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Gastro-Porn

Simple French Food

by Richard Olney
Atheneum, 448 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Mediterranean Cooking

by Paula Wolfert
Quadrangle, 384 pp., $12.95

The Carter Family Favorites Cookbook

by Ceil Dyer
Delacorte, 244 pp., $8.95

Feast Without Fuss

by Lady Pamela Harlech
Atheneum, 375 pp., $12.95

Irish Countryhouse Cooking

compiled by Rosie Tinne
Weathervane Books, distributed by Crown, 222 pp., $3.98

The Cookery of England

by Elisabeth Ayrton
Penquin (London), 547 pp., £1.25

The Taste of America

by John Hess, by Karen Hess
Viking, 320 pp., $8.95

Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking

by Paul Bocuse
Pantheon, 520 pp., $20.00

Revolutionizing French Cooking

by Roy Andries de Groot
McGraw-Hill, 352 pp., $15.95

Cuisine Minceur

by Michel Guérard
Morrow, 272 pp., $12.95

Dietary Goals for the United States Needs, United States Senate

prepared by the Staff of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human
US Government Printing Office, 79 pp., $.95 (paper)

Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives

edited by K.C. Chang
Yale University Press, 429 pp., $20.00

The New French Cooking: Minceur Cuisine Extraordinaire

by Armand Aulicino
Grosset and Dunlap, 293 pp., $4.95 (paper)

They came and told one of the more recent dukes of Devonshire that in the interests of economy and general modern-mindedness Chatsworth really ought to dispense with the pastry chef. “What,” cried the duke, aghast. “Is a man no longer to be allowed his biscuit?” Somehow things never seem to get better in the world of eating. Indeed, if we are to believe Marvin Harris’s version of pre-history in Cannibals and Kings, things have gone more or less downhill since the upper palaeolithic period when the hunter-gatherers enjoyed high quality diets with plenty of free time too.

But those times are gone, alas—and are unlikely to return, since analysts of the connections between energy and food such as David Pimentel have reckoned that the land mass of the present United States could only support 750,000 hunter-gatherers before over-crowding would force agricultural settlements and the whole ghastly trend toward Earl Butz, General Foods, and liquid protein diets.

Cookbooks with certain very rare exceptions, such as Marinetti’s futurist cookbook, almost by definition try to appropriate the past, at least those bits of it that seem palatable. And so usually they become versions of pastoral, with the urban masticator being whisked into a world where kitchen and garden co-exist in harmonious union instead of being mediated by the Safeway, the can, the freezer, and the poison list on the back of every package. Here’s a fairly representative swatch of pastoral from Richard Olney’s Simple French Food:

Comforting also are the fantastic, crowded out-of-door morning markets, of which that in Toulon is exemplary, bearing ample witness to the fact that people still want fresh garden produce and seafood and to the certainty that, on the whole, the French willingly spend a great deal more on food than a similar budget in any other part of the world would permit. The banks of fruits and vegetables, freshly picked (depending on the season), baby violet artichokes, tender young broad beans, tiny green beans, peas, tomatoes, fennel, squash, and zucchini squash with its flower still clinging; creamy white cauliflower the size of one’s fist, giant sweet peppers, and asparagus—white, violet, and green; figs, cherries, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, and medlar; the endless tresses of garlic and wild mushrooms of all kinds (including the divine amanita of the Caesars); and crates full of live snails and crabs, both of which constantly escape and wander in a wide circle around the vendor’s stand. There are the odors of basil and pissaladière; the mongers’ cants [sic], melodic and raucous; and the Renoiresque play of light through the plane trees’ foliage, an all-over sense of gaiety and well-being…

Provence is of course the heartland of cookbook pastoral, and we can set Olney down on the shelf next to Elizabeth David, who began her great French Provincial Cooking with a reverie in her London kitchen:

…now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew. The picture flickers into focus again. Ford Madox Ford’s words come back, “somewhere between Vienne and Valence, below Lyons on the Rhône, the sun is shining, and south of Valence Provincia Romana, the Roman Province, lies beneath the sun. There there is no more any evil, for there the apple will not flourish and the brussels sprout will not grow at all.”

By the time French Provincial Cooking was published in 1960 Elizabeth David had been conducting her elegant propaganda for French regional peasant and bourgeois cuisine for a decade. And it was having considerable and generally beneficial effect—at least in England. By the early 1960s, when I was there (and eating cheap Indian food most of the time), half the academic kitchens in north Oxford had earthenware pots in them, simmering queue de boeuf aux olives noires or a daube du béarn, or indeed the fearful cassoulet itself; this last produced with prodigious effort and damage to digestion and the thought processes generally.

