Mastering the Art of French Cooking
by Simone Beck, by Louisette Bertholle, by Julia Child
Knopf, 684 pp., $10.00
La Cuisine de France
by Mapie, the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec, edited and translated by Charlotte Turgeon
Orion, 709 pp., $12.50
French Provincial Cooking
by Elizabeth David, Introduction and notes by Narcissa G. Chamberlain
Harper & Row, 461 pp., $7.50
If any cuisine may be described as architectonic, it must surely be the French. Structured, controlled, and at its best never less than inspired, la vrai cuisine française is cooking which with some justification can lay claim to being an art. Certainly most other cuisines have been unable to resist the pervasive influence of French attitudes, techniques, and traditions.
The French culinary literature is immense. In no comparable body of work has the subject of food been so thoroughly explored. Curnonsky, the celebrated French gastronome, divided French cooking into four distinct types: la haute cuisine, la cuisine bourgeoise, la cuisine régionale, and la cuisine improvisée. His schematization is a fairly precise one although the categories invariably overlap. Which of the four one chooses to explore must be determined, unfortunately, by how much French one knows. Monumental work follows monumental work—by Carême, Dumas, Dubois, Gilbert, Reboul, Escoffier, Madame de St. Ange, AliBab, De Croze—the list is almost endless—but only a handful have been translated into English. And those, for the most part, are badly edited, clumsy, and often useless. Admittedly, the problems involved in the translation of cookbooks are enormous. Not only must the translator know French culinary terminology, but he must be familiar with such measuring descriptions, among others, as 1 verre à bordeaux (literally, a claret-glassful), or 1 verre à liqueur (a liqueur-glassful), and know that this should mean for American cooks, six tablespoons and one tablespoon, respectively. Also, he must know the dizzying differences between measuring by scales as the French do, and measuring by volume as we do. And, as if this weren’t enough, there are great differences in flours and cream: French flour is made from soft wheat, and most of ours from hard wheat; French crème fraiche or crème double has a higher butter fat content than ours, is considerably thicker, and has a different flavor altogether. The manner in which these French ingredients are reinterpreted for American use, will more often than not, determine the success or failure of a particular dish.
We must all, then, be enormously grateful for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The authors, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child, have approached their task with such enthusiasm, honesty, love, and above all, practical knowledge, that their book surpasses every other American book on French cooking in print today. For once, the architectural structure of the French cuisine is firmly and precisely outlined in American terms. And if a number of culinary areas are missed, it is only because the space available has been devoted to doing what is covered superbly. One would wish the book to be at least twice its imposing length.
Every recipe, simple or complex, clearly shows that these are authors who cook. And they have not limited themselves to la haute cuisine, either; Curnonsky’s syndrome is fully explored. On the one hand, there is a precise technical description of how to stuff a whole fillet of beef with foie gras …