I follow this simple rule when I write a scene involving food: I want my reader to be hungry when they’ve finished reading my description.
David Westheimer, the author of Von Ryan’s Express and My Sweet Charlie, who I had the good fortune to befriend when he was at the end of his writing career and I was at the beginning of mine, had a rule also. He told me if he came to a scene in a novel he was reading where a family sat down to eat a meal and the author didn’t describe what they were eating he shut the book and didn’t pick it up again.
Because the description of food is the one of the best ways to define culture, tradition, and one of the most pleasurable of the five senses. And I encourage my writing students to not forget that in their stories and scripts.
In the 1960 movie It Started in Naples there’s a scene where Clark Gable attempts to teach a young Italian boy how to put together and eat a hamburger.
Gable plays a stuffy American lawyer who flies to Italy to settle the affairs of his estranged brother who’d died, leaving behind a young son – the hamburger initiate – and a widow. The widow happens to be young, beautiful, overly opinionated, and impulsive. She also happens to be played by Sophia Loren.
Now if you can’t predict your way through all of that to a happy ending, you’re no great shakes as a predictor.
It’s a good flick, but the best scene is that hamburger lesson.
The Italian kid watches carefully as Gable delicately places all the components on the bun, explaining the philosophy behind his method as he goes. When the masterpiece is completed the boy, obviously not knowing how to pick it up, timidly slips his hand under it from behind like he might gently lift up a kitten. Gable shakes his head and shows him how to grasp it firmly with both hands.
“You have to approach a burger with assurance,” he tells him, “or else you’ll end up with a shirt full of mustard.”
I don’t know about you, but there are certain scenes in certain films that make me hungry. When Clint Eastwood takes the first bite of a big slice of lemon meringue pie in Million Dollar Baby it’s all bets off in the diet department. And if I happen upon It Started in Naples while channel surfing I drop anchor and wait for that one scene. Which means, of course, that I’ll end up eating a fully loaded burger soon afterwards.
Because I’m a hamburger fan. And I’ve been approaching them with assurance, as Mr. Gable suggested, for a long time now.
Up in Oakwood, the East Texas hamlet of my knobby-kneed, crew-cut youth, I had the good fortune to eat my hamburgers at Laurene Dixon’s café. I’ve told you before that memory is sometimes a liar, and that old café more than likely wasn’t as big as I remember it, or the ceilings as high. But I’m certain that I’m right about the hand-dipped ice cream counter and the reach-in cooler full of icy cold Dr. Peppers and Grapettes. I’m just as sure of the lunch special that my family had nearly every Sunday after church: a slice of roast beef or fried steak, a generous dollop of mashed potatoes and another of green beans or English peas, and a splotch of canned fruit salad in the exact center.
I’m also certain of Laurene herself. She was smallish, wiry, usually laughing, and almost always talking. She passed away while I was in basic training out in California, and when I learned of it I felt pretty empty for a few days, during which she moved around, in my thinking, through her café talking to everyone, and holding her own with the men who came in every morning full of bluster and blarney for their coffee.
I remember her hamburgers as well as I do her.
They were famous thereabouts. The meat carried the residual hints of everything that had been fried on the big griddle before it, like hashbrowns, bacon, sausage, and grilled onions. There was just enough limp lettuce to scarcely cover the patty, a sliver of dill pickle, and thin slabs of tomato and onion. Laurene was of the opinion that it wasn’t intended to be a salad, but a hamburger.
What set it completely apart from any other burger I’ve ever had was the bread. Not that it was in any way special; it was just an ordinary bun, probably from the Butternut Bakery in Palestine. But it was pressed so hard with a spatula on the greasy griddle that it became golden and moist, the edges toasted dark and crinkly. The whole sandwich was so infused with grease that the wax paper it was served in was stained with splotches.
My cardiologist wouldn’t have approved of it, but I’ve never had a better burger.
Neither did Clark Gable, unless he at some point wandered into Oakwood.
[Some of this first appeared in a newspaper column many hamburgers ago]