Eating and reading have been two of my greatest pleasures for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I spent hours next door in my grandparents’ kitchen. My grandmother made breakfast, banana
fritters, apple pies and coconut cakes.
My grandfather, a former chef, prepared everything else. If I close my eyes, I can still see and
smell his beef stew even though it has been over 25 years since I last tasted
As for my second love, when I was around eight or nine years old, a cousin gave me a book for Christmas, one in the Bobbsey
Twins series. My mom often took me
to the library and I borrowed books from school, but that book was the very
first brand new book I could call my own.
I have been in love with books ever since.
I am amazed that I only recently combined those two loves and discovered the world of food books. I am not talking about traditional
cookbooks. I now search out books
about cooking, chefs and adventures in food. It began in 2008, when my best friend Martha came to visit
me during my sabbatical in Arles, France.
She brought along a copy of The
Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. At the age of 36, Ms. Flinn lost her
job, decided to move to Paris, and use her life savings to enroll in the famed
Cordon Bleu culinary school.
The first chapter is entitled “Life is not a dress rehearsal” and it
begins with a Julia Child quote: “I didn’t start cooking until I was
thirty-two. Until then I just
ate.” Once I started the book, I
couldn’t put it down.
Since finishing that book, I’ve struggled with Julie Powell as she cooked her way through every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,
blogged about it and then turned it into a novel, Julie and Julie. That
led me directly to Julia Child’s memoir, My
Life in France. (And yes, I
did love the movie based on those two books.) Next, I discovered M.F.K. Fisher and her novels about living
and eating in France, Map of Another Town,
set in Aix-en-Provence, Long Ago in
France, set in Dijon, and A
Considerable Town, set in Marseille.
French Dirt by Richard Goodman
is the story of a man and his garden in the south of France. This is the love of food at its
most basic level. A friend lent me
a copy of Bill Buford’s Heat, the
story of the author’s foray into the kitchen of Chef Mario Batali, with an
interlude in Tuscany, working with an Italian butcher. This book was eye-opening and left me
wandering why anyone would become a chef or even work near one.
My friends are always on the lookout for new books for me, especially ones about food and Provence. I received Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunée as a gift. The story follows Ms. Sunée, a Korean orphan adopted by an
American couple, as she searches
for her own identity while preparing feasts for friends in Paris and
Provence. She includes
recipes, as do many of the other authors.
Clémentine in the Kitchen by
Samuel Chamberlain, published for the first time in the 1940’s, is the story of
an American family living in Senlis, France, a town I know well. Clémentine, their cook, left behind
notebooks full of her handwritten recipes and many of them are included in the
book. The Tenth Muse by Judith Jones, the editor who published works by
the likes of Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard, was a joy to read as I
followed her discovery of good food in France and the revival of the American
food scene in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s which she was privy to as part of her
work. I would be remiss if I
didn’t mention Peter Mayle’s hilarious French
Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew, with a chapter devoted
to the blessing of truffles at a special mass followed by a lunch featuring the
sacred diamants noirs or black
diamonds, as they are called in French.
There is also a chapter about a festival for lovers of frog legs, or
thighs, as they are called in French, in the town of Vittel in April. Frog legs are on my to-eat list.
Every spring I eagerly anticipate the Used Book Fair at Durham Academy. One of my favorite finds this year was Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. He wrote about the Culinary Institute
of America’s master chef competition and then spent time with leading American
chefs, including Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, trying to figure out why
they are successful. This book is
a follow up to The Making of a Chef
about his time as a student-journalist at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York. His third one, The Reach of a Chef, is on my to-read list.
Anthony Bourdain, another celebrity chef, found his way into my bookshelf. I
read Kitchen Confidential and found
myself once again wondering why anyone would choose the torturous life found in
the kitchen of a chef du jour. I am amazed that Bourdain is still
alive to travel the world looking for interesting culinary delights to show us
on The Travel Channel, but I loved the book.
