For West End epicures, "Life is Meals"
ASPEN I mentioned the notion of “the good life” to James Salter, whose books are filled with tales of fighter planes and sex, escapades in Paris and Rome, and friendships with the leading lights of literature and cinema.He responds by bringing up the name of another noted writer who made his home in the Aspen area, the late Hunter S. Thompson. Salter wants it understood that his own paradigm for the good life is one that does not require the “two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid,” etc., that fueled Thompson’s infamous road trip to the Nevada desert.
“We’re at one end, Hunter S. Thompson is at the other end,” said Salter, speaking for himself and Kay, his wife of nearly 30 years. “His end is an utter dissolution, chaos, excess. That’s not where we are. Not to say people haven’t gotten drunk here” – now referring to the house in Aspen’s West End that he bought in the early ’70s and lives in half the year. “Hunter Thompson did. But we’ve never set fire to a couch, never threw furniture out the window.”No, Salter’s vision of a fine existence is a civilized and, in its way, a modest one. He made his name with 1967’s “A Sport and a Pastime,” a novel noted for the narrator’s running erotic fantasy but marked as much by Salter’s signature prose – tight, exact, definitively masculine – as by its subject matter.In the 1988 story collection “Dusk and Other Stories,” for which he earned the PEN/Faulkner Award, and in the outstanding 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days: A Recollection,” Salter continues to dwell in a glamour-touched realm of memorable women, talented men, various capitals in postwar Europe, and serving in the Korean War as a fighter pilot, when such a position carried with it a distinct status. But Salter approaches these stories and memories with humility and honesty, and a desire to reveal history and humanity in all of it. For all the sex, drink, travel and celebrities, decadence is hardly the point of the work.Salter’s latest subject, one that he feasts on with Kay as his equal partner, is dining. “Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days,” published in October by Knopf, has that same sense of a life well-lived that is present in most of Salter’s stories. There are scrumptious settings in the south of France, dinner guests from the absolute summit of the culinary food chain, and astounding wines (like the Château d’Yquem consumed to commemorate the impending separation of Salter’s editor and the editor’s wife).Again, for all the tales of thousand-dollar bottles of wine and heart-stopping dishes (like coulibiac, a delicacy whose ingredients include sturgeon marrow, mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs), there is a restraint to “Life Is Meals.” For one thing, most of the dining exploits documented in the day-by-day history are not the Salters’ own. Kay, who has had a career as a journalist and playwright, and Jim write of such legendary diners as Henry IV, who ate as many as 300 oysters in a sitting; and “Diamond” Jim Brady, whom one restaurateur called “my best 25 customers.””Life Is Meals” isn’t devoted entirely to such excessive consumption. Many of the entries have to do with the history of food and dining (some centuries ago, in Constantinople, denying a woman her coffee was grounds for divorce); odd facts (the one I’m still wrestling with is that only three fruits – cranberries, blueberries and Concord grapes – are native to North America); and, for the lexicographically curious, a slew of food-related linguistic tidbits. (“Salary” comes from the root word for “salt”; Roman soldiers were paid, in part, in salt.) There is a handful of recipes and a pinch of tips for dining and dinner parties; they all revolve around the basics.The Salters will speak about “Life Is Meals” at a public event Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. at Town Center Booksellers in Basalt.
The Salters trace the origins of “Life Is Meals” to their West End home and the dinner parties they have thrown there over the years. Both the house and the meals are rooted in simplicity. (In their small kitchen, a basket of boxes of tea sits on the floor; there is no room for it on the counter.)Jim, a product of New York City, was a childhood friend of the late Aspenite Wilton “Wink” Jaffee. In winter 1959, at Jaffee’s urging, Salter made his first trip to Aspen; his first night in town was spent at a banquet at the Hotel Jerome. “The town was such that someone might come up to you and ask, ‘Would you like to come to a banquet tonight?'” said Salter. Jaffee, before becoming a prominent commodities trader, convinced his friend to make a wise investment. Salter bought a West End house – known as “the Crumpacker house” for all the dozen years Salter owned it – for approximately $12,000.
