Sadness and good food are incompatible. The old sages knew that wine lets the tongue loose, but one can grow melancholy with even the best bottle, especially as one grows older. The appearance of food, however, brings instant happiness. A paella, a choucroute garnie, a pot of tripes à la mode de Caen, and so many other dishes of peasant origin guarantee merriment. The best talk is around that table. Poetry and wisdom are its company. The true Muses are cooks. Cats and dogs don’t stay far from the busy kitchen. Heaven is a pot of chili simmering on the stove. If I were to write about the happiest days of my life, many of them would have to do with food and wine and a table full of friends.
Homer never wrote on an empty stomach.
One could compose an autobiography mentioning every memorable meal in one’s life and it would probably make better reading than what one ordinarily gets. Honestly, what would you rather have, the description of a first kiss or of stuffed cabbage done to perfection?
I have to admit, I remember better what I’ve eaten than what I’ve thought. My memory is especially vivid about those far-off days from 1944 to 1949 in Yugoslavia, when we were mostly starving. The black market flourished. Women exchanged their wedding rings and silk underwear for hams. Occasionally someone invited us to an illicit feast on a day everyone else was hungry.
I’ll begin with the day I realized that there was more to food than just stuffing yourself. I was nine years old. I ate Dobrosav Cvetković’s burek, and I can still see it and taste it when I close my eyes.
A burek is a kind of pie made with phyllo dough and stuffed with either ground meat, cheese, or spinach. It is eaten everywhere in the Near East and the Balkans. Like pizza today, it’s usually good no matter where you get it, but it can also be a work of art. My father said that when Dobrosav retired from his bakery in Skopje, the mayor and his cronies, after realizing that he was gone, sent a police warrant after him. The cops brought him back in handcuffs! “Dobrosav,” they said visiting him in jail, “how can you do a thing like that to us? At least make us one last burek, and then you can go wherever your heart desires.”
I ate that famous burek forty-four years ago on a cold winter morning with snow falling. Dobrosav made it illegally in his kitchen and sold it to select customers, who used to knock on his door and enter looking like foreign agents making a pickup. The day I was his guest—for the sake of my poor exiled father who was so good to Dobrosav—the burek came with meat. I ate every greasy crumb that fell out of my mouth on the table while old Dobrosav studied me the way a cat studies a bird in a cage. He wanted my opinion. I understood this was no fluke. Dobrosav knew something other burek makers did not. I believe I told him so. This was my first passionate outburst to a cook.
* * * *
Then there was my aunt, Ivanka Bajalović. Every time I wiped my plate clean she shook her head sadly. “One day,” she’d say to me, “I’ll make so much food you won’t be able to finish it.” With my appetite in those days that seemed impossible, but she did it! She found a huge pot ordinarily used to make soap and filled it with enough beans to “feed an army,” as the neighbors said.
All Serbians, of whatever gender or age, have their own opinion as to how this dish ought to be made. Some folks like it thick, others soupy. Between the two extremes there are many nuances. Almost everybody adds bacon, pork ribs, sausage, paprika, and hot peppers. It’s a class thing. The upper classes make it lean, the lower fatty. My aunt, who was educated in London and speaks English with a British accent to this day, made it like a ditchdigger’s wife. The beans were spicy hot.
My uncle was one of those wonders of nature everybody envies, a skinny guy who could eat all day long and never gain any weight. I’m sad to admit that I’ve no idea how much we actually ate that day. Anywhere between three and five platefuls is a good guess. These were European soup plates, nice and roomy, that could take loads of beans. It was a summer afternoon. We were eating on a big terrace watched by nosy neighbors, who kept score. At some point, I remember, I just slid off my chair onto the floor.
I’m dying, it occurred to me. My uncle was still wielding his spoon with his face deep in his plate. There was a kind of hush. In the beginning, everybody talked and kidded around, but now my aunt was exhausted and had gone in to lie down. There were still plenty of beans, but I was through. I couldn’t move. Finally, even my uncle staggered off to bed, and I was left alone, sitting under the table, the heat intolerable, the sun setting, my mind blurry, thinking, This is how a pig must feel.
* * * *
On May 9, 1950, I asked all my relatives to give me money instead of presents for my birthday. When they did, I spent the entire day going with a friend from one pastry shop to another. We ate huge quantities of cream puffs, custard rolls, dobos torta, rum balls, pishingers, strudel with poppy seed, and other Viennese and Hungarian pastries. At dusk we had no money left. We were dragging ourselves in the general vicinity of the Belgrade railroad station when a man, out of breath and carrying a large suitcase, overtook us. He wondered if we could carry it to the station for him and we said we could. The suitcase was very heavy and it made a noise as if it was full of silverware or burglar’s tools, but we managed somehow to get it to his train. There, he surprised us by paying us handsomely for our good deed. Without a moment’s thought we returned to our favorite pastry shop, which was closing at that hour and where the help eyed us with alarm as we ordered more ice cream and cake.
* * * *
In 1951 I lived an entire summer in a village on the Adriatic coast. Actually, the house my mother, brother, and I roomed at was a considerable distance from the village on a stretch of sandy beach. Our landlady, a war widow, was a fabulous cook. In her home I ate squid for the first time and began my lifelong love affair with olives. All her fish was grilled with a little olive oil, garlic, and parsley. I still prefer it that way.
My favorite dish was a plate of tiny surf fish called girice, which were fried in corn flour. We’d eat them with our fingers, head and all. Since it’s no good to swim after lunch, all the guests would take a long siesta. I remember our deliciously cool room, the clean sheets, the soothing sound of the sea, the aftertaste and smell of the fish, and the long naps full of erotic dreams.
