My friends are much too ironic and cliché-averse ever to ask me in earnest if I want to “do lunch.” I’m not sure how long ago the phrase “Let’s do lunch” came into currency, but it seems now to have the standing of one of those empty little lies, like “Have a nice day”, that people avail themselves of for an exit line.
However one refers to it, lunch can be a pleasure or a pain, a delight or a damnable nuisance. Henry James called lunch that “matutinal monster.” For him, an unrelenting worker, its monstrousness resided in its cutting into his mornings and destroying his afternoons. He was more a dinner man; during one social season in London he attended more than a hundred formal dinners.
If James was not good at taking lunch, neither, apparently, was he much good at dishing it out. He served Edith Wharton lunch at his house at Rye when she would come to pick him up in one of her grand limousines for yet another of her motor tours ’round the English countryside. Allowing that the otherwise generous James was frugal owing to worry about his personal finances, Mrs. Wharton, accustomed to a high gastronomic standard, commented on the poor quality of the provender on offer chez James: “The dreary pudding or pie of which a quarter or half had been consumed at dinner reappeared on the table the next day with its ravages unrepaired.”
There are those for whom lunch is a main event in their day and those for whom it is a minor disruption. Unless one is dining with royalty, which I seem thus far in life to have neglected to do, lunch is usually less formal than dinner; the former can be likened to going to the movies, a casual spur-of-the-moment thing, the latter to the theater, where tickets need be bought in advance and some thought given to wardrobe.
Lunch used to be a great event for publishers and editors, and may still well be for some among them. When I once cancelled a lunch meeting with a New York editor, he expressed genuine disappointment—not, as it turned out, at the loss of my company but at missing out on yet another costly expense account French feeding. Most editors in publishing do not make grand salaries, but, carefully arranging their meetings with authors, it’s possible for them, I suppose, to eat $500 or so a week worth of lightly sauced lunches—just a touch of tarragon—and thus to live, at least at midday, well above their means.
In the early 1970s, I was taken to lunch by a Doubleday editor named Sandy Richardson, who qualified as a professional luncher. We dined at a French restaurant (naturally), where the maître d’ made a quiet but pleasing fuss over him. He, Sandy, had an amusing anecdote to go with every course. I only remember the one that went with the wine, which was about a lunch he had had with Sir Geoffrey Keynes, brother of John Maynard Keynes and also a wine connoisseur. Following a lengthy silence after having poured a taster’s portion of the wine, the sommelier asked, “Is the wine all right, Sir Geoffrey?” Deigning to look up, Sir Geoffrey replied, “Pure piss”, and with an index finger flicked the glass of red wine over onto the white tablecloth. I also remember my lunch with Sandy Richardson ending with his imploring our waiter to instruct the staff in the kitchen in future to please remove the cheese from the refrigerator much sooner before bringing it to table.
I’m not sure they make lunchers like Sandy anymore. And a bloody good thing, too, some might say. I wouldn’t be among those who do, even though my own tastes run to simpler lunches. Some of the most enjoyable lunches in my memory were those I ate as an adolescent with a man named Bob Larman, who worked for the father of a friend of mine; they sometimes let me join them on Saturdays. I wouldn’t even guess at Bob Larman’s weight, but a helpful clue to his general circumference is revealed in the fact that he wore a bib-like rag (his schmatte, he called it) over his stomach to prevent the steering wheel in his car from rubbing up against and eventually wearing out his trousers.
A man with an unlimited appetite on a limited budget, Bob Larman knew the best inexpensive restaurants in Chicago. (A.J. Liebling wrote that the most reasonable good restaurants in the Paris of the 1920s were those frequented by priests and prostitutes when paying their own way.) The best hamburgers, the best cheesecake, the best deli food, Bob Larman knew where to find them. My friend’s father once said that he devoured corned beef sandwiches as if they were cornflakes.
