The Lights in the Kitchen Were On


On Food

At the table with James Salter.

Salter in 1989. Photo: Sally Gall

“To revisit the past was like constantly crossing some Bergschrund,” James Salter writes in the introduction to his 1997 memoir, “a deep chasm between what my life had been before I changed it completely and what it was afterwards.” As it did through his life, an ineludible divide runs through Salter’s work. The same man who gave us great novels and stories of sport, of war and deprivation, produced some of the twentieth century’s most sumptuous meditations on domestic life, on the rituals at the heart of bonding. To read him in both modes is to pace the fullness of Salter’s emotional life—it is akin to entering a room full of people after completing some feat of endurance, a vow of silence or a rigorous fast, and trying to hear every word. What unites Salter’s oeuvre—more than his triumphs of style, the peculiar manipulations of perspective, and the verbless descriptive clauses—is his preoccupation with meals and all that they represent, all they can give and all they can take away.

In 1957, with his first book already published, Salter left the Air Force to become the novelist that he knew he was. As his identity was transformed—from fighter pilot to fiction writer, from that of struggle within the military complex to the isolation he encountered outside of it—so were his novels and stories. Food’s role in them increasingly became a metric for the emotional lives of his characters, who were either driven by the rejection of home or by some elaborate performance that kept the idea of home intact. The dinner table, Salter understood, was the perfect stage for the frailty of our relationships—how we present ourselves to others, how crucial to our sense of self are the recollections of the friends who saw us become the people we were. A much-cited quotation from Light Years perhaps most perfectly encapsulates his feelings about life in the air as a pilot and on the ground as a family man: “Life is weather. Life is meals.” 

In 2006, with his wife Kay, James Salter published Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days. It’s a book that defies classification, jumping from historical anecdote to cherished recipe to childhood memory without warning or apology, as the conversation at the best dinner party often does. It’s as warm as it is biting, as full of tenderness for the people who populated the couple’s parties as it is cruel toward those who detracted from otherwise perfect brunches or suppers. We watch Alice Waters, having been snubbed by a French maître d’, composing some very elegant hate mail. We hear the literary agent Irving Lazar phoning room service, requesting a very unappetizing meal (“a soft-boiled egg, not completely cooked, a little mucous-y on top … ”), and, upon hearing the hotel is “not equipped to do that,” replying, “You were yesterday.” These stories are punch lines, anecdotes to be told to company; they are meant to reinforce a bond, to reward those with taste and wit.

Salter’s appreciation of all things epicurean—as well as his Schadenfreude regarding gaffes in etiquette—came in part from his own determined efforts to reach a certain level of sophistication. In his memoir, Burning the Days, he writes: “My first duck I tasted in the dining room of a silvery apartment off Fifth Avenue. Across from me, aware of nothing remarkable, sat my friend.” For teenage Salter, that meal, prepared by a hired cook and hosted by the platinum blonde mother of his childhood companion, became a hallowed goal, a place he might reach after he’d surpassed his middle-class upbringing in a small family. He often mourned how little he knew of his ancestors. “It is the men without roots,” he writes of his heritage, paraphrasing a British aristocrat, “who are the real poor.”

As a young man, Salter grew convinced that these extravagant dinners represented the life he wanted, but he believed he needed to suffer first—“My life was too meager for me to know if I possessed it”—so, at his father’s exhortations, he tested into West Point. Meals there “were a constant terror,” an occasion during which one was expected to not only catch the glasses that upperclassmen hurled one’s way, but to treat these frangible missiles as if they’d been requested, calling out, as they flew, “Cup, please!”

