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.
The charm of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Gertrude Stein’s tongue-in-cheek “memoir” of her partner, lies for most readers in its intimate portrayal of Parisian artistic life during the first decades of the twentieth century. The informality of the narrative, a conversational slew of anecdotes featuring the most famous names of twentieth-century arts and letters – Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among hundreds more – allows the reader to imagine herself among the crowd. And the character of Toklas serves as the perfect avatar for the reader since she seems to stand always just outside the charmed circle, reporting on the witty repartee of her subjects without taking part herself.
But Toklas is not simply a transparent lens used to focus light on the “genius” of those around her. Stein’s minimalist narrative style drops clues to the character of the narrator. Toklas, as Stein has her describe herself in the book’s penultimate paragraph, is “a pretty good housekeeper.” And being such, she returns again and again throughout the book to food as both subject and metaphor. While others at the table may have been battling for the best bon mot, Toklas it appears was taking notes on the meal. “I do inevitably take my comparisons from the kitchen because I like food and cooking and know something about it,” Toklas explains.
Of course, judging from her photos, Stein herself had a hearty appetite, and the observations she ascribes to Toklas may just as well have been her own. (At one point, “Toklas” describes “Stein’s” memories of a meal, “she also remembers the bowl of soup with French bread for breakfast and she also remembers that they had mutton and spinach for lunch.”) As I begin reading my next book, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book – authored by Toklas herself – it will be interesting to compare the approach to food presented in each. But for now, a couple of choice cuts from the Autobiography.
Toklas comments at length on the cooking of a longtime servant at 27 rue de fleurus, Hélène. “She was a most excellent cook and she made a very good soufflé.” From an American perspective, what dish could better epitomize the heights achieved by French cooking? But Toklas is amused that Hélène can punish as well as give pleasure with her meals. When Hélène becomes annoyed by Henri Matisse’s impositions on the household’s hospitality, she announces that she “will not make [him] an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand.” The American must stand in awe at the ability of the French to communicate such finely calibrated insults through the plate.
In France, Toklas reports, the people show their feelings through eating. The amount of bread consumed is directly proportional to the happiness of a party, “because they cannot eat and drink without bread and we had to send out twice for bread so they were happy.”
Despite Hélène’s antipathy toward Matisse, Toklas thinks highly of him for “he liked cooking and eating as a Frenchman should” and his wife also gains praise for being “an excellent cook and provider.” She singles out a particular dish for praise: “jugged hare prepared by Madame Matisse in the fashion of Perpignan was something quite apart.” It seems Toklas enjoyed this meal as much as Stein fancied Henri’s “Femme au Chapeau.”
Toklas is not just an appreciator of French food, but thoroughly competent in the kitchen as well. When Picasso throws a feast for Henri Rousseau and the food ordered by his lover Fernande does not arrive, Toklas takes over and races around Montmartre purchasing the necessary supplies.
“I like cooking, I am an extremely good five-minute cook,” Toklas explains modestly. From what I’ve heard, the recipes in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book require far more than five minutes to prepare. It’s time to find out.
Like many Americans, I studied French in school, choosing it over the more practical Spanish because my parents used the language to talk secretly in front of us kids. I never discovered what my parents were saying about us, they must have stopped using French once I learned a little. But I did develop an appreciation for the language.
My wonderful seventh-grade French teacher deserves most of the credit for this. Fresh out of college, she made her classroom fun. She taught us drinking songs, like Chevalier de la Table Ronde, and pop songs, like L’Edition Spéciale by Francis Cabrel. Both these songs still rattle through my head twenty-five years later. Unfortunately, a truly terrible French teacher in high school brought my French acquisition to a precipitate close. I started spending French class in the park outside our school, coasting through exams by dubious measures (ahem).
Later, in college and then graduate school, I passed French competency exams on the basis of my ability to translate the written language. But my conversational skills remained stalled at the seventh-grade level. Unlike Edith Piaf, I cannot say je ne regrette rien. The truth is I regret a great deal, and I have been hoping that our year in France would finally teach me how to speak French.
Of course, I shouldn’t over-inflate my reading comprehension. I can’t make it through a paragraph of the French translation of the Hunger Games (Les Jeux de la Faim) without extensive help from my dictionary. Sometimes I skip a word, but ça ne fait rien. I’ve read the book before in English. I get it.
