June 15th, 2006

Books!

(heavy sigh) ... this one hit home ...

This book, like its predecessor in my review stream, came from my late Mother's library, or what remained of it at her death (she had previously donated her vast cooking/culinary collection to a college). I'd "cherry-picked" this as something to come home with me (rather than to storage) because I rather like these "A Life In Food" memoirs, and there were pictures in it of all sorts of people I knew growing up.

However, I did not anticipate just what a difficult read James Villas' Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist would be for me. Not, certainly, for the density of the prose, but nearly every page brought up reminders of who I used to be, and how much I have lost. Villas was the food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine for 27 years and wrote for many other magazines as well ... his book traces his life through the explosion of the "cuisine craze" of the 1960's and his professional involvement in it from the 70's on.

My Mother had been in Advertising and PR (primarily for major food clients) in New York in the 50's and 60's, moving out to Chicago in the late 60's ... all my Mom's best buddies, the "food elite" of the era, Michael Field, James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Joe Baum, Barbara Kafka, etc., etc., etc., figure in the story, and very much in my history (we were at a fundraiser in NYC one time in the 80's when either Tom Margittai or Paul Kovi asked, incredulously, about me "Is this what I used to lift into the kiddie seats up at Tower Suite???"), including the many other names that I worked with, Paul Prudhomme, Wolfgang Puck, Leslee Reis, Jane & Michael Stern, Martha Stewart, etc., when a Vice President in my Mom's firm through the 80's and 90's, not to mention the dozens of other other restaurateurs we patronized, not the least of which, Jovan Trboyevic, whose incomparable Le Perroquet was just downstairs from our offices, allowing my Mother to spoil our clients (and herself, typically lunching there 2-3 times a week) with some of the best food on the planet, with no more logistical headaches than running them through "the company cafeteria".

When I read Villas' stories, it brings back my childhood in New York, it brings back a flood of amazing food memories, and it reminds me of what was great about my old job in Public Relations. And, given how things have gone in my life, all that hurts like hell.

Anyway ... it is (obviously) difficult for me to disengage "my memories" from "his memoirs" ... suffice it to say, this is a well-written book, with much humor, a couple of dozen amazing recipes, and stories about a world that is now, sadly, somewhat behind us all (this is not to say that today is not a "popular renaissance" for cuisine, but it's in a sound-bite Food Channel form that lacks the grace and certainty of the shining lights of the post-WW2 decades). Villas, while still quite active writing, is now strictly free-lance, and seems to be glad to be relieved of the chore of reviewing "the latest hot sushi bar". If you have any interest in fine dining, and/or the development of the modern Culinary genre, I would heartily recommend picking up a copy of Between Bites, as it is certainly provides a window in on that world.

As this is a relatively recent book (the paperback I have came out in 2002), it's still in print, so should be available at your local Big Book Store were you kindly interested in providing Mr. Villas with some royalties. Copies of the hardcover edition, however, can be had for a pittance through the Amazon new/used vendors, with "like new" copies going for as little as $1.57 (plus shipping, of course). Again, I do recommend this for those interested, and I hope that all out there will forgive the massively run-on nature of the third paragraph (where I tackle six different issues in one badly-in-need-of-editing sentence).


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