How do I get this guy's life?
15 March 2010
I know, I know, I said I was off memoirs, but who can pass up a book titled Eating: A Memoir?
Well, not me. The book is by a man named Jason Epstein, who is better known as the former editorial director of Random House and the man who was responsible for the (hugely successful) Vintage paperback line. He has written all about that life in a book titled Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future (which I think I read a long time ago but would like to revisit), but in this book he describes his life in terms of food he has eaten and cooked during it. Early chapters about his youth in Maine and New England include family memories and recipes for things like chicken pot pie and linguine with clams; later he on describes meals that he has cooked most recently. Along the way he provides recipes,* which are more short stories than they are lists of ingredients and instructions; it's like your mom is telling you over the phone how to make a dish she's made for years ("I made a spciy marinara in a large porcelain cocotte by softening in olive oil some chopped onion, garlic, jalapeno, and celery, then adding a large can of San Marzano tomatoes...").**
But what really fascinated me about this book was Epstein's stories regarding his early days in publishing. Consider:
"In those pre-jet days, when all but the most intrepid transatlantic travelers sailed to Europe, book publishers went first-class. Book publishing has never been a very profitable business. To make money, you went to work in a bank. Book publishing was a vocation. Without money you might go hungry. Without books you would not know who you are or where you came from or where you might be going. For me and many others, the work we did in those years was its own reward. The annual three-week scouting trip to England and the Continent by sea was a traditional perquisite. First-class passage was compensation for monastic wages. Barbara and I were going to meet the important postwar European writers. We were twenty-five and fearless." (p. 67.)
Let's examine some things in that paragraph, shall we? Somebody working for a publisher got to go anywhere first class? They got to take weeks on a ship and in Europe doing their job? They got to do this when they were twenty-five? I'm pretty sure this guy was a publishing wunderkind who worked hard, but man, reading this, I know I was born at least fifty years too late. From what I can see of the publishing world now, you still get paid monastic wages (if you get paid at all) but you don't go anywhere first class. Sigh. I'll admit that after that I didn't have the heart to finish the book, which was actually quite good (it was making me too hungry, too, so I thought it prudent to stop reading).
*His recipes are interesting, but many involve things that aren't real practical for me, like lobsters, calamari, and duck.
**This is one of Epstein's recipes. My mother's narrative recipes more often begin with this phrase: "You take some hamburger..."