i’ve been reading Joseph Mitchell of late, owing to the charming confluence of someone in a bar recommending me him upon noticing that i was reading AJ Liebling, and the publication not two days later of Peter Smith’s “Old Mr. Flood and a Boston Breakfast of Cod’s Cheeks, Tongue, and Flotation Bladder” as part of GOOD’s Food For Thinkers thinger. i couldn’t get my hands on Old Mr. Flood, but i have been thoroughly enjoying McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, and naturally but accidentally gravitating toward those pieces concerned with food and/or drink (“The Old House At Home,” “A Mess of Clams,” “All You Can Hold For Five Bucks“). Smith says as much as well as i could in his GOOD piece about Mitchell, who he was, what he did, where he fit, so i shan’t bother repeating it. what i will say is that beyond a Harold Ross-authored paycheck and an interest in/respect for the “low life,” what Mitchell and Liebling shared was a more than passing attention, in their writing, to the sustenance of their subjects.
it is easy, one might argue, to want to scent out such a preoccupation in the work of writers who one knows also make food itself their object from time to time, but phooey, i don’t think i’m imagining it, nor do i imagine that it is incidental. i think that for both Liebling and Mitchell, whether they’d put it this way or not, food is a big deal. you can tell a lot about a man by what he puts in his belly, or, said another way, you -are- telling a lot about a man by telling what he puts in his belly, and further, what he has to say about it [sic]. just as the proverbial “you are what you eat” has a lot more to offer than its banality belies, this quiet but loving attention to things alimentary in the midst of what otherwise is a story about war, or gypsy politics, or “the sweet science,”speaks to the power of food as both frame and substance in the writing (and living, duh) of life.
this is part of what i was trying to get at, and what Liebling successfully got at, i think, with his culinary art of self defense. it struck me in Nicolas Freeling’s Gun Before Butter, before i found out the man was a chef before he started writing detective novels (more on this another time), and the Food As Clue To/Constitutive Of Character motif asserts itself throughout the stories and profiles of McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.
in the article from which the collection derives its namesake, Mitchell writes of Old John McSorley:
He liked to fit a whole onion into the hollowed-out heel of a loaf of French bread and eat it as if it were an apple. He had an extraordinary appetite for onions, the stronger the better, and said that “Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies” was the motto of his saloon. About once a month during the winter he presided over an on-the-house beefsteak party in the back room, and late in life he was president of an organization of gluttons called the Honorable John McSorley Pickle, Beefsteak, Baseball Nine, and Chowder Club, which held hot-rock clambakes in a picnic grove on North Brother Island in the East River.
all this onion talk, dovetailing with a chance passage in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (where Nora sends out in the middle of the night for a “raw chopped beef sandwich with a lot of onion and some coffee,” as one of the many minor gestures by which Hammett endears Charles’ wife to us, knowing that in our heart of hearts all anyone wants is a whip-smart, hard-drinking love and lover of onions with a lot of money [the lover has the money, not the onions]) that has pretty much inexplicably stuck into me since i re-read it over Christmas, has like a summons to all my foolish blood touched off a renaissance (perhaps less a renaissance than a risorgimento, but with less nationalism) in my own love for onions, such that i have even started to feel a touch guilty for all the public love i’ve been giving to fennel this last little while.
consequently i have been piling raw onions onto and into pretty much everything i eat, and have had a couple of days when i felt like i had stripped the lining off my insides, but it has been distinctly satisfying to reaquaint myself with the pleasures of enjoying onions qua onions. i still am not the type to “eat an onion like an apple,” but hey I Have Nothing To Prove. so help me God, though, SPRING BREAK (“reading week,” my foot) is coming up and if i don’t manage to get an onion burst up in me, finally, i’m gonna have a goddamn fit. in the meantime i resort to such questionable (but defensible! laudible, even!) measures as unsalted butter/onion/mint/honey/harissa on bread. and drinks. late at night. just in case my dreams weren’t haunted and haunting enough..
this snack, much as i would like to, i cannot take full credit for, as it is directly inspired by St-Henri’s Maison de Kebab (which i claim for St-Henri, even though it is right on the St-Henri/Little Burgundy border, but is both on the west side of the street, and of the west side, in terms of it being run-down and homey and heavily frequented by cabbies), who before every meal provide you with a plate of parsley, radishes, raw onion, pita, and pats of butter, which, without diminishing the quality of the rest of the food, are very nearly the best part of the whole affair.
speaking of affairs, i recently started watching the 1955 Van Johnson/Deborah Kerr film of The End of the Affair, but when it got to the point of Bendrix and Miles’ first “date” and it became clear that the director had decided to do without the “onions” scene-within-a-scene, i in turn decided that i could do without Johnson’s sad-eyed, offensive face, and switched it off. i’ve written elsewhere about this scene, which i feel is one of the most effective of the book, although in saying so i realize that part of this estimation is the result of being drawn into an intertextual mise-en-abîme that even though i have untangled, i emerge from shaken and confused. by which i mean that i don’t know how much my belief that this is such a strong scene is prefigured by Bendrix’s own satisfaction with the scene (within the scene) that he witnesses projected from his novel onto the screen. taking this one step further, going into the movie (the film ofThe End of the Affair(1951), not the film in The End of the Affair(1955)) i had scrambled sources and i now remembered Bendrix’s reflection on the adaptation of his novel as if it had been written by Graham Greene (in his autobiography Ways of Escape) about watching the adaptation of The End of the Affair, and so i was, in a sense, doubly anticipating the scene as if it were the redeeming feature of an otherwise ineffectual film, and instead was confronted by its all the more jarring absence.
as far as i know Greene has never publicly shared his thoughts on the film, although, as both an erstwhile film critic, and a heavily-adapted novelist, he has had much to say about film and the filming of books, and i cannot rule out that Bendrix’s experience is not modeled on one of Greene’s own, with an adaptation of an earlier book, at an earlier time; the words, indeed, spoken by a novelist, “Suddenly and unexpectedly, for a few minutes only, the film came to life. I forgot that this was my story, and that for once this was my dialogue,” could be Greene’s own (“In most of my books, however well I might know the scene, there is one lay figure who obstinately refuses to live . . . In those days I thought in terms of a key scene, I would even chart its position on a piece of paper before I began to write. “Chapter 3. So-and-so comes alive.”” in Ways of Escape). and of adaptation in general: “Why go through the motions of fighting every battle lost at the start? [the author] knows that even if a script be followed word for word there are those gaps of silence which can be filled with the banal embrace, irony can be turned int0 sentiment by some romantic boob of an actor…” (from Reflections).
there is also a 1999 version of the book with Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes. perhaps Neil Jordan was better able to anticipate and cater to my tastes. we shall see. anyway, happy Valentine’s Day, i hope your love doesn’t destroy you.