This letter began in the pub-studded countryside of Surrey Hills, England, where I fled to escape the bustle of Christmas in Paris and to preempt the looming wistfulness of a holiday spent far from home. It is being posted from Paris, where I have returned to usher in the New Year with some (mostly) honest labor.
Surrey is a gorgeous corner of the world. It is beautiful in a humble and mild way: all lowlands, rolling village greens, hedges, arts-and-crafts bungalows and smoking chimneys, punctuated by fields of heather and flowering evergreen gorse. Calcareous sandstone and tiled wood facades stick out amongst crumbling stone walls. It is a place that seems perfectly suited to sweater weather, as if decorated for a cozy wool slipper ad.
Given this setting, the weather could not have been more perfect. The chilly air was damp towel: languorous, wet, faintly pine-needle scented. It didn’t quite precipitate, but slowly leaked moisture the whole time. Every so often the wind would blow gentle gusts of rainy mist through. I spent much of my time there gloriously ensorcelled in a couch.
The couch couldn‘t have been more welcome, because the last month has been crazy. Crazy crazy. Like: “why would any sane person do so many things in a month?” crazy. I don’t actually know why — but here we are, on the other side of it all. I walked approximately 24 kilometres across two hangar-sized international art shows, allowed myself to be kidnapped by a half-crazed German-Italian in Sicily, attended the prestigious and completely absurd white truffle festival in Piedmont, walked across London, Milan, and Turin, catered a black-tie event at the British Embassy in Paris, finished the tropical hurricane of second (second!) semester culinary school exams, toddled around France with my mom for a week, and spend far too much time on airplanes.
I won’t be resting for more than a few minutes until after the ball drops. At some point afterward, I hope to have some time to pause and reflect on it all. I will probably just sleep.
It seems almost beside the point to say that this year has been challenging. To anyone who has tuned in during the past twelve months the reasons for this are likely obvious, but it is hard to understate the sheer level of exertion 2023 has demanded. This includes the work of my daily audition for amateur Top Chef, but it also includes the exertion of other, more humdrum and — truthfully — more difficult endeavours: moving to a new city, learning to function in a mostly French-speaking world, coping with the stress of social isolation and existential angst, figuring out how to make ends meet while working and attending school, etc etc etc.
It seems an absolute miracle, given all of this, that I published anything at all. Back in January, when I re-committed to this project, my goal was to get out twelve issues of The Night Letters in 2023, roughly every four weeks. I failed — but I did publish nine letters. I also published two essays and 27 shorter pieces over the course of two pop-up newsletters (CDMX and Fooooood!), which brings the grand total of “publish” button clicks to 42.
Am I happy with this? Yes — sort of. I had to physically force myself to publish work that I didn’t feel was ready almost every month this year. This was of course the point, but it doesn’t mean that it was easy or that I have to like it. MFK Fisher gave the following advice to a young Ruth Reichl (more on Ruth below):
You need to work at a newspaper where an editor will tell you he needs 1000 words in an hour. You write them, knowing they’re not very good. Knowing too that tomorrow they’ll be lining somebody’s birdcage. That’s the only way you’re ever really going to learn your craft.”
I still think I spend too much time polishing my jewels, so this was good. And yet, how you practice is just as important as how much. Great sentences, much less great paragraphs, take time. In December of last year I wrote about this — how Kobe Bryant worked to make 100,000 perfect jump-shots the summer after breaking his ring finger, and how both volume AND excellence are necessary to really master a craft.
In reality, it’s both. So next year, the work continues: more, better. I am reminded of a passage in Jiayang Fan’s remembrance of the late Louis Glück, whom she studied under:
My time in Glück’s class did not mark the beginning of my life as a writer. It hardly marked the start of my conception of what it meant to be one. But it initiated my belief that the aspiration to be one was a struggle in which I could claim agency. It would be my choice whether to continue to write, and embracing that choice was what made a writer, as much as the quality of the writing itself. “Not quite there” is still how I feel when I read back my own words on the page. It is a struggle every time, with words that start slow and leaden, and, if I am assiduous and patient, acquire something approximating life.
This feels to me like a good way to characterize any of the hard/good things in life. You wake up, and decide to step into the ring again. It’s not the result that matters, it’s the deciding.