(Students of Provence cookbook pastoral will know that cassoulet invariably stirs the writer to protracted analysis and counsel. The normally pithy Elizabeth David spends three pages on this dish; in the first volume of their Mastering the Art of French Cooking [1961], Julia Child et al. take six pages, or rather eight if you include their preliminary advice on how to roast pork in a casserole; and even this barrage of advice omits a recipe for confit d’oie, which only makes its appearance on two pages of their second volume [1970]. I’m glad to see that some sense of brevity is restored in Paula Wolfert’s excellent Braudelian Mediterranean Cooking [1977], which cuts the saga down to three pages, although she does shirk the confit business. By contrast Escoffier’s Cook Book, which had to cover more ground than just Provence, takes just three-quarters of a page.)

These cookbook pastorals have some pretty consistent formal rules. There is the customary invocation to Escoffier’s edict Faites simple and usually a doff of the toque to Brillat-Savarin, though I’m glad to see that Olney denounces him for the gormandizing old bore he was. And there’s the insistence that only the best ingredients will produce the best results. This apparently self-evident piece of counsel is actually a crafty pastoral ruse, since the cookbook reader is usually nowhere near Olney’s Toulon market or some equivalent haven and thus is damned before he begins. You can of course try to interview a fish in the local store to see whether its eyes are clear, its gills red, and its scales in prime condition, but fishmongers have a limit to their patience and so you are left with the unspoken recommendation of the cookbooks—namely to get up at four in the morning and go to the local wholesale market where you will be trampled to death by the retailers and restaurateurs, and despised by the wholesalers to boot.

In keeping with the pastoral genre, many cookbooks are in fact moral tracts about gastronomic good behavior in which the reader-consumer’s best strategy is to fall into line without too much fuss. Sometimes, in a confusion of genres, amateur cookbook writers attempt a jocose tone, hoping to inveigle the reader into a shared ritual. Thus, in her The Carter Family Favorites Cook book, Ceil Dyer attempts some advice on the preparation of coleslaw: “Cut the cabbage in quarters, place in a large bowl of well-salted cold water, and let stand for at least one hour. This is to make sure any possible ‘critters’ emerge—nothing spoils good slaw like a many-footed friend. Once soaked, drain and place the cabbage on a large chopping board and chop away like mad….” This is all wrong, and the reader backs cautiously away from Dyer, somehow associating her with the critter instead of with the healthy strips of slaw.

Far superior to the Dyer approach is the pastoral-aristocratic strategy of Pamela Harlech, whose Feast Without Fuss invites the reader to consume, in a simple act of transubstantiation, aristos and their camp followers. Lady Harlech, as the book jacket takes good care to term her, announces in her acknowledgements that:

The following recipes are reproduced by kind permission of Condé Nast Publications Ltd.—Miss Fleur Cowles’s Jerusalem artichoke soup; Mrs. John Hay Whitney’s oyster stew; Madame Jacques de Beaumarchais’s oeufs chimay; the Earl of Gowrie’s oeufs en cocotte with duck jelly; Mrs. Anthony Lund’s taramasalata; Mrs. Rory McEwen’s avocado and caviar mousse; Peter Coats’s Mr. Briggs’s avocado ramekin; Baroness Dacre’s curried melon and shrimp; Mrs. Arthur Schlesinger’s spinach quiche; Lady Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal’s poached bass; Fiona Charlton-Dewar’s kedgeree; the Honorable Mrs. James Ogilvy’s deviled pheasant; Anthony West’s good chicken recipe; Mrs. Jeanette de Rothschild’s special stuffing; the Earl of Gowrie’s cold steak au poivre; Derek Hart’s stew; Mrs. Ralph F. Colin’s baked Virginia ham; Mrs. Anthony Lewis’s veal goulash; Anthony West’s veal roast; Anthony West’s kidneys in cream and Calvados….

But I’ll stop here, for the merging of person and product goes altogether too far with the thought of West’s innards (or “variety meats” as they are properly called) being bathed in cream and apple-jack and served up to the would-be gourmet.

There are, as a matter of fact, some pretty disgusting things in the Harlech anthology. We need go no further than “Peter Coats’s Mr. Briggs’s avocado ramekin” listed above. Lady Harlech confides that she was given the recipe by Coats, who presumably got it from Briggs. What this man Briggs apparently did—unless either Coats or Harlech got it wrong—was to put three ripe avocados in a blender along with three quarters of a can of Crosse & Blackwell clear consommé, some lemon juice, and two tablespoons of cream. Half the resultant gunk is then put into the ramekins and allowed to set in the refrigerator. A little later chopped walnuts are added, then more gunk, then a little bit more Crosse & Blackwell, and finally some bits of crisp bacon. The stuff, says Harlech, should then be kept in the refrigerator until it is finally unleashed on some unsuspecting guests. Harlech, naturally, does not mention guests unsuspecting or not, but I do not imagine the ramekins were destined for anyone with the least capacity for resistance, such as children or pets. Guests will eat almost anything.

