(Since initial posting, additions have made and edits for style purposes have been made. A small note on Oxford attendance was made on January 24th. An addendum was made on January 27th.)
Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.
The focus during a presidential campaign usually gives an over-emphasis to the candidates, with the same dull thing said too many times. It seems a truism that candidates come and go, but consultants and managers are eternal, and to write about the latter might give some fresh insight. When I read Robert Draper’s excellent article “Building A Better Romney-Bot”, and came across the detail that his chief strategist had written for TV, I thought here was a great source of possibilities. Unmentioned in the article are the number of books Stevens wrote as well, including the subject of this post, the travel memoir Feeding Frenzy, published over a decade ago. A quick introduction on Stevens can be found in this Times piece, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”; Stevens also makes an appearance in the very good, though ominous, “A Tsunami of Slime”. An early profile can be found here: “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”.
It is a strange book of privileged consumption, excessive in the late nineties, obscene now. The book’s premise is simple: Stevens and a former model, Rachel “Rat” Kelly (she is referred throughout the book almost always as “Rat”) travel through Europe with the goal to eat only at expensive restaurants given a three star rating by the Michelin guide. I won’t give an in-depth examination of the memoir as I might another, as I think its significance lies in the writer’s current position in the Romney campaign, and as a long-time Republican political consultant, than with anything else. I’ll make a list of interesting quotes from the book, bookended by two points about themes in the text, the first on the wealth of the characters, the second, a more obscure one about the author Stevens. A traditional review of the book at the time of its publication can be found, again, at the Times: “Three-Star Binge” (The reviewer is skeptical whether the trip took place based on differences in restaurant rankings cited in the book and those current at the time of publication; this discrepancy might be explained by the book being published in 1997, but the trip taking place in the summer of 1993 with the book’s mention of the June 1993 cruise missile attack against Iraq serving as a date marker).
The first noteworthy theme, is that the two main characters, Stevens and Kelly, appear to have a great deal of money and exist in a world where it is assumed you have a great deal of money. For most, almost all of us, to take such a trip would require great consideration of how we would be able to pay not just for the travel and the food, but how we would manage to afford not to work for a period of time while taking this vacation. Were we to write such a memoir, we would feel a need to explain the very fortunate circumstances that allowed us to take a simple month long trip through Europe to the reader, who, we’d safely assume, carried the same burdens as us. Stevens, on the other hand, never speaks of breaking from work or how he’s financially able to take such a trip. It is not just taken for granted that Stevens has a great deal of money and can afford to do this, but that the reader comes from the same class and requires no explanation. Kelly has a rich lawyer boyfriend and can afford to do this as well. Reading about the lives of Stevens and Kelly, the givens are that people have a great deal of money. Work is something you sometimes, occasionally, do.
A good idea of these assumptions is given in the opening pages of the book, a brief synopsis of the lives of Stevens and Kelly. They know each other from the gym:
Anyway, we were working on incline presses and she put it something like this: “What if we went to Europe and ate. Ate a lot.”
“Europe?” I asked her how, as we changed weights ferociously.
“I think we should go,” she said decisively. “Just to eat.” She said this last bit because I was looking sort of skeptical.
We liked to eat and did it a lot. It was really all we did together, go to restaurants and the gym, which made, I suppose, for an appallingly shallow sort of New York nineties-styled friendship. This never bothered me at all. Rat was an inspiration in the gym and a pleasure around the dinner table and neither one of us cared to ask a lot of difficult questions.
“Three-stars,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “Just the Michelin three-stars. The best food in the world.”
“When do you want to go?” I asked.
“How about next week?”
Then they leave, with the plan to eat at every three star, on consecutive days, starting in England, then Belgium, Germany, France, and Italy, over the course of twenty-nine days, including Pic, Pierre Gagnaire, Paul Bocuse, Georges Blanc, Lameloise, Troisgros, Boyer “Les Crayeres,” La Côte Saint Jacques, L’Espérance, Le Côte d’Or – I am unfamiliar with these names, but I assume they’re good. Stevens buys a vintage candy apple ’65 Mustang convertible, with the possibility of selling it at the end of the trip. The outlay necessary for such a purchase is never discussed. There is never any talk of the need for the final sale of the car, because there’s no need to – again, these characters have a great deal of money. There is the possibility that if Kelly and Stevens eat the meals according to schedule, her wealthy boyfriend will pick up the tab – but there is no urgency to this. Stevens seems entirely indifferent whether he will have to pay for the meals or the boyfriend will. Talking about how they can afford such things is as pointless as asking how a celebrity gets into a club or how a starship travels through space in a science fiction movie. You can stop thinking about the how once you have a great deal of money.
I emphasize this point because the question often brought up is how Romney, in his public appearances, can be so tone-deaf to the massive gap between the wealth of his world and ours. A possible answer: his chief strategist is equally tone-deaf, closer to Romney’s world of great money than ours, where work is a necessity, not an occasional distraction.
I’ll now just go through some of the more interesting points of the book, before turning back and looking at an unusual theme in the text. A good way to get a sense of most of the book is to quote some of the mentions of the food – variations on descriptions of expensive meals serve as a major part of the memoir.
A sample paragraph:
There were a half dozen things I would have liked to order. For a starter – the real starter – I was torn between the Salade de Homard aux Pommes Vertes in an émulsion au curry léger or th Coussinet De Raie Aux Pinces De Homard ina vinaigrette à la tomate. And for the main course, the Dos De Barbue Poelee Aux Epices sounded wonderful, or Filet de Bar De Ligne “Dos Bleu” with tartiné au caviar d’Iran – I did not know that Iranian caviar was considered superior – and the Ravioles De Celeri Aux Truffes aux essences aromatiques was appealing, if only because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.
