire Grubbin’s hay-stack, keeping the bridle-path for awhile till you come opposite the hill where the windmill used to be—but it’s gone now—and round to the right, leaving Stiggin’s plantation behind you; and you say “Thank you” and go away with a splitting headache, but without the faintest notion of your way, the only clear idea you have on the subject being that somewhere or other there is a stile which has to be got over; and at the next turn you come upon four stiles, all leading in different directions!
Judith Jones’s memoir The Tenth Muse, aptly subtitled My Life in Food, chronicles the life of one of the most influential foodies you’ve never heard of. The book moves quickly through Jones’s terse blueblooded Vermont childhood, through her time at Bennington College, and her first trip to Paris, all the while keeping Jones’s passion for food as its focus. This passion leads her to move to Paris after her college days, where she and future husband (and fellow writer) Evan Jones can eat pâté to their hearts’ content while palling around with writers, artists, and other beautiful people (even Balthus pops up in her narrative here). After some years of bohemian bliss, Jones returns to the U.S. to champion Julia Child, working hard to get her seminal cook book Mastering the Art of French Cooking to an American audience (she also manages to get The Diary of Anne Frank translated for publication as well). Shocked at the paltry selection of fresh foods in New York City, Jones and her now-husband Evan learn to make many of the fine French foods they enjoyed in their Paris days. At the same time, they continue to introduce a wider audience of Americans to cooks like James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher and Edna Lewis. Through it all, food (rich, thick, luscious French food) remains the primary focus, with the art of writing–and editing–a close second. Jones’s narrative abounds with anecdotes of chefs (Claudia Roden, Lidia Bastianich), editors, and writers (Camus, Capote, Updike), but readers who pine for psychological introspection or juicy melodrama won’t find much to chew on here.
Jones tends to gloss over information that most memoirs would milk for maximum drama. Evan was married when she first began living with him, a fact that would’ve scandalized many women in the 1950s but here goes largely unremarked. Two teenage children are adopted with little explanation or follow-up. Even the focus of Jones’s mastectomy returns to food, her pre-op meal, which Evans sneaks in to the hospital (“good pâté de campagne, some ripe cheese, a baguette, and a bottle of wine”). Also, readers who tend to pay attention to matters of class and economics might find Jones’s complete lack of self-reflection on how her wealth and background have allowed her to live and eat so richly a bit distasteful, particularly when she rails against the state of the modern American kitchen (too unused, or too full of processed, “quick and easy solutions.” Jones would have us killing and dressing beavers we catch on our vast estates, apparently. (Relax, I’m exaggerating (although she does prepare a beaver her son-in-law shoots)–but seriously, preparing a duck for dinner is not nearly as easy as she cheerily suggests)). But ultimately in The Tenth Muse, such lack of reflection simply leaves room for the food, which is really why you want to read this book anyway.
Jones caps off her book with over 80 pages of recipes, lovingly arranged in their own sort of narrative, one that parallels her life story. Jones includes favorite dishes from her early youth (“Spaghetti and Cheese”), plenty of French favorites (“Boudin Blanc,” simple “Baguettes,” “Brains with a Mustard Coating”), and recipes from her country estate (“Gooseberry Tart”). The selection of recipes at the end, “Cooking for One,” inspired by her continued love of complex cooking even after the death of her husband, is particularly poignant (Jones includes seven things to make from one duck).
The Tenth Muse may not meet the usual memoir-reader’s needs for salacious detail or analytical introspection, but those who simply want a glimpse into the life of an influential foodie–and some great recipes to boot–will not be disappointed. Recommended.
The Tenth Muse is now available in paperback from Anchor Books.