However even the Coats/Briggs/Harlech effort pales in comparison with a recipe from another volume in the pastoral-aristocratic mode. This is Irish Countryhouse Cooking, edited by Rosie Tinne. Miss Tinne, who seems to run a restaurant in Dublin called Snaffles (which gives the whole game away), has put together one of those cookbooks where each page is a simulation of the letterhead of the relevant recipe provider, thus allowing the reader almost to imagine that “Lindy Dufferin and Ava” (facsimile signature) is sending her “Clandeboye chicken” to him personally from Clandeboye House, Bangor, Co. Down.

On page 77 of this dreadful volume, beneath the letterhead “The Glebe, Leixlip, Co. Kildare” we find a recipe for “Cold curried fish.” An in decipherable signature which appears by process of elimination to be that of Lady Holmpatrick is attached to the following:

1/2 lb spaghetti—cooked and cold

1-2 lb white fish—cooked and cold

1-2 pt white sauce—cold

1 (or more) tin shrimps

1 dessertspoon curry powder

chopped chives

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon redcurrent jelly or apricot jam

GARNISH

parsley

paprika

Mix all ingredients gently together, sprinkle with parsley or paprika. Chill and serve.

I wonder what the hunter-gatherers of the upper palaeolithic period would have made of this. Short of lowering one’s naked foot slowly into the weeds at the bottom of a pond it is hard to imagine a more depressing experience.

Indeed Irish cooking, justly maligned, does badly in the current crop of cookbooks. Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking, one of the fancier productions of the season, has a recipe for Ragoût de mouton à l’irlandaise which defiles the divine purity of Irish stew by urging a bouquet garni, lamb shoulder and lower ribs (instead of just best end of neck), and celery. And Bocuse omits the pearl barley which is the whole point and without which life—so far as Irish stew is concerned—lacks all meaning. There should only be the meat, potatoes, onions, and barley. Bocuse is not alone in his errors, and indeed was possibly influenced by Escoffier, who gives virtually the same recipe. Prosper Montagné, in his Larousse Gastronomique, adds insult to injury by calling his version of Irish stew “Ragoût d’agneau à blanc (à l’anglaise).” There may be a problem here. On the old packet boat which used to ply between Fishguard (Wales) and Cork (Ireland), the dishes on the menu were rendered on either side of the card in both Irish and English. Except for Irish stew, which appeared only in English and which apparently defeated the best efforts of Gaelic scholars.

Be that as it may, for a long time after the war it seemed the English country house pastoral cookbooks had been vanquished by the pro-French school and that the daube had triumphed utterly over Lancashire hot pot. (If the Julia Child wave is anything to go by, something of the same sort seems to have occurred in the US—France’s revenge for the Marshall Plan.) In England, particularly in the Sixties, little inns sprang up, often run by retired naval officers, in which zealous renditions of bourgeois French cuisine were offered and painstakingly evaluated in the Good Food Guide, an extremely pallid and tolerant version of the Michelin.

But gradually, perhaps as the horrible memory of rationing and whale meat receded and with them the immediate appeal of Continental good eating, a reappropriation of the English, Scottish, even Cornish (though not Welsh) past seemed to take place, more or less at the same time as the devolutionary movements. In 1968 a slimmed-down version of the great Eliza Acton’s mid-nineteenth-century Modern Cookery for Private Families was issued, with a prideful introduction by Elizabeth David. Acton’s delicate yet properly austere recipes were made available to a wider public by Penguin in 1974 and the reputation of the cheerless Beeton as the Escoffier of England at last was under serious assault. By 1970 David herself had published the first volume of “English Cooking, Ancient and Modern” under the title Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. By the mid-1970s several exercises in national gastronomic excavation had appeared, including Elisabeth Ayrton’s The Cookery of England, published by Penguin this year. “Let us cook and eat our traditional dishes,” Ayrton’s introduction concluded, “remembering that the food of France should be a treat not because it is better than our own but because it is different.” Hurray for the Cornish pasty rather than Olney’s pissaladière; down with bourrides and bouillabaisses, and up with grilled herrings with mustard sauce.

