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How You Eat Reveals Who You Are

Writer Alberto Manguel connects his lifelong passions for food and books and describes some legendary novelists who expressed their world views in their appetites, rapturously devouring everything or taking careful little bites.

When I was three or four years old, I learned to read in a large, thin volume with the words printed in thick black letters underneath the pictures. Those letters attracted me perhaps more than the pictures themselves: the stepladder A, the snaky S and, in particular, the hypnotic gaze of the double O that seemed to be watching me, goggle-eyed, even after the page had been turned. Had I known about predestination, I might have said that the double O marked the twin avocations of my future life: looking at books and cooking food.

Both passions began very early, in a house that no longer exists on Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv, where my father was the Argentine ambassador and where I grew up until the age of seven. I kept my books and my toys in the basement room where I slept along with my nanny, but I liked playing in the walled garden best, where four tall palm trees stood in a perfect square that outlined the imaginary island on which I pretended to be shipwrecked. Here I survived on chunks of Parmesan cheese and baking chocolate that Sam the cook, a refugee from Berlin, surreptitiously slipped into my pocket. Sam was a large, cheerful man who enjoyed preparing a kosher version of Alsatian choucroute garnie, chicken lasagna and beef boiled in vinegar, and who taught me German beer-drinking songs that I can still sing when the mood takes me. The taste of cheese and chocolate, and the scent of the chicken broth he prepared first thing in the morning to be used for lunch and dinner, are my earliest gastronomic memories.

Many of the stories I liked best spoke of food. There were the jam tarts that the Knave of Hearts stole from the Queen in Wonderland and the "bread whiter than snow" that the Slave of the Lamp brought Aladdin. There was the strange substance called jelly that Enid Blyton's Famous Five had for tea but I'd never tasted, and something called porridge (hot or cold) that Mother Goose said you could have for the asking. One day someone gave me a toy kitchen, to which my father objected because he said it was for girls. I played with it for a while, but eventually, I gave it up on my own. Books allow you to perform the stories in your mind, but with cooking, you want material results, not just pretense.

A few days later, watching Sam prepare to bake cookies, I asked if I could help. He allowed me to cut out the circles of dough and insert in the middle of each a big, fat raisin. I watched him slide the tray into the oven and, with as much patience as I could muster, I waited for the miracle to happen. At last, they were ready. Sam generously conceded that the cookies were mine, and I carried them in triumph into the living room, where my father was entertaining officials. The guests took a cookie each but (nothing escapes the notice of a child) only pretended to eat. I was furious, because that was not how you played the game. I knew already that to refuse an offering of food (one does not pretend to break bread) was somehow a terrible offense.

According to the Talmud, the three pillars that sustain the world are study, prayer and charity; the first two are linked to reading, the third to sharing. Reading is a private craft: It can eventually spill over into the outside world, but mostly we read for ourselves, in the intimate space of our mind. Cooking, however, is at its heart a public activity: Its end is to feed others as well as ourselves. True, there are times when the person who cooks is the sole beneficiary of the labors, but the food then has something unsatisfactory about it, like performing magic tricks in front of a mirror. Cooking demands the acknowledgement of others.

If books guided me in the world, cooking assisted me in knowing others. What we read helps us map our reality, since stories lend us words to shape our experience. How we cook explains how we think, methodically or erratically, guided by a recipe or by our own invention; what we eat (and how we eat) defines who we are, faithful to a given taste or open to all, parsimonious or greedy. My library tells the story of my life: where I lived, what I did there, who my friends were. My kitchen has something of the order of my brain: My spices are kept in alphabetical order, but I allow myself to be distracted when following a cookbook recipe and improvise here and there, never knowing exactly what the result will be.

I've known great authors whose table manners told me much more about them than even their writing. There were the voluptuous eaters, whose passionate taste buds became a metaphor for their passionate words. William Saroyan enjoyed trying everything, and the joy of life apparent in his books became explicit in his delight in eating even things that in the end he didn't much like. Once, after trying snails in garlic, he said that it was a magical experience, like tasting fairy horse meat—and that he'd never do it again. Italo Calvino ate eclectically, as if everything were part of a fantastic story that came together in the telling, like strong cheese with the spicy fruit condiment mostarda, which, I learned later, is a typical dish from Mantua. Gabriel García Márquez, living in Barcelona just before the international success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, told me that one should never eat a dish when one didn't know its story. At restaurants he would engage the waiters in lengthy discussions on the origins of the escudella (stew) and the conill amb cargols (rabbit with snails). At a drunken London party, Tennessee Williams insisted that all food should be an erotic experience and proceeded to arrange on his plate a couple of olives and a gherkin as an offering to the god Priapus.

There were the measured eaters, whose cerebral tastes in gastronomy were reflected in their cerebral literature. Jorge Luis Borges would always ask for the plainest dishes possible, mostly buttered rice with a little cheese, so that the food wouldn't distract him from the conversation, since the realm of words was for him far more important than that of the senses. Graham Greene liked to find universal equivalents for maligned British cuisine: Once, tasting an Argentinean empanada in Buenos Aires, he exclaimed, "Ah! A translated Cornish pasty!" And the poet Denise Levertov chose her food according to its color and shape, because she believed that beauty in everything was a moral obligation.

I once heard the story of an Oxford don, Dr. Buckland, who set himself the task of tasting everything and who, when shown the shriveled heart of a king of France in a snuff box in Nuneham Courtenay, England, popped it into his mouth and pronounced it delicious. Like that intrepid don, I too believed that, because the world had so much to offer, I should try everything once: Read everything and taste everything, travel everywhere and meet as many people as I could. Time has tempered my ambitions. Now, past the age of 60, I enjoy more than anything staying at home, rereading familiar books, preparing for a few old friends some of the dishes that Sam used to serve and dreaming up a cookbook (that I don't think I'll ever write) full of recipes from my favorite stories, on the cover of which the ogling Os of my childhood will continue to keep watch.

Alberto Manguel is the author of The Library at Night, With Borges and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

Published December 2009
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