NOBODY KNOWS THE TRUFFLES I’VE SEEN.<i> By George Lang</i> .<i> Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $28.95</i> : TENDER AT THE BONE: Growing Up at the Table.<i> By Ruth Reichl</i> .<i> Random House: 282 pp., $23</i>
In the etiology of a heightened palate there are, as a rule, one of two formative early life experiences: either painful loss or sustained exposure to an adult with a troubled, ungenerous or finicky disposition that expresses itself in her (less often, his) culinary behavior. In contrast to these influences, a sensitive palate attached to a sensitive personality is generally on the scene as well. The kind grandmother, doting nanny or the uncle with a strong streak of the bon vivant in him exposes a young person to a complementary world of comforts and pleasures, and somewhere in this interplay a human being emerges whose creative juices are unusually attuned to the taste, scent, feeling--the aesthetics--of food.
The loss endured by restaurateur and food consultant George Lang was brought about by the Holocaust, and this lends to the first third of “Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen” a gravity and breadth that, despite its punning title, are not typical of food memoirs. Lang’s reminiscences, in fact, transcend narrow categorization: Gastronomy is certainly one of his themes, but so are persecution, survival, ingenuity, courage, curiosity and business acumen. Ultimately what is on display here is a vividly conducted life, a personality as bold as it has been brave.
Born in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, in 1924, Lang was the only child of a loving mother and a resourceful, talented, hot-tempered tailor. Being an only child seems to have greatly affected Lang’s life; it imbued him with self-confidence, a healthy ego and indefatigable gumption. As a boy, he was given the best that his parents’ modest means could provide: dozens of pairs of shorts sewn from his father’s scrap material, a good violin when he displayed an early gift for music, an abundance of books and, of course, food. Chestnuts, tangerines, water-pickled cucumbers, jarred pear compote, “godlike” bread his mother made from a starter that had been handed down through her maternal line for generations: These flavors, the music Lang loved and the parents who cherished him together convinced him that “the entire world was well-tempered, and I lived in paradise.”
Lang was 14 when the first anti-Jewish laws were passed in Hungary. In a country without a democratic tradition and where anti-Semitism “permeat[ed] the air like noxious gas,” most of Hungary’s 750,000 Jews, Lang’s family among them, remained patriotic and blinkered even as their rights were inexorably stripped away. From 1938 to 1941, further laws were enacted until (following the Nuremberg model) all rights of Jews were eliminated and Jews of military age were commanded to labor camps, where Lang himself was ordered (at 19) in February 1944.
After a period of systematic humiliation, Lang managed to go to work for the officers as a tailor, the trade his father had forced him to learn, almost as if in anticipation of this predicament. He soon realized that his survival depended on getting to Budapest and trying to join the Jewish underground and, after buying false papers, he escaped to the city, which had by then begun to look like a “bleeding, pustulous, vermin-infested wound.” While Lang was in Budapest, Ferenc Szalasi declared a coup and, in order to save himself, Lang and a friend fell in with Szalasi’s rabidly anti-Semitic Arrowcross Militia. In the camouflage of his Arrowcross uniform and identity, Lang managed to take food and medicine to hidden Jews, approve the clearly false papers of other Jews during group Arrowcross inspections and smuggle still more Jews out of the ghetto.
“What I did was not heroic but unavoidable,” Lang observes retrospectively. He attributes his resourcefulness to his father’s example, but the genesis of his acts of dynamism and courage ultimately remains mysterious. It was in his character to help his people, it seems, and so he did.
Revealed as a protector of Jews, Lang was captured and taken to an Arrowcross torture chamber, where he was beaten and left without food or water for days. As the Russian army advanced toward Budapest, Lang was freed, and he retreated to the countryside to seek refuge with some of the people he had helped. (His hometown had not yet been liberated.) There, in a turn of events worthy of Kafka, Lang attended a party one evening where he was introduced as the “hero of the siege of Budapest” and invited to tell his stories. He did, and one of the guests asked Lang to visit local police headquarters the next morning. Thinking he would help lead investigators to fascists in hiding, Lang showed up--only to be accused of having been a true Arrowcross member. He was put in jail--"I had trained myself to be able to turn fear into a challenge, but at that moment I felt lost"--and tried (twice). At his second trial, many of the Jews he had helped during the war testified to his goodness, and Lang was deeply moved to see that “they were real, and not just figments of my warped imagination, as even I had begun to suspect by then.” He was unanimously declared not guilty, and he quickly set off to discover his parents’ fate. Both had been murdered in Auschwitz.
In the course of his account of these charged events, Lang wisely includes transcripts from his court trials. They serve as evidentiary documentation for his extraordinary tale, and they also help explain how his memory is so remarkably detailed. It is a credit to Lang’s suspenseful and animated narrative voice that such confirmation is welcome: In certain sustained passages, the reader feels he has wandered out of the realm of the memoir and into that of the novel.
