- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PARIS: SIXTY YEARS OF WRITING FROM GOURMET

Edited by Ruth Reichl

Random House, $24.95, 350 pages

REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS

The first time I saw Paris I was one of a gaggle of British schoolgirls on our first trip to France. We had heard about French food from our parents, and before the trip we fantasized the worst: meals of snails and frogs’ legs (nasty), brains and sweetbreads (yeew).

Instead, at our modest Left Bank hotel, we were introduced to the glories of simple French cuisine: herbed roast chicken, soul-satisfying soups and stews, garlicky green beans, glazed fruit tarts and chocolate mousse. Most memorable of all was a puree de pommes de terre — mashed potatoes — made special with butter, cream and beaten egg yolk, the best thing I had ever tasted.

I remember that pale gold puree to this day, along with the places I saw for the first time on that long-ago trip: Notre Dame, the Louvre, Napoleon’s tomb, the bookstalls by the Seine, the sidewalk cafes …

For people who cherish memories of Paris and French food, “Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing From Gourmet” is a feast indeed.

Launched in 1941, Gourmet magazine has covered Paris from the lean years just after World War II to the present. From this yeasty period Ruth Reichl, the magazine’s editor, has chosen 48 articles, mostly about restaurants and the hard-working chefs, artisanal food producers and purveyors that make them possible.

Yet the book is as much a commentary on Paris and Parisians as it is an overview of gastronomy, since the editor has included many pieces that don’t even mention food.

Twenty of them are by Joseph Wechsberg, the magazine’s resident correspondent in the 1970s, who reported whatever interested or pleased him. As well as finely-crafted pieces on the food scene, he writes about the pleasures of walking city streets, of the old flower market and of visits to jeweler extraordinaire Cartier, the House of Dior, and the slightly creepy Police Museum of Paris.

He interviews Robert Guerlain of the Guerlain perfume house, noting that it takes a person with an extraordinary sense of smell as well as imagination, taste, and olfactory memory to create a great perfume, and that the French have a word for such an expert: un nez — a nose.

The book chronicles the inevitable changes that took place over the last 60 years, including the demise of Les Halles, the centuries-old market once known as the Belly of Paris, and its rebirth at Rungis, near Orly airport; the arrival of nouvelle cuisine and the young chefs who created it; and the transformation of the streetscape in a city where designers of public spaces aim to delight.

On the other hand, some of the restaurant reviews, ephemeral by nature, seem overblown. Take (please) this description of a dressed-up oyster:

“The first dish was … a large, silver soupspoon containing a single warmed oyster, an incredibly fragrant slice of truffle, and a few grains of caviar. The truffle made the natural muskiness of the oyster blossom with loveliness, and the caviar brought out its deep-sea notes like a violin doubling the melody an octave above …

“Under the spoon … was a sort of ravioli stuffed with a little more caviar, which functioned almost as a Talmudic commentary on the mouthful that had preceded it.” That sort of writing quite takes away my appetite.

A few later pieces dare to tinker with long-held American myths about the French. “As anyone who is honest about it will tell you, Paris is a city of vulgarians that has somehow cowed the world into believing it is the global capital of wordliness, a living and breathing arbiter of good taste,” writes Michael Lewis (“The New New Thing”).

What this has to do with his recipe for cassoulet isn’t clear, but he had lived in Paris for a year and perhaps needed to get this anti-French rant off his chest.

In any event, I found Mr. Lewis’ cassoulet resistible. The list of 20 ingredients included infernally tricky things like “meaty mutton or lamb bones, cracked by butcher,” and rendered goose fat.

The three pages of instructions fall into the category of recipes-I-will-never-finish-reading, along with Lobster in Champagne, which begins “A live lobster weighing a scant pound and a half is cut into slices an inch thick …” and Chocolate and Caramel Mousse Cake, a daunting piece de resistance divided into four devilishly difficult parts: for the chocolate cake, for the chocolate mousse, for the caramel mousse, and for the custard sauce.

Canny French women wouldn’t dream of slaving over such an ambitious confection for a dinner party. One of their secrets, Diane Johnson tells us in her piece “The Most Intimate Room,” is that they buy lots of things ready-made “on the sensible grounds that the specialist — whether boulanger, epicier, or boucher — simply does it better.”

Francois Simon, a Frenchman who writes for Le Figaro newspaper, blithely destroys further stereotypes (and about time). The Paris depicted in publications like Gourmet is unreal, he calmly asserts, “a beautiful dream, so charming, but, like Peter Mayle’s vision of Provence, a frozen time capsule of French life before 1960.”

It’s true that most French people no longer indulge in three-hour lunches (except in the South) or waste their time scouring Paris to find the perfect melon. On a typical Sunday morning, Mr. Simon says, a mere 25 percent of Parisians go to the markets in search of good food. “Another quarter couldn’t care less; a further 25 percent are on a perpetual diet; and the remainder are enjoying their grasse matinee — a nice late sleep.”

And, he notes, there are long lines at McDonald’s. Sound familiar?

Readers looking for the bylines of M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Claiborne or A.J. Liebling may be disappointed. However, they are represented elsewhere, and the lively presence of Mr. Wechsberg (who was unknown to me before reading this collection) more than makes up for their absence.

“She Did Not Look Like an Actress to Me,” by Hilaire du Berrier — who served in the French intelligence service during World War II — reads like a short story and is as intriguing as its title. Like the best meals, it left me hungry for more.

Lorna Williams lives in Washington and the South of France.

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