Eat Like Hemingway: Crabe Mexicaine from A Moveable Feast
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
Hemingway had a shiny new Nobel Prize, awarded for The Old Man and the Sea, under his belt when he sat down to reminisce about his early days as a hungry writer in Paris during the 1920s.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway likes to suggest that he, and his first wife Hadley, were on the brink of starvation. He goes so far as to claim that he skipped lunch on occasion, staying out of the house and walking the streets and parks of Paris to leave what little food there was for Hadley.
He would go the Luxembourg museum, ‘and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty and hollow hungry.’
It’s interesting that the accomplished author, having achieved as much success as any writer could dare to dream, associates hunger with a simpler life and a clearer vision.
Repeatedly, he mentions that hunger sharpened his perceptions.
It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry.
It seems unlikely, however, that the Hemingways were genuinely impoverished. Hadley was an heiress in her own right and Ernest (or ‘Hem’ as he preferred his friends to call him) was earning good money for his work as a journalist, enough to fund skiing trips to fashionable Cortina d’Ampezzo and an expensive penchant for gambling at the racetrack.
Perhaps, what the older Papa Hemingway remembers with such nostalgia is the hunger of ambition. That he had, in spades.
There are many sorts of hunger. In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger.
Hemingway writes lovingly about wandering down to Sylvia Beach’s legendary bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. She recommended reading material and loaned him books, with no question of money, a generosity he seemed to take as a sign that she recognised his genius and wanted to support him. So, he had books, at least, even if he was wilting from hunger.
On that occasion he noted the obvious. He admits that he could have bought a piece of bread instead of going hungry but Hemingway, betraying that driving ambition, would rather have no bread at all than bread without wine:
I could taste the brown lovely crust. But it is dry in your mouth without something to drink.
Hemingway was never going to settle for a dry loaf, far from it. When the food appears, what a feast it is.
I would buy a liter of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read one of the books I had bought and watch the fishing.
Nothing could be better, you imagine, until you read the litany of Hemingway’s favourite places to eat. We might begin with a glass of sherry, with James Joyce, at the Deux-Magots. Move on, perhaps, to a simple serving of Bovril at Hemingway’s favourite café, the Closerie de Lilas. How about a cassoulet, plat du jour at the Nègre de Toulouse, or some cervelas sausage? Hungry yet? Imagine pommes à l’huile, ‘firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil.’
Perhaps some local fish called goujon; ‘they were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavour than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.’
Despite his professed poverty and contentment with simple fare, Hemingway was happy to indulge in the finer things when Scott Fitzgerald rolled up with money to burn.
We had very good snails with a carafe of Fleurie to start with...
Poor Scott, in turn, is given a taste of a life more crude. Hemingway thinks it unlikely that Scott has ever before drunk wine from a bottle and declares the experience was as thrilling to Fitzgerald as ‘a girl might be excited by going swimming for the first time without a bathing suit.’
Hemingway was one of those people who grasp, and relish, every pleasure life throws in their path without too much concern for the future. The Nobel laureate could look back on the inevitable leaner times, perhaps through rum-tinted glasses, with an attitude of hunger made the best sauce. This feast or famine attitude seems sadly symbolic of the bipolar disorder which plagued him. Published posthumously after his suicide, by shotgun, in 1961, A Moveable Feast was named for a line Hemingway wrote ‘to a friend’ in 1950. While it celebrates a happy time, filled with simple pleasures that were seasoned by the excitement of novelty and promise, A Moveable Feast is tainted by hindsight. This Old Man was loyal neither to his wife nor his friends. I can’t help imagining a subtitle of ‘We’ll always have Paris.’
The Hemingways gambled, lavishly, and thrived on the thrill of it. Sometimes they even won and when they did, they knew how to celebrate in style.
Another day later that year when we had come back from one of our voyages and had good luck at some track again we stopped at Pruniers on the way home...We had oysters and Crabe Mexicaine with glasses of Sancerre.
This is a very simple but tasty dish, needing no cooking at all, which is entirely dependent on the quality of the ingredients. While you needn’t feel obliged to make your own mayonnaise, it will make all the difference if you do.
8 oz/ 250g fresh, cooked crab meat
8 oz/ 250g cherry tomatoes
1 red chilli pepper
1 TbSp Worcestershire sauce (optional)
Coriander to garnish.
For the mayonnaise:
2 egg yolks
2 fl.oz/60ml olive oil
6 fl.oz/180ml sunflower oil
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp white wine vinegar.
First, make the mayonnaise. Combine the two types of oil in a jug. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the two egg yolks, the mustard, salt and white wine vinegar. Whisk the egg mixture continuously while adding the oil, in a slow dribble, from the jug. It might help to place the bowl on a tea-towel to stop it slipping around or have a helper pour while you whisk.
When all the oil has been added taste the mayonnaise and add a little more salt or vinegar to taste. (This will give you enough mayonnaise for this recipe with ample leftover. Store the remainder in a jar in the fridge and use to make the world’s finest BLT.)
Combine the crab meat with the red chilli pepper, finely chopped, a generous tablespoonful of mayonnaise and a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce.
Cut the cherry tomatoes into eighths, or fine dice, and season with sea salt.
Cut the avocados into small chunks, or roughly mash if you prefer, and season with the juice of half a lime and a pinch of sea salt.
These three components, the crab salad, the seasoned tomatoes, and the avocado, could be served just as they are, with some slices of crusty baguette, and guests invited to combine them as they like.
For a cute starter, you could arrange the components as pretty layers in shot glasses with a coriander leaf on top. Or, use your trusted cookie cutter as a chef’s ring to make sophisticated stacks.
For total authenticity, serve with a glass of chilled Sancerre.
We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.