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

James and Kay Salter

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 14, 2016
Category: Food and Wine

“The meal is the essential act of life. It is the habitual ceremony, the long record of marriage, the school for behavior, the prelude to love… The meal is the emblem of civilization. What would one know of life as it should be lived, or nights as they should be spent, apart from meals?”

If you have ever read James Salter — and you would do well to read at least his first novel, A Sport and a Pastime, and Last Night, his best book of short stories — you will have no trouble recognizing that prose. Every word is carefully chosen, measured, considered, sifted, chosen again. The superfluous disappears; the eternal endures. To read Salter is to catch a master in the act.

James and Kay Salter, both writers, were together for more than three decades. But reading “Life Is Meals,” you get the sense that the art of cooking and eating well is at least as potent for them as any esthetic connection. At their homes in Aspen and the Hamptons and on their travels across Europe, they have the knack of making each meal count — not just the food, but the company, the ambience and the conversation.

This book is a record of their lifelong interest in food. When they name-drop, it’s more often the name of a long-dead French chef than a celebrated friend. But they’re not snobs. When they share a recipe, it’s usually for a dish that’s already an old favorite of yours: Gratin dauphinoise. Risotto. French chicken. Chili. Cucumber soup. Their household cookbook is handwritten. Their book of days is casual: a personal anecdote here, a recipe there, a memory following. [To buy "Life Is Meals" from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Read with pen in hand, for the Salters are the king and queen of tips. They offer a modest list of the cookbooks they use. (I was delighted to see that one is Bistro Cooking.) They note the importance of the egg cup to the soft-boiled egg. They tell you when to use salt (after browning meat; on pineapple and grapefruit), what to drink when (white wine at lunch, red at dinner), and what to serve with green salad (chilled sparkling Vichy water). And they guide you through the creation of a Dinner Party — like: don’t ask who wants coffee, just make it and offer it.

The Salters serve up tons of foodie trivia. The origin of the “Baby Ruth.” The health benefit of dark chocolate (15 times more antioxidants than broccoli). Unsurprisingly, they have collected tasty anecdotes I’ve seen nowhere else. Some are wonderfully eccentric: a dying man’s farewell gift to his wife (600 jars of her favorite jams). Others are literary, and feature Turgenev, Balzac, Dumas, Beckett. 

The Salters love France. When Kay was giving birth to their son Theo in Paris, James had a bottle of Chateau Latour ready, so the great wine might moisten the lips of their newborn — a custom of French kings. Decades later, they mention that they spend a week in Paris, “largely at the Louvre,” and top it off with lunch at Le Grand Vefour. This is not snobbery. It is taste in action.

Armchair readers will delight in the Salters’ peppering of the book with great French historical anecdotes. Like: Talleyrand. 1803. No fish to be had in Paris. At a state dinner, the servant carrying an enormous salmon trips and falls. All are horrified. Talleyrand calmly says, “Bring in another salmon.” And, in a flash, another salmon appears. The punch line: “The whole incident had been planned."

But let’s not make this too special. The Salters tell you about a cheap but noble Italian red wine (Salice Salentino). They explain why you can’t get decent Brie in America. They warn you against the Zagat guides. And they make you feel, in every sentence, that if you aim high, read widely and throw yourself into new experiences, you can create your own, equally tasty book of meals.