How a peripatetic food and drink chronicler made the South Fork his home.
By Michael Braverman
EAST HAMPTON—James Villas, celebrated food writer and popular novelist, might appear a reluctant participant in the 21st century. He has no cell phone and only acquired a computer when his publisher refused to accept typewritten manuscripts. He drinks Manhattans, smokes cigarettes, eats fatty meats for breakfast and would happily scarf down an ortolan without a second thought. He disdains airplane travel, and his favorite restaurant in New York City was on the trendy list about 40 years ago.
Yet Villas is anything but disconnected. He is smart, subtle, savvy and sure of his tastes in food and in life. Spurning air travel would surely be an affectation for most people, but it befits someone who has crossed the Atlantic 68 times on the QE2 and made numerous other crossings on just about all of the legendary ocean liners of his time. Although he so disparages the idea of sipping wine as an aperitif he will carry his own flask of bourbon to cocktail parties, the wines he specifies for meals are absolutely first-rate. He boasts about his peanut butter habit (and buying giant-sized jars at Sam’s Club) but is unyielding in his affinity for genuine fresh beluga caviar.
Villas’s disregard for saturated fat is hardly the same as that of someone in front of the television munching a giant bag of Fritos. As a culinary sleuth, he recently drove 1,500 miles round-trip from Long Island to North Carolina to find authentic whole hog sausage. Whole hog sausage, which is exactly what it sounds like, was a part of Villas’s childhood in the South, and when he wanted to recapture the taste, nothing, certainly not a couple of days driving, stood in his way. His destination turned out to be a remote, decrepit filling station with a meat market out back in a rural area about 50 miles from Charlotte. Forget about a professional meat-cutting facility. But hygiene aside, he found the real stuff, and brought home the sausage, as well as delectable country ham and bacon, in coolers chilled with dry ice.
Most of all, Villas is a sharp-witted, adroit and prolific observer and chronicler of the world of food and drink and all the many subjects within their gravitational pull. He has published 12 cookbooks, most recently a 400-plus-page porcine celebration of
the animal that “stands snout and shoulders above the rest,” entitled Pig: King of the Southern Table (Wiley). From the Ground Up, a cookbook examining ground foods, is scheduled for release in 2011. He has also published four intelligent and provocative books of essays and memoirs, and his second novel, Hungry for Happiness (Kensington), will be out this fall. He has published in all the leading food magazines, won two James Beard journalism awards and was named Bon Appétit’s Food Writer of the Year in 2003.
I first encountered Villas in 1982 when I ran a real estate brokerage business on Main Street in East Hampton. Craig Claiborne, the legendary New York Times food editor, was a casual friend of mine and a very close friend of Villas. He brought Villas, food and wine editor of Town & Country at that time, into my office, introduced us and stated that Jim was there to buy a house. The look on Villas’s face made it clear that this was news to him. But he was a good sport and, after getting over the shock, quickly bought the second house we looked at: basic saltbox, lovely setting, prime area. The great chef Pierre Franey, in a moment of French hauteur, informed Villas that the real estate agent was correct: it was a good “starter house” and would be worth a lot of money someday. (Snobbish as it might have sounded, Franey was right on both counts.) Expanded over the years, it is now Villas’s full-time East Hampton home.
Villas grew up in a cultured North Carolina family. His mother was an expert cook and coauthored three books with him. When he was young, his parents took him to such memorable restaurants as Le Pavillon in New York, the Pump Room in Chicago and Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. But it was only after college when he went to France to study literature on a Fulbright scholarship that he discovered classical French food—the kind not available anyplace outside of that country at the time. He stopped at Hôtel de la Côte d’Or in Burgundy, quite unaware on that first visit that it was one of the temples of French gastronomy. Since it was not far from his studies in Grenoble, he returned often and became accustomed to such dishes as coq au vin and terrine de gibiers. He also formed a deep bond with Alexandre Dumaine (the proprietor and most prominent chef in France) and Madame Dumaine—a middle-aged couple with no children. And he began to assimilate and appreciate the world of haute cuisine.
Of course this was a time well before anyone thought of food journalism as a lofty profession, and Villas returned to the United States and a conventional academic path, earning his doctorate and teaching, first in the Midwest, then in New Jersey and New York. He had caught the culinary fever, however, and under its spell soon migrated from the ivory tower to more hedonistic hangouts in Manhattan.
Handsome, educated, clever, with tailored clothes, Southern charm and a European gloss—a golden boy really—Villas was soon befriended by the literary and culinary establishment in New York and was showing up at all the glamorous places with all the right people. He could have been a soigné Noel Coward invention except for the fact that his playboy identity was balanced by his becoming a serious, successful, hardworking journalist. After writing articles for Gourmet, Travel & Leisure and Esquire, he became the food and wine editor of Town & Country, and remained in that job for 27 years. Along the way he became close friends with M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Paul Bocuse, Paula Wolfert, Barbara Kafka and Ruth Reichl among many others.
Contrarian that he is, there is a consistency and confidence to Villas’s worldview. At this stage, all his experience, his exacting expectations and even the occasional and purposeful crankiness in his writing seem to have coalesced into a comfortable core that is decidedly more ancien régime than nouvelle or fusion anything. The kind of refined, rakish, opulent world he knew and often writes about hardly exists anymore, marginalized by a mass-produced consumer culture. But Villas doesn’t deal in nostalgia. He uses his diagnostic skills to interpret and give meaning to those times and places. And when he focuses on our less decorous contemporary world, he deconstructs and judges, not always gently. When he refers to many current restaurants as “playpens” you know he is talking about more than dining out.
Villas, these days, seems happy with his life in East Hampton and the recognition by his peers and readers that he is one of America’s consummate food journalists and cookbook authors (although he never goes to awards ceremonies and insists strongly that his true passions are French literature and classical music). He has a lot to say and knows how to say it with precision and bite. He may be sardonic but he is also generous in an embracing Southern way. As a cookbook author, he shares anecdotes that sometimes read like detective stories with recipes. As a critic, he rewards excellence and savages mediocrity—and makes the reader his intelligent accomplice. And as a memoirist and novelist, he shares an extraordinary feast of a life.
Michael Braverman, editor at large of Hamptons magazine, lives in East Hampton and and writes primarily on wine, food and local history.