Salter’s uneasiness in this masculine world did not fade. He famously composed his first novel, The Hunters (1956), while serving as a pilot in the Korean War, and though he was received by critics then as an heir to Hemingway, the book displayed a peculiar sensitivity that set it apart from the war novels of earlier decades; nowhere to be found in Salter is that inscrutable archetypical male, the one at whose feelings the reader can only guess. After a bland meal in a mess hall, the protagonist of The Hunters has “the feeling of Christmas away from home, stranded in a cheap hotel.” Other men in the book skip meals to sleep; they boast of breakfasts that are only “a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and a puke”—but behind their braggadocio is an awareness of the cost of their experience, of what’s been sacrificed to fly these planes: the world of romantic love, family, friendship unthreatened by the likelihood of sudden death, home-cooked supper. In The Arm of Flesh (1961), Salter’s second novel (revised and republished as Cassada in 2000) a weary flight captain mourns the chance for connection afforded by a long, comfortable meal:

There was suddenly a great deal Isbell wanted to say. They could have talked. They could have pushed their plates aside and leaned forward on their elbows, talking while the dust floated sideways through bolts of sunshine and the eggs turned cold, but it didn’t quite happen. The moments don’t fulfill themselves always. Somehow they started eating in silence and it was impossible to begin.

The publication of his second book seemed to give Salter the permission he needed to “possess” his life, and he left the armed forces to find a seat at another, more comfortable table.

The sixties were not the fertile decade he’d hoped for: his first two books had not brought outsize success, and his immersion in family life seemed to inspire in him a longing for anything else. When he’d chased glory, he’d craved peace—but his newfound quiet, it turned out, included few medals, and he felt largely unseen. In Korea he had flown with Ed White and Gus Grissom, whom he watched become some of our nation’s first astronauts. Salter, to support his children, tried his hand at selling pools, and he turned his gifted imagination on the prospect of suicide. A Sport and a Pastime (1967) seems a clear result of this transitory and disappointed period; the novel concerns a young man, Dean, who has abandoned his life in America, and his equally lost French lover, Anne-Marie. It unfolds almost exclusively in the hotels and restaurants of the south of France, places that require no commitments and offer comforts at a steep price.

Salter’s interest in the meal gained definition in Pastime; the outset of the liaison is marked by “a wonderful dinner. She is talkative and happy. The food seems spread around her like vegetables to a roast.” But the descriptions of “a dish piled high with ecrevisses, pale, salty,” and “a restaurant filled with the soft clatter of plates, a long dinner that seems almost a reminiscence they are so pleased” serve as proof of the relationship’s specious pantomime of connection. Anne-Marie, who was raised very poor, often doesn’t know how to eat these dishes, and Dean, whose French is limited, often cannot order them without embarrassment. His (borrowed) money runs out and they can no longer afford such luxuries; his money comes back and they spend it on an exorbitant prix-fixe affair, much too large, which Anne-Marie fails to finish despite Dean’s cold urging. In one of the book’s most telling moments, she “vomits up the whole meal at her feet, frogs’ legs and oysters splashing onto the stones. He glances around and is relieved to find no one is watching.” The meal, Salter wants us to grasp, though seductive on the surface, is an event that can summon our lesser selves, extracting the truths we’ve resisted. Rich food and ambiance may deepen an existing happiness, but they can’t inspire contentment where there was none before.

From the first-edition cover of Light Years.

The year 1975 brought Light Years, widely considered Salter’s masterpiece, a prolonged reflection on all things prandial: the preparation and presentation of a meal, the way a shift in course moves conversation, the delicate science of seating arrangements, the praise (both sincere and hollow) that home cooking inspires. One of the book’s greatest achievements is its dynamic opening, narrated in a first-person plural that focuses our attention on the protagonists, Viri and Nedra Berland, and never appears again. (“We strolled in the garden, eating the small, bitter apples. The trees were dry and gnarled. The lights in the kitchen were on.”) The book’s first fifteen pages comprise a dinner party, convincing us of the Berlands’ magnetism, connection, and generosity:

Country dinners, the table dense with glasses, flowers, all the food one could eat, dinners ending in tobacco smoke, a feeling of ease. Leisurely dinners. The conversation never lapses. Their life is special, devout …

