The Dud Avocado

It’s easy to get lost in Paris, despite Baron Haussmann’s best efforts to impose order on the city’s street plan. Sometimes I get turned around by one too many adventurous forays from a main avenue, and wind up pointed in the wrong direction. I have google maps to sort me out of course, but is that necessarily for the good? Wandering about lost can be much funnier than sticking to the proper path.

It was stumbling mistakenly along the dark and forbidding Avenue d’Iéna while she was looking for the glitzy and golden Champs-Élysées, that first gave Elaine Dundy the inspiration for her comic novel The Dud Avocado (1958), about a heroine prone to such misapprehensions. Dundy’s Sally Jay Gorce represents the antitype to Julia Child and Ernest Hemingway. Instead of finding herself in Paris, she gets progressively more lost throughout the course of the book.

If Gorce is following any path, it resembles Hemingway’s more than Child’s. Making her home in Montparnasse in the 1950s, Gorce visits all of Hemingway’s old haunts, drinking to excess at Le Select, La Rotonde, La Coupole, and Le Dôme. Following only a couple decades after the “Lost Generation” called Paris home, the postwar generation of expats whom Gorce mixes with are crippled by nostalgia for the days of yore. One hard-core type who spends his nights at La Rotonde constantly complains that it’s “twenty years too late for Paris.” But Gorce, newly liberated from the confinement of a women’s college, is blithely immune to this feeling of disillusionment. She’s not seeking out the authentic, she’s just looking for fun. When another character praises the Café Dupont, near the Sorbonne, as “practically the only non-tourist trap to survive on the Left Bank. It’s real,” Gorce is unconvinced. “Real, I thought … whatever that meant,” her sardonic inner voice retorts. In fact, she confesses later, “I’m a real phoney.”

Gorce may not share Hemingway’s obsession with the real, mimicked by so many of the young American men who flocked to Paris in the 50s, but she shares his healthy appetite for a good meal. Gorce’s definition of freedom is “to stay out late and eat whatever I liked any time I wanted.” She also shares Hem’s taste for oysters. An aspiring actress, Gorce comments after the opening night of a play that she is performing in “I just want to eat about a hundred million oysters and two tons of caviare and go swimming naked in champagne.” Elsewhere in the novel she eats her way through a broad menu of French classics. She tucks into “an omelette jambon and a café noir” at the Royal Saint-Germain, looking up just long enough to decide that the main difference between Saint-Germain and Montparnasse is that the boys of Saint-Germain are queerer. At an all-night café on Boulevard du Montparnasse, which Gorce visits in a bathrobe – one of her many poor clothing choices in the novel – she enjoys a hot chocolate and a croque-monsieur while fending off unwanted attention from other customers who mistake her for a prostitute. And at Le Select, she revels in the pungent air, redolent with the French aromas of “apples and smoke, perfume and garlic, hot chocolate and wet rubber.”

Not that Gorce only appreciates French cuisine. Like Alice B. Toklas, who cooked the foods of home for Gertrude Stein every Sunday, Gorce sometimes takes joy in the familiar tastes of her American childhood. During a drunken night in Montmartre she gleefully wolfs down five yanquis, “bright red frankfurters with sauerkraut,” bought from a street vendor. Simply put, she’s a hungry girl, able to enjoy almost anything as long as she doesn’t have to make it herself.

Just about the only aspect of food that Gorce finds distasteful is cooking. The Julia Child dream of mastering the art of French cooking holds no appeal to her. When a boyfriend enlists Gorce to cook a meal for another couple, she recoils in absolute horror. French cooking does not redeem the kitchen from its association with drudgery, in Gorce’s view. In fact, the pretentious effort of American women in France to cook French food just damns them more decisively:

“It was just at the time (and it may still be, for all I know), when the Aubergine, or Fried Egg-Plant school of cooking was getting such a grip on beginners’ cuisines, and I remember very few dinners without the harmless but insipid vegetable staring up at me from the main dish, often quite unadorned except for a sliver of melted cheese on top.”

Dinner parties among expat couples, where the men sit around and argue about art while the women cook, serve, clean and pay “Homage to the Household Gods” by admiring the hostess’s home decor, is not Gorce’s idea of fun. “Can’t we just take them out?” Gorce asks her boyfriend about the other couple he has invited over for dinner. “I can’t cook,” she explains. And she has no interest in learning. She will not be discovering her true metier at the Cordon Bleu. Gorce tries her best to feed the other couple. “Which is the stove?” she asks, before setting to work preparing steak since “Any moron can cook a steak.” With a whole lot of assistance she puts together a full meal of “soup, steak and onions, peas and potatoes and salad.” But the experience doesn’t win her over. Despite her desire to “cook a good meal and what’s more, enjoy doing it,” she finds the whole experience to be a “rat race.” And worse than that: dull. When her boyfriend, who has been pretending to be poor but turns out to be an inheritor of the Dupont fortune, proposes marriage she runs away as fast as her legs will carry her to the Riviera, where there’s a lot more fun to be had.

Unfortunately there’s a lot more danger in the Riviera as well, or at least in the company of the sinister Larry Keevil who accompanies her down there. There was only so long that Gorce could stumble around lost before she ended up in a bad place. When the realization finally hits her that Keevil is a dangerous man, Gorce goes on the run, desperate to get the hell out of France. Her eyes opened to just how lost she has been in Paris, even the flavor of French food turns to ashes in her mouth. At a final lunch before her return to the United States, she finds a worm crawling through her salad and cries out “God, how I hated Paris!” Lost and despairing, Gorce uses food as a metaphor to depict her fallen state. She is, as she explains to a lecherous Hungarian, a dud avocado. No more life will spring from the dead core within her.

Of course, comedy as a genre is defined by its happy endings. Who is Gorce to break this rule? Back in America, she is working defeatedly, stacking books in the library, when in walks the right guy whose kiss finally makes her “come to life.” How do we know he’s the right guy? Because he takes her out for martinis in Greenwich Village – “great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the morning air” – then forsakes eating a sensible meal, instead choosing to share chicken sandwiches at the bar so the two can keep on drinking.

The chicken sandwiches are “dry, wry, and tender, the dryness sort of rubbing against your tongue on soft, bouncy white bread with slivers of juicy wet pickles. Then we had some very salty potato chips and some olives stuffed with pimentoes and some Indian nuts and some tiny pearl onions and some more popcorn. Then we washed the whole thing down with iced martinis and finished up with large cups of strong back coffee and cigarettes. One of my really great meals.”

The anti-Julia to the end, Gorce comes to life not in Paris, and not in the kitchen, but over bar snacks in the Village. The Dud Avocado, which so deftly skewers the pretensions of the 50s counter-culture dudes who flocked to Paris to model themselves “après Hemingway,” also has a message for the American women who come to Paris today, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Julia Child. Put down the mixing spoon and step out of the kitchen. Not everyone finds meaning in stirring a pot. Some would do better to stir a swizzle stick.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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