An example of the richness of the meals is provided by the full listing of the courses of one of the last ones at Gagnaire:
1. Sautéed perch with pine nuts, served warm.
2. Clams with carrots and assorted vegetables, minced finely, with a slice of very creamy regional chèvre.
3. Toast with a thick anchovy paste, warmed.
4. Clear tomato gelée with pureed artichoke, served cool.
5. Cool cannelloni stuffed with spinach, with a tomato confit on the side and a red curry sauce.
6. Mille-feuille shell with shredded radishes with an onion confit.
7. Gnocchi with crabmeat and scallops over a layer of white truffles.
8. Omble, a fish from Lake Leman, with frogs legs in a rich brown sauce (of cream, fish stock, and chives), along with a pea sauce with shelled peas and cream splattered around.
9. A baked tomato with girolles, carrots, and a beet-juice sauce.
10. Dorade royale with cracked wheat, shredded cabbage with beurre montée, a fried cabbage leaf on top.
11. And for dessert, peach juice with rose-petal liquor.
The Tuscan menu of L’Enoteca Pinchiorri, eight courses:
Coccoli col pesto toscano (deep-fried pasta with basil, pine nuts, and anchovies)
Triglie in Bianco e frittura d’erbe (red mullet fillets flavored with lemon and garlic)
Gamberoni allo spiedo e passato di gran farro (big shrimps wrapped into pancetta slices and served with bean and pearl-barley cream)
Bavette al ragno (homemade fettuccine, with sea bass, tomato, and hot pepper)
Tortelli di Altopascio (ricotta and spinach tortelli, with pecorino and cinnamon)
Faraona in tegame (guinea fowl, vegetable, and potato stew)
Tortino di riso allo zafferano, salsa Morellino (rice and saffron tart, tuscan sweet wine sauce)
Biscotti di Prato e piccola pasticceria
The Tuscan menu seemed like far too much, too many courses, too many tastes. So naturally, I ordered it. I had to.
Stevens devotes a paragraph to the ordeal of day after day of gorging on rich food:
This three-star eating binge was going to ruin me and in ways I’d never anticipated. What had worried me most about the prospect of twenty-nine days of unending gastronomic overkill was the logical assumption that such gross indulgence of superb eating would ruin my enjoyment of the food. It seemed inevitable that I would come to dread each evening as a duty and my body would rebel at being inundated with daily doses of foie gras and butter. But the scary reality was that I found it perfectly normal to spend three or four hours an evening eating. With horrifying rapidity I had become adjusted to the idea that the biggest decision of the day was what to order for dinner. In my heart, I knew if I ended the three star streak tomorrow, I would go into a long painful withdrawal of deprived sensory overload. My options were clear: I had to keep on eating my way through France or face terrifying prospects. My fate had been sealed: I had become a three-star junkie.
There are almost no references to the extraordinary costs of the meals. I include a brief one here, because of Stevens’ current client.
Living in New York, I had long ago developed a psychological defense to absurd restaurant prices based on specious rationalizations along the lines of “Well, it’s cheaper than a car” or “Mormons pay this much every couple of months to feed the average family of fifteen.” It helped, sort of.
Between the meals there are episodes that could be called comic if they were funny. They involve their car breaking down and dealing with various people in Europe. The characters encountered are almost always grotesques; throughout the book, Stevens has violent fantasies about the people he meets. These may have a humorous intent.
Though he enjoys the cuisine of Europe, Stevens appears to have contempt for much of the population and many of the countries, especially Germany and Belgium. An overview.
From the beginning, it is important for Stevens that they not be mistaken for French or English:
Sitting in New York it had seemed most important to make the trip in a very American car, and an old Mustang convertible was perfect. That way no one could think we were English – a particularly disturbing notion – or French, which would also be highly regrettable.
A description of the English crowd at a restaurant:
The crowd was Typical English Country – which is to say, a mostly unattractive bunch with too many teeth and a consistently thick subcutaneous layer of fat that wasn’t going to be decreasing by the evening’s end. But this was a little world that had been designed to hold these people, and just as a basically disagreeable piece of furniture can look inviting if surrounded by complementary pieces, the clientele seemed perfectly appropriate.
A young englishman, with a bad haircut who loves the idea of Iraq being bombed. Interesting for the context: this book was published in 1997. Stevens worked on the campaigns both to elect and re-elect George W. Bush.
Everyone seemed to be reading one of the London tabloids – the Daily Mail or Sun – and the headlines screeched of a fresh U.S. bombing attack on Iraq, the first for President Clinton.
“I feel better when we are bombing them,” the very tall young man across from me said without a hint of a smile. He was maybe thirty and had an unfortunate haircut that seemed to involve a pair of shears and an oval bowl. With his reddish nose and angular features, he reminded me of a military recruit on his way to his first posting.
“Them?” I asked, not because I didn’t understand but because I was startled and had to say something.
“Iraq,” he explained, a bit exasperated. “Our bedouin brothers. Rug merchants to the stars.”
“You feel better when we’re bombing them?” I asked.
It was not a subject I really had an opinion on. I had to admit that it certainly didn’t bother me that we were bombing Iraq.
“Should have marched right into Baghdad when we had the chance. The best thing that could have happened to them. Put a Marks and Sparks right smack on Saddam Avenue. Bloody marvelous.” He laughed.
He arched his eyebrows and whispered urgently, “Hung ‘em up by the lampposts.”
“What?” I asked, startled.
