Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist
by James Villas
James Villas is in love with the notion of himself as a bon vivant. The food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine for many years, a cookbook author, and a contributor to Esquire, Villas has chronicled gourmet living through the foodie revolutions of the last three decades. In Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist, he writes about discovering and developing his palate in France in the early 1960s, the advent of Julia (Child, of course), the rise of nouvelle cuisine, and the return to regional cooking. Though he claims to be a supporter of down-home American cuisine, Villas is deeply enamored of all things jet set. His idea of glamour has everything to do with champagne and what he always refers to as "sufficiencies of caviar." His memoir unfolds as a series of portraits of great chefs, restaurateurs, and eaters he has known--chapters are devoted to everyone from James Beard and Paula Wolfert to Jeremiah Tower and Paul Bocuse. These friends are portrayed lovingly and wickedly; Villas is a self-described "old queen" who loves nothing more than a good gossip. Sometimes the storymongering can get a bit breathless; he describes at least three times a meal aboard the SS France with Salvador Dali and an ocelot. But even his name-dropping has a certain charm: here's a sophisticate who still gets starry-eyed about his own extraordinary good fortune. Claire Dederer, Amazon.com
Memoirs can be thoroughly boring if not done particularly well. Fortunately this one is well-written indeed. The first half of it deals with the author's coming of age as an academic and transition into a food writer. The second half of the book mainly consists of accounts of famous chefs and famous diners whose lives have intersected with his.
Villas is a outspoken (and perceptive) critic of nouvelle cuisine, fusion and all of the unfortunate food-foolishness of the past couple of decades. He savages some big-time chefs like Wolfgang Puck and is simply dismissive of many more famous names.
The author is also a creature from another time, say the 1930s, and is a terrible(wonderful?) snob. More than anything he reminds me of Lucius Beebe, a mid-century American bon vivant who managed to live a gilded life and then write about it.
The book misses occasionally when Villas gets a little too bitchy, but perhaps these slight lapses are as revealing as the more elegant parts. An interesting and somewhat disturbing revelation is just how many food writers live lonely and seemingly desperate lives. Perhaps only the ones in New York are this way.
Guy F. Webster, PA, Amazon.com