Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Questing Appetite

NOBODY KNOWS THE TRUFFLES I'VE SEEN. By George Lang . Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $28.95 : TENDER AT THE BONE: Growing Up at the Table. By Ruth Reichl . Random House: 282 pp., $23

April 05, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review

In the etiology of a heightened palate there are, as a rule, one of two formative early life experiences: either painful loss or sustained exposure to an adult with a troubled, ungenerous or finicky disposition that expresses itself in her (less often, his) culinary behavior. In contrast to these influences, a sensitive palate attached to a sensitive personality is generally on the scene as well. The kind grandmother, doting nanny or the uncle with a strong streak of the bon vivant in him exposes a young person to a complementary world of comforts and pleasures, and somewhere in this interplay a human being emerges whose creative juices are unusually attuned to the taste, scent, feeling--the aesthetics--of food.

The loss endured by restaurateur and food consultant George Lang was brought about by the Holocaust, and this lends to the first third of "Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen" a gravity and breadth that, despite its punning title, are not typical of food memoirs. Lang's reminiscences, in fact, transcend narrow categorization: Gastronomy is certainly one of his themes, but so are persecution, survival, ingenuity, courage, curiosity and business acumen. Ultimately what is on display here is a vividly conducted life, a personality as bold as it has been brave.

Born in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, in 1924, Lang was the only child of a loving mother and a resourceful, talented, hot-tempered tailor. Being an only child seems to have greatly affected Lang's life; it imbued him with self-confidence, a healthy ego and indefatigable gumption. As a boy, he was given the best that his parents' modest means could provide: dozens of pairs of shorts sewn from his father's scrap material, a good violin when he displayed an early gift for music, an abundance of books and, of course, food. Chestnuts, tangerines, water-pickled cucumbers, jarred pear compote, "godlike" bread his mother made from a starter that had been handed down through her maternal line for generations: These flavors, the music Lang loved and the parents who cherished him together convinced him that "the entire world was well-tempered, and I lived in paradise."

Lang was 14 when the first anti-Jewish laws were passed in Hungary. In a country without a democratic tradition and where anti-Semitism "permeat[ed] the air like noxious gas," most of Hungary's 750,000 Jews, Lang's family among them, remained patriotic and blinkered even as their rights were inexorably stripped away. From 1938 to 1941, further laws were enacted until (following the Nuremberg model) all rights of Jews were eliminated and Jews of military age were commanded to labor camps, where Lang himself was ordered (at 19) in February 1944.

After a period of systematic humiliation, Lang managed to go to work for the officers as a tailor, the trade his father had forced him to learn, almost as if in anticipation of this predicament. He soon realized that his survival depended on getting to Budapest and trying to join the Jewish underground and, after buying false papers, he escaped to the city, which had by then begun to look like a "bleeding, pustulous, vermin-infested wound." While Lang was in Budapest, Ferenc Szalasi declared a coup and, in order to save himself, Lang and a friend fell in with Szalasi's rabidly anti-Semitic Arrowcross Militia. In the camouflage of his Arrowcross uniform and identity, Lang managed to take food and medicine to hidden Jews, approve the clearly false papers of other Jews during group Arrowcross inspections and smuggle still more Jews out of the ghetto.

"What I did was not heroic but unavoidable," Lang observes retrospectively. He attributes his resourcefulness to his father's example, but the genesis of his acts of dynamism and courage ultimately remains mysterious. It was in his character to help his people, it seems, and so he did.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|