The Penniless Epicure: Discovering Lost ‘Joys’

Written by Josh Perilo on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Weekends are like mini-vacations for my wife and I. We walk
around as though visiting some quaint New England town, perusing the Housing
Works Thrift Shop on East 77th Street as if it were a clandestine, highly
sought after antique boutique. During a recent Sunday afternoon visit, the shop
was having one of its frequent “All Books for $5” sales.

“The last thing we need are more books,” my wife said, not
even having to look in my direction to know where I was sneaking off to.

But it was too late. I had already found a pot of gold. The
kind of amazing find you hope for at a place like The Strand. I held the
massive 10-by-12-inch, eight-pound book in both hands and kept repeating the
title to myself, over and over: The Joys of Wine. This was a true
tome—but of what? Published in 1975, the book’s table of contents jumped around
from subject to subject like a savant child with ADHD. There was a section on
the Burgundy region. Then a piece about a wine museum in Mouton. Then an essay
about a dinner party by…Roald Dahl?!

I hugged the book close to my chest as I rushed past my
wife, whose eyebrows rose suspiciously when she saw the girth of my would-be
purchase. I simply shook my head at her. She knew the look I was giving. It was
the, “usually you’re right and I’m wrong, but don’t try to stop me from making this
purchase or there will be a scene,” look.

I have a number of vintage and/or antique cookbooks in my
modest library. Some I’ve found at thrift shops, like the 1960 Gourmet
, where the recipes are written old-school style without an ingredient
list. Others I’ve acquired more organically, like the 1945 Better Homes
and Gardens Cook Book
that was my grandmother’s. It is stained with food
and stuffed with recipes clipped from ancient issues of Good Housekeeping
and The Kansas City Star that look like props from Mad
. It, along with her 1974 Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book are my two prized possessions (I also purchased the 2005 edition of the
same cookbook, and looking up the same recipe in all three at the same time to
observe generational ingredient variations is a favorite rainy-day OCD game of

This was to be my first vintage book on wine, however. And
there were some interesting revelations I made when flipping through my newest
acquisition. The first was that I never realized how obsessed the wine world is
now with putting everything in a category. Every book on wine now is
meticulously organized by grape, region or style. “And why shouldn’t it be?” I
thought. Any other way would be confusing, as I was finding this book to be—at

Then I made my second realization, which is that wine books
now have absolutely, positively no sense of humor. By that, I don’t mean a Dave
Barry-like book of “hilarious” anecdotes about wine or winemaking. Simply a
more light-hearted, less obsessive approach to something that is, in the end,
supposed to make us feel more light-hearted.

The book’s strange layout started looking less messy and
more jovial the more I paged through. Sort of like talking to a half-tipsy,
world class vintner after hours. Half information, half tall tale. None of it
in any fastidious order. All of it captivating.

Today, there is no place in the world of wine for a book
like this. Its size and reckless use of page spacing would be considered
wasteful (the book dedicates dozens of pages to glossy pictures of different
arcane-looking feasts one might indulge in when drinking wine from a
jewel-encrusted goblet). No “serious” wine enthusiast would put up with the
lengthy prose, and the structure would drive said enthusiast equally mad.

The general public knows too much now to be entertained by
something as fun and lighthearted as this relic. It’s just as well, I suppose.
That makes the book even more enthralling for me every time I dive back in.