There were signs of counterattack against Gallo-gastromonopoly in the United States too. John and Karen Hess’s polemical The Taste of America, published earlier this year, paid unstinting tribute to French cuisine, but mercilessly belabored gastrosnobbery and also attempted to excavate an authentic American cookery from beneath the heavy footprints of Fannie Farmer, the nutritionists, the home economists, the food processing companies, and junk food.

The French were not idle amid such signs of mutiny from the periphery, and over the last few years a tremendous counterattack has rolled off the presses. First it was labelled la nouvelle cuisine française and latterly cuisine minceur. The premises of these self-proclaimed advances in the art of cookery are simple enough: that modern times and modern arteries no longer permit the sauces of nineteenth-century French cooking, that cooking is a revelation of the inner and spiritual essence of each ingredient rather than a decorative assemblage of flavors. The watchwords are authenticity and purity.

Much of this has to do with the history of publicity and the demands of the French tourist and restaurant industry rather than with gastronomy. Sometimes, indeed, it seemed as though the whole movement had to do with a war between various French guidebooks—such as the Kleber or the Gault-Millau—each discovering a new tradition and a new pantheon of chefs, and each assailing the ancient monopoly of Michelin.

Certainly the wretched American reader was placed at an even greater disadvantage than usual; purity and freshness were stressed ever more unremittingly, and the distance to the French country market seemed altogether unbridgeable, despite encouraging noises from visiting French chefs who were reported to take sackfuls of Idaho potatoes back across the Atlantic with them.

Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking is a fair example of the new genre. The American introduction by Colette Rossant makes a customary stress: “Quality is the most important criterion in the choice of ingredients. As he explains in his introduction, in Lyons, Bocuse himself goes to the market every morning to choose his menu for the day. Whatever he finds fresh and in season is what will appear on his table for lunch or dinner.” The sense of the unattainable is rendered even more palpable with the news that “In the book, there are numerous recipes for small game birds that usually are not found in United States markets…. Bocuse asked that these recipes be retained in the book, because he hopes that readers will enjoy them, and when traveling in France, recognize these dishes on the menus and be tempted to order them.”

It turns out really that the book is not actually a guide to practical cooking but rather a costly exercise ($20.00) in gastro-porn. Now it cannot escape attention that there are curious parallels between manuals on sexual techniques and manuals on the preparation of food; the same studious emphasis on leisurely technique, the same apostrophes to the ultimate, heavenly delights. True gastro-porn heightens the excitement and also the sense of the unattainable by proffering colored photographs of various completed recipes. The gastro-pornhound can, in the Bocuse book for example, moisten his lips over a color plate of fresh water crayfish au gratin à la Fernand Point. True, you cannot get fresh crayfish in the United States or indeed black truffles, three tablespoons of which, cut into julienne, are recommended by Bocuse. No matter. The delights offered in sexual pornography are equally unattainable. Roland Barthes made an equivalent point about ornamental cookery in Mythologies, when he was discussing the recipe photographs in Elle:

This ornamental cookery is indeed supported by wholly mythical economics. This is an openly dream-like cookery, as proved by the photographs in Elle, which never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose consumption can perfectly well be accomplished just by looking. It is, in the fullest meaning of the word, a cuisine of advertisement, totally magical….

Alongside Bocuse, who offers full-blooded gastro-porn along with the traditional pastoral, are the exponents of cuisine minceur. The premise of cuisine minceur is that you can have your cake and eat it with a clear conscience; that French inventiveness has brought relief to gastronomes eager for fine nosh but fearful of high blood pressure, cholesterol, not to mention cancer of the colon. Virtually banished are butter, cream, other fats, starches, sugar, flour. This Gallic answer to the McGovern senate committee’s report on dietary goals for the United States (less fat, less sugar, less salt, more complex carbohydrates) is certainly a saner strategy than the traditional pattern, namely abandoned consumption of rich food followed by brutal dieting on the morrow: two huge American industries shackled together. And again it is a form of tourist advertisement for Americans making their Continental holiday plans: eat like a hog and stay healthy. Roy Andries de Groot’s Revolutionizing French Cooking, published last year, is really a catalogue of suitable French restaurants where the chef will not tip a pint of cream into the sauce while your back is turned.

