ONE SOUFFLE AT A TIME: A MEMOIR OF FOOD AND FRANCE
By Anne Willan
St. Martin's Press, $27.99, 320 pages
There are many food writers in the English-speaking world who have made it their mission to bring French food back to their unawakened compatriots. Some, such as Julia Child, became media superstars. However, among them and animated by an almost missionary zeal, Anne Willan is unique.
For one thing, she not only brought France to her native England and her adopted homeland the United States, but she indulged in a kind of interactive cross-cultural pollination by bringing them to the school she established in Burgundy, "La Varenne":
"I was learning that great cooking is so much more than recipes . I wanted people to leave saying what one student early on remarked: 'When I go home I will never look at food the same way again.'"
The core of this warm-hearted memoir is the lengthy, multipronged process by which Ms. Willan's attitude toward food evolved from its roots in good taste and good cooking to the stratosphere of cuisine.
Ms. Willan was unlucky to grow up at a time when wartime — and, still worse, the lengthy dreariness of postwar — English food was well below even its decidedly un-French standards. However, thanks to rural roots and a family who appreciated really good plain cooking, her discriminating taste buds could develop. She can actually make the reader's mouth water at what her family put on the table in those straitened times.
She can also make us shudder at what she had to eat at her boarding school — and still more at the savage bullying she underwent there. A feature of this book is the way Ms. Willan mixes the culinary with other aspects of her life, mostly joys and accomplishments, although there are moving accounts of her husband's illness and other trials.
After getting her degree from Cambridge, Ms. Willan studied at the London and Paris Cordons Bleus. Eventually, marriage (to an Englishman) brought Ms. Willan to the United States. Readers of this newspaper may be particularly interested in her account of life in the nation's capital, where she became food editor of the now-defunct Washington Star in 1966. She had some experience as a food writer, but as she dryly notes, "The transition from 'Gourmet' to the 'earthy realities of daily newspaper,' as [her editor] called it, was not without its difficulties." Still, life in Washington brought her into contact with many local figures, including a future Supreme Court justice.
Her husband's job at the World Bank afforded her much travel and opportunities to sample diverse cuisines. The "French" food served at even Washington's best restaurants back then honed that missionary zeal that eventually — after the birth of her children — led to "La Varenne."
It took guts to undertake as ambitious a project as that, and Ms. Willan does not gloss over the difficulties — anticipated and otherwise — encountered along the way. Reading her account of how she did things, her good sense is apparent throughout. She knew that, to paraphrase Hamlet, the food was the thing: "[T]he cooked food on the counter for comment was the visual finale. And since assessing taste mattered, too, at last we all, students included, enjoyed a meal together. Presentations kept the chefs up to snuff, because they knew whatever the students were making in the morning would be critiqued at lunch. The chefs, who understood the French approach to food, took this seriously."
Her attention to detail sings out, and you realize just how much went into producing those dishes.
Ms. Willan is too honest a writer not to mention complaints from the disgruntled or the culinary disasters, nor does she fail to see the humor in the latter: "One year on our Alsatian cooking day, I insisted the class prepare lewerknepfles, calves liver dumplings. From the start there was complaint. Quite a lot of the students didn't like liver, and when it's ground into a dumpling — almost like a matzo ball — it's not awfully popular. This time, added to the general disgruntlement, the knepfles failed. Instead of being round, they collapsed into a kind of gray pancake. As the presentation began, Julia [Child] looked at the dish and said, 'Oh, dear. It looks like the cat's been sick.' Everyone collapsed with laughter and looked at me with a kind of 'I told you so!' expression. I was never allowed to forget it."
In these pages, there are countless recipes we'd love to eat, and we encounter many culinary giants, French and American. However, there is no one you'd want to meet more than Anne Willan, so her book is a personal triumph.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.