The French Connection
We often talk about trends, whether it’s in politics, living room colors, weather—and such. And cooking is no exception. As an inveterate cookbook reader, I’ve wondered what’s next in food writing. I needn’t have worried. No sooner than the hundredth (or close to it) slow- cooker book appeared (was it Slow Cooker Road Kill?) and bam, suddenly the next wave of books, this time on vegan cooking, comes rolling into the stores. Before you can say “soy and tofu,” there’s a five-foot shelf of books that explain the movement and can be found right next to the overflowing vegetarian section.
It’s the same thing with books for diabetics, or the celiac-challenged: there are low-fat or gluten- or dairy-free recipe books galore. And publishers are quick to respond to the latest food craze. A perfect example: the many new volumes devoted to kale—kale! Yup, the maturing boomers, at least those who still cook, can find help in dealing with various health issues and diets.
“How I Got Where I Am”
While there is a market for cooking for specific dietary concerns, I question if the world needs another recipe- only book on Southern cuisine, slow- cooking, on bread making, or pastry, or hors d’oeuvre, or Napa Valley delights, or ethnic goodies from France, Italy, China, Japan, Thailand, Morocco, Israel, and all points north, south, east, and west. If I see another tome with “Mediterranean” in the title, I’ll…I’ll… avoid it. There are marvelous books already available. So where do we look for something that’s a good read, and possibly something to cook from?
I’m what my mom called a “nosy parker,” and I’ve had that nose in biographies, and especially autobiographies, since I stopped reading Dick and Jane. And, being involved in culinary matters, I naturally pounce on books about people in the food world. The minute I read that prolific author Anne Willan had a new “tell-all” book delightfully called One Soufflé at a Time I had to have a copy! I’ve met Anne several times at food conferences and found her charming, gracious, and knowledgeable. In the book, she traces her life from a small hamlet in Yorkshire, to university life at Cambridge, a stint teaching at the Cordon Bleu in Paris (a place then living on its laurels), and to a French chateau where she started a student-friendly cooking school called La Varenne.
Anne’s book is a good read, with a variety of recipes about every twenty pages—everything from Ginger Biscuits to a Red Wine Dessert Tart. And it’s about cooking in France—a theme for so many “memoirs with recipes.” Read on and you’ll see what I mean. (Maybe it’s because “memoir” is French?)
Although not all the food memoirs I’ve read originate in France. Last summer I was lent a copy of Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialities by Julia Reed. I read it and snapped up a newer book by the same author: But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria. Are you laughing already? Reed gives us a couple of things for the belly—good ol’ Southern recipes and deep-down laughs.
A Personal Collection of Favorites
Hopping on the memoir-recipe book trail meant a browse through my shelves to unearth similar books that I’ve enjoyed and maybe written about over the years, books I simply couldn’t part with. Let me list some favorites, both new and not-so-new. Perhaps it will give you a few ideas for people on your gift list who still read real books—and cook. (What an awful thing to say, but you know how things are going.) Here are some classics with this theme:
The late M.F.K. Fisher is perhaps the most revered of American food writers, so it’s not surprising that she combined biographical notes with just plain good recipes in several books. All of her books are great reading (and five of her early books are now in one volume called The Art of Eating). The best example of what I’m writing about this month is one of Fisher’s later books called With Bold Knife and Fork. I stumbled on it years ago and was enthralled… an instant fan. I promise that you or your cooking friend will be, too.
Joan Reardon, a close friend of Ms. Fisher’s, wrote Among the Pots and Pans in 2008 to celebrate what would have been her friend’s 100th birthday. It’s a charmer, with early photos of Fisher and sweet renderings of her succession of houses and kitchens in France and the U.S.A. As a bonus you’ll find some favorite Fisher recipes sprinkled around. What a delight.
James Beard grew up in Portland, Oregon. He enjoyed a long career in cooking and giving cooking classes and was a prolific writer of cookbooks. You can read his autobiography and learn some of his family recipes (American and Chinese) that inspired him. The book is called Delights and Prejudices. Although it was written many years ago and covers his early life, it’s been reprinted often and is still found online at Amazon books. I make coleslaw religiously using his recipe in the book.
A tip: watch for a new book, due at the end of this month, called Provence, 1970. It’s about a sort of summit conference of culinary stars held that year: Julia Child, Beard, Fisher, and Richard Olney. I can’t wait.
Right across from my desk is the book Bert Greene’s Kitchen: A Book of Memories and Recipes. This is a wow; the late Bert Greene was a wow and his humor and wit and way with food and words shine through this treasure of a collection. Get to know Bert’s many books. I know you will thank me for this advice.
Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice is a fascinating tale of a kid, barely in his teens when he started in a professional kitchen, who rose to become not only chef to the French President, but a cookbook author, TV personality and—I can attest to this—a marvelous human being.
The late Pierre Franey used a ghostwriter, but “his” book, A Chef’s Tale: A Memoir of Food, France, and America, is well worth a read. He was a charming, funny, and extremely talented person.