The gastro-porn that accompanies this style is far more restrained than the Rubenesque excesses of the Bocuse genre. The photographs in Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur, which crept into Christmas stockings last year just when people were bracing themselves for the Yuletide high-fat blow-out, stress the healthful simplicities of nature. Bocuse’s crayfish (about forty all told) swim in cream, cognac, wine, truffles, and even two tablespoons of flour: Guérard’s photograph has just a very few crayfish resting chastely on leaves of trevise lettuce (“It is picked very young in the vegetable garden at Eugenie les Bains”). The plate rests on earth, next to a bunch of primroses. The other photographs are in a similar style and plainly owe much to Japanese traditions of food presentation and arrangement. The entire cuisine, indeed, owes a good deal to the Orient, to which the minceur gang pays fervent tribute. Cooking and eating here become exercises of the good, balanced life in an age of recession, energy shortages, and high food prices.

And indeed essays in an interesting volume edited by K.C. Chang and titled Food in Chinese Culture make the parallel quite clearly. The Sung period produced the world’s first great cuisine. The Hangchow visited by Marco Polo bulged with restaurants, fast food joints, ritual feasts, and general gormandizing. But, as Michael Freeman makes clear in his essay, minceur morality was also abroad in the land. Freeman quotes Su Shih’s essay in praise of Tung-po’s soup:

Tung-po’s soup is a vegetable soup that he cooked when he was living in retirement. It did not contain fish or meat or the five flavorings, but it had a natural sweetness. His recipe was this: he took sung cabbage, rape-turnip, wild daikon, and shepherd’s purse and scrubbed them thoroughly to get rid of the bitter sap. First he took a bit of oil to coat the pot, then he put in the vegetables with water, along with a bit of rice and fresh ginger.”… For Su Shih [Freeman continues] and for many others of the intellectual elite, naturalness was itself a value, and their interest in mountain herbs and peasant dishes reflected a broader concern for health, society, and self-definition. The praise of simple food, held up in opposition to the elaborate cookery and costly ingredients of the city, was attuned to common intellectual concerns….

The cook, to return to the modern minceur school, thus appears as a moral guide, appropriating not only the national pastoral virtues but world gastronomy in an effort to lead the consumer toward the balanced life. (Just how ludicrous this catholic appropriation can get is demonstrated in Armand Aulicino’s The New French Cooking. One of his specimen “minceur menus” suggests the following: “Appetizer: Guacamole Salad. Main Dish: Swedish Pot Roast. Alternate Main Dish: Steak with Tomatoes and Oregano. Accoutrement: Spinach and Pear Puree. Dessert: Bahamian Banana Soup.” Aulicino does not make one feel much better by starting many of his recipes “Apply cookware spray to a skillet….” I much prefer the older, though no doubt perilous, “Throw a lump of butter the size of a hazelnut into a pan….”)

But at whom are all these adjurations and recipes leveled? You cannot read many of the cookbooks mentioned above without starting to feel that Bocuse’s claim that his book is really a novel is not so wide of the mark. De Groot, for example, presents “An American adaptation of Chef Roger Vergé’s Almost-Melted Leg of Lamb Layered with Eggplant and Tomato à la Moussaka.” It is of immense length and complexity and indeed de Groot says sympathetically that “perhaps it should be a weekend project with some help from family or friends.” I’m not so sure about the family or friends. Food preparation in fact becomes a solipsistic ritual, almost infinitely protracted. The ritual accords with certain well-known trends in American life: to wit gradual decomposition of the home, exit of the wife to work, dwindling number of tiny mouths agape to receive the junk contents of the local supermarket. Gradually the domestic kitchen of the postwar period is cleared of female/child oriented appurtenances of domestic management and becomes instead the temple of the modern gastronome, male and at peace with himself and his Cuisinart.

I do not mention the Cuisinart idly. Just as the wife leaves the gastronome’s sanctuary this device makes its entry, a mechanical drudge instead of the human one at last making good her escape. In orderly silence the onion, pastry dough, meat, suet, herbs can be submitted to its implacable blade. And it is indeed a fine, labor-saving tool, with only the paradox that modern ritualistic gastronomy demands a reverence for process, for the tender adaptation of natural materials to human requirements, whereas the Cuisinart is an abrupt instrument of domination, attacking and ravishing food, smashing it into small pieces or even pulp. The old pestle and mortar were servile adjuncts of the (usually female) hand and wrist, whereas the Cuisinart (itself set in motion by rapid jerks of the wrist rather than by pressing a button) is a mode of assault and subjugation.

Cooking thus becomes a lonely pastoral idyll amid the rising tides of liquid protein, McDonald’s hamburger, taco chains, and the active pursuit of the better beefsteak. The pastoral implies an entire scheme of life revolving around the gourmet store, the spice parlor, the trusted market, and even perhaps in the end the small family farm where critters can crawl out of cabbages unpolluted by insecticides. Man is restored to the kitchen, in a modern rendition of the good life of the old hunter-gatherers.

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