There were two females who obsessed me in that place. One was a theater actress from Zagreb in the room next to ours who used to sunbathe with her bikini top removed when our beach was deserted. I would hide in the bushes. The other was our landlady’s sixteen-year- old daughter. I sort of tagged along after her. She must have been bored out of her wits to allow a thirteen-year-old boy to keep her company. We used to swim out to a rock in the bay where there were wild grapes. We’d lie sunbathing and popping the little blue grapes in our mouths. And in the evening, once or twice, there was even a kiss, and then an exquisite risotto with mussels.
He that with his soup will drink / When he’s dead won’t sleep a wink.
–OLD FRENCH SONG
In Paris I went to what can only be described as a school for losers. These were youngsters who were not destined for the further glories of French education but were en route to being petty bureaucrats and tradespeople. We ate lunch in school, and the food was mostly tolerable. We even drank red wine. The vegetable soup served on Tuesdays, however, was out of this world. One of the fat ladies I saw milling in the kitchen must have been a southerner, because the soup had a touch of Provence. For some reason, the other kids didn’t care for it. Since the school rule was that you had to manger everything on your plate, and since I loved the soup so much, my neighbors at the table would let me have theirs. I’d end up eating three or four servings of that thick concoction with tomatoes, green and yellow beans, potatoes, carrots, white beans, noodles, and herbs. After that kind of eating, I usually fell asleep in class after lunch only to be rudely awakened by one of my teachers and ordered to a blackboard already covered with numbers. I’d stand there bewildered and feeling sleepy while time changed into eternity and nobody budged or said anything. My only solace was the lingering taste in my mouth of that divine soup.
* * * *
Some years back I found myself in Genoa at an elegant reception in Palazzo Doria talking with the Communist mayor. “I love American food,” he blurted out to me after I mentioned enjoying the local cuisine. I asked him what he had in mind. “I love potato chips,” he told me. I had to agree, potato chips were pretty good.
When we came to the United States in 1954, it now seems as if that’s all my brother and I ate. We sat in front of the TV eating potato chips out of huge bags. Our parents approved. We were learning English and being American. It’s a wonder we have any teeth left today. We visited the neighborhood supermarket twice a day to sightsee the junk food. There were so many things to taste, and we were interested in all of them. There was deviled ham, marshmallows, Spam, Hawaiian Punch, Fig Newtons, V-8 Juice, Mounds Bars, Planters Peanuts, and so much else, all good. Everything was good in America except for Wonder Bread, which we found disgusting.
It took me a few years to come to my senses. One day I met Salvatore. He told me I ate like a dumb shit and took me home to his mother. Sal and his three brothers were all well employed, unmarried, living at home, and giving their paychecks to Mom. The father was dead, so there were just these four boys to feed. She did not stop cooking. Every meal was like a peasant wedding feast. Of course, her sons didn’t appreciate it as far as she was concerned. “Are you crazy, Mom?” they’d shout in a chorus each time she brought in another steaming dish. The old lady didn’t flinch. The day I came she was happy to have someone else at the table who was more appreciative, and I did not spare the compliments.
She cooked southern Italian dishes. Lots of olive oil and garlic. I recollect with a sense of heightened consciousness her linguine with anchovies. We drank red Sicilian wine with it. She’d put several open bottles on the table before the start of the meal. I never saw anything like it. She’d lie to us and say there was nothing more to eat, so we’d have at least two helpings, and then she’d bring out some sausage and peppers, and after that some kind of roast.
After the meal we’d remain at the table, drinking and listening to old records of Beniamino Gigli and Ferruccio Tagliavini. The old lady would still be around, urging on us a little more cheese, a little more cake. And then, just when we thought she had given up and gone to bed, she’d surprise us by bringing out a dish of fresh figs.
* * * *
My late father, who never in his life refused another helping at the table, had a peculiarity common among gastronomes. The more he ate the more he talked about food. My mother was always amazed. We’d be done with a huge turkey roasted over sauerkraut and my father would begin reminiscing about a little breakfastlike sausage he’d had in some village on the Romanian border in 1929, or a fish soup a blind woman made for him in Marseilles in 1945. Well, she wasn’t completely blind, and besides she was pretty to look at—in any case, after three or four stories like that we’d be hungry again. My father had a theory that if you were still hungry, say for a hot dog, after a meal at Lutèce, that meant that you were extraordinarily healthy. If a casual visitor to your house was not eating and drinking three minutes after his arrival, you had no manners. Of people who had no interest in food, he had absolutely no comprehension. He’d ask them questions like an anthropologist, and go away seriously puzzled and worried. He told me toward the end of his life that the greatest mistake he ever made was accepting his doctor’s advice to eat and drink less after he passed seventy-five. He felt terrible until he went back to his old ways.
* * * *
One day we are walking up Second Avenue and talking. We get into an elaborate philosophical argument, as we often do. I feel as if I’ve understood everything! I’m inspired! I’m quoting Kant, Descartes, Wittgenstein, when I notice he’s no longer with me. I look around and locate him a block back staring into a shop window. I’m kind of pissed, especially since I have to walk back to where he’s standing, since he doesn’t move or answer my shouts. Finally, I tap him on the shoulder and he looks at me, dazed. “Can you believe that?” he says and points to a window full of Hungarian smoked sausages, salamis, and pork rinds.
My friend, Mike DePorte, whose grandfather was a famous St. Petersburg lawyer and who in his arguments combines a Dostoevskian probity with his grandfather’s jurisprudence, claims that such an obsession with food is the best proof we have of the existence of the soul. Ergo, long after the body is satisfied, the soul is not. “Does that mean,” I asked him, “that the soul is never satisfied?” He has not given me his answer yet. My own notion is that it is a supreme sign of happiness. When our souls are happy, they talk about food.
From THE LIFE OF IMAGES: SELECTED PROSE. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2015 by Charles Simic.