In idle moments, I like to play the six-degrees of separation game. My favourite version is How I Got Here. It starts with my first serious boyfriend. Long after it became clear that Michael and I weren’t going to spend our lives together, I remained friendly with my not-parents-in-law. Travelling with them on my first trip to Europe, I met their friend Johnny Apple, a New York Times journalist who became the paper’s bureau chief in London.
Johnny introduced me to George Lang, a brilliant Hungarian who owned the Café des Artistes in New York. Through George, I met Peter Dawson, a mysterious Irishman living in Paris who introduced me to Helen McCabe, an English bluestocking living in Neuilly with her husband Gilbert. When they moved back to London, they met a bachelor farmer and Member for Lincoln at a dinner in Battersea with Jane Bromley-Davenport. Helen, a matchmaker as determined but more sensitive than Emma Woodhouse, urged the hostess to introduce her bachelor friend to me. Dear reader, if you are still awake, I married him.
When analysing the fickle finger of fate, I like to track down the flutter of butterfly wings in Brazil that triggers the tornado in Texas events. I used to think that the butterfly that flapped me here was books, that a childhood buried in Dickens, du Maurier and the Brontës paved the way to my life in England. But, recently, I’ve revised that theory. Now, I believe that the wings in my life was food. Food as art and love and joy. Food as education, passion and way of life.
This revelation came to me a couple of weeks ago when I saw Julie and Julia, the film in which Meryl Streep plays the American cookery writer Julia Child. Looking back on my university days, I can’t think of any one professor who had a lasting influence on my life. But I do think of Julia.
The first week of my freshman year, I bought her Mastering the Art of French Cooking. At the time, I only had a two-burner hotplate in the dorm lounge, and no batterie de cuisine, but, over the next four years, I cooked my way through the entire book. It was a peculiar endeavour. These were heady times, my days spent demonstrating against the war in Vietnam and tutoring kids from the ghettos that lay in the shadow of my Ivy League college.
Somehow, between marches in Washington, endless meetings and just enough work to placate my professors, I learned to make soupe à l’oignon gratinée, sauce béchamel, vinaigrette, blanquette de veau and tarte aux pommes. When my boyfriend was reading Frantz Fanon and The New Republic, I was secretly reading Gourmet magazine. When he was denouncing the bourgeoisie, I was embracing la cuisine bourgeoise as if my life depended on it.
And perhaps it did. When I became disillusioned by the heavy dogma of politics, I moved to France. I only spoke menu French, but, thanks to Julia and Gourmet, I knew wine-growing regions and produits régionaux. France turned out to be the first stage of the journey that would lead to Suffolk, where I would plant seven acres of vines.
Julie and Julia prompted such nostalgie that I went home and ordered a subscription to Gourmet magazine. But my recherche du temps perdu was brief. Last night, I received an email announcing that Gourmet will cease publication with the November issue. I was stunned. How could this happen?
Easily, it turns out. Despite Gourmet’s long history (begun in 1941), sumptuous photography and literary sensibility, advertising had dwindled. Publishers don’t live on rich history and loyal readership alone.
A few years ago, my friend Katy urged me to throw out my 30-year-old copies of Gourmet. ‘Clear your clutter!’ she snapped. I obediently filled a box to recycle. Fortunately, the box is still sitting in a corner of my study, a small memento of my life’s journey.
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