essay on food in cormac mccarthys novels

Essay: On Food in Cormac McCarthy’s Novels

19garner cormac food sub facebookJumbo

Cormac McCarthy has long presented himself as a man of simple appetites. When Richard B. Woodward caught up with him in 1992, for a rare profile that ran in The New York Times Magazine, McCarthy was living an austere life in a cottage behind a shopping center in El Paso and eating his meals off a hot plate or in diners.

That sounded about right. Diners — which he sometimes calls cafeterias or lunchcounters or drugstores — are all over the place in McCarthy’s fiction. They’re homes away from home for his drifting men and women.

In a typical scene in “Suttree” (1979), the eponymous protagonist, mourning the death of his son, enters a bus station cafe alone on Thanksgiving and orders “two scrambled with ham and coffee.” These are served on an “oblong platter of gray crockery” as the cook turns “rashers of brains at the grill.” Now there’s a phrase — “brains at the grill” — that gourmands don’t hear often enough anymore.

The existential cowboys in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy novels, set out on the frontier, consume many of their meals fireside. Here too, though, hash houses are timeless way stations. The meals are, in this writer’s hands, private acts in public spaces.

In “All the Pretty Horses” (1992), the first book in the trilogy, Lacey Rawlins peppers his eggs in a cafe until they’re black. The proprietor comments, “There’s a man who likes eggs with his pepper.” James Agee’s novel “A Death in the Family,” which was regarded as the great Knoxville novel until “Suttree” arrived to challenge it, has a moving scene in which a woman remembers, on a dire morning, that her husband likes his eggs heavily peppered. I’ve often wondered if McCarthy was writing in homage.

McCarthy likes to feed his characters, and the food in his fiction resonates more than it does in most novelists’ work. In part, this is because nearly all the lives in McCarthy’s world are lived close to the bone, often in isolation, and food is a rare respite from intricate forms of pain.

It resonates also because of the many violent and grisly sequences in his fiction: the baby, born of incest, left to die in the woods in “Outer Dark” (1968); the rape of a woman’s corpse in “Child of God” (1973); the scalpings and other gore in “Blood Meridian” (1985); the pneumatic cattle-gun killings in “No Country for Old Men” (2005).

It’s a commonplace to say that food is consolation, but sometimes in McCarthy’s work, food is a vivid reminder that we’re all linked in the meat wheel of life.

That reminder isn’t always a welcome one. Take the macabre scene in his post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” (2006), in which people are kept for food, a limb at a time, in a basement. They shriek for help.

This tableau inspired one of the funniest pieces of wildcat food criticism I’ve ever read. The essay, by Helen Craig, was titled “A Meat Processing Professional Reviews Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road.’” It ran in 2014 on a website called The Toast.

Craig pointed out that such a “living larder” is wasteful. Every day they’re alive, she wrote, “these people will be depreciating in calorific value.” Craig suggested, as any good butcher would, that “the ribs will be good fresh, and a pickling and brining process for the thighs and haunches should result in a product that is similar to ham.”

Nothing in McCarthy’s past novels, however, can have prepared his readers — the hungry ones, at any rate — for the banquet of culinary observation and opinion in his recent book “The Passenger.” This novel is more in touch with physical pleasure than anything McCarthy has written, as if he is eulogizing sensory experience itself.

“The Passenger” is about a lot of things: salvage diving, incest, the nuclear bomb, lost cats, paranoia and the higher realms of mathematics. It also happens to be about a nifty guy in his late 30s, a McCarthy stand-in, who drifts around New Orleans in the early 1980s and samples its delights.

What’s the use of a great city having temptations, as P.G. Wodehouse put it in “My Man Jeeves,” if people don’t sometimes yield to them?

I lived in New Orleans for a period recently, and McCarthy brought the city back to me. His protagonist, Bobby Western, spends a lot of time in its bars, including the Old Absinthe House and the now-defunct Seven Seas. He reads his newspapers and takes his coffee, presumably with chicory, at Café Du Monde. He eats at old-school fine-dining establishments such as Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s, but unless someone else is paying, he generally measures out his life in hamburgers and red beans and rice and pie.

He emphasizes the importance of filthy kitchens. “You cant get a decent cheeseburger in a clean restaurant,” he says. “Once they start sweeping the floor and washing the dishes with soap it’s pretty much over.” The best burger Bobby ever had was at a pool hall in Knoxville. He couldn’t get the grease off his fingers with gasoline, he says.

One night at Mosca’s, a throwback Italian restaurant outside New Orleans, Bobby and a private detective consume a couple of Sazeracs and then a platter of chicken á la grande, the restaurant’s signature dish — pan-fried, bathed in garlic and good olive oil and herbs. Reading McCarthy on it was, for me, a Proustian arrow through my pan-fried heart. Chicken á la grande moves certain visitors to tears of gratitude.

On another night at Mosca’s, they have fettuccine with clams. The detective explains that you can’t make food this interesting at home because your stock will never be as good.

“Unless you have an old rancid stockpot that you can just sort of throw every horrible thing into — rotten turnips, dead cats, whatever — and let it simmer for about a month — you’re at a real disadvantage,” he says.

This scene charmed but puzzled. Brett Anderson, a Times food writer who lives in New Orleans and is an expert on that city’s cuisine, told me that Mosca’s has never served fettuccine with clams and wouldn’t because clams aren’t common in New Orleans waters.

Lisa Mosca, the restaurant’s co-owner, said: “It’s possible that my Aunt Mary would have made it for a special guest, but it’s never been on the menu.”

So it sometimes goes in McCarthy’s universe. He goes to great lengths to get details right, then throws his readers a curveball. After all, it’s fiction. Asked about the fettuccine via his publicist (because how could I not?), McCarthy responded, in pure Bobby Western fashion: “No goddamn clams! Put a note at the bottom of the page!”

Bobby dislikes waste. At one point he drives past a dead doe on a rural highway in the wake of a wildfire, and he pulls over. The tone is Hemingway by way of the novelist Jim Harrison:

He got out and walked back with his knife and stood over the animal and made a cut down the charred hide of her back and laid open the tenderloin. The backstraps, the old hunters called them. He sat on the tailgate and ate the meat with salt and pepper out of small paper packets from a drive-in. It was still warm. Tender and red in the center and lightly smoked. He sliced it and ate it off a paper plate with his knife and surveyed the country where it lay in ashes about him.

Bobby enjoys the company of people who know what they’re talking about, in any area of life. The wine talk in “The Passenger” is ardent. During a lunch of snapper at Arnaud’s, an old friend from Knoxville orders a bottle of German Riesling because it’s a bit sweeter than French whites, “which can double as window cleaner.”

When the bottle arrives, I mentally applauded as the friend waved the waiter away and filled their glasses himself. “Important to establish the ground rules at the onset,” he says. “Excuse me. Dont even think of pouring wine into our [expletive] glasses.”

I’m about out of room here. McCarthy obsessives will chide me for leaving things out, like the scene in “Suttree” in which a man has sexual relations with nearly the entire crop of one poor farmer’s watermelon field. Or the cold and miraculous single can of Coca-Cola retrieved from a ransacked vending machine by a parched father in “The Road.” Or the diner-clearing flatulence, also in “Suttree,” about which someone comments, “I believe somethin’s crawled up in you and died.”

The sound “The Passenger” imparts is that of an old master making mischief. McCarthy’s characters, for sure, know how to end an evening. Bobby asks a man what’s in his glass and he replies that it’s Fernet-Branca, the intangibly swampy spirit some think should be your last drink of the night because it’s said to settle the stomach.

The man says it for the rest of us: “Anything that tastes like this has got to be good for you.”