My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, by Alexander Lobrano
It feels like it’s been way too long since I read a good foodoir, and especially one about France. They can be so pretentious for some reason. My Place at the Table, on the other hand, is such a delight.
Alexander Lobrano moved from London to Paris in the 1980s after landing a job as the menswear editor at the Paris office of Fairchild Publications, the publishers of Women’s Wear Daily and W. He didn’t actually know anything about menswear, nor did he speak French, but he seemed restless in London and not ready to move back to New York. In one of those almost impossibly lucky breaks that seemed to happen so often in careers in days gone by, he got the job and was off to Paris.
It was there, as he got to know the city by eating his way through it, that he began to realize how passionate he was about food, an interest that had been stamped out by his parents. Lobrano describes his childhood in Connecticut and his father’s scorn over his choice to write about a BLT for a school writing exercise, and their discouragements of his “imagination”. This was all happening while he began to perceive there was something different about himself; namely, that he’s gay, but also that he doesn’t quite feel at home in this setting and is curious about the rest of the world.
I thought of writing about going to the beach because I loved the briny smell of the sea and the calm that came from sitting at the edge of a body of water I couldn’t see the end of. I hoped there was some unknown place beyond it where no one knew me, and that place would make me free.
Lobrano is an absolutely lovely writer – warm and touching with an incredible eye and memory for detail (you can tell he’s been a journaler). He writes about the decidedly non-gourmet foods of his youth in a way that reminded me a bit of Nigel Slater’s Toast, and captured how strongly the more lowbrow culinary culture shapes a person’s tastes and senses too.
Strangely, I didn’t get on with the actual food writing set in France as well. It’s the style that turned me off the food writing genre initially until I discovered other variations, i.e.: it’s melodramatically descriptive, lots of nonsensical-sounding things like onions creating “drama” and flavors being sensual and things that focus more on heightened, lavish description but generally don’t say anything meaningful about food, in my humble far-from-culinary-expert opinion. But this isn’t the bulk of the book, and he more than makes up for these bits in how he writes about the importance of the food or chef in its corner of French culture — the countryside of Normandy, “peasant” cuisine, the gentle encouragements and explanations from his Parisian landlady, and his interviews with several chefs.
And the way he weaves food into his significant life stories more than makes up for it. It has so much heart and the kind of passion that comes from a long time loving something, and it’s wonderful to see his trajectory from Connecticut boy who knows he’s not in his element to renowned Parisian food critic. It has some very tough and emotional moments too — a hinted-at abuse in childhood comes to the fore in a very emotional moment later in his adult life — but he writes it so well and makes every story so meaningful. Just the best kind of memoir writing, really.
Even his many early stumbles as he was figuring out his place within the culinary scene are delightful — his interview with Androuet, the finest cheesemaker in Paris, conducted in French despite his ineptitude in the language at the time, is absolutely hilarious. Some details are left vague here and there, something that I think usually works in memoir and helps keep it from becoming overlong, but I loved his writing and storytelling so much that I wish more time had been spent on a few areas I still had questions about — his relationship with his parents seemed to end after two abrupt albeit telling meetings, some romantic relationships end equally abruptly and so on.
But on the whole it’s excellent, and never falls into the common trap of over-glorifying and idealizing Paris; rather, it celebrates exactly what was so special, instructive, and life-changing about his own experience as he allowed his personality to guide him and became at home in his own skin. He also makes quite interesting and, in my experience, accurate observations about expat life, the way natives of a country view their own emigrants, and some of the quirks of Parisian social culture.
Plus it’s delightfully star-studded: Ruth Reichl, Julia Child (this was one of my favorite scenes in the book, including the most fabulous Julia quote), an unusual interview with a drunken Patricia Highsmith, and a very sweet James Beard cameo (Lobrano would go on to be a James Beard Award winner).
He closes with his “little black book” of 30 of his favorite Paris restaurants, a valuable bookmark for a next visit. Definitely my favorite food memoir in a long time and a must-read for Francophiles.
published June 1, 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.