“That’s what Saddam did to everybody that opposed him when he came up. Those fundamentalist-type, junior-grade ayatollahs in training? Drove nails right into their heads. While their families watched.”
He said this with a certain glee, eyes widening in appreciation. Rat stiffened and, I suppose, so did I.
“Nip that stuff right in the bud. Marvelous.” He said this slowly, for dramatic power, no doubt. He was a great performer.
“Beautiful scarf,” he observed casually to Rat. It was a long, soft thing. “That’s the stuff the baby Jesus would have loved to have been swaddled in, you can bet on that.”
An encounter with a group of English workers reading the Daily Mail:
“How’s the war going?” I asked good-naturedly as I passed the men, wondering if the U.S. had launched more missiles against Iraq.
“You’ve seen this, have you?” one of the men asked. He waved the paper angrily.
“Bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age,” I said, in what seemed like a proper macho show of solidarity.
A cheer went up from the men. I seemed to have struck a chord. Maybe, I thought, they are all Falklands veterans who liked the idea of the U.S. bombing Iraq on a regular basis.
I stopped and focused on the screaming headlines that seemed a foot high.
The Daily Mail‘s crack investigative squad ha apparently just completed a lengthy undercover investigation of pubs and discovered that bartenders were routinely shortchanging customers, delivering less than a full pint for the price of a pint.
At the bottom of the page was a tiny box, “U.S. BOMBS IRAQ, details on page 13.”
“Unbelievable,” I agreed.
Though Stevens spends much time in France, he has this small criticism:
My theory had always been that the French embraced Jerry Lewis just to prove the superiority of their own culture. This notion that somehow he was an unappreciated comic genius languishing in America was nonsense. Deep down, reveling in Jerry Lewis’s supposed greatness was a deeply condescending notion. Oh, yes, he is amusing, the best America has, no doubt.
Stevens on Belgium and the city’s difficult to navigate tunnels of Brussels:
As some sort of man-made anti-invasion defense, the tunnels would have worked ingeniously – sinister, hideous diversions intended to swallow whole tank divisions and spit them up miles from their intended destination…Of course, that presumed the Belgians must actually have been willing to fight instead of rolling over and playing dead – a trait they have seldom evidenced this century.
On Brussels and Belgium:
Brussels is a place that likes to take itself seriously. It’s a culture based on international trade and diplomacy, endeavors that make a virtue of blandness and neutrality. It’s probably a preview of how all of Europe will end up if this crazed rush to European unity continues: big bland cities without cultural distinction. The Belgians pretend to love all of this and actually act as if it’s important that they are the home of the E.U. – the European Union.
It probably makes sense that the Belgians have embraced with great fervor the concept of eradicating national distinctions, since they have never been very good at establishing a national distinction in the first place. A country for only a little over 150 years, they’ve tried to cobble together a national identity from bits of France and Holland, never with great success.
Having been twice conquered in their brief history tends to focus a nation on unoffensive tasks, like making money. The Swiss have done this deliberately and have at least managed to preserve some national dignity with the notion that they are in control of their own destiny, intentionally neutral, backed by a civilian army of great, if untested, repute.
It’s clear the Belgians never should have tried to be important. When your own king – Leopold II – sums up the national character as “Petit pays, petit gens” (“Small country, small people”), this is hardly a call to national greatness. Perhaps out of boredom, Leopold tried to convince his country that they should play a role on the world stage, and certain delusions of grandeur were inevitable. But a colony or two can not obliterate a national culture, so when the Germans set up field kitchens in the Grand Palai in the central square of Brussels – as they’ve done twice so far this century – the Belgians reverted to form and did not take to their modest forests with pledges of eternal struggle. Yes, there were heroes and, even more prominently, heroines, like Gabrielle Petit, but these were no mujahideen. They mostly decided to act as if they just didn’t care and called it passive resistance, an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Strasbourg, in contrast to Brussels:
It has a simple, direct charm, and after the self-aggrandizing Euro-loving phoniness of Brussels, I found this quite appealing.
Above all, he really doesn’t like Germans:
[He] was German. They were all German. Which was very troubling when I quickly realized what a likable, genuinely friendly person he was. It always troubles me when I come across Germans I like. It makes maintaining my rabid anti-German fervor all the more difficult, which, naturally, I resent terribly.
A three-star restaurant in Germany:
Life is an ironic business. Why else would it be that my faith in three-star greatness would be revitalized in Germany. Germany? I’m not making this up.
You see there’s a three-star that lurks just over the border from Strasbourg in the Black Forest. “The sport hotel and health clinic Traube-Tonach…which is internationally renowned.” That`s how their charming propaganda read. It was the “internationally renowned” that I liked. Ah yes, internationally renowned. But what? The hotel? The Black Forest? And more importantly, renowned for what?
This is Germany after all.
They have problems with their Mustang.
We had gone about a kilometer down the road when cars behind us started honking their horns. This, naturally I ignored. If there was something about my driving that was troubling to some BMW-driving German in a hurry to get to their bunker in the Black Forest, this was not a bad thing.
Kelly proposes abandoning the Mustang, and going with a rental. Germans, again:
“And leave the Mustang! Just like that?” [says Stevens]
“Yes. With any luck at all, some German will steal it and be driven mad with frustration.”
She knew I disliked Germans. The idea did have some appeal.
A few cars, not many, had passed us without stopping.
“A German wouldn’t know the brakes were bad. They might get in and drive away and plow right into a tree.” This enjoyable scenario began to unfold in my head.
“Or maybe a big tanker truck. Lots of flames.”
“But that would snuff the truck driver too,” I cautioned.
