Dwight Garner’s new book is devoted solely to the pleasures of life. For him, as for me, two of the greatest of these are eating and reading, though I must say it had never occurred to me to merge the two. Garner, a mordant, earthy, and erudite book critic for The New York Times, has delighted in these “combined gluttonies” ever since childhood. (Imagine a kid bent over a pile of newspapers, library books and cheesy sandwiches.)
A monument to the insights of good food writing, his book collects lessons learned from his lifetime of happy consumption. It is convivial and fun to read, brief yet dense with allusions and asides, and structured to celebrate everyday events: a chapter each about breakfast, lunch, grocery shopping, drinking and dinner. There’s even a midday interlude devoted to the joys of napping and swimming. Throughout, a category of dish or drink or eatery is reframed by the perspectives of the best and liveliest writers, the ones “who liked to tuck into life.”
It’s a kind of semi-autobiography, discursively and wittily narrated. Garner grew up in West Virginia and the Everglades, and he retains a taste for the vernacular food of Appalachia—such as the peanut butter and pickle sandwich, his love for which finds him widely ridiculed. Where he’s from, people say “warsh” for “wash,” just like where I’m from (Southeast Ohio). He is a bon vivant and connoisseur, yes, but one whose cosmopolitan intellect and tastes belie stereotypes about his social class background. A bit like some of his favorite writers (for example, Harry Crews, a recurring presence here). Though he calls himself a Manhattanite today, it’s an identity always in tension with the inner kid from coal miner country. (Again, I can relate.) He has also lived in Middlebury, Burlington, Brooklyn, New Jersey and New Orleans. His wife is Cree LeFavour, the cookbook author and novelist, his darling and his foil throughout these pages.
Garner confides that he’s been overweight all his life, but chafing thighs, pre-teen Weight Watchers meetings, and a life of binge-starve dieting never vanquished his unruly appetites and voracious cravings. He is upfront about the waistline wages of decadence, but that he has no second thoughts is evinced by the book’s frequent invoking of the ravenous gourmands of the past (Colette, Milton, Thackeray). In fact, Garner positively elegizes the debauch as a literary mode.
Over and over, Garner artfully merges personal anecdotes—getting his first, revelatory taste of barbecue at a joint off the Tamiami Trail, or cooking dinner for his kids every night while nibbling cheese and filling the kitchen with “the best music we knew”—with scenes from books or lines from poems, making the connection between, say, a neat glass of bourbon and Emily Dickinson. “Bring me the sunset in a cup,” she wrote.
Almost all of my critical heroes, of literature, music or film, make an appearance in these pages, so long as they speak somehow to the joys and desires of the gullet. Their voices join those of just about every novelist who has mattered to me, whose words blend with quotes from journalists and poets and cookbook writers, until Garner pulls a galaxy of jolly and brilliant minds into the book’s orbit. I can think of at least three more places where I would have fit in P.G. Wodehouse, but then I always want more Wodehouse.
I benefited at least as much from Garner’s evocations of books I hadn’t known about, but which I now want to read, from Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America” to Guillermo Stitch’s “brave satirical” novel “Lake of Urine.” My plate, so to speak, is full: the novels of Eva Figes, Tommy Tomlinson’s “The Elephant in the Room” (on Southern cuisine), the letters between Ralph Ellison and the critic Albert Murray, and many more.
Because I’m a lifelong reader who’s also been dubbed a foodie by friends (a kind way, perhaps, of saying they’ve noticed my propensity to shovel it in), I found something on every carbonated page of this book to make me smile or even laugh.
As a metaphor for memory, Garner borrows the critic Seymour Krim’s idea of the “upstairs delicatessen.” Garner’s brain could just as easily be conceived of as a library. As crumbs fall from their mustard-stained pages, the stacks of his mind spill forth a cornucopia of bon mots and experiences, all about the pleasures of the table. It’s enough to make you believe gluttony is akin to wisdom, that a mantra for enlightenment could be “salty, fatty, crispy, spicy.” In the truest epicurean sense, this book is a guide to happiness.
“The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading”
By Dwight Garner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages