STUDYING THE “BILL OF FARE” the other day in a country pub restaurant that had no conceivable right to the airs it so egregiously gave itself, I found roast pheasant with all the trimmings offered under the heading “From the Game Keeper’s Larder” and grilled Dover sole listed under “Catch of the Day”. I rarely eat in restaurants these days and afterwards wondered gloomily if the transatlantic style of menu writing might already be an Americanism as widely established over here as the deplorable use of “like” instead of “as if” or “as though”.
“Ah, the menu poetry of America”, exclaimed the late and much lamented Kenneth Allsop.
Ah, indeed: how colourful it is, how lyrical. Trawling through an archive of half a lifetime’s experience of American hotels and restaurants I am rewarded with a rich haul of reminders.“From the rivers and the seas”, says the menu from Dallas. “Succulent dawn catch…Pride of the Gulf Coast shrimps”. Under the heading “Sea fare” (deep in the heart of Texas) there are “Broiled rainbow trout from the icy mountain streams”.
Ah, the teasing of the appetite. The “tendersweet clams”, the “bountiful selection of fried fish, shrimp, scallops, crab and baked oyster” offered in the Mariner’s Seafood Platter, the temptation in Seafood Newburg, a “rare combination of shrimp and lobster baked in Newburg Sauce”. How the mouth waters! How the taste buds dilate! Here, “skillet style” in downtown Detroit is tender young chicken, “prepared according to an old Arkansas farm recipe, fried to a delicious golden brown with all natural flavours retained”. Here in Manhattan the “baked, sugar-cured ham, served with a delightful blending of wines and herbs”, the broiled lobster with “tangy lemon butter”, the “delicately aged rib of open-range beef ”.
In The Admiral’s Cabin of the Holiday Inn, Nashville, Tennessee (its logo a man-of-war in full sail), guests could dine off “choice-cut sirloin, broiled to order, served for two on a platter, garnished with chopped carrots and fresh-picked green peas”. Did the flagship of the fleet go to sea with beef on the hoof and grow bags on the deck?
Prime, choice, select, rare, fine, perfect: the dictionary is scoured for superlatives. From coast to coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Florida, in The Arrow Head, The Angry Bear, The Brand H, The Golden Shovel, The Lucky Strike no literary holds are barred. From the lowly wayside diner to the city’s most fashionable restaurant where the walls are covered in raw silk and the wine lists in imitation red velvet, American menus proclaim the unsurpassed and illimitable virtues of the materials and cooks employed. And in order to ensure a proper appreciation on the customer’s part such predicatory extras as “You will delight in”, “You will be enchanted by”, “You will thoroughly enjoy” may well preface the description of the “Dish of the Day”.
It is the inevitable disillusion that is the real killer in so immoderate and unscrupulous a way with words. Take the simple word “fresh”. In the modern American catering vocabulary it may reasonably be taken to convey not old, not tinned, not reconstituted. It does not mean recently grown and gathered, or recently caught and conveyed to the dining table, or lately prepared from normally perishable ingredients in their natural, not artificially preserved, state. Or consider the claim “home cooking”. Night and day, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Colorado to the Rio Grande there are super-efficient, impeccably hygienic, computer-controlled installations turning out admirable confections nationally advertised as Ma This or That’s authentic, home-baked cakes and pies.
Is it all happening with us, too? Has it all already happened while I’ve not been looking? Though it was only lunchtime the other day, the Dover sole was lamentably tired after what must have been a long journey and the roast pheasant desiccated far beyond whatever the “gamey port wine sauce” might have been able to do for it. But for my companion’s restraining hand I might have gone looking for the keeper’s gun.
IT IS TEN DAYS SINCE WE CROSSED THE RHINE. Logically, it would make sense to carry on to the Elbe, but I judge that would be a river too far: neither the circumstance then, nor those in which many of us find ourselves today, are conducive to yet more such reminiscence. We have had quite enough of furious winter for a while.
Anyway, here’s a change, provoked by a friend who has sent me copies of two fairly recent Booker Prize titles that she hopes I will like. A kindly but forlorn hope: I have rarely come across a Booker novel that I have been able effortlessly to finish, let alone enjoy
It happens that these two have arrived at the worst of times for engendering anything but formal gratitude. A few days ago I finished reading Jan Morris’s Farewell the Trumpets, the third in her Pax Britannica Trilogy, and am still a little bereft. For more than a week it had been my close companion; there at my bedside when I awoke and could not get to sleep again; there after lunch and for a few minutes before my siesta; there again last thing at night as I calculated whether or not 4 hours had yet passed since, cravenly, I might again reach for the paracetamol to counter that acute discomfort in the left thigh.
If I have read Farewell the Trumpets once I must have read it half a dozen times. Its story is the decline and disintegration of the British Empire from Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 to the death of Churchill in 1965. But I read it not so much for the story, none of which is any longer news to me, but for the author’s telling of it; the scholarship masterly but ostentatious, the style exquisite, the ‘voice’ melifluous. This is history raised to the level of literature, more engaging than any novel that is ever likely to come my way.
Though once in a blue moon I do return to an old favourite (early Tom Wolfe or John Le Carré, for instance.) the truth is that I can seldom be bothered with a modern novel, do not read the reviews of new fiction, would take a bet that in not one of a hundred new titles would I find a story that seemed to me worth the telling or a ‘voice’ that I would find more companionable in the small hours than the weather forecast for the inshore waters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If I believed what the literati told me I suppose that Julian Barnes would be nudging Ian McEwan for space on my shelves, but they long ago lost my respect with—to take random but egregious examples— their ravings about Salmon Rushdie and Martin Amis. (I imagine that to a man and a woman the literati approve of the sort of thing that wins the Turner Prize).
How to account, if account I must, for so Philistine a lacuna in intelligent existence?Almost certainly, whatever part of the explanation is not attributable to intellectual idleness or incapacity is down to immense age. I am not entertained by accounts of the behaviour, thoughts and emotions of fictional characters acting out notional parts in which it has pleased an author to create for them. There is more than enough going on in the realities lived by my nearest and dearest for me to be interested in the agonies and ecstasies— no matter how faithfully reported or skilfully contrived— offered for my diversion by a Carol Birch or a Sebastian Faulkes.
So what shall I do on this bleak, bitter day in darkest Sussex? Who will distract me from intimations of a failing boiler, considerations concerning the chemistry of multiple medications and whether or not I shall need spike for my next walk along the promenade? ‘Heaven’s Command’, the first of the Jan Morris trilogy, perhaps. Or Elizabeth Longford on Wellington; her subject so richly colourful a character so admirably served by the author as to come alive from the page. Almost anything by Alan Morehead, but especially his titles on the River Nile and The African Trilogy? Chester Wilmot’s classic The Struggle for Europe? The incomparable R.V.Jones’s Most Secret War? With any of them I shall be spending time with an old and dependable friend. Or dare I treat myself yet again to Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary, than which no better book of travel was ever written, or to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts? Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin titles are held in reserve for dire situations such as waiting on a trolley in A & E.
If there is a reprise of these harsh February days a year from now, and I am privileged to be around to whinge about them, I shall have Max Hastings’s magisterial Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, his Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, as well as his Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord to see me through to spring. And if Siberia at its most unspeakable comes to Sussex there will be John Colville’s The Fringes of Power to turn to. Colville was a private secretary at No: 10 Downing Street from 1939 to 1955, kept a diary, became a personal friend of Churchill and has given the world one of the most enthralling and historically significant portraits of the great man that can ever be written. It is some time since my last reading of it, so, as with all my old faithfuls, coming to it again will be like being reunited with an old and dear friend. I shall expect nothing new but shall delight in what I already know so well.
But enough of this dithering. Exchanging the sight of the Dieppe ferry moving slowly out of harbour for that of my chaotic bookshelves, my eye falls immediately upon one of my most dependable friends of all Joyfully, I reach yet again for Winston Churchill’s masterpiece, My Early Life.