“He would be German as well.”
“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.
Stevens puts unleaded fuel into the car, causing it to spout a toxic gas. A conversation with Kelly. An episode of violent fantasy, and the Germans.
“What do we do?” [says Stevens]
“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”
“Siphon? Siphon with what?”
“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”
I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.
“Just a thought,” she added, when she saw my look.
We were driving up a long incline, heading into steep hills.
Suddenly I started to laugh.
“Yees?” Rat asked.
An insane image had crowded into my brain, that here we were plunging into Germany and were actively going about the business of gassing Germans! I giggled maniacally and tried to nurse the very sick Mustang over the foothills of the western Black Forest.
“Tell me!” Rat demanded, laughing. “Tell me!”
At dinner, with a german diplomat, Stevens gives us an idea of what he thinks of Brussels, the E.U., the International Court, and the world in general.
[The german] immediately wanted to know what we thought of Brussels. But before we could really answer, he threw in that he thought it was “the future of Europe.”
“That bad, huh?” I asked.
He didn’t quite seem to get this. “All this Euro-government nonsense,” I elaborated. “It’s ridiculous! The E.C., the International Court in The Hague. Please. The whole thing gives me a headache.”
“But your own president, he spoke of a New World Order!”
“That was a good name for half a million soldiers and a bunch of laser-guided bombs beating the crap out of Saddam Hussein. That is the new world order, not impressive offices full of Eurotrash bureaucrats trying to feel important.”
“Like me,” he said, but with a smile. “I am with the Human Rights Court here in Strasbourg.”
“The Human Rights Court,” I repeated slowly. “Now that is impressive. Can you tell me, please, exactly what the Human Rights Court does?”
He paused for a moment. “That is somewhat difficult,” he finally said.
Occasionally, Stevens will mix these European grotesques with fantasies of aggression. These fantasies recur again, and again. Stevens, whatever he may be in reality, comes across in this book as the very wealthy man who has much less to be ill tempered about than most, but is ill tempered to the point of violence anyway.
Stevens encounters an english policeman, and asks him where he could get a salad.
“A salad?” he asked, in highly suspicious tones, as if I had inquired about the best place to purchase a Stinger surface-to-air missile. “A salad,” he repeated, stunned. He thought for a moment and then asked, “Why?”
I wanted to stick my face right in front of his nose and scream, “Because I’m an alien from another galaxy and if I don’t get a salad at least once a day, I have no choice but to rip out the heart of any passing policeman and eat it before his dying eyes. Any more questions?”
Marc, a Belgian nostalgic for when they had colonies.
“They were a colony of ours, you know. Zaire.” He said this scornfully.
“What would you do with the Congo if you had it?” I asked.
“The Congo.” He toyed with the abandoned name of the country. “Is finished. But we don’t have a lot of colonies. We were never greedy.”
An argument over how to fix the car again ends up with a fantasy about violence:
Marc, Marc, Marc, I begged, please. Let’s just fill the thing up, and when it overflows, we stop. One liter, three quarts, who cares.
He shrugged, then asked. “Where is your transmission fluid?”
I stared hard at him. If, by chance, I’d had a quart of transmission fluid I would have gleefully poured it over his head. The image was clear and pleasing: a river of red, warmish fluid cascading over his dark hair and paratrooper’s face.
An old woman in Brussels and more violent fantasy:
“Can you recommend a hotel?” I asked an elderly woman walking her tiny Pekingese pup.
“You have a problem,” she said.
Immediately I felt like strangling the woman. A problem? A problem? Just because I’m riding around in a car with no brakes in a city with man-eating tunnels and I’ve got a dog on the back seat who is just dying to eat your silly little dog and, besides, I’m about to be late for dinner at Comme Chez Soi, you think I’ve got a problem? PROBLEM?!
Several other pedestrians stopped and stared, and I wondered if they could read my mind and were gathering to defend this poor woman and her soon-to-die dog. They all shook their heads and clucked their tongues disapprovingly.
Tony, an acquaintance in Brussels he doesn’t really like, but he’s one of the only people he knows there. Again, a grotesque and the fantasy of violence:
I’d met Tony through politics, when he had wanted to cover a “real American campaign” and had talked me into letting him report on a race I was working on in South Dakota. My misguided effort to be helpful resulted in four long days of Tony at my side murmuring, “The vastness, oh, the vastness,” every few minutes. He actually wore a Savile Row bespoke suit; I’m not making this up, he really did. And brand-new cowboy boots fashioned from the skin of some unidentified endangered species. He also wore bow ties and was fond of quoting Kevin Costner from Dances with Wolves. We spent four days in South Dakota, and had we spent a fifth, I’m confident he would have been sent back to Brighton in a box, disemboweled by some disgruntled South Dakotan who couldn’t take another word from this bow-tied, Savile-suit-wearing dandy in iridescent cowboy boots.
Mike, a mustang salesman, when told that the Mustang’s brakes are broken, carries on this idea of violent fantasy by proxy:
“I tell you what I think happened,” Mike pronounced, sounding like a detective closing fast on his prey. “I think some fat-ass dockworker slammed his big feet down on the brake so damn hard it shattered the brake drum. I could kill him!” Mike shouted, and had the guilty dockworker been standing right in front of Mike, even if the heavy-footed fellow had weighed in at over three hundred pounds…I would have put my money on Mike to teach the clumsy oaf a thing or two about how to treat a 1965 classic with love and respect.
No doubt in the coming election, Democrats will once more be chastised for their lack of sympathy for flyover country. If it’s any comfort, Stevens, who may well be organizing the media which will hammer away at that theme, doesn’t think much of it either.
