Eating Crow

Eating Crow by Jay RaynerFull Title: Eating Crow: A Novel
Author: Jay Rayner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2004)
Number of Pages: 292
How long it took me to read: 1 month, 4 days
Where I bought this book: I bought this book on the day I bought High Bonnet. It’s a souvenir from my first visit to Sacramento, CA. You can read more about that trip in the High Bonnet review.
ISBN: 0-7432-5059-1

Like a Moth to a Flame

The back cover introduces the book as a ‘novel of food, loathing, and regret.’ My story with food includes many chapters of loathing and regret. Couple that with a healthy dose of dark comedy and outrageous gastronomy, and I’m sold. I wonder though, how reading a book about a merciless restaurant critic will influence the way I experience my next professionally prepared meal.

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Favorite Five

Whittling 11 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “I recognize that we weren’t exactly a family of urban Marxist terrorists. But in practical terms I see now that there was an innocent radicalism about the way our household functioned. Even before my father’s death my mother worked four days a week in a local solicitor’s office, and because my father worked from home, he was the presiding influence. He did all the cooking, of course, and he soon inculcated us into its rituals so that the stove became a place of male bonding. We didn’t clean it much.” (p.51)

4. “Hestridge at 500 sat on a cluttered, scrubbed stretch of London’s Fulham Road, guarded on one side by antique shops selling things that probably weren’t, and on the other by interior design shops selling things nobody needed. It was a street of fakery and superfluity and at its nexus was a restaurant that, according to my review, was a celebration of both.” (p.29)

3. “There were many things I loved about Lynne McPartland; her cooking was not one of them…The casual manner in which she cut up raw and bleeding pieces of meat on our wooden cheese board threatened us repeatedly with poisoning, and even the dishes that came out the way she intended promised a certain measure of gastric distress. She refused to believe, for example, that the order in which ingredients were introduced to each other was of any importance. If Lynne attempted a coq au vin you could never be sure whether the onions would be sweated down before the wine hit the pan or after, uncooked. She insisted upon frying garlic to a bitter brown crisp before allowing anything else near it. And then there was her love of cupboard condiments. One evening she watched me beat a little red current jelly and Dijon mustard into a lamb jus. This flicked a switch; the secret to flavor, she concluded, lay in the sticky jars that crowded our cupboards. This was the vital intelligence I had kept from her. The next evening I found her spooning neat strawberry jam into a fish pie ‘to add a touch of sweetness.’ The liquor from a jar of pickled onions became a particular favorite ‘to add an oniony acidic edge’ and no Lynne McPartland dish was ever complete unless half a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup had been upended into it.” (pp.150-1)

2. “Over the past few days, I have come to consider the fondue the height of gastronomic endeavors…You look at this bowl. What’s in it? At base nothing more than grapes and milk. If you broke it down to its constituent parts you would have just a bunch of grapes and a big jug of milk on the table….And then what happens? Someone comes up with the glorious plan to combine these two ingredients which are themselves the pinnacle of culinary invention, to create yet another dish. The fondue is indulgence squared.” (pp.124-5)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1.“Too often we only identify the crucial points in our lives in retrospect. At the time we are too absorbed in the fetid detail of the moment to spot where it is leading us. But not this time. I was experiencing one of my dad’s deafening moments. If my life could be understood as a meal of many courses (and let’s be honest, much of it actually was), then I had finished the starters and I was limbering up for the main event. So far, of course, I had made a stinking mess of it. I had spilled the wine. I had dropped my cutlery on the floor and sprayed the fine white linen with sauce. I had even spat out some of my food because I didn’t like the taste of it.

“But it doesn’t matter because, look, here come the waiters. They are scraping away the debris with their little horn and steel blades, pulled with studied grace from the hidden pockets of their white aprons. They are laying new tablecloths, arranging new cutlery, placing before me great domed wine glasses, newly polished to a sparkle. There are more dishes to come, more flavors to try, and this time I will not spill or spit or drop or splash. I will not push the plate away from me, the food only half eaten. I am ready for everything they are preparing to serve me. Be in no doubt; it will all be fine.” (pp.115-6)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

Out of the 11 I had to look up, here are a few new words that came to me through this book:

New Word: viscera (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): internal organs collectively (especially those in the abdominal cavity)
Synonyms: entrails, innards
Origins (Source: 1645-55; Latin internal organs; plural of ‘viscus’ flesh
As in: “It was as if somebody had turned up the force of gravity, so that my heart, my liver, my entire viscera were dragged downward toward the pavement by a ballast of guilt.” (pp.36-7)

New Word: micturition (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): the discharge of urine
Synonyms: urination
Origins: 1725; from Latin ‘micturitum’; plural of ‘micturire’ to desire to urinate; related to ‘meiere’
As in: “Harry left the table for what he called ‘a moment’s discreet micturition,’ and while he was away, our food arrived.” (p.38)

