Julie had Julia; I had Jason. I met Jason Epstein almost 25 years ago when I was sent to interview him for a rival newsmagazine. He was the legendary editorial director at Random House, a cofounder of both The New York Review of Books and the Library of America, inventor of the quality paperback, and editor of Mailer, Nabokov, Vidal, and Doctorow. The subject at hand was the future of the book business, but all I remember of that day was a lively, and lengthy, conversation about food—specifically the importance of brining a loin of pork, a process I'd learned about (long before it became fashionable) in the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, which Jason happened to have published.
In the more than two decades since, the conversation has continued pretty much uninterrupted: Jason telling me (a Southerner) about the excellence of Sherman's memoirs while mixing a perfect martini (vermouth poured into the pitcher and promptly poured out, replaced with Bombay Sapphire from the freezer) and serving it with a lemon peel in a thin, thin glass from Harry's Bar in Venice. Jason showing me how to make better versions of the "Chicken Under a Brick" from Mosca's outside New Orleans and the lobster roll at Montauk's Lunch. Jason pressing me into duty to help prepare an outdoor dinner for 35—a gift originally promised by Daniel Boulud, who had to apologetically back out when Sirio Maccioni would not let him leave Le Cirque.
He took me to Lutèce before it closed and Daniel as soon as it opened, and invited me into his kitchen while Wolfgang Puck made duck for both of us. Among his first gifts to me were a heavy copper saucepan and a complete set of Edmund Wilson.
That same combination of the literary and the culinary is now seamlessly contained in Eating: A Memoir. There's the young Jason in the kitchen of his grandmother Ida, a determined rather than gifted cook to whom he dedicates his recipe for chicken potpie. There's the teenage Jason making eggs for Gertrude Lawrence in a diner on Cape Cod and enjoying a perfect hamburger beside a lake in Winthrop, Maine. There he is on the Île de France, honeymooning with his first wife, Barbara, and reading a new translation of War and Peace. They ate chicken sandwiches with Chablis for lunch on deck and shared a New Year's Eve table with Buster Keaton and Wilson and his wife Elena.
Interspersed throughout the charming tales (short stories, really) are wonderful—and wonderfully doable—recipes, written in an equally conversational tone. Though I've rarely seen him follow a recipe himself, he is responsible for some of the great cookbooks—by Maida Heatter, Daniel Boulud, and Patrick O'Connell, to name just a few. He met Heatter at Craig Claiborne's annual summer party, and by the time he left he had become her publisher. After a single dinner at Chez Panisse, he scribbled a deal with Alice Waters on a scrap of paper over soufflés and coffee—in part because he wanted the recipe for the "silken fugue" of a bouillabaisse he'd eaten. The result, two years later, was no less a cultural game-changer than Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which he also published.
Eating is an unpretentious chronicle of an extraordinary life well lived, an antidote of sorts in this age of Rachael Ray and Iron Chef and meals made in an ever-decreasing number of minutes. To read it is to vow to live better, though not necessarily extravagantly. The last recipe is for a simple apple or pear tarte tatin, followed by the words "And so life goes on." And a swell one it is, too.