Books

book review

How we learned to eat French

Julia Child in her Paris kitchen.
Paul Child
Julia Child in her Paris kitchen.

As he chronicles the popularization of French food in America during the decades after World War II, Justin Spring describes in luscious detail some fabulous meals, helpfully annotated for those who have no clue what poularde à la vapeur de Lucien Tendret or rissolettes of foie gras Carisse might be. Such luxurious haute cuisine, served up in the States at high-end establishments like Le Pavillon restaurant and the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, was the French fare with snob appeal for affluent Americans, and Spring writes about it with zest. His central subject, however, is the introduction to American home cooks of the whole spectrum of French cuisine, from simple peasant meals and regional specialties to the cuisine bourgeoise of upper-class French households.

Early chapters give evocative thumbnail sketches of people and publications that laid the groundwork in 1940s America for the sea change to come: starchy Dione Lucas, head of the Cordon Bleu school in New York and host of one of television’s first cooking shows; Gourmet magazine, which created “a whole new generation of culinary Francophiles” with its lavish, lifestyle-oriented articles; and a lip-smacking 1949 New Yorker article about France’s famed La Pyramide restaurant that “described a meal so brilliant . . . it must have prompted immediate phone calls to travel agents all across the postwar United States.”

Meanwhile, in France, the half dozen Americans who would enrich their nation’s eating habits emerged. Longtime expatriate Alice B. Toklas was prompted to think about writing a cookbook by financial troubles in the wake of her companion Gertrude Stein’s death in 1946. Shortly thereafter, Julia Child and Richard Olney took up residences in Paris, she as the wife of a US Information Service official and he as an aspiring painter and enthusiastic participant in the city’s bohemian subculture. Both delighted in their discovery of the French way of life and food, and Child quickly determined to “democraticize and demystify French cuisine for Americans.” Spring pays dutiful tribute to the spirit of “generosity and inclusion” that eventually resulted in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” But it’s clear that he believes Olney more deeply understood the essence of French cooking, even if “The French Menu Cookbook” and “Simple French Food” were not as widely read.

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Spring’s mixed feelings about the process of making French food accessible are most evident in his scathing take-down of M.F.K Fisher for self-mythologizing, carelessness with facts, and sloppiness with recipes, especially as manifested in “The Cooking of Provincial France,” the embarrassingly “gaffe-ridden” 1968 launch of Time Life Books’ ambitious “Foods of the World” library. He is kinder to Toklas, who after the surprising 1954 success of “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” teamed up with House Beautiful food editor Poppy Cannon for a slipshod follow-up. The most hilarious pages in “The Gourmands’ Way” show Cannon (author of “The Can-Opener Cookbook”) undercutting every meticulous Toklas recipe in “Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present” with notes suggesting such convenient substitutions as frozen artichoke hearts and canned chicken broth. Spring gives Toklas a pass for this mess; she needed the money, and he credits her and Olney as the two of his protagonists who most fully conveyed the leisurely preparation, careful choice of ingredients, and attention to technique required to match the French in making even the simplest meal memorable.

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Spring’s two other lead characters are outliers. New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling makes two brief appearances 243 pages apart, and Alexis Lichine’s significance as a popularizer of French wines is subsumed in a chronicle of his trials as a businessman that aren’t especially relevant to the central narrative.

This hardly matters, however, since Spring tells the larger story of “the birth of a new gastronomy’’ vividly and well. Granted, it’s illogical that Liebling gets billing when Cannon, whose life and work get a similar amount of attention, is relegated to the supporting cast. And although Olney is unquestionably important as the inspiration for Alice Waters and the other innovative chefs who revolutionized American cooking in the 1970s, it’s unfair and misleading to use him to implicitly downgrade Child, who influenced a much broader audience with her many books and television shows such as “The French Chef.” Nonetheless, the broad outline of Spring’s thesis is so persuasive, the details so evocative (not to mention mouth watering), that anyone interested in the evolution of cooking and eating in America will find “The Gourmand’s Way” informative and indispensable.

THE GOURMANDS’ WAY:

Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy

By Justin Spring

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 433 pp., $30

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.