In this meeting between Stevens and an English Mustang fan, North Dakota comes up:
I asked, as ritual demanded, where he had been in the United States.
“North Dakota,” he said almost reverently.
“North Dakota, that was my trip, wasn’t it?”
“Only North Dakota?
“Well, there was New York too, but only to change planes. An uncle I’ve got in North Dakota.”
I started to offer my condolences.
“Grand place, it is,” Charles proclaimed. “The most friendly people in the world, I believe.”
“Friendly?” I asked, startled. I could have imagined a lot of adjectives to describe North Dakotans – stoic leading the list, followed probably by durable – but friendly would not have been on the list. Warm and cozy, a friendly place, that’s North Dakota?
The proprietor was a woman somewhere in her forties or fifties; she had the stylishness of the French that masked her age well…It was a manner that reminded me of certain Southerners, without the sugary, over-the-top, incessantly cheerful quality that could make Southerners so annoying.
A diss of the food of his native Jackson, Mississippi, and a refreshingly different take on immigration from the Republican party’s platform. A comment to a compliment on the Alsatian wines of Germany:
This is, for my tastes, a most modest compliment, rather like saying that the cuisine of Jackson, Mississippi – my home town – had been improved by the influx of Vietnamese refugees. This was true, but it still did not mean that you would go out of your way to find yourself in the Big J. for a meal.
For that matter, the very same so-called focus on quality food that Michelle Obama makes, and which she is chastised for by conservatives, is made here by Stevens:
In America, there seem to be two competing forces. First, there is the negative pull of mass-produced food tugging everything down to a tasteless mediocrity. Waverly Root and Richard De Rochemont sum it up this way in Eating in America:
“Were it possible to envisage in one great glob the totality of what is now eaten in a single day by our fellow-citizens, whether at home, in institutions, in fast-food joints or in expensive restaurants, and to judge it in the light of what the country has produced in the past, and what it might produce again, the word ‘garbage’ would rise inevitably to mind and gorge.”
John and Karen Hess, in their brilliant attack on American food, The Taste of America lay much of the blame on the rise of mechanized farming and the spread of huge agricultural corporations:
The taste of the seasons is gone; it has been replaced by “carrying quality.” More and more of the produce grown in those far-off factories of the soil is harvested by machine. It is bred for rough handling, which it gets. A chemical is sprayed on trees to force all the fruit to “ripen” – that is, change color – at once, in time for a monster harvester to strike the tree and catch the fruit in its canvas maw.
This “garbaging” of food seems to be at war with the other force, which is driven by ever-growing numbers of crazed foodies who find it a personal insult that every chain grocery store in America doesn’t sell fresh radicchio. These are people who have given up pretending that food hasn’t taken an inordinate place in their lives or that they aren’t hopeless snobs when it comes to restaurants.
People like Rat and me, in other words. Which was probably the main reason we found it hard not to live in New York.
New York, the bastion of east coast values, isn’t the enemy. It’s one of the only places where you can get great quality and variety in food.
At one point, Stevens quotes approvingly from A White House in Gascony: Escape to the Old French South by Rex Grizell. The places where they eat which Stevens enjoys the most are in the south of France that Grizell writes about. Here there is a hostility to the European Union, but also modernity itself, increased mechanization, the great god of the Republican party that is expected to bring prosperity and relief to all.
“‘The land is beautiful, and benevolent and spacious…farming country – fruit, vegetables, cereals, wine and livestock. It has been so from time immemorial, and so it still is.’”
His portrait is a bittersweet, familiar one, of a people increasingly threatened by an unfriendly modern world, the economic base of their agricultural lifestyle jeopardized by “inflation, increased mechanization and the establishments of EU quotas.” These are the farmers you see on television dumping unsold produce in the street, protesting the disruption of the E.U. Still, despite their sense of encroaching dangers, they maintain a “lifestyle where a village may have three baker, each baking their own “real” bread, and where farmers still have their own vineyard and make their own wine, and where there are markets in every town which have been taking place on the same days every week for a thousand years, and are still crammed with the produce of the local fields and woods and orchards.”
Indeed, Stevens resembles in many ways the sneering, skeptical progressive who is the centerpiece villain of any Republican campaign. This forthcoming election season may well be full of pious baloney, some of it produced by Stevens, but Stevens shares the East Coaster’s acerbic skepticism to all of this:
[A] copy of Paris Match [featured] a cover story on Princess Diana’s revelations that she’d had sex with other humans besides Prince Charles. It seemed to be important to her that Everyone Know This. Soon, no doubt, she would be appearing on daytime American television sharing the pain of bulimia with millions.
As for the casual contempt for the working class that is, strangely, supposedly associated with progressives, I think it is blatantly on view here in this Republican strategist’s portrayal of Carl, Rat’s boyfriend, who shows up at the end of the book. He is a wealthy lawyer, but manners and details suggest he has risen to this class. He is a Viet Nam vet, former Special Ops:
“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”
“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.
Carl comes across as another grotesque, a simple-minded swoony lunk.
Carl put his hand on my shoulder and looked me hard in the eyes. He was a big, impressive guy. “What’s your honest-to-God take on rat?”
“Rat?” I repeated bravely. I thought for a fleeting moment about denying knowing Rat, but that did seem a bit preposterous. I wasn’t sure how smart Carl was, but I knew he wasn’t that dumb.
“Do you think she hates me?” he asked.
He had a sudden look of vulnerability that made him resemble a scolded puppy.
“No,” I answered. “That’s ridiculous.” Which was true.