In 1969, ready to return to the States after living in Europe for several years, Salter and his former wife, Carbondale resident Ann Altemus, were persuaded by their three children to bypass New York in favor of Colorado. Some two years later, Salter bought his current home, also in the West End (“the Caparella home,” named for the drunk miner who had owned it previously). The place was tiny, and Salter set about renovating the house, employing a crew of local hippies in the project.”They turned out to be felons. But they were OK guys,” said Salter. “It turns out they were wanted for armed robbery in Missouri. That was the most interesting part of my life, being involved in high-level, big-city crime.”In the mid-’70s, Salter was having difficulties in his marriage. (That experience was the emotional source for his 1975 novel, “Light Years.”) Around the same time, Kay Eldredge, a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school and a Denver-based film producer, was working on the TV series, “The Artist in America.” She was sent to Aspen to profile Salter, focusing on his career as a screenwriter. (Among Salter’s scripts is 1969’s “Downhill Racer,” a character study starring Robert Redford as an Olympic skier.) One of the early markers in their long courtship was a dinner at Tante Louise, the recently shuttered French landmark in Denver.From the time they were married, throwing and attending dinner parties has been the couples’ customary way of socializing. “That’s been our mode of entertainment for years,” said Kay who, with Jim, spends half the year in their house in the Hamptons. “It was simple meals; it was more about the occasion than the cuisine. And it was such interesting people. The town attracted people on the fringe.””It was extremely cozy,” added Jim. “We didn’t have much money, but we knew a lot of people in town then. It was so natural to say, come on over, have dinner with us.”
Among the guests to find their way to the house were screenwriter Lorenzo Semple and his wife, Joyce, who turn up in several anecdotes in “Life Is Meals.” The couple had just arrived in Aspen, with two contacts given to them by The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. The Semples called first on novelist Leon Uris.”Leon said, ‘Well, I’m writing a novel. Call me back in six months,'” related Kay. “So we had them to a dinner party that night.”Another guest to appear, unexpectedly, at Jim’s first Aspen house was Saul Bellow. As Salter was ridding the house of insects, he opened the door and threw a fly into the face of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who was about to knock on the door and introduce himself. Bellow, too, became an occasional dinner guest.To keep track of what dishes had been served to which guests, the Salters kept a brown notebook. They also had a practice of reading aloud to one another, usually about food, and favorite anecdotes and food facts made their way into the book. After years of contemplating turning the notebook into a proper publication, the Salters, in 1999, raised the subject with Nicholas Callaway, a young publisher (and occasional dining companion), who shepherded “Life Is Meals” into print.The Salters used two books as loose models for the project: Robert Phelps’ “The Literary Life,” a “glorious” book, according to Kay, featuring daily entries about the Anglo-American literary scene from the first half of the 20th century; and “An Illustrated History of Cuisine in France,” a far lesser achievement in Jim’s eyes, but one that included lots of crumbs of culinary details that had fallen through the cracks of history. Drawing on the brown notebook, the Salters divvied up the entries – Jim got most of the wine entries, Kay the offbeat stories including how the toothpick was invented – and away they went, working separately but on coordinated, parallel paths for seven years.Their first project as a couple went smoothly. “No acrimony,” reported Jim, who, at 81, appears sturdy in mind and body, and speaks in an engaging voice. “It was a pleasure to work on,” followed Kay who, if I didn’t know she had been married to Jim some three decades, I would say had a crush on her husband.
“Life Is Meals” has its practical side for cooks. There are entries on which fruits ripen after being picked, which liqueurs go with which fruits, and what wine to drink with salad. (None, says Jim after plenty of research. Opt for sparkling water.)But it is the less practical writings that give the book its appeal, that the Salters hope will add texture to the dining experience.”When you read about the king of France and his ladies picking up breadballs and throwing them at each other – you get a different sense of French history and monarchy than you do from history books,” said Jim. “You know a lot more about life. [The book] is going to help you know a lot about things that are not about food and wine. And they’re going to be very interesting things.”
The first piece in “Life Is Meals,” the January 1 entry, titled “Meals Are Everything,” opens with the declaration that “Meals are the essential act of life,” and concludes by asking, “What would one know of life as it should be lived or nights as they should be spent apart from meals?” The Salters take meals, here, in the broadest sense – not just the food and wine, but the preparation, the gathering of guests, the conversation. Meals, Jim notes, punctuate “when you’re married, when you die, when you’re born, the victories, the defeats. And it’s every people; it’s not just us. Eskimos do it, the Chinese do it … This sounds like a Cole Porter song.”And everything happens at meals. You get to know someone. You fall in love – seductions begin at the table.”For the Salters, the essential act is not only the meal, but reflecting on it, writing about it, learning something from the practice that has tied humans together for millennia.Jim tells a story about a dinner party where the subject came up of the German “pocket battleship,” a powerful vessel that terrified the Allies during World War II. Salter himself shared with his dining companions that night the tale of the German admiral Graf Spee, who, having been trapped by three British cruisers in Argentinean waters, opted to scuttle the ship rather than have it captured intact and its design revealed.
One of Salter’s guests joined in the storytelling. He ticked off the names of the three British ships, as well as a fourth that joined them. The guest then detailed the tactic used by the British sailors, tricking Admiral Spee into thinking there were more Allied ships in the area than there actually were.”I said, how’d you know that?” said Salter. “He said, ‘Everybody knows that.'”I remember that guy. And I remember that evening.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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