On the Food Writer in ‘The French Dispatch’ and the Art of the Solitary Feast

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Photo credit: COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
Photo credit: COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

No one has ever accused Wes Anderson of verisimilitude. His is a brightly coloured symmetrical view of the world in which voices are rarely raised, all sentences are complete, every emotion suppressed and every room punctiliously designed. In his latest effort The French Dispatch, which is loosely based on a New Yorker-ish magazine, this Andersonian lens is so thick it's nearly opaque. Maybe, if you took the time to decipher who among the ensemble cast is based on whom in real life; maybe, if you, like him, mistake the gesture of emotion for the thing itself; maybe, if you’re a denatured, exsanguinated, and dissociative corduroy-wearing psychopath, there’s a kernel of something real there. Otherwise it’s just like twee technicolor Edward Gorey fanfic. There is one exception, though, the food writer, Roebuck Wright, played by Jeffrey Wright. No relation, I presume. That guy is onto something. As a food writer myself, I know.

As noted, the film is based on a magazine in both form and content. It consists of a series of short stories loosely in accord with the flow of a front of book. In arch Anderson fashion, each is introduced by a page from said magazine. Of interest to us now are pages 55-74, Tastes & Smells, written by Roebuck Wright. I’ve read, though it’s obvious, Wright’s character is based on James Baldwin, who famously lived in Paris and later Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a small Provencal town, to escape the racist vicissitudes of the United States, and on A.J. Liebling, the prodigal eater and proto-gourmand of The New Yorker to whom many food writers, this one included, has somewhat modelled themselves. (This willy nilly mashup of historical personages, as if their assemblage itself is a creative work and not just a lazy derivative swap for true character development is too, alas, typical of Anderson these days.) Anyway, Wright’s story is entitled Dinner with the Commissaire. It concerns a French police chief, his private chef, Lt. Nescaffier (Steven Park) and a kidnapping plot involving the policeman’s young son. There is blackbird pie and poisoned radishes. It’s a caper, the story, not the edible flower bud. It’s entertaining, I guess, but like everything else in the movie, a bit flimsy.

Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures
Photo credit: Searchlight Pictures

Wright relates his tale on a talk show much like Baldwin’s interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1968 which opened the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. But towards the end, after he files his story, his editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray at his deadest pan) complains that it was meant to be a chef profile and yet the chef in question, Nescaffier, has only one line of dialogue. And this causes Wright to confess there had been more said but it had been cut. Upon asking for details, Howitzer extracts a crumpled page from the rubbish bin and reads it. It’s a deathbed scene, an exchange between Nescaffier, who had heroically ingested poisoned radishes, and Wright. “I am a foreigner,” says Nescaffier. “I’m one myself,” replies Wright. And here he begins a soliloquy that is perhaps the truest thing in the film. Wright speaks about how, as a food writer in a foreign land, the restaurants and cafes, their tables and chairs, the small rituals of a meal, the choreography of hospitality, just as much as the labours of the kitchen are his home and his companions. “It has been the solitary feast that has been very much like a comrade.” he says.

As a food writer myself, though one working primarily in my native lands, the solitary feast has indeed become very much like a comrade. Restaurants and their rhythms have become embassies of the familiar no matter in what town, city, borough or country I find myself. The somewhat circumscribed exchanges, the rituals of ordering, the small coded actions we call etiquette are like a (mostly) universal language that tells me that, when I sit down, I belong. Meanwhile, eating a meal in solitude, the “solitary feast” as per Roebuck or “cena solitaria'' as per Plutarch, has been stigmatised since Roman times. “The Romans are fond,” he wrote in Moralia, “of a witty and sociable person who said, after a solitary meal, ‘I have eaten but not dined today’ implying that a dinner always requires friendly sociability for seasoning.” And yet, because I am by nature withdrawn—emerging mostly in my writing— and perhaps because what friends I do have have little interest and zero budget for the meals about which I often write, I, like Wright, find myself often with but a notepad (or Google Notes, at least) and a plate before me at a table set for one. This aloneness makes me a stranger not so much by location, gender, sexuality or race as it did for Baldwin, Roebuck and, presumably, Nescaffier but by the simple well-founded suspicion by my fellow diners that I do not belong. I am, somehow, an interloper.

Degustation and alienation, the two commingle for me and for many other food writers I think. Now perhaps others have more friends than I do, or at least, dining companions. (I am, just for the record, happy in solitude and am totally not a sad sack. I have friends. I like totally have soooo many friends.) So perhaps the alienation isn’t quite as acute. But few, I would say, come from the socioeconomic strata of our fellow diners. This is most applicable when one’s metier also includes fine dining as well as more approachable fare. I often feel I’m the lone straggler in a room with people that have made it. We eye a $66 prime rib with vastly different takes and go home to vastly different apartments. So, just as Roebuck is a foreigner, often I feel like one too. Bad for life, maybe, but great for writing.

For this bittersweet somewhat lugubrious sensation, the sensual pleasure of the meal, the piquancy of an outsider, is fertile soil indeed. Daniel H. Pink has a new book coming out called The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. I am reading it. I have many regrets. But one passage jumps out. He cites a study by Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside that shows, “writing about negative experiences like regret...substantially increased people’s overall life satisfaction and improved their physical and mental well-being in ways that merely thinking about those experiences did not. Yet the reverse was true for positive experience: writing and talking about triumphs and good times drained some of their positivity.” Or as Lyubomirsky herself concludes, “Participants who thought privately about their happiest experience reported greater life satisfaction than participants who wrote or talked about such an experience.”

With no small talk to make or performative cooing to perform, a solitary feast allows that happiness to accumulate, ferment, grow into something perhaps richer to be shared, yes, but shared later, on the page. A solitary feast turns all the extravagance of a meal into something strangely monastic, a little austere, a bit melancholy, and often very beautiful. At its best, it can, unlike a Wes Anderson film, be not simply a parade of affectation but an experience endowed with eddies of emotion, swirling beneath the surface and waiting to be committed to the written page.

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