A.J. Liebling (1904-1963) seems like an awesome guy. he was a prodigious writer, eater of food, lover of boxing and horse races. he studied French literature at the Sorbonne by his own admission mostly as a pretext for eating shit tons of French food, and went to war for The New Yorker (writing, not fighting) off and on between ’39 and ’44.
after a long and committed (after a fashion) search, i’ve at last acquired a copy of Between Meals, which contains the bulk of his food writing, and at the risk of being plunged into murderous dissatisfaction at the disparity between 1930s Parisian and early 21st century Island cuisine, i intend to read it on my upcoming “vacation” in PEI (here’s fingers crossed for smoother sailing this time around*).
as i have not as yet read it, this post will not be about that, but about this brief passage from his WWII writings, which has stood out and stayed with me, popping up now and then in conversation, waiting for fuller articulation, for some time:
A soldier wheeled over a tea wagon holding about 20 bottles – scotch, port, sherry, and various apéritifs. The Colonel took an obvious pride in his gamut of alcohols; it proved he could “defend himself.” The verb “se défendre” had acquired a very broad meaning in the French Army; it signified “getting along” . . . soldiers going on patrol in wooded parts of no-man’s land set rabbit snares so that they might pick up a tasty breakfast – all these expedients were part of the French concept of self defense. It followed logically that a colonel defended himself on a grander scale than a subordinate.
- from “Merry Christmas, Horrid New Year,” in The Road Back To Paris, 1944.
this idea of “self defense” is totally fascinating to me. on an immediate level, it resonates with the idea of larding oneself against the winter with jams, jellies, preserves, ferments and salt cures, grain stores, etc. basic survival practices in any country beset by seasons.
as i city dweller i find i do this myself in a similar if less urgent capacity – when i’m in good financial straits buying big bags of rice and lentils and jugs of olive oil and the like, as well as, on perhaps an (arguably) less subsistence level, bottles of brandy and scotch and vermouth for those harder, darker times when funds are stretched and i’m burning my own waste to stay warm. in this way and this way only am i like Aesop’s ant, in that i work now in order to sing the winter away. although actually it’s more like i spend now so as to eat later without being able necessarily to pay, say, the hydro bill, and so am like some happy if horrifying ant/grasshopper hybrid. can you even imagine? i’m hideous.
food is also is regularly caught up in nationalist discourses, not only in debates about cultural authenticity, but in the sense of “if we give up these practices that we feel define us, the Enemy wins.” this can manifest in more horrible/ridiculous and less horrible/ridiculous fashions. the whole Freedom Fries affair was entertaining largely because of how gorily it displayed the capacity of the United States to be utterly oblivious to when it really should be embarrassed by its own stupidity (wiki points out the lesser attention garnered by the simultaneous neologism “freedom toast,” which i assume is due to Americans’ general preference for Action Pancakes). on the other hand, there can be something sort of admirable about it, in that smoking-in-a-swimming-pool sort of way.
there are other moments of this in The Road Back To Paris, when Liebling marvels with a mix of admiration and pity at the French citizenry who try as much as possible to go about their apéritif- and éclair- filled lives in concerted obliviousness to the rapid approach of the front. MFK Fisher, too, explores the delicacy of the balance in her How To Cook A Wolf (about means tactical and strategic of eating well/getting by under wartime shortages and ration cards), although the message she leaves us with is less that decadence be obstinately insisted upon in the face of mean circumstances than that the lessons of learning to live well with less must not with cannons fade, “for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself.”
anyway, returning to the frivolous, or at least to the sometimes desperate necessity of the capacity for frivolity, i’d like to propose a toast: “à nos défenses.“
(actually i’d like to propose that we all start using this toast, and cheersing thusly)
i spent a good bit of time dicking around, talking to francophones, trying to sort out the proper reflexive/imperative form that this might otherwise take, as in “to our self-defense/to our defense of ourselves” (something like “à nous défendrons“? i still welcome help from any francophones whom i have not yet badgered à propos of this), but in the end i think this says it approximately as well in its simplicity. and i like how in its apparent simplicity (oh, here it comes) it, in the act of cheersing, actually smuggles in a certain reflexivity. as you raise the glass you are saying “let us raise a glass, in cheers, to our defenses – the things that help us get through the everyday struggle – of which there may be many, but in this case is alcohol,” and thus you are using to cheers that which you are in effect cheersing to, creating a neat little, uh, feedback loop or something. it’s very much like the cheers “to alcohol!” (uh, duh.), but with this different surround, a slightly different set of connotations, and of course, a French twist. it’s effectively like saying “to getting by, and our many ways (this one in particular) of doing so!” and still further: “to us, and our being so good at self-defense, right?”
i have a predilection for such linguistic (er..conceptual?) contortions – they feel like one of those calming Love Tunnel carnival boat rides (in that they’re slow/involve a gradual progression, not because you maybe get to touch a boob) which at a point you realize is actually a (similarly slow) roller coaster riding on a Möbius strip. i do not, contrastingly, have a predilection for M.C. Escher posters. or getting high.
it reminds me, kind of, of a Nabokov short story i just read wherein the narrator is loosely involved with a couple of equally looney and ill-fit-for-this-world sisters, one of whom commits suicide while the other dies of something or other, after which he (narrator) under the influence of the latter’s obsession with symbology and numerology and spiritual hoozlewazzle skeptically searches for some indication of their continued spectral presence, only to resign, deflated, (if a little smugly) defeated, in a final paragraph which acrostically reintroduces the sisters into his textual reality. of which Nabokov writes (a little embarrassedly, i think) “This particular trick can be tried once in a thousand years of fiction. Whether it has come off is another question.”
or of that stuff i wrote about vikings.
more soon, toast-wise.
let us be that cup.