Speaking of pop-ups, Fooooood! launched on November 28th, and we are five issues in. If you enjoy reading about food and want to learn about what I am learning about here in Paris, you can sign up here. There is still plenty of time.
Here are a few tips concerning fish from the last issue:
- Stick your nose in it, raw. If it smells like ocean or nothing at all, it is fresh
- Never buy a fish with cloudy eyes
- Fish begins spoiling the second it leaves the water
- A perfectly cooked piece of fish is just barely opaque. White excretion from fish meat means it is overcooked
- Overcooked fish tastes dull and flat. Well-cooked fish is delicate and complex and often sweet
- Nearly every fish on earth is excellent if seasoned with salt, cooked lightly in butter skin-down, and finished with a squeeze of citrus or a dash of vinegar
Garlic & Sapphires
Ruth Reichl was the food critic for the LA Times and then the New York Times before becoming editor of Gourmet for 10 years. I am currently reading her book Garlic and Sapphires, which I plucked from a bookshelf on a whim and have found surprisingly delightful.
There are a few moments when the prose shines, but it is not the “quicken your breath” stuff of Dillard or Sullivan. It is mostly a matter-of-fact memoir of Reichl’s life as a restaurant critic, much of which was spent sauntering around New York City in hollywood-caliber disguises complete with wigs made of real hair so that she could dine at restaurants without being recognized and given special treatment.
In one scene, disguised as a blond, she flirts her way into a date at one of the world’s most celebrated restaurants (Lespinasse), then has to convince her husband not to follow her covertly. In another, she loses an entire night of sleep over the accuracy of napkin colours in a restaurant review. The level of intrigue, espionage, and journalistic moxie involved in her account of the job is incredible, even as the sincerity of the subject matter, which more or less amounts to pages of prose about dining, is a little discombobulating. As you read about the dancing shrimp dish at a private dinner thrown for the editor-in-chief (live shrimp cooked table-side in boiling rice wine), or geoduck and abalone at a three-star sushi bar near Fifth Avenue, there’s a knee-jerk kind of cynicism that is impossible not to feel. It is the curious commingling of fascination, desire, and revulsion that one might experience while waiting on the sidelines at a red carpet event, or encountering a celebrity on the sidewalk. It recalls the fact of being an outsider; reminds you that you are a mere mortal, occupying a lower strata of society where such experiences are mostly out-of-reach.
And yet, as you follow Reichl through some of the best and worst-known dining establishments in New York, you find yourself caring about it all. You also find yourself hungry. Such is the brilliance of anyone doing anything with great care and attention: it is interesting.
Also, the matter. Specifically, obviously: Ruth’s knowledge of food. It’s not so much that the writing is filled with rigorous research and detail about New York and its restaurants (it is), but that it is written by somebody with a deep and acute knowledge of food and cooking. Her mastery of the craft is obvious not so much in her prose, but behind it. She deconstructs complex dishes merely by tasting them, knows the difference between black and white truffles, and can identify wines by the town in which they were made. She is culturally aware, knows that steak tartare should be hand-chopped, and that caesar salad should be served table-side. She knows how sashimi should be sliced, and that dipping sushi in soy rice-down is gravely disrespectful. She conducts herself and notices details with a sophistication of one who has spent her life investigating food, because in fact she has. This perspective — one that sits at the intersection of sensuality and unbridled intellectual fascination with the subject — is probably the book’s best quality.
Turning another page
I have many other books, started, half-read, waiting to be picked up. Including: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Glück’s The Wild Iris, Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant, Bruce Chatwin’s What am I Doing Here, Werner Herzog’s Walking on Ice. There are perhaps 100 others (not an exaggeration) that I’m looking forward to reading. Maybe in 2024 I will make a dent in this pile, but if 2023 is any indicator, it will more probably just get larger. It is likely true that there could never be another book written, and we would not run out of books to read… but if we are to be excessive as a species, let this be our excess.
Tonight, I’ll be cooking fancy food for fancy people here in Paris in a private dining room. The menu includes truffles (black and white), magret, sous-vide egg yolks and other such things. It should be fun, and it will certainly be interesting.
I hope you’re finding ways to spend time with people you love this week, and maybe even find a moment or two to read.
See you next year