Three books on epicurean expatriates
The Gourmands’ Way by Justin Spring
The clever title of this book and its cover photo of floor staff in white tie, poised for service at a formal Paris restaurant in the ’60s, suggest readers are going to be treated to a Proustian taste of the past. Justin Spring lays out a feast in fact, with this spirited group portrait of six key figures in twentieth-century American food and wine writing: AJ Liebling, Alice B Toklas, Julia Child, MFK Fisher, Alexis Lichine and Richard Olney.
All six spent formative years in Paris in the ’40s and ’50s and Spring uses previously unpublished material to limn their personal odysseys to fame, with the great city in the thirty years after WW11 as a radiant background.
As a war correspondent, Liebling reported with panache on the pleasures of dining in Paris and the provinces; in the guise of a cookbook Toklas wrote a memoir of her life in Paris with Gertrude Stein; Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as America’s first national television food celebrity, demystified cuisine bourgeoise for America’s gourmet cooks; and MFK Fisher used food and the occasions of its enjoyment as tropes for her stylised stories of memory, love and loss. Wine importer Lichine would see to it that aspirational American wine connoisseurs stocked their cellars with French wine, and the painter Richard Olney’s poetic food and wine writing brought his personal art de vivre to a cult audience of professional and non-professional cooks.
Through the prism of their Paris years, Spring describes each of their very different relationships to France and to French culture, including France’s highest ideals about food and wine. Some eventually left France forever, others never returned to the US, making their lives as permanent expatriates.
Spring sees the City of Light as a romantic unifying theme, but he’s also a clear-eyed researcher separating fact from food world fable. He describes how Julia Child first comprehensively flunked her Cordon Bleu examination in Paris and the dubious circumstances of her eventual pass; MFK Fisher is cast as the unreliable narrator par excellence and Spring is forensic about her compulsive lying, child-like narcissism and careful cultivation of the food world mythology that grew up around her (the revealing story of her disastrous involvement in the Time-Life Foods of the World series is macabrely hilarious).
Spring is also particularly sensitive in his telling, for the first time, of how an early interview by the US Army and the consequent humiliating rescission by the Fulbright Commission of a painting scholarship, first determined Richard Olney’s exile as a gay artist in Paris.
Australian wine lovers of a certain vintage may find the story of gambler, womaniser and wine visionary Alexis Lichine, a familiar one. Charmingly persuasive and adroit with other people’s money, Lichine bought Château Prieuré Cantenac in Margaux at the age of thirty-eight and re-named it Château Prieuré-Lichine, much to the disdain of Bordeaux’s entrenched families of negociants and vignerons. He was one of the first to disrupt local custom in the region by introducing American business practices such as cellar door sales and tourist dégustations. Lichine was to become one of the largest exporters of fine French wine to America’s heartland.
Each of Spring’s characters made an important contribution to America’s understanding of the rich traditions, techniques and secrets of French gastronomy. But he also argues that their legacy runs deeper.
“As a result many French ideas, concepts and understandings entered American culture so completely that we no longer think of them as French. In the space of a generation or two, they had simply been incorporated into America’s own various culinary practices.”
These writers were early drivers of each of the major transitions in twentieth-century US food culture, from convenience food to fine French cuisine to today’s focus on local, sustainable, produce-driven food and natural winemaking.
Spring reminds us that the current enlightened obsession with artisanal food and wine production, seasonality and terroir, championed by chefs, diners and wine drinkers from Sydney to Copenhagen, has a history. Here he is on the legacy of Richard Olney, whose painter’s eye in the kitchen, lyrical literary voice and practical cooking instruction suggested an entire way of living:
“… the idea that really fine, simple cooking should be based on fresh local ingredients, with the best of those ingredients serving as a starting point for an imaginative, improvisational menu…may seem ridiculously simple today… [but it] was radical enough for Americans of the early 1970s, many of whom had been brought up on convenience cooking, low-grade supermarket produce and industrially processed foods. Most American restaurants meanwhile relied upon showy effects, culinary novelties and rich, filling ingredients to justify their expense. But among those who cared passionately about the aesthetic pleasure inherent in fine ‘simple’ cooking Olney made the case for change … and that change was crossing the Atlantic.”
Spring’s timely book has crossed the Pacific and it’s a cracking summer read. Look out for it.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017
The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home by David Lebovitz
I gravitated to David Lebovitz’s popular blog shortly after he moved to Paris in 2004. At first, I was there just for his restaurant recommendations, which was useful in particular for its list of bistros and bars open during the July and August grands vacances. Gradually, however, I began to enjoy his postings of the daily challenges he faced as an American expatriate living in Paris, cooking and developing recipes for a growing international readership. In this memoir, Lebovitz mines the A Year in Provence genre with an account of an eventful eight-month search for un appart in the 11th arrondissement.
