Culinary Visits with Literary Mentors

Book review: The Traveling Feast, by Rick Bass

I decided to take a break from writing and go on an extended pilgrimage. I set out traveling the country (and in one case Europe) to visit writers who were mostly a generation older than I am, the ones who helped me become a writer trained outside a university. Sometimes they helped me by reading what I’d written, and commenting on it. Other times they were simply friends. Still others were mentors without my ever having met them: blazing trails through the dark forest. Some of them, then, I would have known for decades; others I would be meeting for the first time.

Author and wilderness dweller (he lives on an isolated but beautiful-sounding mountain in Montana) Rick Bass undertook a creative project: traveling to cook for his literary mentors, taking along a mentee of his own. Over the course of the brief visits and meals they conversed about topics from the everyday banal to their shared craft, and it was all his intended way of giving back to authors who had given him so much while creating a connection between a former generation of writers and the next one.

This struck me as such a warm, wonderful idea, and how lucky he is to have the connections to do it.

In the course of planning and undertaking these sometimes comically gone-awry travels and meals, Bass, a very inward-looking, meditative and shy/introverted writer (the book is worth it for his brilliant introduction on these topics alone) ruminates on some heavy subjects: his painful divorce, aging, the idea of one’s life work and what imprint we’ll leave behind.

Sometimes these descriptions are evocative and quietly lovely, elsewhere they’re overwritten, small moments described into purple prose instead of the poetic and blissful observations he’s capable of. Being unfamiliar with Bass’s body of work, I didn’t know what to expect in his writing style, and I’m not sure if it’s for me – the memoir is melancholy and despite his infusions of hopefulness, I felt more down than lifted, and it was bittersweet everywhere. Happy, delightful moments followed by achingly sad ones, or being reminded of temporariness and fleeting time, how love fades, how your life can change drastically when you’ve had it well planned and stable for years. This undercurrent is running through every story and made me more uneasy than appreciative.

I don’t gravitate towards books about writing, and there’s a good deal of discussion about Bass’s own work, his mentors’ styles and strengths, his mentees’ crafts. It’s fine, but I wanted to experience personal storytelling from these literary greats. Instead, the face time with them comes across as being about the whole package of the experience – traveling to them, ruminating on their work, how they connect with his accompanying mentee, and mostly they didn’t seem inclined to talk shop. There was almost a feeling that he wanted to keep something about the visits private.

It seemed to me that a significant factor in whether you may enjoy the book is whether you know and appreciate the authors visited. I looked forward to his meals with David Sedaris, Amy Hempel, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lorrie Moore. I’d heard of some of the others (Peter Matthiessen), read a bit of a few of them (Denis Johnson), but I wasn’t as invested in their work. I still ended up enjoying some bits of their visits (Matthiessen’s in particular is a sad but sweet one), but I was more drawn to the figures I knew.

But here I was let down. For such a personal, intimate connection like sharing a meal, the story is always impressionistic and feels distant somehow from what actually transpired. Often it’s about what went wrong, some faux pas like taking a picture of Joyce Carol Oates while she’s eating soup, cooking that didn’t come out right or frozen elk that melts and drips all over Heathrow (sometimes these stories are sublime), or just lots of writing about the person’s work and themes instead of what they said, what happened, what they were laughing about. The Oates meeting was especially an uninsightful, borderline awkward letdown, although it did contain one of my favorite lines in the book. Bass is asked about recent teaching work, and says, “It was awful,” I admit, “but I’m on the other side now.”

He seems better suited to analyzing his own experiences, especially those connected to life themes and nature, and when he comes across with a line like this, I admired his ability to say so much in so few words. I wish it had been more consistent throughout. The Lorrie Moore visit was forgettable, the Amy Hempel one strange as it was her moving day and focused more on stories about her, not with her, she politely demurred from discussing her most famous story (understandable) and it was more time spent observing people in Central Park and a little about her ex-husband and editor. Many of the chapters took odd turns like this.

Although I didn’t feel it provided much insight into David Sedaris, I still liked that chapter best. Bass describes him perfectly: “He can be savage or caustic, but he can also be sweet,” and it’s this kind of simple but telling ability to capture something that makes me wonder why so much was left out. They go on a trash collecting walk with Sedaris, his recent hobby written about in Calypso, but beyond that and a glimpse into his writing rooms, Sedaris is more often depicted through his laughter coming from another room. I loved the idea of cooking for people who’d shaped your life’s work, but maybe the time-consuming nature of it kept this project from showing us more of these greats.

It also led to opportunities for imaginative creativity from the author – David gives a meaningful look, followed by several sentences of the author’s speculation of its meaning. But David didn’t say it and it’s hard to imagine it was all expressed in that look. I don’t prefer this kind of storytelling.

I just want my mentees to know what greatness looks like—to see it in person, and not just in the space between the lines.

If this was his goal in his project, I think he achieved it. His hosts were gracious, generous, warm, open, and welcoming. That was a lovely thing to learn. But ultimately it felt more personal to those who were there; and for us readers, we can possibly draw some form of inspiration from it, but it’s unlikely this would impact an outsider as it did those who were at the tables.

I was also a bit disappointed that he didn’t share recipes, which would’ve seemed like something simple to include, and although many were too high-gourmet for my tastes, a frequently served jalapeño gratin would’ve been nice to know.

Over the course of a few years, I said thank you to my heroes by preparing a ceremonial meal for each of them. It mattered hugely to thank as many of them as possible while they were still alive, and it matters hugely to me that their gifts and powers not be diminished or forgotten by the generations behind me. I hoped to share that beauty across the membrane of time.

This felt like a book the author really needed to write and for his sake, I’m glad he did. I hope it brought him the peace of mind he needed.

2.5/5

The Traveling Feast:
On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes
by Rick Bass
published June 5, 2018 by Little, Brown

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