Passable might refer to a few things.
Off the top of my head, it could mean a restaurant or recipe worth passing on. Or the ability to pass mashed potatoes across a table. Then there is the explorer’s definition: finding a path which is navigable. “Despite the hurricane, we found the road to the pub passable.” Passable might even refer to a dish worthy of a gastrointestinal act. “That tuna casserole was, in the Rabelaisian sense, passable.”
All of them could apply, to one degree or another, to this blog, but my passable refers to the French word passable, meaning: acceptable, fair, not bad, all right or middling.
More specifically, it refers to an anecdote at the end of a food lover’s memoir. Between Meals, a 1962 book by the late New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling. I am a fan of this book. I can’t speak for the other bloggers on this site, but Liebling formed the base for my feelings on food and food writing.
In the book’s last chapter, he leaves us with a digestif that cuts to the heart of his memoir. In the cafes of Paris there were beautiful women, he says, but the most beautiful women were not to be found in his neighbourhood, the latin quarter. Angèle lived in his neighbourhood.
She told him, straight up, “Tu n’est pas beau, mais t’es passable.”
Liebling’s translation: “You’re not handsome, but you’re passable.”
“My brain reeled under the munificence of her compliment. If she had said I was handsome I wouldn’t have believed her. If she had called me loathsome I wouldn’t have liked it. Passable was what I hoped for. Passable was the best thing for a man to be…. He who is passable escapes attention. To be passable is like a decent suit. It gets you anywhere.”
In the last scene of the book, Liebling remembers his Paris days with an acquaintance. He calls Angèle “passable.” The man is shocked. He thinks Liebling callous, but Liebling says to the reader, “he did not know all that passable meant to me.”
Halifax, Nova Scotia, you are a passable city.
Insulted? Don’t be. Passable means a lot to me, too. Let’s be honest. We are not New York, London or Paris. We’re not even Montreal or Toronto. We’re passable: a regional city slung akimbo off of North America. Our best restaurants would get lost in big cities. They’d be great neighbourhood joints, or one of a few safe picks downtown.
What’s wrong with being underrated? Being unassuming gives you a great freedom. Halifax is full of surprises. For a small place, I can find quality ingredients grown nearby. Talented people cook here with imagination.
That is the goal of Passable. Our food journal aims to tell is like it is. To say, it’s not so bad here. To find the remarkable in the mundane. And collectively, I hope we will do that with a free, open appetite.
An apprentice eater: More Liebling
“When one considers the millions of permutations of foods and wines to eat, it is easy to see that life is too short for the formulation of dogma. Each eater can but establish a few general principles that are true only for him.”
This is long. Too long for the internet. It betrays a certain obsessive thinking about a minor memoir by a cultish writer who was not known for his food writing. But maybe that is a perfect description of a blogger: an interested, experienced, curious amateur.
“If, as I was saying, the first requisite to writing well about food is a good appetite, the second is to put in an apprenticeship as a feeder when you have enough money to pay the check but not enough to produce indifference to the size of the total.”
Many Haligonians I know fit the archetypical gastronomer of Between Meals. According to Liebling, a good feeder lives in the passable middle. They are not too rich nor too poor to taste widely. They eat and drink widely. They travel widely. They have eaten ridiculously expensive meals and very cheap meals. Only by doing this, can they appreciate good food.
“It is this weighing of delights against their cost that the student erects the scale of values that will serve him until he dies or has to reside in the Middle West for a long period.”
The Middle West to a New Yorker could be Halifax to a Torontonian. It seems to be lesser place, where one has some choice, but not an abundance of choice. We face our limitations. Eating well is an exercise in balance, an ability to weigh options and these days, ethics. I, as a food amateur (again, taking the French sense, as fan, as well as the English sense, nonprofessional) in Halifax, spend my eating life as a food apprentice. Everyone at this blog wants to learn from their meals. Whomever doesn’t, I’m not interested in meeting them.