Returning to the theme of food and Provence, I recently read Mary Ann Cawes’ Provençal
Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France. The author and her husband bought a small stone cabanon, or cottage, in the south of
France and spent their summers making it inhabitable. Ms. Cawes tells of the markets she visits and the neighbors
and friends with whom she lingers over long meals of wonderful traditional
Provençal dishes. Her recipes took
me right back to Arles and my many meals and picnics there. (A little cabanon in a small village in Provence is my fantasy, not the
Cordon Bleu or the CIA!)
On my bedside table at the moment is The Perfectionist by Rudolph Chelminski. It is dedicated to the
memory of Chef Bernard Loiseau, a French chef whose goal was to own a
restaurant with a Michelin 3-star rating.
He achieved this goal with his restaurant La Côte d’Or after 17 years of
intense labor. At the time of his
death in 2003, at the age of 52, there were rumors that he would lose his third
star. He had confided to a
colleague that he would kill himself if that ever happened. The plot of the Disney movie Ratatouille is supposedly based on
Loiseau’s life. It is a fascinating look at the French system of chef
apprenticeship and some of the big name chefs who have come out of France in
this century, including Paul Bocuse, Fernand Point and the Troisgros brothers.
Just last week I read a children’s book entitled It’s A Book by Lane
Smith. Monkey, one of the
characters, is reading a book and J******, his friend, doesn’t know what a book
is. He is only acquainted with the
internet. He asks Monkey a lot of
annoying questions and, in the end, takes his book and won’t give it back. I intend to read it to my students at
school very soon. I vow to do my
part to pass on my love for books to the younger generation.
As for my love of food, it seems that certain foods and smells can take me back in time and even across the
ocean. Meals are special because
of who we share them with, I believe.
This is what I hope I am able to pass on to my own children. And to be able to write a book that
makes a reader hunger for the sights, sounds, and smells of my own life? Well, that would be a dream come
I’ve tested these two recipes and they are truly simple and delicious. Enjoy the pasta with a glass of chilled Provence white wine for a simple feast.
Mousse au Chocolat
(from Clémentine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain; Modern Library, 2001)
Bittersweet chocolate, eggs, rum or vanilla
In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, melt ½ pound of bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces,
with ¼ cup of water. Stir until it
achieves a beautifully smooth consistency. Remove the top of the double boiler
from the heat and stand it in cold water to cool, stirring occasionally.
Beat well the yolks of 5 eggs and add these to the chocolate, together with 1 teaspoon of rum or of vanilla
extract. Transfer the chocolate
mixture to a large bowl and carefully but thoroughly fold in 5 stiffly beaten
egg whites. Put this delectable
substance into a serving bowl or individual ramekins and chill at least 2 hours
Note: This is the simplest recipe for chocolate mousse you are likely to find and also very likely the best. You must, however, use chocolate of the finest quality. Also, use very fresh eggs, or the mousse may separate.
Midnight Pasta #3: Penne with Popped Tomatoes, Anchovies, and Onions
(from Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunée; Grand Central Publishing, 2008)
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pint ripe cherry or grape tomatoes
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch of sugar (as needed)
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
Hot red pepper flakes, to taste
4 to 5 anchovy filets
Handful of black olives or 1 teaspoon black olive tapenade
½ pound penne
Garnish: Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium high to high heat. Add
tomatoes and cook, tossing often, about 10 minutes. Cover and let cook about 3 minutes. Uncover, season with salt and pepper
and a pinch of sugar. Add onion,
toss, and cook about 2 minutes.
Add garlic, red pepper flakes, anchovies, and olives. Lower heat.
Cook penne in salted boiling water just until al dente. Drain,
reserving about ¼ cup pasta water.
Toss in pasta and heat for about 1 minute, adding some of the reserved
pasta water if too dry. Toss to
combine. Divide pasta into 2
warmed bowls. Serve
immediately. Add another crack of
pepper, if desired, and garnish with cheese.