COQUILLES, CALVA, & CREME: EXPLORING FRANCE'S CULINARY HERITAGE, A LOVE AFFAIR WITH FRENCH FOOD
By G.Y. Dryansky
Pegasus Books, $28.95, 360 pages, illustrated
G.Y. Dryansky, who writes this scrumptious book with his wife, Joanne, is a longtime resident of Paris and, as senior European correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler, has had the opportunity to taste French cuisine as few have been able.
The generous expense account that comes with such a dream job is certainly a help, but all the money in the world and the entree that comes with such a position cannot bestow real taste and the discerning palate necessary to achieve a profound understanding of the length and depth and breadth of the culture of French food.
By the time you have read these pages, as full of gusto as of informed judgment, you will likely agree with the verdict of that longtime observer and writer on matters French, Alan Furst:
"There's nobody I know, in Paris or New York, who understands French food the way Gerry Dryansky does. And surely nobody who writes about it as well as he does."
Mr. Dryansky manages to combine the knowledge of a consummate insider with the vantage point of someone looking in on an extraordinary spectacle. This is so necessary, since who wants to be lectured from a great height -- "de haut en bas" as the French say? The book manages to envelop you with its mantle, sweeping you along on the shoulder of a true aficionado as he takes you on a tour d'horizon of the glories he is sharing.
And he has a track record of infecting others with his enthusiasm. Describing the venerable Parisian brasserie La Coupole, where he often saw "Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and his mistress/adopted daughter sit down to a three o'clock lunch," he tells us.
"Joanne and I ... would over the years go there for Sunday lunch with our son and daughter. At age three, Andre, who would grow up to be an estimable trencherman, would polish off a half dozen oysters at lunch at the Coupole."
Heredity or environment -- who knows? But that kid was just bound to grow up with a discriminating and hearty appetite.
Not surprisingly, given his ringside seat in public places and private residences, not to mention unrivaled access to gossip, Mr. Dryansky has a marvelous fund of stories to recount.
A bemused Brasserie Lipp trying to find out what John Kenneth Galbraith looks like, only to see "the lanky man descending the staircase, coming back, just then, from his lunch in Siberia, where, unrecognized ... [he] had been relegated." Or Maxim's, where "[t]he best table in the front room was a little round one near the curtained windows. Here Mr. and Mrs. Aristotle Onassis would come to late lunch ... . It was amazing to see that the crowd of the most sophisticated people in the city would suddenly go silent, their buzz of internecine gossip come to a sudden halt, when Jackie and Ari walked into the room."
Or of a lunch a trois with the legendary grandee of food writing, Alexis Lichine, and the even grander Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of the celebrated Chateau Mouton vineyards. Thanks to Mr. Dryansky, we are privy to this priceless game of one-upmanship:
"Lichine finally said something to Rothschild that sounded ... mollifying ... but it was a trap:
"'I drank the Mouton '68 lately' ... 'Felt enormous respect for it.'
"'Really? ... A mediocre year, to say the least ...'
"'I meant the 1868, Philippe,' Lichine replied."
Something especially nice about this book is the way it does not spend all its time in the stratospheric regions of high society and haute cuisine. Not that it doesn't sate our appetite for all this with many an excursion into these rich domains; but there is such an appreciation of good basic French cooking and regional specialties more associated with their peasant or bourgeois heritage than with the high life.
In France, where they still take good cooking more seriously than anywhere else, one of the highest accolades you can accord a restaurant is to call it "un restaurant serieux." For all its accessibility and its light touch as it takes us on a gustatory expedition through France, "Coquilles, Calva & Creme" really does deserve that ultimate appellation of a serious book -- on a truly fun topic.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.