The Sensuality of Food

Destinations: Monte Carlo, Paris, London

Book: White Truffles in Winter (a novel) by N. M. Kelby

This fictionalized biography of the great French chef, Auguste EscoffierWhite Truffles in Winter: A Novel
is delicious, scandalous, lascivious, luscious…

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.

La magia di Montecarlo di notte
Modern Monte Carlo

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.

Hôtel Ritz Paris
Hotel Ritz, Paris, today

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”

Reading Escoffier:

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.

Disclaimers: Links from book titles to Amazon are for your convenience, but they are affiliate links, which means that anything you buy while you are there earns a bit for A Traveler’s Library. Please do help us out that way! Thanks.  The photos here come from Flickr with Creative Commons license and you can learn more by clicking on each photo.

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?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

19 thoughts on “The Sensuality of Food

  1. Such a great reminder that food CAN be much more than fuel for the body. I recently started back on Weight Watchers, and it always reminds me to slow down and enjoy the flavors and aromas of food, rather than just stuffing myself with careless abandon.

  2. That sounds like a great book and having the subtext of his work in food can really set a tone for what is going on in the book. This one is going on the list for sure.

  3. The recipe seems so simple, yet so elegant at the same time. I would probably skip the tarragon though, just to keep things away from black licorice influences, but that’s a personal thing. Sarah Bernhardt was right, it is ‘magical.’

  4. You KNOW this is right up my alley! Like Escoffier, my heart also leaps when I see certain ingredients. He and I would make good grocery shopping companions, I think.

    1. Melanie: I’m fascinated by the Divine Sarah, too and last month she seemed to be haunting me since she figured prominently in P.O. Box Love as well as this book. By the way, Escoffier would have loved your herb spiral.

  5. oh my- a fictionalized biography! The quotes you selected were so beautiful, it definitely made me want to dash out to buy the book. I’m still trying to get my head around the ‘fictional biography’ 🙂 …. the marrying of two worlds- it looks intriguing

    1. Having written a biography (loudly proclaimed over there in the right hand column…)I fully understand the desire to fictionalize a life. So many details just are not available. So many rumors that you would like to explore imaginatively but cannot if you are forced to stick to the “truth”. Although as you know, fiction sometimes does a better job at important “truths” than non-fiction.

  6. Interesting that aging is one of the themes. I was surprised to read about his recipe for fried chicken. I never had it that way in France, where I lived for 25 years. Fried, I mean. It might be prepared as described, with the same herbs, but the cooking would not be in deep fat the way we do it here in the USA. Everyone I knew cooked chicken in the oven or in a pressure cooker. Also seems strange the it would be “boiled” fowl.

    1. Alexandra: The fried chicken apparently was one of his personal favorite foods. Partly because he loved foods that told stories–as the evolution of fried chicken certainly does (more detailed in the book than I had room for.) And also because its illustrates something I didn’t know about Escoffier. Although he refused to speak any language other than French, and insisted that French cooking was superior, he was also wide open to new ideas and influences from other places when it came to food. To him, fried chicken was a very fancy gourmet dish–not the food of the masses that we think of. So it is perfectly understandable that it was not something you would eat in a “home cooked” French meal.
      Incidentally, I’m reading another book about foods and culture right now that explains how some middle eastern cultures boil their meat before frying.

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