Food & friendship: on Crossing to SafetyFebruary 1, 2010
‘The expression of a civilised cuisine’
It’s been a while since I posted any fictional food, and this morning trawling through my bookshelves for readerlyinspiration I found Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. This novel (introduced to me, incidentally, by the Parsnip Princess) is One of Those Books – it will remain one of my favourites for ever, I think. It’s about a lifelong friendship between two couples, and the dominance of one charismatic, exceptional, difficult woman over all four individuals. Very little has been written about this kind of complex, meandering, intense friendship, so the subject in itself is a fine thing. But the finest thing is the writing. I love this book.
Here are new arrivals Larry and Sally going to Sid and Charity Lang’s place for the first time.
I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event – a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.
We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull and made moons of us and fixed us in orbit around themselves.
What the disorderly crave above everything else is order, what the dislocated aspire to is location. Reading my way out of disaster in the Berkeley library, I had run into Henry Adams. ‘Chaos,’ he told me, ‘is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.’ No-one had ever put my life to me with such precision, and when I read the passage to Sally, she heard it in the same way I did. Because of her mother’s uncertain profession, early divorce, and early death, she had first been dragged around and farmed out, and later deposited in the care of overburdened relatives. I had lost my security, she had never had any. Both of us were peculiarly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.
Crept? Rushed. Coming from meagerness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world.
In its details, that dinner party was not greatly different from hundreds we have enjoyed since. We drank, largely and with a recklessness born of inexperience. We ate, and well, but who remembers what? Chicken kiev, saltimbocca, escallope de veau, whatever it was, it was the expression of a civilised cuisine, as far above our usual fare as manna is above a baked potato. A pretty table was part of it, too – flowers, wine in fragile glasses, silver whose weight was a satisfaction in the hand. But the heart of it was the two people who had prepared the occasion, apparently just to show their enthusiasm for Sally and me.