New Word: tumescent (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): abnormally distended especially by fluids or gas
Synonyms: puffy, intumescent, tumid, turgid
Origins (Source: 1882; Latin ‘tumescent-‘; present participle of ‘tumescere’ to swell up; inchoative of ‘tumēre’ to swell
As in: “When it was finished, the pillow of beige souffle tumescent above the ramekin’s rim, I placed it on the kitchen table and sat down opposite her.” (p.58)

New Word: coterie (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): an exclusive circle of people with a common purpose
Synonyms: clique, ingroup, inner circle, pack, camp
Origins: 1738; from French, originally an organization of peasants holding land from a feudal lord; ‘cotier’ tenant of a cote
As in: “If you only ever watched Powertalk you would presume the United States to be ruled by a tight coterie of emotionally incontinent men.” (p.185)

New Word: vitriolic (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) of a substance, especially a strong acid; capable of destroying or eating away by chemical action; 2) harsh or corrosive in tone
Synonyms: 1) caustic, corrosive, erosive, mordant; 2) acerb, acerbic, acid, acrid, bitter, blistering, caustic, sulfurous, sulphurous, virulent
Origins: 1300’s; Middle English; from Anglo-French ‘vitriole’; from Medieval Latin ‘vitriolum’; alteration of Late Latin ‘vitreolum’; neuter of ‘vitreolus’ glassy; from Latin ‘vitreus’ vitreous
As in: “(I heard later that Schenke had also issued a statement through his publishers that day, but his comments about me were so vitriolic and so freighted with expletives that they had chosen not to release it.)” (p.203)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Page 47. So far, two apologies. Both went well, producing warm, gooey feelings reminiscent of happy endings. This better not be the way the rest of the book goes. Either the main character’s ego gets slapped soon with the clammy palm of reality, and awakens to the fact that not everyone wants his apology, or I’m going to have to rethink secondhand bookstore impulse buys.”

“When I apologize, am I doing it for you, or am I doing it for me? Am I telling you what I did to make my life easier so that I can be washed with the purifying splash of clear conscience, or is it actually my ego rinsing his armpits with your tears?

“So far, the book is about an egotistical maniac. World government just entered the scene; that’s sure to fill the pages with integrity.”

“I was at The Getty Center yesterday, mesmerized by a sculpture entitled, Time Witnesses the Triumph of Honour, Integrity and Prudence over Vice. The docent warned me not to get too close, but my only purpose in that moment was to check if I looked anything like this unidentified artist’s interpretation of the embodiment of honour, integrity, or prudence (any of the three would do). All I wanted to do was double-check with this 18th century artist if I was a good person.

“I guess that for me, that sculpture is like what the apology is for Marc Basset. Perhaps what’s bothering me about the book isn’t the narcissistic main character or his fixation with his feet, but rather my frustration with the tendency to care what other people think. An apology is only needed when the ego is involved, so why spend so much time looking for ways to feed it?”

“I love it when a book’s story aligns in real-time with parallels in my own life. I’m reading this book over Thanksgiving; a turning point in the book takes place over some spilled gravy during Thanksgiving dinner. Then in New York, pale Czech waitresses buss tables as Mr. Basset tries to assimilate to his new American surroundings; I somehow unintentionally manage to find a pale Czech waitress serving me brunch in downtown LA. Czech? Pale? LA? Very cool.”

“Well, it’s about apologizing. It’s about the tedium of apologizing. Or, at least, it’s about hearing about the tedium of trying to craft the perfect apology—the one that actually works, the one that convinces the apologizee that you’re genuine, and sincere, and totally into believing that you deserve to be forgiven. Strange. For a story about apologies, it rarely mentions forgiveness.”

“I don’t really understand why the character’s English. I mean, I suppose I could connect the dots if the author spent some time describing the character’s reactions to moving to the States—noting the idiosyncrasies, the vulgar extremes, the pedestrian tendencies that Americans may think are endearing. I could understand, if the point was to highlight the culture shock, or even to make a joke of it alla Stephen Clarke, but to take an Englishman out of England, fly him to Manhattan of all places, and plop him in a Swiss fondue restaurant is a bit disjointed. It’s translucent character development…or was I just drunk for that chapter? I’m sorry. Should I not have admitted that?”

“I implore you, even if you’ve never done so before, to read the acknowledgments at the end of the book. The sumptuous gobs of information enveloped in these last few pages will bring foodies to their well-padded knees. If, at any point while reading this book, you found yourself dreaming of being able to taste the deliriously delicious-sounding dishes Marc describes, remember to read the acknowledgments at the back of this strange, strange book.”

1 Comment

  1. Mariateresa Bombardieri says:

    I’m curious to read the acknowledgments at the back of this book … I’ll follow your advice !

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