Maybe you don’t think of James Salter as a guy who would write a book solely about food. With a PEN/Faulkner award, The Paris Review’s Hadada lifetime achievement award and such novels as “A Sport and a Pastime,” and “The Hunters,” to his name, I didn’t either. But “Life is Meals,” part memoir, part instructional guide co-written with his wife Kay, surprises at how often you find yourself referencing and going back to it. The book has quickly become a treasured object in our house.
While some, no doubt, have used the racier “Sport,” as a how-to book, “Life is Meals,” is really Salter’s first book of this kind. Broken down by day, starting on January 1st and ending on December 31st, there is an entry for every day of the year. Sometimes it’s a recipe. Sometimes it’s a personal memory of a particular meal. Sometimes it’s a little bit of history.
This is the kind of book that you’re constantly turning to the person you’re sitting next to and saying things like, “did you know many Americans initially thought the tomato to be poisonous and a public display of eating one was the only thing that could convince some farmers to grow them?”
This book has everything, from poems about brie, to advice on how to become a restaurant regular, to great recipes. The recollections of the Salter’s time in Paris, or a particular meal they had with friends in Colorado are so vividly described, it brings that meal to life for the reader, but also makes your mind wander off and savor all the great meals and dinner guests you’ve shared in your own life.
One of my favorites recipes in the book is author John Irving’s meatball recipe. Irving, who does all the cooking in his house, says that his kids (and now grandkids) like his meatballs and he’ll often make them when they’re home, or when he’s missing them.
1) Put breadcrumbs, (any good bread will do) a chunk of Parmesan cheese and a teaspoon of oregano and basil in a food processor. Blend.
2) Mix two large eggs and one pound of lean hamburger, add breadcrumb mixture, forming golf-ball sized balls. (If you’d like, you can also add onion and garlic to the mixture.)
3) Brown in a pan with hot olive oil.
Irving says he often calls his kids while he’s making the meatballs and leaves pointless messages on their voice mail. “Hi. It’s Dad. Give me a call. I just made some meatballs.”
What comes shining through on every page of “Life is Meals,” is the Salter’s love of food, but of something else too. They know that the perfect meal consists of not only great food, but also great company and a great setting. Like a summer rainstorm, the perfect meal occurs only when the stars align and everything is just right.
I picked up this book after interviewing James Salter for a documentary I am making and maybe a year and a half later, my wife and I bumped into him at a party. We both gushed uncontrollably about this book. Salter quickly called over Kay so that she could hear our praise. When I mentioned that we had frequently given it as a gift to newly engaged friends, Salter, with a bit of a gleam in his eye, said, “I think you should continue to do that.” I do believe we’ll take his advice.
All photos styled and photographed by Shelby Larsson, except for the book cover (by Maggie Battista) and the author photo (by Nicholas Callaway).