Sunday, February 7, 2010

Food writing and France

I picked up some local cream this week from a farm in nearby Wisconsin. I am astounded how thick and rich it is compared to the usual "ultra heat treated" cream I find at the grocery store. This local product is close to the consistency of yogurt. Just a few spoonfuls have added a silky richness to my sauces that I can usually only achieve with a beurre manie. This thick, intense cream brings to mind M.F.K. Fisher's writing on the cream of France. Her books no longer live on my shelves -- they were long ago loaned out to kindred spirits -- so forgive me if I am short on details. In one of the most charming passages in her long body of work, she recounts cooking with French heavy cream in her first humble kitchen in France. For a quick lunch for friends and family, all she needed to do was pour a few cups of the rich cream over a pan of cauliflower, bake it, - et voila! -- she had an unctuous, full-bodied gratin. Even 50 years ago, she was lamenting how the cream had changed since her first youthful culinary adventures. She complained that the cream of yore had been replaced by a liquidy light cream that required careful reduction over a low flame prior to use in a gratin, lest you be left with a soupy mess (as an aside, Marcella Hazan echoes a similar lament about Italian cream in her Classic Italian Cook Book).

I adore M.F.K. Fisher. Along with her memoirs of her early French experiences, her essays on wartime scrounging and hunger - "the wolf at the door"- rank among my all-time favorite food writing. Other Francophile writing also has much to recommend it; I always enjoy returning to Waverly Root's exhaustive Food of France, Peter Mayle's first Provence book, and the recent Julia Child memoir My Life in France. One can hardly discuss the food writing of France without mentioning A.J. Liebling and Hemmingway, but I find them less compelling than the aforementioned writers, perhaps because these two men are so intensely focused on the consumption, rather than production, of food. But my "desert island pick" of French food writing is The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin. If you enjoy cooking and writing, I urge you to run, not walk, to the nearest library, and get a copy of this book.

I generally have a low opinion of celebrity chefs, who are more focused on promotion than actual innovation or authenticity. Everything this breed of chef puts out seems to have been shellacked into a carefully edited product that promotes their ever-expanding brand. I approached this book with trepidation, yet after a few pages was completely enthralled. Who knew Jacques Pepin was such a marvelous writer? And he is writing in his adopted language, no less! Putting aside the evident technical skills of the author, the narrative itself is so engaging that the reader turns the pages with an alacrity usually reserved for guilty-pleasure books like Lee Child mysteries. Pepin shares the often painful details of his harsh childhood, yet writes with such a generosity of spirit that the reader almost wishes to be fourteen and poor and working 16 hour days in a resort hotel kitchen.

After befriending Jacques on the pages of his memoir, I sought out his cookbooks and TV programs. The PBS series that he put together on the basic techniques of French cooking is probably the best set of instructional programs I have ever watched. My favorite episode involves Jacques breaking down a side of salmon with deceptive ease. His gentle guidance changed my entire approach to preparing fish. Jacques' rigorous training in thrifty kitchens always bubbles through in his teaching: he has a suggestion for little dishes based on almost every scrap and discarded morsel he generates in the production of the main meal.

After smugly proclaiming my disdain for celebrity chef culture, I must now admit that my favorite show on television is Top Chef. If you are unfamiliar with the series, it is essentially Iron Chef meets American Idol. And if you somehow have escaped all knowledge of American reality TV, then I will tell you that it is a contest wherein young chefs are given culinary challenges and they are eliminated one by one until the finalists meet in a three-course all-out kitchen battle. The series has gone through many seasons, but my favorite moment ever on the show involves none other than Jacques Pepin, invited to participate in one episode on a panel of celebrity guest judges.

The scene: Carla, an eccentric Southern caterer, is facing an uphill battle against more traditional chef contestants. The battle: each celebrity guest judge picks the food they want for a hypothetical "Last Meal". Jacques picks squab and peas and Carla is assigned to prepare this "last meal". In a bold move, edited by the producers to foreshadow guaranteed elimination, Carla simply roasts the squab and serves the peas with tarragon. No risottos, no foams, no gelees. Just a plain preparation that most decent home cooks could crank out on a weeknight (albeit with chicken not squab). Jacques, master technician, takes a bite. He tells Carla that, if this were his last meal, he would die happy. Can one ask for more than hearing that from Jacques Pepin?

Perfect peas bring me back to another treasured passage from M.F.K. Fisher, in which she documents her quest for ideally cooked peas. On the hillside of a French -- or is it Swiss? -- farm, she has the water boiling in an outdoor pot prior to even picking the peas. Fisher recounts in hurried paragraphs the rush to get the new-shelled peas cooked and buttered and on the table prior to losing their ephemeral garden freshness. The whole event is written with a breathlessness and suspense normally reserved for tales of Olympic-level athleticism. She wrote this at a time pre-Alice Waters, when most gourmet recipes still involved processed and packaged ingredients. What foresight! What simplicity! As a gardener, cook and writer, can I ask for more inspiration than to read these pages prior to planting my spring pea seeds? Which reminds me...who did I loan those books to? I need them back before April.


  1. Dear Abbie, I do not cook, It is regrettable, but a fact. Nonetheless, I found this posting highly readable and totally absorbing. It nearly persuaded me into the kitchen, but not quite. Perhaps a wise decision.

    Julia Child I do of course know about on account of the recent film with Meryl Streep in what was, as always with Miss Streep, a superb performance. As I dispensed with my television some thirty years ago, I am afraid the television people meant very little to me, but I could imagine the scene you described.

    Having read your last posting I attempted to have future postings emailed to me. It failed. I shall try again.

  2. Edith, thank you for the positive feedback. I too loved Meryl Streep in "Julie and Julia". The book the movie is based on is inferior to Child's actual memoir that I mentioned above. Hopefully your second attempt at emailed posts worked...that is in the hands of!

  3. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find raw cream anywhere close to where I live. :( I'll have to drive to a farm about 45 minutes away to get some one of these days. I've been dying to make some homemade cultured butter for a long time now. Hopefully, our country will remember how delicious raw dairy products are.