“But she thinks I’m stupid.”
This was a tougher call. “Not stupid,” I answered. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“But close. I know. You know why she thinks I’m stupid? Because I make a lot of money. She still has this whole hippy-dippy Wyoming thing about guys in New York who make a lot of money.”
“That sounds right to me,” I said.
Carl slapped himself on the forehead and wheeled around, a startling gesture from a man this large. “See!” he shouted. “I told you!”
“But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you,” I said.
It’s one of the last paragraphs, I think, which captures the perspective best.
There were times when Carl resembled nothing so much as a big, love-struck palooka who’d follow his bombshell gal anywhere. It was strange to see so much vulnerability emanating from a millionaire corporate lawyer. The truth was that I really didn’t have a good sense of what Rat thought of the guy. But it was clear he was drop-dead in love with her. I kept thinking about poor Buddy Ebsen in Breakfast at Tiffany’s coming to claim his child bride from the clutches of New York City. “Lulamae? Lulamae? It’s time for you to come home.”
Carl may be special forces, but even he becomes a subject of one of Stevens’ violent fantasies. Near the end of the book, when the Mustang catches fire:
Through a rising cloud of thick smoke, I pulled the car over, crushing a long line of the wildflowers I’d been admiring.
“Where’s your fire extinguisher?” Carl demanded, reverting to his years of military training.
“I don’t have a damn fire extinguisher,” I shot back. “Who carries a fire extinguisher, for cryin’ out loud?”
“People who don’t want their old Mustangs to burn,” Carl said.
If I’d had a fire extinguisher, I would have definitely used it to slide the nozzle down his throat. Then a little squeeze of the handle…It was a delicious notion.
The grotesques and the violent fantasies dovetail with the author’s strange lack of empathy with anyone outside himself. First, a small quote which demonstrates the writer’s astonishing lack of perspective.
In many ways the Gods of Michelin behaved not unlike the Weather Gods of agricultural life. Both were aloof forces that operated from on high with inexplicable capriciousness. Their whims could bring great prosperity or total financial ruin with little warning. Farmers who have blown their brains out after a crop-killing hailstorm or flood are really no different than the chefs who have been driven mad by the loss of a Michelin star.
I think I say this absolutely without qualifier: the bankruptcy of a farmer after the collapse of his crops is nothing like the loss of a Michelin star.
A second passage I find even more disturbing, because it involves a direct experience of the writer. I think it’s an obvious point that the moments when we are most often taken outside of ourselves and have some sense that our lives are not like ours, and what we are fortunate to have, is when we come across abject squalor or hunger. This does not seem to be the case in this book. In one episode, Stevens comes across wrenching poverty and he quickly shifts the focus back to himself.
The episode is framed as Stevens having the problem. When in China, he keeps ordering duck again and again, despite the greasy, poor quality of the meat. Finally, a beggar provides relief.
I was a prisoner of my own lack of imagination, and as my own jailer, I kept serving up the canard equivalent of prison fare. Until finally it dawned on me that the gate was open and I could just walk out into freedom. That little epiphany came one February night in Beijing when it was, typically, about zero degrees and the restaurant, also typically, was only about ten degrees warmer. There were no doors, only heavy blankets that flapped in the fierce wind, and I was staring at what seemed like my hundredth duck of the winter. A beggar dashed over from the edge of the room and grabbed a slice off the serving plate in the center of the table. This happened not infrequently and was greeted by the regular patrons with the same calm disdain that a homeless beggar outside of a restaurant in New York elicits from the exiting patrons. It wasn’t that anyone liked it, but there was a certain guilt of the well-fed at work and no one vociferously objected, including the management.
The beggar, who was a few years older than me, wore fingerless gloves, highly functional attire for keeping the hands warmish but the fingers still nimble for the quick snatch. I was wearing similar gloves, the notion of which – wearing gloves in a restaurant – would have struck me as bizarre just a few months earlier but now seemed no less odd than putting on a coat in a snowstorm. It was freezing, and the fact that you were inside dining could not obscure the looming discomforts of frozen digits.
I did not begrudge the beggar a piece of my sad pile of duck remains. He darted in, snatched, and retreated to the sidelines. We looked at each other across the restaurant, the air crowded with the smoke of the little fires heating Mongolian hot pots and the haze of bad cigarettes, and though he said not a word, I know as he bit into his largish hunk of duck, he was thinking, “This is really bad.”
Across the room, I gnawed a piece of the duck, and he knew I was thinking, “Do we really have to eat this?” But we did because this was 1987 Beijing on a February Saturday night and you had to eat something and better choices were elusive.
“Better choices are elusive”: are they really equally elusive for a wealthy westerner and a chinese beggar?
Perhaps because Stevens worked for the Bush campaign, both in 2000 and 2004, and because of some of the horrors of those years, I’ll conclude this series of notes with an interesting contrast to another time, when one particular word could be reduced to mere shock value, before the reality it connected with became a grim common presence, the great gift of all wars:
“I think you may find it is an amputee,” he suggested. Maybe it was his phrasing…or maybe it was the amputee that made us want to talk to him.
“An amputee?” Rat said. “An amputee?”
“I found it had no legs,” he continued. “But perhaps I was having a difficult bottle.”
“No legs?” Rat looked at me, a glint in her eye. “You mean like my brother Juan, who had both his legs chopped off in a car accident. Like that, you mean?”
The man blanched. A look of genuine horror flashed over his friendly face.
“I was thinking in his honor I would have the Pied et Oreille de Porc truffés en Crépinette.”
He stared at her for a moment, then burst out laughing.