Everything here has the breezy panache of his blog: it begins with a stern woman instructing him to “pee into this cup” (he’s getting medical clearance to take on a bank loan) and along the way we’re treated to a cast of characters who in turn assist or bedevil his home-hunting efforts ( with Leibovitz reserving some of his funniest kvetchings for sleazy Parisien real estate agents). He offers some clever personal aphorisms about the City of Lights and its habitués (“the more high-strung the woman the higher the heels”) and makes some bad puns;
“I had paid my dues to the city, sometimes in a series of instalments (thanks to Electricite de France); sometimes the cost was more than financial. In addition to my shirt, I had nearly lost my mind. All of it had been a shock at the time (and not just because of the faulty electricity).”
His eye for detail and a certain pernicketiness make him that rare bird: a natural writer and a natural cook. The recipes in this book seem to bear no relation to the text, however, and it may be that he tells us a little more than we need to know about French banking, kitchen appliances and ugly fixtures. His droll observations about the Gallic personality, however, are fun;
“Complaining comes easy to the French (which is why I didn’t have much trouble adjusting to life in France) especially on the subject of neighbors. When I took the language test for a visa, the proctor had to choose a scenario for us to discuss, based on something typical of everyday life. ‘Imaginez monsieur’ she began ‘that I am a friend who is having trouble with a neighbor’. Of course I aced it, since that’s such a frequent topic of discussion.”
Lebovitz, who worked for thirteen years as a pastry chef at the celebrated Californian restaurant Chez Panisse, is a good and entertaining writer. That’s not something you could readily say about many of the former or current Chez Panissers in print. His book is worth the detour.
Published by Penguin Random House 2017
Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman
Nancy Harmon Jenkins in liner notes to Adam Federman’s biography of English food writer Patience Gray writes,
“Patience Gray was probably the least-known great food writer the English-speaking world has ever produced. Her influence has been pervasive, even as she herself has resisted easy definition.”
Gray was a forager when Rene Redzepi was still in short trousers. She was as intellectually whip-smart as her contemporary, Elizabeth David, but her best writing wasn’t done in the comfortable surroundings of a Chelsea townhouse. Her best-known book Honey From A Weed was written when a fridge, electricity and running water were luxuries Gray had turned her back on, as she made a hard-scrabble life with the stone-carver and artist Norman Mommens. Together they followed a vein of stone stretching from Provence to Catalonia and Tuscany, living for a time on the Greek island of Naxos, and finally landing up on a ruined sheep farm in hot, dry, Puglia.
In her sparsely equipped Apulian kitchen she composed simple, elegant salads of wild greens and boiled up edible weeds to include in rustic soups and frittatas; simmered stews of haricot beans, onions, olives tomatoes and herbs; braised a veal shoulder with prunes and potatoes; and bottled conserves of fungi and artichoke hearts. She also made styptics for domestic cuts and scrapes from horseweed and designed jewellery while reflecting on the rearing of pigs in Naxos and the temperaments of her Salentine neighbours.
Over many years she recorded fascinating if somewhat oblique recipes for peasant dishes such as “boleti cooked like tripe” rabbit in garlic sauce and “widowed” potatoes with a picada of almond, pine nut, paprika and tomato, all of which eventually found their way into Honey From A Weed.
Federman’s meticulously researched biography is valuable for covering the period in her life before the rugged, vagabond odyssey around the Mediterranean. We learn of her experience during World War II, raising two children out of wedlock, her career in London as a translator, editor, and writer. Federman provides the background to her first cookbook Plats Du Jour – a runaway bestseller – and how she went on to be the first woman’s editor of The Observer.
Honey From A Weed is, of course, her most famous book and it has a timeless quality that has kept it in print for years. Like the best cookery books it is more than just a book of recipes – it’s an anthropology of Mediterranean peasant folkways and a meditation on “moments unvalued in an acquisitive age” as someone once nicely described Gray’s writerly preoccupations.
In a recent interview, biographer Adam Federman observed:
“When Gray died in 2005, the BBC described her as an ‘almost forgotten culinary star.’ Yet her influence, particularly among chefs and other food writers, has had a lasting and profound effect on the way we view and celebrate good food and regional cuisines.
Gray’s prescience was unrivalled: She wrote about what today we would call the Slow Food movement—from foraging to eating locally—long before it became part of the cultural mainstream. Imagine if Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver had spent several decades living among Italian, Greek, and Catalan peasants, recording their recipes and the significance of food and food gathering to their way of life.”
In this long-overdue biography, ten years in the making, Federman does justice to an overlooked, pioneering food writer. Put it high on your summer reading list.
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing 2017