Americans in Paris.

I feel sorry for people who say they don’t like to read. And that pity is particularly pronounced when I find myself in the midst of a book that makes me imagine the world in a whole new light. David McCullough’s latest, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, is one of those. (And, the fact that my copy came to me from Paris—a sweet gift from an American friend who’s lived there for decades—makes it even better.)

The book’s review in the New York Times was titled “How Paris Created America”—and the headline is apt. The Americans who crossed the ocean to the French capital in the mid-19th century were citizens of a very young country. They sought Paris as a place at the zenith—in the arts, in science and medicine, in literature. They studied, they observed, they wrote, they painted—and, like generations of Americans ever since, they were seduced, transfixed and transformed by their time there. Continue reading

Happy 99th birthday, Julia Child!

Today, August 15, the great and grand American doyenne of French cooking, Julia Child, would have been 99 years old. She died in 2004, mere days before turning 94.

She was plenty famous during her lifetime, of course (thanks in no small part to those wonderful PBS shows). But with the talents of Nora Ephron (who wrote the Julie and Julia screenplay) and Meryl Streep (who played Julia with such lovely aplomb) and Julie Powell (who started the Julie and Julia blog project long ago in August 2002, which became the book, which became the movie) — Julia Child is now firmly and forever entrenched in the pantheon of culinary culture and history. And thank god for that….

I love the woman. When I think about that stupid question we’ve all been asked  —“Who would you like ot have dinner with, living or dead?” — Julia’s always on my top-10 list. Not Jesus, not Einstein, not Ghandhi, not even Shakespeare (well, maybe Shakespeare). But always, always Julia.

And yes, I own Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In two volumes (mine is the 1981 edition, the 32nd printing).

But now, for the blasphemy. As a cookbook, MtAoFC sort of sucks. Continue reading

The infamous brownies of Miss Alice B. Toklas.

I have lots of cookbooks. Lots. Many are well-used (with the requisite smudges of sauces, olive oil and butter). But many others I only read and never cook from.

One of the best in that latter group is The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book.

Man Ray’s famous shot of Alice and Gertrude. Surrounded by extraordinary paintings.

Alice B. Toklas was a Paris institution — because, of course, she lived in the shadow of a Paris monument, Gertrude Stein. Misses Toklas and Stein met in 1907, on the very day that Alice arrived in Paris. They were soon partners and lovers (and remained so for the rest of their lives). And they held court over the most famous literary gatherings in Paris. Evenings that included the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson and Thornton Wilder…. (The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus still bears a plaque. As it should.)

But, back to the cookbook. It was first published in 1954, eight years after Gertrude Stein’s death. In reality, it’s hardly a cookbook. My copy is a paperback published in 1960, and it has that old book smell. And I love the cover — a repro of a painting titled The Cock and Knife, done in 1947 by Picasso.

There’s much to relish in this little volume. The chapter called “Murder in the Kitchen,” for example:

Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking.

Then, there’s the chapter on servants in France.

When I asked Gertrude Stein how you went about finding one [a “servant”] in Paris and what questions you put to her in your interview with her, she answered that…the proper question to ask was, did she make a good omelette.

The most famous legacy of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book comes from the chapter “Recipes from Friends.” More precisely from the now hardly-known artist, Brian Gysen, who contributed his instructions for Haschich Fudge (e.g., pot brownies). Apparently, Alice was under deadline to submit her manuscript and wasn’t scrutinizing — much less, testing or tasting — the recipes from the friends she’d solicited. The editors of the first U.S. edition were more exacting though and “extracted” the cannabis-laced fudge before publication, but the British edition included it —and the press took notice. Continue reading

What is it about Paris? Writers reflect.

Cook, baker, author David Lebovitz reviews a new anthology of stories by writers who’ve been touched by Paris.

Though what the world really doesn’t need is more overly effusive, cliché-ridden prose on the sweet glories of the City of Light…. Sounds like Paris Was Ours avoids that pitfall (e.g., Lebovitz’s favorite essays focus on the contradictory realities of life for working mothers). 

Read David Lebovitz’s review on his blog. 

A sublime Paris book.

Paris to the Moon. Oh, how I love this book. It won’t inform you on where to eat, where to sleep, or what to see. But it will draw you into the enchanting (and sometimes exasperating) mysteries of what it’s like to actually live in Paris. Adam Gopnick’s a lovely writer. He’s now based in NYC — but I still read his stuff regularly.