Why American gastronomy owes so much to France
Gastronomical awakening: A new volume traces contemporary back to the pennings of six francophile Americans and elicits in this reader blushing recollections of his own culinary wake-up call
From Justin Spring’s new book The Gourmand’s Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy, I discovered that the first vital sews of my own adult fate were actually part of a much greater and grander tapestry. In identifying the six larger-than-life, food-and-wine-besotted Francophile Americans, who- along with English and French colleagues- launched the US culinary evolution, Spring explains how I myself came to be a food-and-wine besotted American novelist living in Paris. It is due to the elegant pennings of those six characters- AJ Liebling, Alice B Toklas, MFK Fisher, Julia Child, Alexis Lichine and Richard Olney– that the US ran from being a country where the axis of eating was good nutrition to one that today spins so assiduously around the pursuit of gastronomic pleasure.
But first: a brief defraud sheet on the players. Liebling, a native New Yorker, wrote about Paris and France for the New Yorker publication before and after the second world war, with a special ardor for Gallic gastronomy. Toklas, the devotee of novelist Gertrude Stein, penned an eponymous cookbook that became a counter-culture classic and goaded the country towards its current mania for” farm to table” eating. Fisher, a wry essayist whom Spring correctly berates as a “fabulist” for the wobbly memory of her popular memoirs was, for better or worse, another authoritative voice to the American masses on the glories of French food. Julia Child requires no introduction, since she penned the cookbook that became America’s aspirational tome in the kitchen for several decades, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and was also one of the first television cookery superstars. Lichine, perhaps the weakest connect in this chain( Elizabeth David might more logically have occupied his place in this book) was a savvy wine merchant and novelist looking to build some money, which he did, by educating the doltish US palate in all things viniferous. Lastly Olney, an Iowa farm boy whose self-taught passion for French food and wine resulted him to become a recognise columnist and cookbook author. He is the dark superstar- perhaps the most interesting one of all- in this constellation.
The often brilliant and often droll writings of this sextet the foodie generation, led by Alice Waters, with the sextant needed to plot a new way of thinking about food in the US. With cooking disparaged as drudgery in the 50 s and early 60 s by mercenary food novelists such as Poppy Cannon, who penned recipes like one for tinned chicken with tinned black cherries flambeed in rum, housewives were urged to embrace an array of industrially made convenience foods that would allow them to spend less day slaving away in the kitchen. In different ways, these six said no to all of that, instead extolling the daily pleasure of cooking with fresh, seasonal render, the route they do in France- the gastronome and vinophile’s Shangri-La.
This idea- the ineluctable gastronomic splendour of Gaul, first reached me on a warm June day in Westport, Connecticut, in the 70 s. My high-school friend and I- aged 15- were having lunch with his mother and her new devotee at Bon Appetite, a eatery recently opened by two women who had analyse cook in Paris.
Just past noon, a wispy blonde girl in a calico apron came to our table with a plate of carved carrot, courgette and celery spears to be dipped into the ramekin of herb-flecked fromage blanc beside them, and another small faience bowl of radishes piled up around a little green glass dish of strangely grey-coloured salt.
” The radishes wake up so nicely with only a little turn in the French ocean salt ,” she said and withdrew.
” Well, shall I wake up a radish then ?” said Mrs Wertheim, my friend’s mother’s lover, and we laughed.
Then, a stilted stillnes, which I broke with a question.” I wonder how you could ever get the salt out of the sea ?” I said, and the other three looked at me with stark horror.
” Are you serious, Alec ?”
My mind spun. I was. Water is wet. Salt is dry. So how could you do it?
” They likely heat the sea water in cauldrons, Alec, so that it evaporates and leaves the salt behind. There are also some places in France where this results naturally in shallow salt pans by the sea ,” said Mrs Wertheim with stony authority.
To describe this occasion as psychologically loaded would be putting it mildly, since my high-school friend and I had headed to this lunch after another fumbling sexual encounter in the back seat of my family’s station wagon. The two women were waiting for us when we arrived, and the bemused expres on the face of Mrs Wertheim, a kohl-eyed textile decorator with a heavy New-York accent, stimulated me almost certain she knew why we were late. But then we were no more intended to know these married females were fans, whom my mother had first innocently introduced as bridge partners a few months earlier, than they were to know the same thing about us.
If the soft fart of a cork slipping out of a bottle of rose sealed this truce of omission, my fascination with the restaurant provided me with more than enough earnest conversational fodder to feign persuasive ignorance of our twinned passions. And this undertow of sexuality had already framed this snack as excruciatingly exciting even before the blonde female returned and propped a chalkboard menu up on a bentwood chair next to our table.
With my timid suburban appetites merely nascently evoked, I hadn’t yet overcome my deep and, for a New Englander, perverse aversion to seafood, so I ordered the sorrel soup and the roasted chicken. The vivid green potage with a whirl of sour cream tasted strangely but intriguingly like a copper penny, while the chicken left me dumbstruck. Even the mesclun salad was amazing, a colorful toss of tiny foliages and even a couple of nasturtium blooms, which I incorrectly assumed were inedible, perhaps even poisonous. But they weren’t. The single best thing I eat that day, though, were several small, potent, dark-green leaves that had a shockingly delicious flavour all on their own. I learned that they are called arugula in UK( and rocket in Britain ).
I left the table craving more, much more, and also determined to learn about food and cooking, which- unbeknownst to me at the time- would define me up for the same various kinds of quest flamed by Spring’s sybaritic sextet. And instead like me, as it turned out, their deep delectation of food and wine was also driven by an omnivorous sensuality that encompassed everything from great arts and music to good sex, and lots of it.
Two months after this lunch, you watch, I went to Europe, en famille, for the first time and, if a month of pasta and two weeks of schnitzels built me very happy, this trip genuinely gained serious traction for me when our develop from Basel pulled into the Gare de l’Est in Paris early on a sweltering August morning. The queue at the cab rank was hopeless, so my mother decided breakfast was the answer, and in the space of a croissant that shattered into crumb when I touched it and the handsome waiter’s waft of frankly male sweat, I knew it would be Paris for me- and so it was.