Liebling has lunch
Having read eight of A.J. Liebling’s books, I can say that his description of lunch at the Hôtel du Commerce in Vendôme may be the most memorable description of a dining experience he ever wrote. This is from “The Hounds with Sad Voices” in Normandy Revisited, reprinted in the Library of America volume Liebling: World War II Writings.
Paniguian, my friend, was twenty-four and I was twenty-three. We were both confirmed gluttons. We ate the precise menu that the commis-voyageur at Vire had described, with some amendment in the wine department. We had a bottle of the landlord’s best local wine to begin with and then a Corton Clos du Roi with the pheasant. The gentlemen of commerce were patronizing when we sat down and placed our napkins in our laps. They tied theirs around their necks, so that they could forget caution in grappling with their grub. But when we cleaned the serving platters of rillettes, of pâte de lièvre, of jambon cru de pays, of andouilles (inferior to those of Vire, but acceptable), and even of salt herring and scraps of gigot left over from yesterday’s Sunday dinner and freshened with onion, they were admirative. They still felt superior, though. One was sportsman enough to warn us, “Attention, there’s more to come!”
It was presumption on his part to think we didn’t know.
After we devastated the tripes à la mode de Caen a look of speculation broke water in their faces, as in a pool shark’s when his intended victim runs 15 from the break.
Our performance on the beefsteaks and soufflé potatoes was so apocalyptic that I saw one of them pause, his fork halfway to his mouth, to watch us — a pause so unusual, for a Frenchman eating, that I thought for a moment he had a stroke. When we had eaten five or six beefsteaks apiece while each of them was despatching a humdrum three, the waitress cleared the table, and all of us regarded one another with satisfaction, like men who have rowed a creditable race in the same boat. The drummers’ fear that we would eat all the beefsteaks was assuaged. They were full and could afford to be complimentary.
“Here you truly ring the bell!” one drummer said, and another corroborated, “What one sends oneself, it’s something!”
The waitress placed a cheese tray and a couple of baskets of Saint-Jeans, which we call seckel pears, before the drummers, and went away.
One called down to us, “Why aren’t you having any cheese? Are you full already?”
Then his paternal bonhomie changed to an expression of compound hate, a mixture of xenophobia (the franc was falling) and the Spirit of the Barricades. He saw the waitress bringing in the pheasant, just for us.