Friday, February 13, 2009

Peter Mayle, Food Porn, & Expatriate Lit

Okay, clearly this current weight-loss effort is off to a rockier start than some previous attempts: I actually gained a few pounds between Feb. 1 and Feb. 10, though I'd like to imagine that the one scale reading represented a "light day" and one represented a "heavy day", so maybe neither of them is totally typical. And I seem to have suddenly skipped a few days on the elliptical machine, a hiatus I'd like to blame on a broken part Spirit needs to replace - but since I can still use the machine in the meantime, that excuse really won't fly. I need to get back to the basics: fewer calories, few fat grams, more exercise. It's funny how knowing and doing just aren't the same thing - which makes me question whether putting nutritional information on menus will really put much of a dent in most people's eating what they're hungry for!

Maybe I can blame the weight gain on Peter Mayle? Lately I've been re-reading all his memoirs of living in Provence. As anyone who's read A Year in Provence or any of the sequels will confirm, Mayle's descriptions of his memorable meals are so mouth-watering that you half-suspect even reading them might be caloric: the parades of goat cheeses, tapenades, saucissons, baguettes, truffle omelets, asparagus, melons, rabbit civets, olives and olive oils, and of course wines are highlights of the books for anyone who loves food. These passages are Mayle's most evocative writing; the books are Food Porn at its most sensual, and Mayle is a star in the Food Porn Galaxy. I like to imagine, living as I do surrounded by books both at home and at work, that reading about food is a good distraction from eating it - but does salivating over Mayle's accounts of endless time-stopping culinary masterpieces in out-of-the-way, unpretentious Provence restaurants make me eat more once I finish his books and put them back on the shelves? Someone should research this!

Speaking of Mayle, there's something else his books always make me marvel at: how Anglo-American readers seemingly never tire of expatriate memoirs like Mayle's or Frances Mayes's (who's usually right next to him on the bookstore shelf, which is convenient for food porn addicts in a hurry), in which an American or Englishman impulsively buys a decrepit house in Provence or Tuscany or some other picturesque Mediterranean locale. They have to struggle with the language, they learn to bond with the nearby goodhearted countryfolk whose mystical connection with the land they envy, they try to make their houses habitable despite the best efforts of amusingly devious local workmen to take their money without ever finishing the job, and they eat meal after meal of amazing local cuisine.

Judging from the travel section in most bookstores, readers will buy and devour endless variations on this relatively basic theme. (This probably connects to the amazing success of the Mamma Mia! film in the US and the UK, too.) I can't help wondering, though, if French and Italian bookstores have shelves full of expat memoirs by Parisians and Florentines, recounting how they moved to rural Mississippi, bought tumbledown houses, learned English from their incomprehensible new neighbors, and consumed plate after plate of barbecue and fried okra!

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