- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

By Jason Epstein
Knopf, $25, 192 pages

If it is true, as the old saw has it, that people are divided into those who eat to live and those who live to eat, then there is little doubt that Jason Epstein falls squarely into the latter category. The very title which the editorial giant of New York’s publishing world has given his memoir immediately points to that. But although “Eating: A Memoir” contains recipes aplenty and a lot of reminiscing about meals relished — and even some not so pleasant to recall — there is a great deal more to the book. Gourmet and gourmand though Mr. Epstein be, he is above all a bon viveur and he has led an interesting life and known many fascinating people. And so his memoir is a reflection of it and of them; and his manner of telling his story enhances its innate qualities.

Mr. Epstein has such enthusiasm — yes, certainly for food but not only for what he has eaten and drunk — and he is adept at conveying this to the reader. You feel that he includes the recipes not merely for the pleasure it gives him to write them down and recall how much he enjoyed making those dishes, but because he genuinely wants to share them. He has edited books by such luminaries as Alice Waters and Maida Heatter and they were clearly fortunate to have such a discriminating editor. Through him, many cooks were able to replicate in their own homes the splendors of cooking at the highest level according to such master chefs; and the same is also true here with the recipes — his own and others’ — that he has included.

“Eating: A Memoir” will makes many a reader’s mouth water as Mr. Epstein remembers wonderful meals he ate in Paris on his honeymoon in 1954. The strong dollar of those days — how the mighty has fallen — made it possible for the Epsteins to dine at the best restaurants like Le Grand Vefour every night, sampling choice dishes and vintage wines. Crossing over on the luxurious French Line flagship Ile de France, their table companions at the New Year’s Eve gala were Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Wilson and Mr. and Mrs. Buster Keaton. The flaming Crepe Suzettes and Cherries Jubilee were rather overshadowed that night by dueling bouts of juggling between Wilson and Keaton.

Not every memory summoned up by Mr. Epstein is joyous. He paints a grim portrait of a pariah Roy Cohn, almost alone at one of his parties which would once have been crowded. Introduced to Cohn by Norman Mailer — who would ever have guessed that those two were friends? — Mr. Epstein was hoping to coax a worthwhile manuscript before the infamous figure succumbed to the AIDS which was killing him. Boldly asking Cohn how he was going to deal with his widely-known homosexuality — his male companion had just emerged from their bedroom — Mr. Epstein ran up against a brick wall:

“‘I’m not homosexual,’ he replied, without expression, his watery blue eyes unblinking.” But he did elicit such gems from Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s onetime chief henchman as “Communism never worried me. It was Joe’s thing.” No wonder Mr. Epstein concluded that Cohn was simply an opportunist: “he could as easily have become a Stalinist.” He also discerned that “Roy … was born without a conscience, a Shakespearean birth defect that he shared with Edmund and Iago, for whose frailty S.T. Coleridge invented the exquisite term ‘motiveless malignity.’ Roy believed in nothing and had no concept of truth.”

What gives “Eating: A Memoir” such a special quality — in addition of course to Mr. Epstein’s distinctive authorial tone, fund of anecdotes and his gusto for food and life — is his ability to indulge in great gobs of nostalgia without wallowing in the sentiment to the exclusion of everything else. Approaching his ninth decade on earth, he is obviously well-grounded, enjoying his present life as much as he does dipping into the past. He joyously recalls good times with his first wife, New York Review of Books founder/editor Barbara Epstein while giving every indication of happiness with his second and current one, journalist Judith Miller. And he doesn’t sugarcoat the past. Recalling his grandmother’s beloved chicken pot pie “made from a worn-out laying hen,” he recognizes how awful it actually was — but what made it so special:

“The crust, shiny on top, was gummy underneath, the broth was thin, and the chicken itself overcooked, dry, stringy, and tasteless. Yet our family romance declared her chicken pie a favorite, and my cousins and I dutifully cheered when my dear, beaming grandmother brought the pie in from the kitchen. She had an infectious gift for conviviality. So when the family gathered around her big, round golden-oak dining-room table there was joy despite the pie. She wanted us to be happy, and we were eager to accommodate her belief that the pie made us so.”

Grandma’s cooking improved over time, helped by cookbooks, and her grandson sternly admonishes the reader that:

“Today, with fair-quality farm raised chicken breasts, skinned and boned, in the supermarket, and inexpensive chicken parts to enrich the organic broth sold in cartons, there is no excuse for a dry and tasteless chicken pot pie.”

And then Mr. Epstein being Mr. Epstein, he proceeds to give a recipe.

Although he admires the great writers and has published and edited some of them, no one will ever confuse Mr. Epstein with Proust. “Eating: A Memoir” is cut from more existential cloth. Nonetheless, he has produced a book that will warm readers’ hearts and has clearly enjoyed himself in the process.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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