The Meals of His Life
Jason Epstein, now in his 80s, has had one of the blazing careers of 20th-century American publishing. As a young editor in the 1950s, he created Anchor Books and helped to start the paperback revolution. He was a founder of both The New York Review of Books and the Library of America. He was the editorial director of Random House for decades and has edited Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth.
Along the way Mr. Epstein has picked up a reputation as a handy cook and a big eater, skills worth having in publishing, where the real work gets done over lunches, cocktails, dinners and, on good days, flutes of Champagne.
Given Mr. Epstein’s lofty perches over the last 50 years, one enviously suspects he has been present for (or hosted) some of the greatest, most unhinged literary dinner parties of our time. But he’s not sharing news of them in “Eating,” his slim new volume of low-cal memoir and occasional recipes.
Anecdote and personal revelation are passed out sparingly in “Eating,” so that reading it is like being offered plates of cheese and salumi on toothpicks when you were expecting a spread out of “Big Night,” or a small glass of flinty Pouilly-Fumé instead a pitcher of martinis. The book is delicious, in its minimalist, essayistic way. But it sends you out the door a bit hungry, and stone sober.
Mr. Epstein was born into a family of noncooks, so he began, as a survival tactic, to play with the pots and pans himself. “I began cooking as a child as other children of my generation toyed with chemistry sets or electric trains,” he writes. “I remember reading Irma Rombauer when I was 10 or so with the same curiosity that I read Kipling and Jules Verne.”
His deepest food memories attach to Maine, where his grandparents had an old house, and to the cuisine of New England in general. He includes fine recipes for such homey dishes as chicken pot pie, lobster rolls, potato cakes and fried chicken. He writes about his jobs cooking professionally, during college summers, on Cape Cod.
Mr. Epstein’s two kitchens, in Manhattan and in Sag Harbor on Long Island, resemble his grandmother’s. “My lifelong interest in recreating the cuisine of my childhood is proof of the persistence of memory and its power to shape one’s days,” he writes. He adds, “The lakes and dark forests of Maine are the default landscape of my soul.”
There are many things to like about “Eating,” as Mr. Epstein moves along through these essays, which are based on articles that first appeared in The New York Times. He praises out-of-print cookbooks, like “The Gold and Fizdale Cookbook” (1984) and “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese” (1945), and sends you scurrying to find them. He teases out the mysteries of the famous coleslaw at John Duck’s, a restaurant, now defunct, in Southampton.
During a brief meditation on (of all things) cannibalism, Mr. Epstein prints an excellent exchange he had with Patrick O’Connell, the chef-owner of the Inn at Little Washington. “When I suggested some years ago that cooking for others is a gratuitous act of generosity,” he writes, “he said no: we feed others so that they won’t eat us.”
There is little in “Eating” about Mr. Epstein’s first wife, Barbara Epstein, a founder and a longtime editor at The New York Review of Books, and even less about his current wife, Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter.
The book warms up, however, when he begins to tell some book-world stories. There’s a shipboard meal with Edmund Wilson and Buster Keaton; “lobster over linguine with a bottle of Chablis beneath a perfect sky” on Norman Mailer’s deck in Provincetown, Mass.; and an awkward meal at “21” with the compellingly repulsive Roy Cohn, who ordered tuna salad.
Mr. Epstein recounts the time Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis took him to lunch at Lutèce (they ate shad roe) and asked him for an editing job at Random House. He turned her down. She later became an editor at Doubleday.
He sheepishly admits that he’s the man who ruined Rao’s, the tiny Italian restaurant in East Harlem where tables have always been hard to come by. After Mr. Epstein published “Rao’s Cookbook,” by Frank Pellegrino, an owner of the restaurant, and it became a best seller, the place was swamped and its vibe changed.
“Before I published Frankie’s book,” Mr. Epstein writes, “I managed to eat at Rao’s three or four times a year. Now I don’t go at all.”