IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME: MY ADVENTURES IN LIFE AND FOOD:
By Moira Hodgson
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24.95, 335 pages, illus.
This delightful memoir covering a half-century of life, love and adventure is, above all, the story of an omnivore. Perhaps this is why it is larded not only with accounts of culinary adventures all over the world, but also with actual - and very usable as well as readable - recipes for dishes ranging from English summer pudding to Moroccan lamb tagine with green olives.
Moira Hodgson reveals throughout her engaging book an enormous gusto for food, but her enthusiasm is not limited to the gustatory. She is as hungry for experience of all kinds as she is for food, and her book is infused with true joie de vivre.
Born to British parents at the very end of World War II, Ms. Hodgson was a child globetrotter as her father’s career - first in the military and then in the diplomatic service - took the family to Egypt, Lebanon, Sweden, Vietnam and what was then the free city of West Berlin surrounded by a hostile communist German Democratic Republic. Except for visits to her grandparents in Dorset and a few penitential years at a boarding school nearby, Ms. Hodgson’s childhood was spent away from her native heath.
Yet there is something so English about her sensibility - and her prose style. She is an acute observer of English society, its customs and, above all, its food. She is just old enough to remember rationing, and what she doesn’t recall her grandmother has passed on to her: “My grandparents didn’t have an orange for four years during the war. And one day - it was October 1944 - an American soldier came into town and brought one to the house. It tasted like nectar.”
Clearly, Ms. Hodgson’s ability to communicate not just a story but its very feeling is hereditary. Tales of “war cakes” made with dreadful dried eggs that you “weren’t supposed to eat… until they had ‘ripened’ for at least a week in the tin” are hair-raising. But there is nothing like an actual recipe, like this one from her grandmother’s recipe book for “wartime cream,” to communicate the misery resulting from wartime straitened rations:
“Blend 3/4 ounce cornflour (cornstarch) with a little cold milk; stir it into 1/2 pint boiling milk and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously. Leave until nearly cold. Cream together until quite light 1 ounce butter or margarine [given the small ration of butter, it would likely have been margarine] and a dessertspoonful sugar. Add it to the cornflour and whip with a wire whisk.”
No wonder with delights like this and ersatz meat cutlets made out of dried egg and bread crumbs and fried in fat - “Stick in a piece of macaroni to represent bone,” she wrote in her recipe book - that once rationing ended, puddings were full of thick real cream and “there was no end to the butter, slathered thickly on bread and toast or cut in chunks that melted over boiled potatoes.”
Yes, Ms. Hodgson’s cosmopolitan childhood equipped her to understand her native land, illustrating the old adage “What does she know of England who only England knows?” And certainly her parents encouraged her to partake of all that came her way. Although their household always contained - no matter where they were - such English staples as digestive biscuits and Cadbury’s chocolate, their general practice with food was “when in Rome, do what the Romans do” and encouraged Moira to do the same.
She dates her true fascination with the variety of foods to some weeks spent on an Italian liner, the Victoria, sailing back to Europe from the family’s sojourn in Vietnam in 1957. Every meal was a cornucopia of dishes - Italian, French and Continental - but also - because the ship stopped in India, Ceylon and Pakistan - included a regional curry of the day.
Thanks to her parents, she was “allowed to order whatever I wanted as long as I had a ‘properly balanced meal.’ ” Her choices may have been odd, but yea, they were nutritionally balanced and included the various nutritional groups:
“For lunch I ordered sardines on toast, pickled herring, a grilled mutton chop, buttered green beans, pommes lyonnaise and lemon sherbet.”
“Those three weeks,” Ms. Hodgson writes, remembering the 12-year-old omnivore she already was, “eating whatever exotic dish struck my fancy, left a lifelong imprint.”
Didn’t they just.
Although this is perhaps not the book for readers totally uninterested in food, there is a lot more in it than those sections that will make foodies’ mouths water. Ms. Hodgson’s zest for life carried her into many milieus all over the world, starting out with working at the United Nations when she was only 16 and ending up in her current position as restaurant critic for the New York Observer.
Along the way, there were many lives and loves, sojourns in London, North Africa and Paris, including a few years as the lover and traveling companion of the poet W.S. Merwin. There are touching accounts of her parents’ and grandparents’ old age and her father’s slow decline; at the end, she cooks him his favorite shepherd’s pie (recipe naturally included), but he is too far gone to eat it.
Food is undeniably the central leitmotiv of this book, but when those for whom food is cooked range from Virgil Thomson to Diana Trilling, and when there are tales of the likes of Paul Bowles and W.H. Auden, the dishing isn’t all about food.
Indeed, it is Ms. Hodgson’s lust for life leaping from every page that makes her and this memoir so attractive:
“Now when I read those menus from the Victoria, I remember the shy, awkward, skinny, too-tall girl I was, traveling from one country to another, determined to hold on to the memory of every experience by pasting it into an album. Half a century later, I’m still on that ship.”
The beauty of this book is that so are we - and in so many other fascinating places in the course of a life lived with such super gusto.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.