Here’s a funny joke I thought of after I read this: thanks to the two administrations Stevens helped elect, many american families will have to imagine what that bad wine tasted like, because they won’t be able to afford it for quite a while. But an amputee brother won’t require any imagination at all. Many american families, suffering great want and tending their wounded, might ask what good came of eight years of George W. Bush? Well, they can perhaps cheer themselves that at least one man probably got a lot of great french food out of it.
Now I end this post by noting a second, slightly strange theme that runs though the book, and which I will have to be a little careful in describing here. This is a memoir in which a good looking, successful man travels through Europe with a woman, a former fashion model who, from the reactions of those encountered, is someone of extraordinary beauty, with both the man and woman close in age. The woman’s boyfriend has no issue with the man, Stevens, escorting his girlfriend, and soon to be wife, throughout Europe alone. Stevens never describes any sexual tension between him and Kelly, or any explanation of why such attraction does not take place. No mention is made of any relationship left to languish or forfeit by going on this trip with a beauty that any woman would consider a formidable rival. It is entirely a blank space, one which makes the reader construct an obvious hypothesis for an explanation. This hypothesis may be wrong, and sometimes I feel like I construct this hypothesis for some ambiguities over and over again.
This ambiguity gives a substance to certain short, opaque scenes.
At one point in their travels, Kelly and Stevens encounter an attractive older woman with a man in his twenties. They become an object of fascination for Kelly and Stevens.
Off to the side, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman kissing her date and stroking his face. She smiled at Rat across the table, as if to say Look what I have. Isn’t this nice? Rat giggled. “I like this woman,” she whispered.
“You’re jealous,” I said.
“Of course I am, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Do you think he feels stupid, being fondled over by her?” We were both laughing conspiratorially.
Rat laughed. “He looks happy to me. He looks like the happiest guy in France to me.”
I glanced over, trying to seem casual. She saw me and knew what I was doing. She winked and I whipped around.
“You’re blushing,” Rat laughed.
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re jealous,” Rat said.
“That’s ridiculous.” But I was, if only a little. He did seem to be having fun.
It would seem like here that Stevens would find solace with Kelly, or try to, but there’s nothing of the kind. The scene ends. Kelly and Stevens later run into this couple again, Anne-Marie and Lucien. Kelly mentions her boyfriend, Carl.
“Who’s Carl?” Anne-Marie asked.
“Her boyfriend,” I said. Then after a pause added, “It’s complicated.”
“You can explain at dinner. I introduced Lucien, no?”
The scene moves to dinner. No explanation is given. What I find strange here is that the very curiousity the reader has about Kelly and Stevens, the two characters have over this new couple.
We sat at a table on the edge of the terrace, overlooking the vineyards. “My husband and I discovered here ten years ago,” Anne-Marie said.
“Not Lucien,” she said, laughing at our looks. “Lucien is the nephew of close friends. I have known him since he was just a little boy.”
I nodded nonchalantly, or so I thought. I waited for her to elaborate, but she only smiled and picked up the menu. Lucien shrugged and looked ill at ease. I plunged ahead.
“What do you do, Lucien?” I asked. Under the table, Rat kicked me, as if I’d asked him how long he had been sleeping with his mom’s best friend.
“I’m a student,” he answered. “A student of political science.”
Rat jumped in to tell him that I directed television commercials for politicians. He lit up and immediately began to ask me long, insightful questions about politics. What I really wanted to talk about, of course, was his relationship with Anne-Marie, but I stumbled on, as if we were having a little political seminar perched on the back hills of Grimaud.
Their relationship is never discussed, and this is the last time we see the characters.
This open question of the relationship between Kelly and Stevens hangs over another scene, when a train official tries to pick up Kelly. It’s made clear that the obstacle between Kelly and Stevens is not her boyfriend back home.
“You like to go to clubs?” the ponytailed train official asked.
“Is the pope Catholic?” Rat demanded.
He concentrated on this for a moment and then smiled. “I like clubs.”
“Great!” Rat made it sound like he had just told her that she had won the lottery. “Let’s meet later on!”
He glanced quickly at me.
“It’s okay,” Rat explained. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
She said this with the dismissive tone of a big sister explaining the presence of a younger brother.
The conductor’s face brightened – and then fell when Rat added, “My boyfriend is in New York.” She paused, seeing his disappointment. “And New York is a long way away. We’ll have lots of fun. Where should we meet?”
There is also a strange aspect to the Mustang that Stevens drives. On several occasions, men mention the aphrodisiac qualities of the car, the way it makes it easier to meet women. Stevens never makes reply to this or speaks of success or disappointment in meeting girls with the car.
Ray, a repairman who tries to fix the Mustang’s problems:
“Had one,” he said…”Not like this, mind you. Had me a Cobra. Fastback. Never got so many girls in all my life.” He paused, as if thinking about it. “Had to be the car. Couldn’t have been me, eh?”
The Eastgate Ford manager – Nigel was his name – smiled an embarrassed smile and shot me an apologetic look. Nigel’s last name was Lombardo, and he looked to have escaped from a fashion magazine, a preposterously handsome fellow of about thirty. I wondered if Ray’s comment had something to do with the reputation Nigel might have as a ladies’ man. Or maybe Nigel was gay. Or maybe Ray was just talking.
A man who he meets outside a restaurant who loves Mustangs:
“When I have my own restaurant,” he said with more certainty than wistfulness, “I’ll get a ‘sixty-seven Cobra with the original Pony interior, four-speed. I’ll park it out front every night.”
I laughed. “Do you think it will help attract customers?”
