Nostalgia for Paris, for a particular Paris, is rich territory. Were you there pre-war or post-war, and which war. It was always better before you got there–Belle Epoque, the Lost Generation, GI Bill expats, and now, perhaps even I can indulge in a bit of nostalgia.
You should have been there in the 1970s, when a student could see the city for a few francs a day and there were no shoot-outs on the Champs Elysee.
My lodestar for Paris nostalgia will always be A.J. Liebling, the original trust fund kid who made good. He didn’t buy a fancy car and smash it up, he went to Paris, got a job as a journalist, and wrung out every drop of atmosphere he could. From a garret apartment to endless glasses of Tavel, Liebling was there.
Or perhaps I should say cities and food–my two favorite topics–are rich territory. Libeling approaches both. “Nineteen-fourteen was the year of transition to Francophile from mere Germanophobe.” With literal fever dreams of WW1 heroism, Liebling’s appetite was set. In 1926, his father offered him “just enough money,” for a year of study in Paris, under the impression that he was rescuing his son from an ill-advised love affair.
“Just enough money,” he claims is key to becoming a discerning eater. The budget directs you to the cheap wines, and when you can afford an upgrade, you see the difference. It nudges you toward beef heart and trout rather than contra-filet and sole, and your palate expands.
It also may drive you to appreciate intensity. Liebling decries diners who show an “apathy toward decided flavor,” preferring “processed cheese because it isn’t cheesy, and synthetic vanilla extract because it isn’t vanillary.” Supermarket apples, dry beers, and light Scotch earn the same scorn.
To eat, as Liebling defines it, is a “selective activity” It requires pursuit and an open mind. You’ve got to bite into things that you’ve never seen before. Maybe even overcome feelings about bugs or unexpected textures. I love cheetos as much as anyone, but I also love lentils, and a nice goaty cheese, and bitter greens, and peaches that jump with tangy sweetness. (I’m not better than you because I like greens. I’m just pursuing my hobby. Some people go skiing or have a boat, I go to farm markets.)
Anyway, Liebling is a happy, if low-rent, boulevardier–becoming a regular at restaurants, perusing book stalls, admiring passing girls and the river. Liebling’s writing is lovely, reading it is like slipping down a bright stream, bouncing and quick, sparkled with sunlight, never quite knowing where you’ll come to shore.
Eventually, all this eating leads him to a sentence in a Swiss “slimming prison,” a two week resident who is one of the “fat, sensible people…who longed for something decent to eat.” He recovers from his health regime at friends’ who feed him guinea hen and brook trout, washed down with wine and marc.
The book, written in 1959, takes a few detours into his other passion, boxing, but finishes on a nostalgic note, when he decrees that by 1927, French cooking had already a “crepuscular quality.” Aah, but what a sunset.