Ernest Hemingway published his first novel, The Sun also Rises, in 1926, when he was 27 years old and living in Paris. A fictionalised autobiography, it is based on events that took place in France and Spain—bullfighting, complicated love affairs, fights, fishing trips. And eating and drinking.
Hemingway was, writes Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan in the Paris Review, a man with “immense appetites—for life, adventure, drink, and a good meal”. Patrizia Sanvitale describes him as “the kind of man who liked to live dangerously—hunting and fishing, smoking, travelling, eating and drinking with largesse.”
When you start to look for food references in The Sun also Rises, it soon becomes evident that the narrative is based on a series of meals. The story almost staggers from one bar or restaurant to another.
Within the first few pages of the story opening:
I first became aware of his lady’s attitude toward him one night after the three of us had dined together. We had dined at l’Avenue’s and afterward went to the Café de Versailles for coffee. (6)
Over the next few pages, Jake has an apéritif at the Café Napolitain, “watching it get dark and the electric signs come on”; eats dinner at a restaurant on the rue des Saints Pères; drinks at a dancing club on the Rue de la Montagne; and then turns down champagne at the Café Select on Boulevard Montparnasse.
Some of these names refer to real establishments, and some—Le Select, for instance—are still open today. The Madrid restaurant Botin’s still serves roast young suckling pig, as eaten by Jake and Brett in the novel’s sad last scene.
Others are real but their names are not given: Madame Lecomte’s “quaint restaurant” on the Ile Saint Louis was actually the Rendezvous-des-Mariniers (but no longer in existence). In The Sun also Rises, Madame Lecomte makes “a great fuss” over Jake’s companion, who had eaten there right after the armistice; the basis for this was the real Madame Leconte and the fuss she made over novelist John dos Passos, whom she remembered from during the war.
Today, tourists can follow Hemingway’s footsteps on guided tours or by using maps marked with his haunts—an ironic turn of events given his cynical comments on Madame Leconte’s restaurant:
It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Some one had put it in the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans, so we had to wait forty-five minutes for a table. (76)
When the characters are finally seated, they eat “a good meal, a roast chicken, new green beans, mashed potatoes, a salad, and some apple-pie and cheese”, then coffee (76). Strangely, this sounds very “American”—but I suppose everything would depend on the quality of the produce and the way it was cooked.
Hemingway biographer James R Mellow writes: “Expatriate life in Paris in the twenties was a convergence of egos, libidos, intellects, rivalries, and profound ambitions”. Mellow spends several pages detailing writers, intellectuals and American exiles associated with various Parisian bars and cafes (169-174). For Hemingway, these venues were not simply for eating or drinking—or working, as he often did over a coffee. They were also essential places of community, of social and cultural exchange.
But why does Hemingway put these real places into his writing? Well, they readily supply specific details—for example, the zinc bar and the “iron pot of stew” at the Café Aux Amateurs—and so add a sense of reality.
Hemingway’s desire to build a convincing world in The Sun also Rises also infuses significance into the food itself. There is economic gouging when the price of meals doubles during the fiesta in Pamplona (159). There are logistic difficulties with food supply: Jake and Bill cannot get into the fully-booked dining car on the train to Bayonne, so they unsuccessfully attempt to bribe a railway employee.
These might be banal details, but Hemingway uses them to anchor the book’s events in the everyday ebb and flow of hunger and commerce. He also cleverly comments on Jake and Bill’s view of their own privileged position, by revealing that the sweating railway waiter who brings their sandwiches doesn’t have any meal breaks at all:
The waiter who served us was soaked through. His white jacket was purple under the arms. “He must drink a lot of wine.” “Or wear purple undershirts.” “Let’s ask him.” “No. He’s too tired.” (88)
(Waiters recur in Hemingway’s writing, often figures who embody pathos.) Then there is the usefulness of descriptions of food for creating a geographic and cultural sense of place:
The first meal in Spain was always a shock with the hors d’oeuvres, an egg course, two meat courses, vegetables, salad and dessert and fruit. You have to drink plenty of wine to get it all down. (94)
Naturally, these details reflect on Hemingway’s own local knowledge and therefore give a sheen of European sophistication his spare, direct, very “American” way of writing (How continental, coffee and brioche for breakfast! (35)).
But there is more to it than that. As the quotes already suggest, eating and drinking are great levelers—everybody has to eat—and they provide a kind of stage where power and relationships play out. Later in the book Hemingway describes how the emotional climate changes over the course of a particular meal:
It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you couldn’t prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all nice people. (146)
So, after the fiesta and the bullfights and the drunken bad behaviour and the betrayals, Jake and Brett drink martinis in a Madrid bar, then go for lunch at Botin’s, “one of the best restaurants in the world”:
Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta. (246)
They order two more bottles of wine, and talk about Jake’s large appetite for food and drink.
“You like to eat, don’t you?” she said. “Yes.” I said. “I like to do a lot of things.” “What do you like to do?” “Oh,” I said, “I like to do a lot of things […]” (246)
You don’t have to dig too deep to see that Jake is eating and drinking to fill the empty spaces—not in his stomach, but in his heart, his spirit, his soul, whatever you would like to call it. They love each other but their affair is impossible. His war wound has made him impotent; she is a woman who needs a real man—someone like the virile young bullfighter with whom she has briefly dallied.
And—as readers suspect and biographer Mellow makes clear—the character Jake is closely based on Hemingway himself. The pathos of this scene is, on some level, connected to Hemingway’s own hollowness and emotional hunger. This self-knowledge, even if only semi-conscious, is surprising and sad, given that he was so youthful when he wrote this novel, and also because his public persona was bluff, macho, and insensitive.
But, for me, this part of the reason I find Hemingway’s writing so fascinating. There is one more quote I’d like to add. This is the opening paragraph of the chapter “Hunger was a good discipline” in A Moveable Feast, the collection of memories of the Paris years, published in 1964, after his death:
You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy […] the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. (53)
In that same chapter, he describes scoffing potato salad and beer in an act of self-loathing, and he also recalls the devastating loss of his suitcase of manuscripts, accidentally misplaced by his wife Hadley. “It was a bad time and I did not think I could write anymore,” he says. Yes, the relationship between Hemingway and food was complicated, revealing and, in the end, very sad.
• Naturally, there are many different interpretations of the final chapter of The Sun also Rises. What are your thoughts about Jake’s appetite? You can leave comments below.
• Some of the bars and restaurants that served Hemingway are still in business:
Le Select, Montparnasse, Paris
Café les Deux Magots, Paris
Café de Flore, Paris
Restaurant Botin, Madrid
• Here are some tourist guides to Hemingway’s Paris:
Natash Geiling, “A guide to Hemingway’s Paris”, Smithsonian Magazine, March 14 2014.
“Hemingway’s Paris,” Time Out, April 15 2015.
• Read about Hemingway’s drinking and the development of the Hemingway cocktail (with recipe). http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/ernest-hemingway/ (Hemingway special cocktail recipe)
• Here’s more about Hemingway and food, with his own Hamburger recipe. Make the recipe!
• And if you would like to to recreate the meal served by Madame Lecomte at the Rendezvous-des-Mariniers, you can find recipes in Craig Boreth’s The Hemingway Cookbook (71-74).
• The entire 1957 filmed version of The Sun also Rises, starring Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner, is on YouTube.