The Books: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink; edited by David Remnick; ‘But the One on the Right–’, by Dorothy Parker


Next up on the essays shelf:

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick

Secret Ingredients is a collection of food writing from The New Yorker. I love these collections. So far, we have excerpted from the following collections: Life Stories, The Fun of It, and The New Gilded Age.

I’m not a foodie, but I love this collection because 1. it gives snapshots of different eras, 2. the writing is great.

There’s a humor section in this collection called “Tastes Funny”, with pieces by Ogden Nash, Steve Martin, and Woody Allen. It opens with this very funny (and also kind of agonizing) interior-monologue piece written by Dorothy Parker in 1929.

In it, she tells the story of what goes through her head at a formal dinner party, seated in between two people she doesn’t know. Making conversation is awkward, and she bears up under the stress of it all, and some of her observations about small talk, and the anxieties thereof, are so right on. You wince reading it. Or I do. I have been in this situation a million times, although perhaps not at a formal dinner party. You know, you strike up a conversation with someone merely because they are “at your table”, and you work your way through social niceties, and you hope you come off looking well, and you are so consumed with self that it is RIDICULOUS. Parker is so good at capturing that.


The food is served in courses, and with each course, Parker’s first-person narrator (we assume it is Parker herself) wonders how to discuss it with her neighbor. She is between two men, the “one on the left”, who engages her in discussion about each course. Then there is “the one on the right”, who is talking to the person on HIS right, some dame who seems to have snagged him up. In a way, Parker is drawn more to “the one on the right”, in a romantic way, and instead she is discussing whether or not she likes potatoes with the dude on her left.

Thwarted romantic possibility is here. The piece, funny as it is, vibrates with it. You can feel her loneliness, her ache to connect. It’s poignant.

The self-consciousness is great. Small talk is a gift, and those who do it easily and gracefully have my undying admiration (and gratitude, when I find myself talking to such an individual). Small talk ISN’T small talk. Nothing is small. Everything we discuss either connects us or separates us, and small talk is the first feeble shoots of connection. Awkwardness can make you not realize that or perceive it.

What she is also good at is suggesting the volcano of emotion and need that bubbles underneath even the most casual interaction. This is especially true if you live in a Constant State of Loneliness. That state means that nothing seems “casual”. One YEARNS to be casual. How freeing it must be!

I love this piece. Here’s an excerpt.

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick; ‘But the One on the Right–’, by Dorothy Parker

Here comes the fish. Goody, goody, goody, we got fish. I wonder if he likes fish. Yes, he does; he says he likes fish. Ah, that’s nice. I love that in a man. Look, he’s talking! He’s chattering away like a veritable magpie! He’s asking me if I like fish. Now does he really want to know, or is it only a line? I’d better play it cagey. I’ll tell him, “Oh, pretty well.” Oh, I like fish pretty well; there’s a fascinating bit of autobiography for him to study over. Maybe he would rather wrestle with it alone. I’d better steal softly away, and leave him to his thoughts.

I might try my luck with what’s on my right. No, not a chance there. The woman on his other side has him cold. All I can see is his shoulder. It’s a nice shoulder, too; oh, it’s a nice, nice shoulder. All my life, I’ve been a fool for a nice shoulder. Very well, lady; you saw him first. Keep your Greek god, and I’ll go back to my Trojan horse.

Let’s see, where were we? Oh, we’d got to where he had confessed his liking for fish. I wonder what else he likes. Does he like cucumbers? Yes, he does; he likes cucumbers. And potatoes? Yes, he likes potatoes, too. Why, he’s a regular old Nature-lover, that’s what he is. I would have to come out to dinner, and sit next to the Boy Thoreau. Wait, he’s saying something! Words are simply pouring out of him. He’s asking me if I’m fond of potatoes. No, I don’t like potatoes. There, I’ve done it! I’ve differed from him. It’s our first quarrel. He’s fallen into a moody silence. Silly boy, have I pricked your bubble? Do you think I am nothing but a painted doll with sawdust for a heart? Ah, don’t take it like that. Look, I have something to tell you that will bring back your faith. I do like cucumbers. Why, he’s better already. He speaks again. He says yes, he likes them, too. Now we’ve got that all straightened out, thank heaven. We both like cucumbers. Only he likes them twice.

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4 Responses to The Books: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink; edited by David Remnick; ‘But the One on the Right–’, by Dorothy Parker

  1. Love Dorothy with all my heart. Her ‘Here We Are’ (newlyweds just minutes ago boarding a train for their honeymoon) is absolutely laugh out loud brilliant.

  2. george says:

    Somewhat surprised to hear of Parker’s anxieties in such situations. I would have thought someone so well fortified with verbal ordnance would be less inhibited.

    Re small talk, I avoid it all cost because I haven’t the knack. Once at the funeral of a friend’s grandmother I commiserated “it could have been worse” (yeah, the entire family might have dropped dead).

    The excerpt is great. It would work on several different readings under a variety of moods.

    “Nothing is small. Everything we discuss either connects us or separates us”

    I have to remember that.

    And always appreciate the pictures.

    • sheila says:

      George – In re: your first comment – I know, right? I imagine most people who drink a lot are people who are almost overly aware of their inhibitions, their anxieties, and alcohol is the sure means to get rid of them.

      “It could have been worse” – hahahaha I don’t mean to laugh, but I certainly share your pain!!

      I am actually practicing small talk right now. I enjoy it – I am learning to enjoy simple exchanges in elevators about “what a nice August we’ve had …” I have to practice at it. It helps me socially. It loosens my sense of isolation. At least that’s the theory. It also helps on things like dates. Not to talk of trivial things in an indifferent way, but to invest in small talk as an act of politeness, grace, and … it can be very revealing as well. People reveal themselves in small talk!!

      But I definitely need to work at it, and talk myself through it sometimes. Like I said, I find people who are good at small talk very soothing people. Not “small talk” as a way to avoid big stuff – but “small talk” as a way to smooth over the rough spots of life. The Irish are amazing at it. That’s why even asking for directions in Ireland can be a moment of camaraderie over the absurdities of the human condition. :)

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