Epicurus says that a man who dines alone is a beast. I fear I qualify, for I prefer no more than two, at the outside, three lunches a week in anyone’s company other than my wife’s. I find I am unable to eat more than one large meal a day. If I eat the big lunch, I cannot enjoy the big dinner. (Diminishment, diminishment, diminishment, thy name is middle age.) Worse news is that a vulgar new moderation-inspired, doubtless, by my desire to retain my astonishingly lithe beauty-seems to have me in its clutches: I nowadays disdain most fried foods and am able to pass up desserts with an equanimity that would have impressed even the Stoics. The eggs in my omellettes are pale because yokeless. My old lunch companion Bob Larman would have been thoroughly and properly ashamed of me.
I cannot recall ever doing anything grand or having something momentous occur in my life at lunch: no brilliant seductions, marriage proposals, stock offerings, movie contracts. If I have ever been at a “power lunch”, the fact sailed blithely over my head. No one at lunch with me has ever mentioned the phrase “balance of power”, or the initials ICBM, or offered a proposal to win the Evangelical vote, or said, “Screw it, if that’s what it takes, fine, I say give ’em Peru.”
I have been at some fairly wet lunches. I used to work for a man, a fairly heavy imbiber whose strategy was to suggest a drink as soon as we sat down in the restaurant. When the waiter came to take our orders, he would say, “Why don’t we have a second round?” And then, after ordering, he would lean back and tell the waiter, “and one more round of drinks.” He was a martini man, but even I, with my less potent vodka and tonics, found myself slurringly muttering, Hasta la vista, après-midi.
Nowadays I use lunch chiefly to stay in touch with friends. When the cast at table is right, lots of laughter aids midday digestion. The meeting over coffee, in this the age of Starbucks and Peet’s, is the preferred arrangement for people one is seeing for the first time or one knows less well. My coffee meetings tend to outnumber my lunches out.
My food of choice for lunch tends to be mid- to low-priced Italian and Chinese, though in my own neighborhood there are also superior Spanish and Irish restaurants. Sadly, the old Jewish delicatessen is vanishing in Chicago—too many sons preferring the aridities of the dental or academic life over bringing happiness to people by keeping a good family restaurant in business. Three or four times a year, I do have lunch at a Jewish deli called Manny’s, where, along with a sandwich of corned beef or pastrami or brisket that requires three hands to manipulate, one is served a potato pancake the size of an interior lineman’s face. Rumor has it that customers at Manny’s have been overcome on the way to their tables by the secondhand cholesterol floating in the atmosphere.
Feeling mildly suicidal, I recently had lunch at a Chicago neighborhood restaurant called Hot Doug’s, where sausages of various kinds are the spécialité de la maison along with french fries cooked in duck fat, and where T-shirts are sold on the back of which is written, “The two finest words in the English language are ‘encased meats’, my friend.” Doug, the owner, is a man of good humor, whose wit has only been further enlivened by the great success of his restaurant. A friend and I, after waiting in line 20 or so minutes to place our orders, found an empty table for four, where we were soon joined by two strangers, young men of an amiable heft, who tucked into corn dogs as a side dish alongside sausage sandwiches and fries. Habitués, they filled my friend and me in on the history of Hot Doug’s and the four of us entered upon a philosophical discussion of the deep hopelessness of Chicago sports teams. A memorable lunch, I’d call this, all the more delightful for its elements of spontaneity and surprise.
M.F.K. Fisher had a prescription for the perfect dinner party. The right number of guests at such a party she put at six:
The six should be capable of decent social behavior: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should anyone be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could poison the plates all must eat from. A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better acquainted could sharpen their questioning wits.
My own prescription for the perfect lunch would call for three people in any male-female combination, one of whom I already know (for familiarity), the other hitherto a stranger to me (to lend a note of the unpredictable). The name of no politician would be mentioned. At least two excellent jokes previously unknown to two of the three people at the table would be told. Everyone would be a good listener; there would be no competitive edge to the conversation, no retelling of old anecdotes. The possibility would hover over the meal that one of us will say something that could alter the way everyone views the world. For background, the restaurant would supply a clientele there solely for the vittles and not the status or any other non-gastronomic motive. The approximate time for the completion of the meal would be 90 minutes. Everyone would depart with a feeling of having been well fed and entertained, with lots more still to be said at a future lunch. “Let’s not let too much time pass before we do this again”, one of us would say, and genuinely mean it.