You know you are reading a French cookbook when the author’s instructions begin, “marinate for an hour 100 frogs’ legs in 1 cup olive oil and 1 teaspoons salt.”
These instructions, which made me laugh out loud, come from “Food in French Homes,” the second chapter of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954). A single frog’s leg is a comical food, one hundred frogs’ legs are ridiculous.
Not to the French, I’m sure. As Toklas emphasizes in the book’s first chapter, “The French Tradition,” the French take a “strict conservative attitude” toward food. Toklas begins her book with a series of reflections on the differences between American and French approaches to cuisine:
“Though born in America, I have lived so long in France that both countries seem to be mine, and knowing, loving, both, I took to pondering on the differences in eating habits and general attitude to food and the kitchen in the United States and here.”
To Toklas, the differences were stark. The French show “appreciation, respect, intelligence, and lively interest” in the art of cooking, the men as well as the women. They oppose innovation or “the slightest deviation in a seasoning or the suppression of a single ingredient.” They focus “attention on the quality and flavour of the ingredients.” They are “indifferent” to American “time- and labour-saving devices. Nor do they like the food that issues from our modern kitchens. They say that it is either too imaginative or too exotic.” They “never add Tabasco, ketchup or Worcestershire sauce” to their cream sauces. And they don’t mislabel white sauce as cream sauce.
Of course, 2013 is not 1954, and many of the differences Toklas observes are just clichés now. America has experienced a food revolution and French cuisine has become more inventive.
But to be honest, despite being an adventurous eater, I’ve never tried a frog leg. And after two weeks living in Paris, the differences between French and American food cultures appear glaring to me.
Perhaps to be kind, the first recipe Toklas presents in her cook book is a very approachable beouf Bourguignon. All it requires is stewing beef, a little bit of lard and salt pork, some orange peels, herbs, and red wine. Delicious no doubt. But it would be a lot funnier to start with the frogs’ legs.