Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about food (I)

Since the beginning of time, intelligently (or not so intelligently) designed men have killed animals and drug them home to us grateful womenfolk to cook up.

A little further down the evolutionary path, folks figured out how to cultivate land. They collected a few domestic animals 'round the steading and agriculture was born. This allowed the boys to supplement hunting with planting, while the womenfolk continued to cook up whatever their fellows brought home. The womenfolk also kept busy with ducks, chickens, pigs, geese, and babies. Everybody worked really, really hard. There was no Prozac. The word artisanal didn't exist. Back in the day, everything was artisanal, and everybody was too damned busy making bread from the wheat and babying the sourdough from one baking to the next and churning the butter. It was artisanal or starvation.

Let's take a leap here, one traversing nation states, wars, imperialist regimes, mass migrations, and a religious upheaval or two. VoilĂ , French cuisine is born. And it is, in all ways, the cuisine of men.

This is not a shocking or novel observation. Until quite recently--the past two decades or so--formal restaurant cookery was the province of men. Sure, a few women popped up in four star kitchens, but more often they were at home, doing the cooking for the family, with a kid slung on one hip and another banging pots together nearby.

Another huge jump, again filled with generalizations, to Madeleine Kamman and Richard Olney.

Kamman is a frenchwoman who left France for America, and penned several homesick cookbooks. Olney was an Iowan who built a home in Provence before the region became synonymous with Alice Waters and foodie tourism. He also penned several cookbooks, none of them a bit homesick. And though both write passionately of French food, their approaches are utterly polarized.

Olney's meals, even his "simple" ones, are laughably complicated. There is no such thing as a Tuesday night quickie in the Olney oeuvre. Nor, notably, were there women or children. And while none of Kamman's meals are thirty minute mains (a Gourmet Magazine feature), most are reasonably easy for an experienced cook. Many are "nourishing" or "good for children."

Here is Olney describing one of the few times he worried about cooking for somebody, chef Georges Garin:

"Garin's visit...marked the only time that I have ever been terrified by the notion of preparing a meal. To avoid the possibility of errors, I opted for simple preparations and fine wines." (12-13)

His menu:

Artichoke bottoms with two mousses
A rapid saute: Ortolans
Tepid Apple Charlotte

I am leaving off the wines.

Anything involving mousses, pastry, and game birds is, by my lights, damned fancy. Olney would doubtles think me a plebe. One imagines him the sort (Paul Bertolli, in his introduction to The French Menu Cookbook, describes Olney as "irascible.") who would despise bloggers.

Kamman is more the type to shrug. While she has her dictatorial moments, they are directed at the poor quality of frozen foods or tomatoes out of season. She is not frustrated with the cook.


Reading this far you might think I dislike Olney. I have almost finished The French Menu Cookbook, and while I can't say I'd ever have wished to meet the guy, the book is engrossing. He begins with an historical approach to French cooking, explaining the French service, courses, and that dreaded thing, international hotel cooking (Elizabeth David really went on about this, too.) His detailed explanation of French wines, which includes a lesson in label-reading, is an astonishing exercise.

His menus, while fascinating, are nothing I'd ever cook. He's sieve-happy, for one thing. His menus lean inordinately on artichokes and truffles; his "Elaborate Formal Dinner Party" is so complex he writes:

"I feel uneasily almost as if I owed an apology to my readers, who may justly consider it an archaic curiousity but nearly impossible of execution, particularly in a servantless household." (210)

One needs much time, space, and equipment. A large stone fireplace, while not essential, would certainly help. An inheritance would also assist in paying for the truffles, not to mention the wines. This not family cookery, but showmanship. And great showmanship it is. Olney paved the way for Waters and Bertolli, who together changed the face of American cooking. But dining at Chez Panisse or Oliveto (when Bertolli cooked there--he is now involved in a sausage-making venture) is not the same as putting a nice dinner on the table after a long day at the office. And this is where Kamman comes in.


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