The same approach, however, does not always work in more practical matters. On our first afternoon in Paris, bleary-eyed from jet lag, the family stumbled into a corner brasserie to eat a late lunch. Located in a section of the 14th arrondissement well outside the normal tourist haunts, the restaurant had only a chalkboard scribbled in French to order from. Ce n’est pas grave, I could handle it. I saw andouillette sauce moutarde on the menu. Parfait! I figured this was some sort of little andouille sausage with mustard, perfect for my husband. I blithely placed our order, and sipped gratefully from the glass of vin blanc brought by the owner.
Mais non, an andouillette is not a little andouille. It is an entirely different sausage from its cajun namesake, made entirely from pig intestines, well-known for its strong distinctive odor. The intestines are coarsely chopped to roughly the size of calamari pieces, and folded together in a loose casing, which in this case had been drowned in grainy mustard.
I would love to end this story with a voila! thus began my husband’s love affair with a very traditional French dish and our metamorphosis into true Parisiens. But not quite. My hungry and polite husband ate his andouillette with resignation, asking me under his breath what in f— sake I had ordered for him. I thought it would be like andouille, but smaller, I explained. Well it’s not, he replied.
Oh well, live and learn. While we’re at it, I also learned that I cannot finish a Paris-sized portion of boeuf tartare (four times the size of anything I’ve seen in North America – basically a giant, minimally spiced, raw hamburger patty), and my kids don’t like steak hache (which in this restaurant’s interpretation was a barely warmed hamburger patty sans bun). Did I mention that the restaurant we stumbled into specialized in raw meats? Another thing I didn’t notice until later. Blame it on the jet-lag.
On the plus side: our first meal in Paris gave me the culture shock I had been dreaming of. I was worried that Paris would be too full of American tourists and Anglophones to feel strange at all. But not so much. Now how do I translate that phrase?
Embarking on a new reading list is, to me, a highlight of starting a new research project. It gives me an excuse to visit bookstores and libraries and collect stacks of unfamiliar books. It would be more sensible, as a scholar, to build a project on the library I have already assembled – both on my shelves and in my mind. But I’m fickle, I prefer the seduction of the unknown.
Here I must confess: I know almost nothing about the history of food.
I’ve always been greedy in my appetite for cooking and eating, but I have spent little time reading about food. I’ve been too busy with other reading lists. Plus, food writing can be overly precious, too self-consciously sensual, too encumbered with the problem of finding words for an experience that takes place outside the realm of language.
But any worries I might have about whether my new stack of books will be as fun to read as to collect have been quieted this past week as I’ve launched my education with Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. This 2004 novel, about a Vietnamese man named Binh who works as a chef for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, bridges my old research with my new project by combining the themes of same-sex sexuality and Parisian cookery. The non-linear narrative explores Binh’s memories of home and his time in Paris, always refracted through the lens of the kitchen and the physical act of cooking.
Truong’s account of Toklas instructing Binh in how to smother pigeons, rather than behead them, in order to preserve the juiciness of the meat is devastating.
In language that must have been inspired by Toklas’s cookbook, the character of Toklas instructs Binh “You will need, when dealing with a larger bird, to feed it a couple of spoonfuls of eau de vie, cognac, or a bit of sherry. In my experience, ducks prefer the taste of eau de vie the most. It improves their flavor immeasurably, and it also braces them for what is to come. It will make your task, Bin, easier in every way. (67). Although Binh looks doubtfully at Toklas, her words prove prescient, as throughout the book he uses alcohol to much the same effect, drinking French wine and liquor to brace himself from being devoured by his colonial hosts.
It’s an odd thing to begin my reading with a novel. I don’t know how much of the novel is based in research, or even whether Toklas and Stein ever employed a Vietnamese chef (eventually I will look into that). I chose the book for my week of family vacation before we fly to Paris, thinking it would be an easy read by the poolside. It’s not, actually, the narrative requires concentration to disentangle and the language is so rich that I don’t feel like speeding through the pages. But the choice has succeeded at enamoring me to my new reading list, and teaching me how excellent food writing can be.
The story of Parisians being reduced to eating rats, cats, dogs, and even zoo animals, during the 1870-71 siege, has stuck with me ever since high school history. No anecdote could better represent the city’s suffering than the tale of its epicurean populace being reduced to eating from the gutter. At the same time, the story demonstrates the brave resistance of the Parisians, who did not just eat their pets and pests, but crafted an elegant cuisine from this bad meat. Restaurants served civet de chat aux champignons and gigots de chien flanqués de ratons. A butcher at the St. Germain market put up a large sign announcing his Grande Boucherie Canine et Féline under the words Résistance à Outrance. Without macarons, or even a humble poulet, the people of the city ate with panache.
Long fascinated by this story, I was eager to read the manuscript letter-book of Frank Moore, Secretary to the American Legation in Paris from 1869-1872, while I was visiting the New York Historical Society yesterday. Even before the siege began, Moore viewed the impending disaster in gastronomic terms.
“Paris is at present not only the dust pan of the world but the fry-pan and stew-pan aussi,” Moore wrote to an American in Paris in July 1870, encouraging her to flee the city. Most Americans followed his advice, flocking to Le Havre to board steamers back home. Even Moore’s wife left to seek refuge in the neutral nation of Switzerland. But Moore wrote frequent letters to her, with updates from the kitchen, giving her news of their cook, and sharing his excitement when, in August, he received a delivery of crackers, cheese, and English ham. He still had a good supply of Armagnac on hand, he assured his wife. He would be able to celebrate the victories he hoped would be forthcoming in high style.
In September 1870, the gates of Paris shut, and the siege commenced. The last letter in Frank Moore’s letter book was dated to that morning. He wrote to his uncle describing how the country people who had flocked into the city and were camping on the avenue outside his apartment were “boiling their pots preparing to the early breakfast, and the blue smoke rose as peacefully from the little fires and passed up ward to heaven as quietly as though it did not fear meeting the terrible remains of war and devastation that now fill the air.”
Soon, the winds of war would be inescapable for the residents of Paris. How did Frank Moore deal with the reduction of his little stock of crackers, cheese, ham, and armagnac? I’ll have to track down his letters describing the siege year to find out.
Frank Moore Letter Books, 1869-1875, New York Historical Society
Albert Dresden Vandam, An Englishman in Paris (1893)
Every fall, friends of ours in Victoria hold a party where all the adults are put to work transforming thousands of pounds of apples into cider. The apples are sorted and washed then passed through a hand-cranked mill and pulped. The bottles are cleaned and filled with juice. Everyone gets drenched with sweat. Meanwhile, the children soak themselves bobbing for apples from a kiddie-pool. A decade into the twenty-first century, this agricultural tradition remains a sweet pleasure for North American children.
But without a doubt, my daughter would give it up for the opportunity to follow Parisian traditions instead and tir aux macarons. Eleven-year old Cunningham Drake, a New York boy who lived in Paris during 1845, translated this game in the pages of his diary as “pulling for macarons.” On festival days in Paris, pulling for macarons was Cunningham’s greatest joy.
When I came across Cunningham Drake’s account I felt like I had pulled a macaron! Historians are always on the lookout for anecdotal gems, the small details that can bring the larger argument to life. How better to encapsulate the differences between mid-nineteenth century American and Parisian food cultures than with a comparison between these two children’s games? Between the rustic simplicity of the apple and the confectionary sophistication of the macaron?
I don’t know if they still tir aux macarons in Paris. My daughter hopes so.
August 1, 2013 update: I was speaking with a Parisian two nights ago, and he informed me that people in the city no longer tir aux macarons, but they do play the same game with apples: proof that Parisians and Americans are not so different after all.
A historian might envy the cat’s nine lives. Few of us have so many opportunities to begin our work lives anew. To research, write, and publish a single book can take a decade or even more. So I find it very exciting to have arrived at a moment of new beginnings. With my most recent book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, in the safe hands of my publisher, I am free to start a new project. This moment arrives at the same time as a yearlong sabbatical from my teaching job at the University of Victoria. Taking advantage of this fortuitous timing, I have chosen to spend the year in Paris researching Americans’ centuries-long love affair with the food of that famous gastronomic destination. And to complete the theme of new beginnings, I am launching this blog to share the results of my research. I will be posting stories and photos from the archives, recipes and the results of cooking experiments, and reflections on moving to an unfamiliar city with kids and a spouse whose only words of French are “Je suis un rock-star” (he’s not). Bon appetit!