But the moment Salter has invited us in, he carries us right out, into the departing car of the Berlands’ dinner guests. Of Nedra, a character remarks, “ ‘She’s the most selfish woman on earth.’ ”

The rest of the novel follows this pattern, shaping our understanding then reversing it, presenting a portrait of a marriage by turns intimate and duplicitous. Viri and Nedra routinely sleep with other people—usually guests at their table—which seems, for a time, to bring them closer, as though the external fulfillment of lust leaves their attachment stronger. Even as their union crumbles, their need to entertain persists; we watch them bicker about the seasonal appropriateness of gazpacho, eat “chocolate and pears,” just-picked green tomatoes, “cheese, bread, cucumbers, butter and wine.” Neither, after the divorce, successfully establishes a new life, instead pursuing trips they had never managed to take together, eating alone in European cafés. The view widens and we watch their daughters become people with careers and sex lives. Though Salter could imbue any moment with a lachrymose, sonorous quality, he knew how to wield that power; he knew when the absence of intensity gave more than the presence. The last time we see Nedra alive, ill and living in a rented farm shed, she says only, “We should really go out to dinner once or twice … There’s a Greek place run by two brothers that isn’t bad. We can have moussaka.” How peculiar, Salter seems to posit, that this type of fleeting gratification should be what we think of in our last days. Life is meals, indeed, and they vanish from our plates all too quickly.

Salter scrawled title ideas for Light Years on a napkin. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

Though ultimately Salter furnished himself with a comfortable life, he never fully relinquished the idea that going without was what taught us most. He spent the second half of his career writing alternately about those who refuse to make a home and those consumed by it. Solo Faces (1979) chronicles the itinerant life of a renowned rock climber, Rand, whose inveterate need to abandon places and people causes others great pain, and who is said, at the close of the novel, to have, “ … somehow succeeded. He had found the great river. He was gone.” Nine of ten stories in Salter’s 2005 collection, Last Night, deal with the consequences of a meal, sometimes one finished years before. A spurned girlfriend surfaces decades later, still angry, to ask, “Whatever happened to that picture of us taken at that lunch Diana Wald gave at her mother’s house that day? … Do you still have that?”

The eighty-one-year-old James Salter who cowrote an eccentric treatise on the meal seemed, by all accounts, to have reconciled the former iterations of himself with the current, final model. He had finally become the person he wanted to be: one who he could write with authority about which cheese to pair with which fruit, and with humor about the AT-6 plane he had once flown right into a family’s kitchen in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A section on etiquette in Life Is Meals lists eight criteria, the last of which leave us a broad picture of Salter, an artist forever negotiating the distance between our interior lives and those we contrive to share:

—The ultimate courtesy is to make guests feel comfortable in whatever they are doing.
—There are occasions when etiquette is pitched overboard. Then it is every man for himself.

In the spring of 2013, James Salter published his last novel, All That Is. One evening in May, I was lucky enough to stand in a small anteroom where a group of twenty people would receive him after a much-anticipated reading and talk. A table ran the floor toward the windows, through which the offices of midtown Manhattan could be seen going dark. Almost no one touched the herbed cheeses or the wet grapes or the speared shrimp, though most held up a glass of wine, and the talk was quiet as we waited, even the introductions made in the tone of apologies. Then all the shoulders in the room began to rotate, and there he was in the doorframe, his suit cataract blue and his hair not quite tamed. He held up his hands to greet a friend in a gesture like that of someone demonstrating the size of a caught fish, and he cycled around the table like that, popping cubes of cheese into his mouth, slipping his arm around the back of one person while he spoke to another, saying “Pardon?,” gesturing with toothpicks at women across the meat platters, moving all the parts of his face as he spoke or laughed. All the white wine was gone, someone said, and the red was going fast. Then something crucial changed, but it took a while for the information to pass through the crowd, through the conversations that had gained warmth and momentum. Though his presence had been the reason for our gathering there, his exit went almost unnoticed, so completely had he changed the room.

Kathleen Alcott is the author of two novels, Infinite Home and The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets.