“Text Is Simply Written For Persons Who Enjoy Cuisine”

In 1961, Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor (and the first man to hold such a post among American newspapers), reviewed a just-published volume from Alfred A. KnopfMastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. Claiborne described the volume (priced at $10) as “probably the most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work on the subject” of French cuisine written in English.

He praised the the recipes (“glorious”), noted the six pages devoted to the preparation of a cassoulet (“not a wasted syllable”), and complimented the line drawings (“[they] supplement and speak more eloquently than words”). And he predicted that the book, almost a decade in the making, would “probably remain as the definitive work for nonprofessionals.”

And indeed, he was right.

Copyright ©The New York Times. Published October 18, 1961

Steak tartare. Sushi for carnivores.

There’s no getting around it. Steak tartare is raw meat. There’s a raw egg involved too. And it’s delicious. My favorite comes from my favorite hometown restaurant, Margot Cafe—where it was on this past weekend’s Bastille Day menu.

The “tartare” in the dish references the tartar sauce that was originally served on the side (à la tartare). Auguste Escoffier included a recipe in his 1921 Le Guide Culinaire, but the dish was called beefsteack à l’Américaine. No one seems to know exactly why— because whatever its origin, it definitely wasn’t in the U.S. of A. There’s a foodie myth that it originated with the Tartars of Central Asia (think Atilla the Hun). Rumor was they travelled with raw meat under their saddles, nicely pulverizing it for dinner on-the-go post-battle. Wholly unfounded info, however.

These days, steak tartare is standard fare on the menus of Paris bistros and brasseries. And often in Nashville at Margot. Lucky me. If you’re so inclined, food writer Michael Ruhlman urges you to try steak tartare at home.

Of course, it’s not for everyone. Mr. Bean (aka Rowan Atkinson) pretty much sums up the anti-steak tartare camp.

p.s. Whatever you do, don’t eat steak tartare from a kitchen you don’t trust. Same goes for sushi.

The upcoming centenary of the great Julia Child

Julia photographed by her husband, Paul Child, in 1948—the year they arrived in Paris.

I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.” ―Julia Child, My Life in France

Julia Child’s 100th birthday is August 15. You know she would have liked the party. The woman who made coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon both household words and meals on American tables in the 1960s is being well fête-ed by Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of Mastering the Art of French Cooking

There’s a clever Facebook page that’s cataloging “JC100” events at bookstores, dinners at restaurants, and blog posts from Julia fans around the country who are cooking up their favorite recipes.

Start planning dinner now. You’ll need butter.

Just a little 90-hour bike ride in France…

It’s Sunday, August 21. About 9 p.m. in my neck of the woods. In France, it’s early Monday morning. Still dark, and the entire country’s basically on vacation. But right now, on country roads from Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines (a suburb just outside Paris) to Brest (a city on the Normandy coast in northwest France), more than 5,000 people are on their bikes.

They’re participating in Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, the oldest bicycling event in the world that’s still regularly run. Their goal: ride 750 miles from the Paris suburb to Brest, and back again. If they’re tired, they’ll sleep by the side of the road. If they’re hungry, they eat what they’ve packed — or buy something along the way. If they have a flat tire, they fix it themselves. There are regular checkpoints, and they have to stop at each one. And they have to get back to Paris in 90 hours or less. 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

Paris honey. Sweet local luxury.

And you thought all that “buzz” was about the monogrammed handbags…

When I read last week that the eponymous luxury company, Louis Vuitton, was harvesting honey from hives on the rooftop of its Champs-Elysées flagship, I imagined eager tourists swarming to purchase little monogrammed jars of miel, along with the latest “it” bag.

Louis Vuitton’s honey (yes, the monogram’s still there)

It turns out that Louis Vuitton’s latest product will only be shared with “friends,” however —and the designer’s not even close to a trendsetter in the Paris beehive business.

There are hives on top of the Opéra Garnier and the glass-domed Grand Palais. Even on top of the modern Opéra Bastille, homebase of Paris’s national opera. The beehives in the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens have been there since the mid-19th century and now produce half a ton of honey every year. It goes on sale each September for just two days and is a favorite gift item for French senators (the Senate is housed in the Luxembourg Palace). The beehive count across Paris is around 300 — with hives in public parks, on private rooftops, and on the grounds of a hospital run by the good Sisters of the Visitation. But the location that most intriqued me was the National Veterinary Museum (in line with that very Paris tradition of having a museum to just about everything). [David Lebovitz‘s Living the Sweet Life in Paris blog has more on this and the French passion for local honey.] Continue reading

Let them make cake.

And I thought the Tour de France was the penultimate French sporting event. Mais non. It’s the M.O.F. pastry competition.

Only held every four years, qualifying chefs compete over three days in epic feats involving spun sugar, mountains of chocolate, tortuous turns of piped icing, and sculptural concoctions that make “Ace of Cakes” look like amateur hour. And it all has to taste good. The victorious are honored as a M.O.F. (Meilleurs Ouvriers de France) — e.g. one of the best craftsmen in France — in the art, science, skill, chemistry and endurance sport of French desserts.

D.A. Pennebaker‘s documentary on the competition, “Kings of Pastry,” will keep you on the edge of your seat. And you’ll never again look at French pastry without reverence and awe.

Good to the bone.

Roasted bones. Marrow intact, with parsley and garlic on top. A handy marrow spoon, and toast on the side.

I’ll admit it’s not for everyone.

Roasted veal bones with the marrow. (Though it sounds much better in French — l’os à moelle.) In fact, when I ordered it last fall in Paris, the diplomatic waiter politely inquired if I knew what I was getting into.

I had it in Paris. I first had it at Prune in NYC. And I’ve had it right here in Nashville at Margot Cafe & Bar.

It’s not for everyday eating. It’s rich, fattening, full of protein. And delicious. But if you subscribe to the very French “eat all the parts” philosophy of carnivorous consumption, bone marrow’s just the dish for you.