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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Eating my way through Brooklyn with Peter Mayle

By Hugh Gilmore

Myself in car wishing I could hear something.

 "Be not the first to try the new, nor yet the last to lay the old aside." Spoken by a wise old sage, but I feel more like Denny Dimwit of the Rinkydinks in the old Winnie Winkle comic strip. I'm referring to my slowness to adopt "new" technology.
            We had to drive to New York's Lower East Side last Tuesday and for the first time in my life I listened to a literary audiotape as we rode along. Please don't ask me why I never tried this before. I have no excuse other than the fact that I prefer to live a low-stimulus life. I don't even listen to the car radio, considering it an interference with an opportunity to sort out my thoughts.
            But the Philadelphia Free Library Andorra Branch has been giving away deaccessioned audiotapes and my Francophile wife, Janet, took one and told me she's been enjoying it as she merrily motors about town. The tape features actor Simon Jones reading Peter Mayle's "French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew." (2001) I thought I'd give it a try on the ride to New York. We started it rolling as soon as we got off 309 onto the turnpike.
            Alors! Where've I been all my life? Another fine pleasure I've overlooked. Why? Well, first, I've considered audiobooks to be a cheat: it's not the same as reading!
Peter Mayle
            But now, who cares? Would the author be happy to know I listened to his story? Of course he would. Am I better off for having heard it? Of course I am. Sometimes the restrictions I place on my life are genuinely stupid.
            Second, while I love travel books, I just "don't do Europe." The whole continent seems stagnant and snotty and, well ... it's been done ... just so thoroughly overexposed. Give me the Outback, or the Gobi Desert, or the Patagonian Express. And Peter Mayle -- while I'd never read anything by him, I knew all about him. Too smarmy, too cute for words, too caught up in the miracle of sunshine. Boy was I wrong.
            We zoomed through the Pennsylvania Turnpike, onto the Jersey Turnpike, over the Goethals Bridge and the Verrazano Bridge, through Queens and Brooklyn, in bliss. Mayle's book consists of entertaining vignettes describing the adventure of attending local culinary festivals in France. From frog's legs through truffles to snails, Mayle covers them all with subtle English wit, an amateur's gusto, and an eye for offbeat local detail.
            And all the while, as cars behind us beeped to insist we hurry up, and graffiti whizzed past on Brooklyn walls, we braced up and smelled the garlic. Suddenly, as though we'd been beamed up there, we were parking our car on Essex Avenue, just off Houston Street, in the Bowery. Now I want to find an excuse to take another long ride.


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