One of my great pleasures in life has been lunch, alone, with a book, at some local downscale restaurant that approximates a café. There aren’t many left. I loathe Greek diners/coffee shops, not only because the food is bad but because of the noisy, fluorescent-lit atmosphere. Music in the background is okay, as long as it’s not loud, and I want only enough light to read by, coming preferably through a window. A club sandwich is ideal, so long as the tomato is under control (thin-sliced and not too watery). Much as I love good cheeseburgers, they’re really too drippy for the welfare of propped-open books. Neatness is at least as important as flavor.
This may explain why I was attracted by the title of Dwight Garner’s new book, The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, & Eating While Reading. I imagined a table by the window — this would be one of those delis with tables and waiters — offering the always endearing (and rather rare) street view from the second floor. At a deli, moreover, there might be real liverwurst — grey, bitter, and not at all sweet — to combine with red onion and perhaps even bacon between two mustard-coated slices of rye bread. The title made me hungry to read the book.
I was also attracted by the chance to have a glimpse of a noted book reviewer’s personal life, or at least this particular book reviewer. It’s not, or not just, that he’s well-known and obviously influential. It’s rather that my agreement with his opinions is never total, and sometimes not even harmonious. At the same time, I never altogether disagree, unless his subject is a figure from so-called pop culture, and I bristle at the very idea of paying attention to such a person, at least in a literary context. How can such an intelligent, thoughtful reader be so different from me? Upstairs Delicatessen roughs out an answer. The book opens with an autobiographical sketch that stretches nearly to forty pages. The chapter winds down with references to some famous food passages from famous novels (Proust’s madeleine, Woolf’s boeuf en daube) and concludes as follows:
A few elite experiences are described in this book, but so is my devotion to fried-bologna sandwiches. The West Virginian and the Manhattanite in me are locked, like the ourobouros, in constant battle. Like you perhaps, I’m snobby about a million things, but I’m not snobby about a million other things. If you must set this book down, I invite you to do as the critic Cyril Connelly once did, and mark your place with a strip of streaky bacon. (48)
I, on the other hand, have come to the conclusion, urged on me by many friends, that I am snobby about everything. A felt very snobby indeed about the source of Garner’s title:
The great critic Seymour Krim liked to refer to his memory as “that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine.” It’s a phrase I’ve always loved. (7)
What a homey, ghastly image. I must note, though, that, despite all my disapproving remarks, I did enjoy reading it. The Upstairs Delicatessen is really too easy to read, just as a bag of snacks is easy to consume — leaving one feeling not quite tippety-top.
The body of the book is divided into five chapters and an interlude. Three of the chapters concern the principal meals of the day, while the other two are devoted to shopping (for food) and drinking (something unlikely to take place in a deli). It does not take long to discover that Garner is not, as a rule, going to be describing his favorite things to eat. He may mention them, but that’s all. About the fried-bologna sandwich, he discusses a vending machine in Texas that dispenses hot ones, a brand of bologna that might owe its piquancy to the ministrations of a particularly insanitary worker, and the appearance of such sandwiches on upscale restaurant menus. Similarly, the pages that are dotted with references to hot dogs run from Mencken’s disappointment that there weren’t more varieties to the réclame of Gray’s Papaya. Garner does not need to describe the taste of these comestible because he can be fairly certain that his readers are more than a little familiar with them. Garner is also aware that these well known flavors are highly seasoned by the particular circumstances (from time of day to time of life) in which they are tasted. Correspondingly Garner seasons his text with a commonplace-book’s stock of literary, rather than culinary, quotations, some of them so circumstantial as to be tangential to the business at hand.
In Joseph O’Neill’s excellent novel Netherland, the narrator comments: “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” Muriel Spark, in A Far Cry From Kensington, recommended this: “It is my advice to anyone getting married,” she wrote, “that they should first see the other partner when drunk.” (184)
“Breakfast” offers a pleasant example of the commonplace-book style’s penchant for unruly vagaries. Ir is not about the indigestible variety of things that different people start the day with, but a literary run-through of familiar options such as biscuits and bacon. But breakfast itself is sometimes forgotten. Susan Sontag, according to Sigrid Nunez, might cook a pound of bacon and serve at as dinner. Toward the end, the narrative hits a pothole in Cormac McCart5y that knocks it into a dispute about what the New Orleans restaurant Mosca’s would or would not offer its diners. It remembers its ostensible subject at the last minute.
But back to breakfast. Some mornings I do overdo it on the eggs, or the pancakes, or the biscuits, and I just climb back into bed. I’ve committed what the backgammon app on my phone calls a “casual blunder.” Back under the duvet, I sympathise with the speaker in Finnegan’s Wake who said, “I’ve eaten a griddle.” (76)
In the middle of “Lunch” there Garner gives us an account of the weirdest meal in the book — and he was there. This is not an extract from someone else’s writing. He does not explain how or why he happened to be at the table of eight when Nathan Myhrvold served not so much lunch as an homage to his idol, Ferrand Adria, the founder of molecular cooking. There were fifty courses, few if any of them individually ample. Garner tells us that he wasn’t hungry when he got up from the table, but his next meal, a few hours later, consisted of a cheeseburger at “Dicks, the indispensable Seattle burger joint.”
No amount of twiddling could improve upon it. Myhrvold’s meal had left me feeling curiously empty. I didn’t speak Spanish and Adria didn’t speak English, Our conversation, through a translator, was strained. … There was no conviviality, no banter, no jokes, no music. It felt like an autopsy. (113)
He concludes by referencing David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” The comparison is not apt. Wallace was writing about a Caribbean cruise, pointing up its utter banality while disclosing the crew’s smile-plastered discomforts. From a certain angle, Myhrvold’s menu might be seen as pretentious, but as the science-lab abstraction of a normal meal, it was anything but banal. For all his interest in cuisines that were exotic until very recently, he does not seem to have been even intellectually engaged by Myhrvold’s experiments. The tone of the entire episode, is narrated in a somewhat more pointed version of the book’s tone overall; it presents Garner as a regular guy. And he is a regular guy, if by “regular” you refer to cultural arbiters, their families, and their college roommates.
“Dinner” is about everything from snacks to eat while cooking, through music to listen to, to the ideal dinner guests. The most memorable bit, for me, is this one-sentence paragraph.
My favorite thing to read, alone in a restaurant, is a restaurant review. (205)