Julia Child’s My Life in France is everything that Julie and Julia wasn’t. I loved Streep, but the J & J book and movie smelled like overcooked cabbage to me.
Judith Jones is the woman responsible for persuading the bosses at her publishing house to print Julia Child’s first book. Judith’s own memoir, My Life in Food, is a real treat. Published just a few years ago, it is a view of life as a food editor at a prestigious publishing house, in her case Alfred Knopf. A good editor can add immeasurably to a reader’s enjoyment of a book; there are good American (hey!) recipes as well. And if your situation fits hers, don’t miss Judith’s wonderful The Pleasures of Cooking for One.
Remember that bestseller from 1998, Heartburn, written by the late acclaimed writer Nora Ephron? It’s a great example of the memoir with recipes genre and from an offbeat source. Check it out.
We pause now for some newer stuff:
Like Mother, Like Daughter
I first discovered a Georgeanne Brennan cookery book when browsing through an elegant garden supply store in Berkley. It might have been the 70s. I loved it, toted it back east and started cooking her flavorful but California- light food. About 1970 she moved to a farmhouse in Provence and continued to write. That’s an understatement! She did most of the Williams-Sonoma coffee table books (still good to cook from). If you go to Amazon books and check out their pages on her, you’ll see her amazing output. To fit in with my memoir/recipe theme, just read her offbeat ’08 treasure called A Pig in Provence. It’s delightful fun.
Along comes her daughter Ethyl who, as a child, was shuttled back and forth between France and San Francisco. Those memories inspired the brand new book Paris to Provence. Ethyl’s co-author is Sara Remington who shared a similar summer-abroad life; both are photographers and it shows. The book’s a beaut, and I almost scooped the ham and cheese sandwich—the Croque Madame— from the page. I can’t resist being a smarty-pants: the concoction is actually a “Monsieur” as it’s made with ham. A “Madame” is usually made with chicken. (They needed me to edit this work.)
From Blog to Book
Have you readers noticed how much longer the headnotes in recipes have been getting? Those are the blah- blah-blahs under the recipe’s title and above the list of ingredients. You know, sentences such as “This is my version of a recipe that Desdeamonia and I ate at a little place in Peru. I never had better Lima beans.” Join enough of these revelations together, beg or steal that bean recipe plus a few others, and voila (dang it—more French) you’ve got a book!
It doesn’t take much brainpower to see that the best food blogs could be turned into book form. Here are three to check out:
My Berlin Kitchen: Adventures in Love and Life by Luisa Weiss is so well written. I’m about halfway through this paperback and I’m rationing the reading to enjoy it even more. The book is an extension of her online blog called “The Wednesday Chef.” Check it out. I’m now hooked on that. Oh, for more hours in the day!
Ann Mah, whose blog I hadn’t seen, has hit the memoir scene with Mastering the Art of French Eating. She and her husband and baby divide their time between the States and a place in Paree. I enjoy her writing and am slowly going through the topics that you can access on her Web site. (So maybe you and yours don’t need the book.) The recipes in the book are pretty standard French fare: pistou, cassoulet, fondue surrounded by good prose.
David Lebovitz has written a slew of dessert cookbooks. The book The Sweet Life in Paris has been recommended by friends. Now to find time to read it—and—yikes—it’s more French stuff: must be the air over there. And, look out: come April you’ll be able to check out David’s My Paris Kitchen.
What ever happened to the great rash of Italian books, particularly on Tuscan cooking? With the notable exception of Frances Mayes’s several books (and she is American), I haven’t seen an Italian tell-all with recipes. To all the cookbook publishers I ask: “A penne for your thoughts.”
A Few Ideas for Cooks Who May Be Contemplating a Memoir but Need a Title
For Paula Dean how about: I’ll Only Open Mah Mouth to Eat.
An idea: Giada deLaurentis could dedicate her next book thusly: “I owe it all to my Family Name, my Dressmaker, and My Dentist.” As to a title, maybe Smiling at Life, Food, and the Camera?
A book by the Barefoot Contessa: How to Avoid Spattered Blouses or perhaps A Chicken for Jeffrey, Crème Brule for Moi.
Jacques Pepin has already written a terrific memoir but maybe he could pull it off again with something like You Say Leek and I Say Lick.
I hope that when Guy Fieri writes his “tell-all,” he’ll have a section on “Techniques for Bleaching” and include his “Kitchen Tips.” My favorite (I think he said this): “Don’t have White Wine? Use Budweiser.”
Martha Stewart could give us My Life in My Kitchens: Or From Nutley to Nuts and from the Slammer to Salad Nicoise.”
Sandra Lee could write something like Aisle Six and Eight Plus Frozen Foods and the Gov.: It’s Dinner!
And bow-tied but never tongue-tied Christopher Kimball could have a real winner in a book for the fastidious male cook with: Never Again Dip Your Tie in the Soup.