Though the remaining chapters of “Truffles” quite understandably lack the urgency of the wartime interludes, the story of Lang’s emigration to America and his rise through Manhattan’s restaurant and hotel worlds is often delightful and captivating. It reads at times like “Martin Dressler"--though as rendered with the puff pastry touch of Ferenc Molnar. Lang, the greenhorn, is at first baffled by Wonder Bread, the magical dispensers at the Horn and Hardart cafeteria, egg creams that have neither egg nor cream in them, cubes of ice floating in water and those strange New Yorkers who eat lunch standing up like horses. But he quickly develops into an aspiring P.T. Barnum of the food world. After giving up the violin (his first and, he thought, destined profession), he serves apprenticeships at the Columbia (commis potager) and Yale (saucier) clubs; he learns how to run a banquet hall at an eccentric establishment called Cha^teau Gardens on the Bowery, where he invents all-sandwich wedding dinners; and in time he proceeds to work as the banquet manager at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Lang’s long professional journey eventually lands him at the Cafe des Aristes, a beloved though (initially) rather tarnished restaurant on West 67th Street that he polishes into a shining silver salver. Here Lang takes pleasure in serving Bill Clinton, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Malamud, Lauren Bacall and other luminaries whose names he drops into these pages the way untutored cooks add salt to a dreary dish. Although Lang’s approach in the bulk of the memoir is on the whole more adroit than this, there is a dose of preening and a slackness to his later chapters that might have benefited from some streamlining.
More disconcerting is the gushing welcome he offered John Paul II in 1996 (“Meeting you has been one of the most important events of my life!”) when the pope visited Gundel, a famous Budapest restaurant whose revival Lang masterminded. (But 200 pages earlier, in a chapter titled “The Tenth Circle of Hell,” Lang identified the Roman Catholic Church as “one of the continuous sources for the hatred” of Hungarian Jews.) The lapse is curious and may be an indication of the distance Lang has traveled in the five decades these memories span, or it may speak to the malleability that must be among his survival skills. “In the Kingdom of Lang,” he puts it at one point, “the bill of rights includes everyone’s right to be curious” and, no matter what, curious we remain, about his questing appetite, his dramatic past and the losses that have clearly influenced his palate and his personality alike.
The New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl is an example of another kind of food aesthete, one formed by a gastronomically (in her case, also psychologically) troubled influential adult. As depicted in “Tender at the Bone,” Reichl’s mother, Mim, is “taste-blind and unafraid of rot,” a woman whose manic depression is, as Reichl sees it, expressed in her penchant for serving spoiled, bargain-basement, under- or over-cooked meals. “Like a hearing child born to deaf parents,” Reichl explains early in her memoir, “I was shaped by my mother’s handicap, discovering that food could be a way of making sense of the world.”
One of the attractions of writing a memoir, it seems evident, is having the opportunity to bring a more evolved perspective to the traumas and troubles of one’s youth--to use language to interpret and refine, rather than merely to relive, one’s unhappy experiences. With regard to her childhood, however, Reichl’s assessments are insufficiently mediated by distance: In her voice there are too often inflections of a frustrated and angry adolescent, and this lends a palpably sour flavor to the family-centric chapters of her memoir.
Fortunately there were other participants in the education of Reichl’s palate, and as she skips across a roughly chronological map of the culinary connections in her life, we are treated to a handful of more tender and thoughtful portraits, among them her Aunt Birdie’s maid Alice, who entertained the young Reichl by cooking her way through Aunt Birdie’s wedding menu of fried oysters, chicken croquettes and other quaintly period dishes; Mrs. Peavey, a dipsomaniac housekeeper who taught her how to make Wienerschnitzel; and her first true gourmand, the father of a Montreal high school friend, who served her carrot soup, filet of beef “like autumn distilled in a spoon,” pommes souffles, Brie and grapes--for lunch.
Food gradually emerges as the path by which the young Reichl was led to her authentic and individual self. It helped her forge a friendship with her black roommate, Serafina, whom she met at college in Ann Arbor, and it introduced the two of them to new tastes and traditions when they traveled together in Tunisia. Food (sauerbraten, cookies, more Wienerschnitzel) provided the language of romance with her first serious boyfriend and eventual husband, Doug. It opened her senses further during travels to Crete and Rome; during a sojourn on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, with its plethora of ethnic food provisioners; and during a longer period when she and Don lived in a quasi-commune in Berkeley where alfalfa, mineral bouillon and homemade yogurt were part of the culinary vocabulary of the day. At the Swallow, a collective restaurant in Berkeley, Reichl became a disciplined cook and, eventually, a food writer who was able to return home for her Aunt Birdie’s 100th birthday to organize a triumphant meal at which she displayed her talents and realized that Aunt Birdie and Alice had “prepared me for my world.”
As presented in “Tender at the Bone,” Reichl’s world has an air of almost inadvertent, anxious sadness about it, as though her delights in the table are still pursued in reaction to the deprivations her mother inflicted on her in a long-ago Greenwich Village. George Lang, by contrast, whom history deprived of his village, cannot help but bring enviable elan wherever his appetite leads him. “Food can entertain and challenge, rather than just simply fill our stomachs,” Lang believes. Certainly his lively memoir helps support his thesis and serves as a reminder that a life can be approached as tellingly through the kitchen door as it can by the more formal entry at the front of the autobiographical house.