Destinations: Monte Carlo, Paris, London
The writing is lush. The author, N. M. Kelby, paints the portrait of a man obsessed with luscious food and delicious women. But not just any food–Escoffier prefers dishes prepared with special ingredients. And not just any women. He marries and has children with a poet–Delphine Daffis, but they live apart for decades during which he carries on a love affair with actress Sarah Bernhardt. He sees her when she is not busy bedding various heads of state and other prominent citizens. At the end, Auguste and Delphine come back together in Monte Carlo and that is where the book starts, as it tells the story of his life in flashbacks and contemplates his life. Underneath the romance and the food, White Truffles in Winter explores living well, aging, memory, and how to adequately show love.
Auguste Escoffier himself narrates most of the novel and after hearing him enthuse about the poetry and sacredness of food, we begin to believe wholeheartedly in the power and the glory of a properly prepared meal. Today we credit Escoffier with inventing modern restaurant kitchen methods (dividing the work among specialized stations) and serving styles (as menus à la carte).
He wooed women with his cooking, he wrote cookbooks, and when he needed some luxurious extras, he ordered them on the hotel account and cooked the books. The details of this novel, set in Paris, London and Monte Carlo are not literally correct, but it reflects the basic outline of Escoffier’s life. As the author says, “The elegant savage found in these pages is who we all are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist–it is our most hungry self.”
The “King of chefs and chef to kings” moved from a Paris restaurant to the Savoy in London and with his friend César Ritz, started the Carlton in London and Ritz Hotel in Paris, thus beginning the Ritz-Carlton tradition. Escoffier also headed the kitchen preparations for the Titanic and drew up the menus, but fortunately for him, let his crew sail without him.
The delight of this novel lies in the dialogue and actions that are consistently believable no matter how remote the life of Mme. and M. Escoffier may be from our own reality. Occasionally he touches down to earth–with memories of the horrible days of starvation during World War I, which the author intimates were the basis for his obsessions with food. And with the recipe for Fried Chicken. Don’t get me wrong, White Truffles is not a cookbook. However Kelby describes many of Escoffier’s creations in such detail that you could recreate them in your kitchen (if only you had a few truffles on hand).
Auguste explains that fried chicken blends Scottish and African traditions. He learned to make it from Rufus Estes, a famous American black chef of the day who worked for Sarah Bernhardt . Sarah calls Auguste’s version, “Magic.” How different in spirit is his version from Paula Deen (who has her own problems these days.)( NOTE: I belatedly discovered that Kelby herself has something to say on the subject of Deen at her blog” At Escoffier’s Table)
Back to the fried chicken, Escoffier says:
Cut some boiled fowl into slices and marinate them in very good olive oil, the juice of a lemon and a handful of herbs fresh from the garden. I enjoy tarragon, for a hint of licorice; lemon thyme, to bring forward the citrus note; and the slightest bit of lavender. The fowl should marinate for at least three hours. Flour. Fry. Garnish with fried parsley.
The cooking advice is not always so straightforward. In explaining another poultry dish, Escoffier says, “…find a good-sized pullet. You must be very careful with the size of the fatted chicen…You will know it when you see it. Your heart will leap.” This “good-sized pullet” is for a dish that “will require the maître d’hôtel, three waiters (at the very least) and a portable stovetop.”
The author has absorbed and reflects Escoffier’s fascination with everything about food. ”Food is never as simple as one thinks it is. It is much more dangerous–seducing completely,” he says. In the novel’s description of settings–in this bygone era that only the super rich might come close to experiencing in the 21st century–the words are also electric. When Escoffier goes to Belle Île to meet Sarah Bernhardt (ah, yes, the same wonderful island visited in P.O. Box Love ) :
“…he could see what a painter en plein aire would see, what Monet had seen as he desperately held his canvas so that the insistent wind would not hurl his easel into the sea–the blue with shutters of green, all set in sharp relief against the bones of jagged steep cliffs, the gray-green sea and the coal smoke sky. The colors were so intense he nearly wept.”
The publishers, W. W. Norton and Company, have equaled the lushness of N. M. Kelby’s writing with fine scrolling graphics at chapter heads, a sensuous cover picture and a jacket cover that feels as soft and smooth as skin.
One last food reference from White Truffles in Winter. As he feeds a “perfect scallop” to Delphine early in their marriage:
“Close your eyes,” he had said to her. “food demands complete submission.” “Do you taste the sea?”
Delphine did. Not just the salt of the sea but the very air of the moment that the shell was pulled from the sand. “A storm, perhaps. There is a dark edge to the sweetness of the meat. What do you taste?”
“The hand of God”
Ma Cuisine A cookbook for people who already know how to cook, despite being titled for the housewife. No cooking temperatures and times, for example.
Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life This is his version of his life and it is the book he is writing during the novel, White Truffles in Winter.
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And what are your own feelings about food? Have you had experiences where food transported you–where it became much more than simple fuel for the body?