“I think it will help attract women, don’t I?” he said with a smile. “Like that fellow in New York I read about, David Bouley. He drives a big Honda bike and he sleeps with a different model every night, right?”
“It’s a big Harley,” I corrected. “And maybe not every night.”
“Every other then, fine. I’ll settle for that. Particularly after a couple of years down here. Don’t have a lot of single women wandering around Eugénie-les-Bains, now do we?” he said. Then, looking over at Rat, he asked, “Is that your wife in the car with the dog?”
The scene ends there. No answer is given about Kelly and Stevens. Now, a piece of writing that I find extraordinarily poignant. Throughout the book, Stevens comes across as an aggressive, somewhat nasty individual. In this one brief scene, there is a moment of, what seems to me, to be of extraordinary vulnerability and apartness. It takes place during a morning run.
Vespas darted about, with girls riding sidesaddle, clinging to their boyfriends. Long lines wound in front, of the gelato stands. A club team of bicycle riders leaned against their Campignola Bianchi bikes watching the pretty young girls in tight dresses parade through the greenery. Everyone tried to stay in the shade and everyone smoked.
The park was decidedly untidy, very un-French. It felt wild and decrepit, as if almost abandoned. There were no neat rows of potted flowers, no intricate flowerbeds or well-kept fountains. Newspapers blew across the cracked asphalt walkways.
An outer loop ringed the park, exposed to the bright sunshine. I ran it in complete isolation, passing only an occasional cyclist. When I turned back into the heart of the park to the green tunnels, dazed by the sun, it was like stumbling onto a hidden world teeming with life. Everyone stared at me as I ran past, dripping wet.
Finally, I’ll just quote what might be the best passage in the book. It’s very evocative, and feels very true. The frank eroticism is a contrast to the utter lack of sexual tension or electricity between Stevens and Kelly during their travels:
I looked across the garden. A young couple dressed in white sat across from us drinking Mumm’s champagne. They were maybe twenty at the most and looked at each other with a first-date longing that filled the air with sex. With their white clothes and prim haircuts, the ostentatious champagne, the two could have been period pieces of twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. They spoke in guarded conversation that never steered close to the lust that hung between them – just a little bit of English repressed desire perfectly captured for the ages.
The assumption made by a reader might be that the couple must be a man and a woman – but why make this assumption when there’s nothing in the details to indicate gender? Again, a reader constructs a hypothesis. Whether it is correct or not, I cannot say. There is the qualifier of a few teenage infatuations (female) mentioned, that some might think renders this hypothesis false; that there is nothing more recent mentioned, might provide support. I will note one example of these (I believe there are two total in the text – in both the woman is indistinct). On a memory of the first great meal Stevens ever ate:
We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.
The one unusual detail here is that Stevens refers to being an Oxford student; human nature being what it is, Oxbridge being what it is, I expected this attendance to be mentioned in every profile – it is not mentioned in anyone I come across, whether this one, this one, or this one. The last mentions his going to the University of California Los Angeles; it is perhaps a notable omission that Stevens, despite writing and producing TV, does not appear on their list of alumni for either writers or producers. The lack of any mention of Oxford in the profiles might be the result of journalistic oversight or humility on the part of Stevens.
I am indifferent either way on the issue of this last hypothesis; it is a commonplace in literature and in life, only an issue of note because of the political opportunism of Republican candidates.
After reading several articles by Stevens I believe my last hypothesis is refuted, though I remain a little confused on some things.
As already stated, in Feeding Frenzy, Stevens is at Oxford when he is around nineteen. In the piece “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, on endurance sports, Stevens writes “I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date”, so he also attended university in the States near Colorado – one obvious possibility being UCLA. In “My Secret Life As A Muslim” for The Atlantic, he is also at Oxford as a grad student: “From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.”*
Subsequent to this, he was married and in Switzerland in what I assume were the late seventies to, possibly, the early eighties, according to “Thank God”: “All this changed when I discovered track skiing – Nordic racing. It happened in my late 20s when I was living in Switzerland, where my wife was teaching. I coached the school’s rugby team.” (Stevens, according to “Building A Better Romney-Bot” was fifty-eight last year) This would imply a period of time, perhaps as long as a decade, spent in England and the continent, right next to France. I was a little surprised to read this, as the following from Feeding Frenzy implied time away from Europe after his undergrad at Oxford:
We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide…I swore then that before long I would come back and eat in every good restaurant in France.
Which, of course, I never did.
Instead I seemed to be drawn to countries with the worst food imaginable, places like Turkistan and Africa, where every day you woke up hoping you could avoid gustatory terror but knowing that before you slept again, horrible things would be going inside your mouth.
That Stevens may have had two degrees from Oxford, but was coaching rugby in Switzerland, I hope makes him sympathetic to the employment difficulties of today’s students. That he may have two degrees from Oxford, but does not mention them on his book jacket, I commend him for the greater humility than that shown by most Oxford attendees.
As for my last hypothesis, I was indifferent to its eventual validity as I am to someone’s hair color, and whether it’s achieved genetically or through dye. I made it because were I to travel alone through Europe with an ex-model I would attempt the obvious possibility. I commend Stevens on his greater gallantry and self-restraint. It is through such great virtue that I now more fully understand how the Republican party can realistically advocate chastity for teenagers.
* I believe there were actually three at the time that “My Secret Life As A Muslim” was written; the Bath Street mosque had been closed for several years (“Call to reopen Bath Street mosque in East Oxford”)
(UCLA moved its alumni information on its site since the initial publication of this post; the links here were appropriately updated. Stevens continues to not be listed among UCLA alumni.)