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Life Is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days


"The meal is the emblem of civilization," the Salters observe. "What would one know of life as it should be lived, or nights as they should be spent, apart from meals?"


Publishers Weekly: The author of A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel teams with his wife, his 30-year cooking companion, to produce a "dinner book," a quirky cornucopia of recipes, historical notes, household hints, brief surveys of foodstuffs (eggs, salt, avocados, doughnuts, cheeses, olives, martinis, etc.) and utensils (forks, knives, or toothpicks, say), appreciation of friends met both in life (including Alice Waters and Julia Child) and through books (Lord Byron, Anna Karenina), random observations (what makes a good waiter), and advice of all kinds. For example, six "days" in January are dedicated to the useful art of giving a dinner party, but in fact, tips on or accounts of picnics and parties (clearly a delight for both Salters) are everywhere. Their recipes are simple and good (Polpettone alla Toscana; Chicken Marengo; Fraises a la Cussy; Gazpacho) and can usually be made in advance, leaving the cooks free to socialize. But this volume is not chiefly one of recipes or hints (though both may prove practical). The Salters call it a "bedside book" and, with its attractive packaging and charming illustrations by Fabrice Moireau, it should make the perfect hostess gift, not always an easy thing to choose, say the authors.


James Salter is the author of nine previous books, including the novel A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel; the collection Dusk and Other Stories, which won the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award; and Burning the Days: Recollection. Kay Salter, a journalist and playwright, has written for the New York Times and Food & Wine , among other publications. The Salters live in Colorado and on Long Island.


I phoned James and Kay Salter at their home in Bridgehampton, New York, on the day after Veterans Day, eager to learn how the idea for their Food Lover's Book of Days was born. Mr. Salter opened by speaking about the early days of their marriage. "We lived in a small old house that just happened to have a very small, congenial kitchen where we cooked and ate together. Ours weren't like Winston Churchill's and his wife's breakfasts. Churchill once said he and his wife had tried, during their 40 years of marriage, several times, to have breakfast together, but they found it was so disagreeable that they gave up the idea. "Our experience was that we talked a lot over breakfast, and often about food. We gave many dinner parties, and in the course of all this cooking in all these years we had read a lot about food and about entertaining and references to it in books.

"The book was also partly inspired by one of those Oxford books in which they had an entry for each day of the year -- usually the birth of some writer or the publication of some book or a meeting between writers or an anecdote. I proposed the idea to Nicholas Callaway, who is a publisher we like a lot. He said he liked the idea, and so we undertook it."

I confess to Mr. Salter that when I began reading Life Is Meals I started dog-earing pages containing information I wanted to remember. After a few weeks' worth of entries, I realized I'd marked every other page.

"I don't think people are going to do this because the book turned out to be more handsome than we'd thought. I guess you'd hate to mar the pages, but the original idea was that you would write in the book yourself on the flyleaf or on the first page so that you could keep track of favorite parts. Of course, there's an index, if you really want to go back."

I ask Mr. Salter where they found all of the food facts they share. "Did you have to do a lot of research or had you already collected the information throughout your years of cooking together?"

"I would say the first 20 entries were easy, but then we began to think a little more carefully about where we were and what we wanted to include. We eventually had an eight-by-three-foot board on the wall, divided into a big, open calendar. We would pin up possible entries. They were color-coded, because we didn't want four French references to come together, or something like that. We tried to alternate recipes, historical entries, things about food, entertaining, and personal reflections from our own dining book.

"We did research at the Culinary Institute of America on the Hudson, near where Roosevelt's house is. They have an extensive library, and we spent days up there. I hesitate to say that Life Is Meals can be taken as authoritative without even the slight raising of an eyebrow, but, generally speaking, it's pretty solid."

"Whom do you most enjoy reading on food and cooking?"

Mr. Salter responds by lauding the work of M.F.K. Fisher. "Naturally, styles change -- people change -- you just don't find writers like her anymore. She wrote straightforward nonfiction about cooking and eating. But, she also wrote nonfiction pieces that were so beautiful you might mistake them for short stories in The Gastronomic Me ."

Kay Salter concurs. "I was introduced to Fisher by Alice Waters, who knew her and loved her, and by a great friend of ours named Anne Isaak, who worked at Chez Panisse when she was beginning in the restaurant business. I have to say, however, that I'm more interested in descriptions of meals in literature. I don't sit down, usually, and read food writers. I don't dislike them; they're just not something I pick up normally."

Mr. Salter adds Julia Child to his list of favorites. "I've heard Jason Epstein say more than once that, 'if there were one politician, just one, who had the intelligence, honesty, and charisma of Julia Child, we'd be all right.'"

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