Brief Encounters

Reviewing anthologies on food in wartime reporting and the best of Wolcott Gibbs

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food During Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents Edited by Matt McAllester | California Studies in Food and Culture, No. 31 | University of California Press | 214 pages | $27.50

Nearly forty years ago, the New York Times book division published a volume called Correspondents’ Choice, in which the newspaper’s then numerous and far-flung foreign staff listed its favorite restaurants and recipes. The book is redolent of those days when many Times correspondents were nestled as comfortably as ambassadors in the world’s capitals, ingesting the best—e.g., queux de bouef braisées au champagne. This new volume edited by Matt McAllester, Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, is another, say, kettle of fish. Representatives of the current Anglo-American generation of foreign/war correspondents write about the memorable food they encountered while covering often perilous and grimy stories in the troubled regions of the Balkans, Central America, the Middle East, and Asia.

Janine di Giovanni recalls scrounging for food at the Holiday Inn in starving Sarajevo. The photographer and documentarian Tim Hetherington (Restrepo), killed in Libya in 2011, describes how US soldiers at an outpost in Afghanistan killed a cow for steaks. Sam Kiley, of Sky News, cannot forget the enveloping smell and taste of the air and water in Rwanda after the genocide. Charles M. Sennott, now of GlobalPost, offers a tender reminiscence of responding to the cravings of his pregnant wife, Julie, before the birth of their third son in war-torn Bethlehem.

There are nineteen essays altogether, including the one by Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times of London that gives the book its title. Her essay is a recollection of traveling with Hamid Karzai’s guerrillas in the last days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. She had to eat almost everything placed before her. But no, unlike her companions, she did not eat the mud crabs.

Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs From The New Yorker | Edited by Thomas Vinciguerra | Foreword by P.J. O’Rourke | Bloomsbury | 667 pages | $22 paperbound

The most universally remembered figures from the young years of The New Yorker, which was edited by the uncouth sophisticate Harold Ross from 1925 to 1951, are the light essayists James Thurber and E. B. White, the fame of each eventually buttressed by a shelf of best-sellers. Yet, prolific as White and Thurber were, they may have been outdone by their slightly younger contemporary Wolcott Gibbs (1902-1958), who estimated that in his years at the magazine, from 1927 until his death, he contributed more than a million words. But he did not write books, aside from the obscure Bird Life at the Pole (1931) and an essay collection, More in Sorrow, the final proof of which he was reading when he died. With most of his writing still buried in the files of the magazine, it was left to the enterprising Thomas Vinciguerra to compile this ample—perhaps more than ample—selection from Gibbs’s work.

The collection shows that the best of Gibbs remains pointedly entertaining, starting of course with the famed 1936 profile/parody mocking Time Inc.’s Henry Robinson Luce and the arch language called Timestyle. The article contains the sentence from which the title of this anthology is drawn: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” Another plum is the profile of Alexander Woollcott (no relation to Gibbs) the self-aggrandizing raconteur and model for the Sheridan Whiteside character in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Gibbs sliced up Woollcott with a blade so finely honed that Woollcott was reported not to have realized he had been dissected until a friend told him so; once he understood, he refused ever to write for The New Yorker again. Similarly rewarding is the 1940 profile of the racket-busting prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey (“St. George and the Dragnet”), containing plentiful hints as to why the American electorate would not take to him as the Republican candidate for president in 1944 and 1948.

There are many theater reviews, varying in acuity. Not surprising, Gibbs had the reputation of being far from sober while seated on the aisle. (He often is supposed to have said, “There is no such thing as one martini.”) Still, he stands as the only critic in Broadway history to write a successful play, his comedy set on Fire Island, Season in the Sun. The final item in the volume is titled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” a compendium of thirty points that combine good advice for writers with the magazine’s offensive haughtiness. P. J. O’Rourke’s crisp foreword offers ten reasons for treasuring Gibbs’s work, the key repeated phrase being “He was not fooled….” The evidence is plentiful herein. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.