Ernest Hemingway ate to live and lived to eat. When he ate to live, food was an essential, a means to an end, not something to be fussed over. When he lived to eat, food became something worthy of careful preparation and contemplation.
These approaches to food affected his life and writing throughout his six decades. They motivated him and the people he wrote about.
These attitudes began with his responses to cultural currents flowing through Oak Park, where Ernest spent his first 20 years. One current began in the 1830s with the first settlement of the Oak Park area on the American frontier.
The first settlers built log cabins and fished, hunted and trapped for much of their food. In nature they “fronted the essential facts of life,” to borrow from Henry David Thoreau. This pursuit of simple ends by primitive means close to the land shaped the living, thinking and writing of many Oak Parkers.
One of them, Ernest’s father, Dr. Clarence “Ed” Hemingway, a physician and outdoorsman, fronted the essential facts of life when camping. In At the Hemingways, a memoir by Ernest’s older sister, Marcelline, their father shows his pioneer resourcefulness hunting and cooking. Marcelline writes:
Supplies began to run low. … Ed shot some partridge and a few squirrels, coaxed honey from a bee’s nest, and whipped up a meal of fried game, biscuits and blackberry pie.
A few years later, Ed would introduce Ernest to the outdoors. Ernie spent much of his childhood with his father, siblings and friends in the forests and prairies along the Des Plaines River and in the wooded hills of northern Michigan. Here he learned from his father the rituals of hiking, camping, fishing and hunting.
Ed taught Ernie to closely observe important sights and sounds in the wild. After cooking local game, Ed blindfolded Ernie to see if he could identify it after tasting it. Ed further taught him how to skin, clean and cook what they caught or killed.
Ernest shows how he had learned to observe such patterns of living and cooking in these lines from a story he wrote as a fifth-grader about what he calls his first sea voyage:
One time the sailors went out on a barrel fastened on the bow sprit and speared a porpoise (or sea pig as they call them) and hauled him up on deck and cut out the liver and we had it fried for supper. It tasted like pork only it was greesier.
In his 20s, Ernie wrote an article for the Toronto Star that captures the pioneer spirit of eating to live he first encountered during his Oak Park years. In “Camping Out: When You Camp Out, Do It Right,” he describes how to fry a freshly caught trout:
Place the trout in the pan (this may require two batches, depending on your luck on the river). After 5 minutes, turn the trout and place 2 strips of bacon over each fish. Cook for another 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of the fish.
In 1920’s Paris, as throughout his later life, Hemingway, on occasion, lived to eat with others, meeting their needs for food with sophisticated complexity?#34;sometimes luxury.
In The Hemingway Cookbook (published by Chicago Review Press in 1998), Craig Boreth writes that when Ernest had enough money he ate the finest oysters at “the most fashionable place in Paris for oysters, fish and crustaceans. Boreth says that Ernest enjoyed “the superior quality marennes, or cultivated oysters … which are large and bright green in color. In the 1920s they were considered very expensive at $1.50 a dozen.”
In his book, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes of eating oysters on three occasions. This memoir suggests that eating is about more than getting, preparing and consuming food. It is about the people, the events, the ambience and the meaning of his early years in Paris.
Ernest also wrote about people fasting out of necessity, people who knew the full meaning of not having enough to eat. Their ways of procuring and preparing food by themselves using the simplest means hark back to the pioneering culture of his Oak Park years.
In his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway describes the life of Santiago, a poor, elderly fisherman, who launches into the Gulfstream in quest of food that he can sell for his survival.
After going 84 days without a fish, he must succeed. If he doesn’t catch anything to eat or sell for a profit, he will not survive. He is already disparaged by fellow fishermen and by the parents of his young friend Manolin’s parents, who won’t let the boy fish with him.
Once at sea in his small skiff, a humble Santiago, short on food and water, experiences life with unmatched intensity. He first sees the great marlin he has caught as food for the eyes, the emotions, the mind, the heart, the spirit.
The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier, and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.
Once he catches the marlin and ties it to the side of the boat, the sharks discover it, and devour most of it. When Santiago gets what’s left of the great fish back to land, all that remains is its head and tail. Santiago did not bring back the physical fish, which would have satisfied many people’s appetites. Yet for the old man and for Hemingway’s readers, Santiago’s loss brings food of a higher order. Hemingway had come a long way. His story about those who eat to live satisfied millions who live to eat, still hungry for something more.
“Salut Hemingway – A Toast to a Moveable Feast,” a benefit to support the mission of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, will be held Thursday, Nov. 10 at the Hemingway Museum, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., starting with hors d’oeuvres at 6:30, followed by a program at 7 p.m. and a candlelight dinner at your choice of Cafe Le Coq or Hemmingway’s Bistro at 8:15. Cost is $100 per person. Reservations are limited. Call 848-2222 or online at ehfop.org.