My fourth favorite book in the whole world is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I had to read The Sun Also Rises in high school and I hated it and because of that, I didn’t pick up another Hemingway until I was in my early 30s. If I’m going to be absolutely honest, I have to say it was because of that Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage movie City of Angels. I sincerely love that movie, embarrassing as it is to admit. There’s a scene where the two of them are in a library and Cage’s character picks up A Moveable Feast and reads from it:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
And the very moment I saw that scene, I wanted to eat an oyster, which I had never done, and I badly wanted a glass of cold white wine. I love oysters now and for me there’s no such thing as a white wine that is too cold or too crisp and I’m pretty sure it’s because of that sentence. Could there be a more perfect description of that taste combination? The words are so simple and the sentences so unadorned and right this minute, at 10 am on a Wednesday sitting in a library carrel, I am nearly desperate for a cold glass of crisp white wine.
I read the whole book a few years later, immediately skyrocketing it to near the top of my favorite books. This is Hemingway before Hemingway was the Hemingway you’re introduced to as a student. There is no bull fighting, no wars, and no womanizing. It’s a memoir of the years he spent in Paris in his 20s. He was very poor, and in love, and he had a small child who he adorably refers to only as Bumpy. If you’re into literary history there are a whole bunch of to-be-famous friends he writes about: Gertrude Stein, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound. I found that stuff interesting but not the main draw. The main draw was how Hemingway talks about food.
“I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry.”
Roasted chestnuts and mandarin oranges don’t actually sound like they’d go together, but this sentence, in a section about how cold it was in Paris then and how they were too poor for regular food, so he squirrels away little treats to eat when he’s done with his writing for the day? It makes chestnuts and oranges sound like the most spectacular luxury you could imagine.
“They always caught some fish, and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were delicious fried whole and I could eat a plateful. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.”
Same thing here — eating fish bones and all isn’t that attractive to me but I read this and I want to be on a coast somewhere in a big fat fisherman’s sweater, ready to eat even a lowly sardine, if I have to.
“I knew several of the men who fished the fruitful parts of the Seine between the Île St.-Louis and the Square du Vert Galent and sometimes, if the day was bright, I would buy a liter of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read one of the books I had bought and watch the fishing.”
Does that not sound like the most perfect lunch you can imagine? I big jug of good cheap French wine, a soft baguette and some charcuterie. Jesus. I’m so hungry now.
“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes à l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil.”
YUM. I don’t even know what pommes à l’huile is. No wait, I do, because Elise is a good influence on me and I looked it up. Warm potato salad with fresh herbs. I will say it again: YUM.
Hemingway explains this obsession food well, I think, when he says, “When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal completely makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all of your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink.”
Lest we think that Hemingway was an entirely different man than his reputation would lead you to believe, one of the best quotes in the book is this: “There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.” Blerg. Whether he really was the machismo asshole history paints him as, or just the product of a much different time, you have to at least give him credit for being so honest.
PS: As an aside, I have recently listened to this book on audio. It was summertime and I listened to it with the top down on my car, quite loud so that I could hear above the hum of traffic. I awkwardly listened to a very un-PC exchange about homosexuality between Hemingway and Stein in the hospital parking garage one day. Ms. Stein was a lesbian who happened to hate gay men. Yowsers. I got a very very very dirty look from a woman walking past my car.