In a French Kitchen:
Tales and Traditions of Everyday Cooking in France
Susan Hermann Loomis
A modest proposal : let’s make a simple one-word tweak to the national motto of France. Henceforth let us speak of liberté, égalité, pâtisserie.
I suppose, though, that if push came to shove I’d be willing to restrict the use to cookbooks and slice-of-life tales. Or, as is the case with Susan Loomis’ book, titles that are both at the same time.
Publishing, as I’ve said repeatedly, is a for-profit business although publishers mightdispute that. And while cookbooks loaded with 4-color food porn have seen sales growth , the average bear can only own so many. The solution: ladle in that other evergreen category, the expat at the human zoo. Now we can have our gâteau and learn how the French eat it, too.
Which is not to say that this book is without its practical purposes. Although I found it at the local public library, I’m reasonably sure that it satisfies the criteria for circumventing Mrs. AHC’s ban on bringing more cookbooks into the house. And while there are plenty of recipes (85 a bold call out on the cover screams ), there’s more practical information than many another cookbook offers.
For example. kitchen size and layout. Among a certain set in the US the kitchen is the room in the house to agonize over and make a fetish of. Loomis herself gushes about building her own kitchen with Monet‘s kitchen at Giverny in mind. But it’s in the context of a chapter in which she describes one tortured kitchen layout after another.
In case after case her Norman friends simply deal with the kitchen they have. There’s absolutely no connection between the size or layout of the space and the food that the household’s cook brings forth.
Which is as it should be. There’s an old adage that the quality of a restaurant’s food varies in inverse proportion to the size of the kitchen. That’s why hotel banquet rooms serve rubber chicken. And it’s why, when I lived in the West Village 25 years ago, one of the best French restaurants in New York was Chez Brigette, a 6-stool, 5-table or so former luncheonette that was kind to both tummy and wallet.
(Chez Brigette has since closed, replaced by a Tasti D-lite. It had a 50-year run which by New York standards is forever. Still, one wonders whether there’s too much destruction in creative destruction. And I certainly don’t think that another low-calorie Carvel is doing anything for anyone’s quality if life. But that’s just me.)
Back to the book. Like many a self-taught cook, I’ve always wondered whether the things I do in the kitchen are correct. (I actually think this is the problem of the autodidact in general.) Such as removing that center part of the garlic clove that gets hard and eventually sprouts into a root. I actually felt some relief in learning that it has a proper name, the germ, and that it’s rightful resting place is the trash bin.
And I feel a lot better about my freezer. The first appliance we bought after moving into our house, our freezer is often stocked with things my mother, a meat-and-potatoes Irish-German cook, would find head scratching. Why, she might wonder, is there so much space devoted to breads? Well, baguettes are the stuff of life and once you get used to great bread it’s hard to settle for less. So we stock up on baguettes from Balthazar Bakery, cut them in half, wrap and freeze them. Voilà, baguettes always at hand.
(I suspect, because Loomis doesn’t mention it, that baguettes do not last more than a meal in the typical French household. Our only occasional leftovers keep us in breadcrumbs. And once you have experienced breadcrumbs from high-quality bread I can assure you, the stuff in a can will never satisfy you again.)
It was also gratifying to know that my pantry and spice shelves are up to code. None of this was planned or researched. I just learned by doing. The French have an advantage in this department. Kitchen lore is passed down through the generations so bonne-maman looms large in memory and practice. My grandmother, whom I adored, made spaghetti sauce with butter, an onion and a can of tomato sauce so I have a lot less to draw on.
It was also eye-opening to learn how kitchen implements, knives in particular, were often treated. I was taught that a poor craftsman blames his tools. As a corollary, I was taught to take care of my tools. I’m not going to hold maintenance against anyone nor will I give up mine. In the end, I think, it’s what gets to the table that counts. Tools just help.
Two things did stand out. One, which I am always struck by, is how much more important food is in many cultures than it is the US. It’s hard to imagine the US ever devoting time in the educational system to food or tasks that aid in cooking. If I didn’t have to live someplace else I’d be a candidate for expat status.
The other is the sense of freedom. I love France. I love French food. I cook French food. But I’m not bound by rules.
So if I want to roast beef like an Englishman, make pasta or ragù like an Italian, saute tomatoes and oregano like a Greek, or fire up the wok like a Chinese friend might, I’m free to. I’m even free to get it wrong as long as it tastes good. (And don’t even get me started on the ban on music during a meal.) At the end of the day it’s all those pesky rules and traditions that keep me in front of the stove right here in New Jersey.
Read the book, though, I think you might learn a lot plus you’ll get some good recipe ideas.