Gastronomical awakening: A new book traces contemporary back to the writings of six francophile Americans and elicits in this reader blushing recollections of his own culinary wake-up call
From Justin Springs new book The Gourmands Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy, I discovered that the first vital stitches of my own adult destiny 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 writer living in Paris. It is due to the elegant writings of those six characters AJ Liebling, Alice B Toklas, MFK Fisher, Julia Child, Alexis Lichine and Richard Olney that the US went 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 cheat sheet on the players. Liebling, a native New Yorker, wrote about Paris and France for the New Yorker magazine before and after the second world war, with a special ardour for Gallic gastronomy. Toklas, the lover of writer 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 scolds 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 needs no introduction, since she penned the cookbook that became Americas aspirational tome in the kitchen for several decades, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and was also one of the first television cookery stars. Lichine, perhaps the weakest link in this chain (Elizabeth David might more logically have occupied his place in this book) was a savvy wine merchant and writer looking to make 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 led him to become a distinguished columnist and cookbook author. He is the dark star perhaps the most interesting one of all in this constellation.
The often brilliant and frequently droll writings of this sextet provided 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 50s and early 60s by mercenary food writers such as Poppy Cannon, who penned recipes like one for tinned chicken with tinned black cherries flambed in rum, housewives were urged to embrace an array of industrially produced convenience foods that would allow them to spend less time 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 produce, the way they do in France the gastronome and vinophiles Shangri-La.
This idea the ineluctable gastronomic grandeur of Gaul, first reached me on a warm June day in Westport, Connecticut, in the 70s. My high-school friend and I aged 15 were having lunch with his mother and her new lover at Bon Appetite, a restaurant recently opened by two women who had studied cooking in Paris.
Just past noon, a wispy blonde woman 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 just a little turn in the French sea salt, she said and withdrew.
Well, shall I wake up a radish then? said Mrs Wertheim, my friends mothers lover, and we laughed.
Then, a stilted silence, 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 probably 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 occurs 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 familys station wagon. The two women were waiting for us when we arrived, and the bemused expression on the face of Mrs Wertheim, a kohl-eyed textile designer with a heavy New-York accent, made me almost certain she knew why we were late. But then we were no more intended to know these married women were lovers, 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 ros 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 sex had already framed this meal as excruciatingly exciting even before the blonde woman returned and propped a chalkboard menu up on a bentwood chair next to our table.
With my timid suburban appetites only nascently aroused, I hadnt yet overcome my deep and, for a New Englander, perverse aversion to seafood, so I ordered the sorrel soup and the roast chicken. The vivid green potage with a swirl of sour cream tasted strangely but intriguingly like a copper penny, while the chicken left me dumbstruck. Even the mesclun salad was amazing, a colourful toss of tiny leaves and even a couple of nasturtium flowers, which I wrongly assumed were inedible, perhaps even poisonous. But they werent. The single best thing I ate 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 set me up for the same kind of quest blazed by Springs sybaritic sextet. And rather 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 art and music to good sex, and lots of it.
Two months after this lunch, you see, I went to Europe, en famille, for the first time and, if a month of pasta and two weeks of schnitzels made me very happy, this trip really gained serious traction for me when our train from Basel pulled into the Gare de lEst 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 waiters waft of frankly male sweat, I knew it would be Paris for me and so it was.
- Alexander Lobrano is an award-winning food and travel writer based in Paris; alexanderlobrano.com; @AlecLobrano