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Old food books or new food books?


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Looking back over the books of M.F.K. Fisher, Waverley Root and John and Karen Hess, I realize that the reason I prefer the food writers of the past is not because they were inherently superior, but b

John, how nice to hear from you.   An additional reason I enjoy food books from the past is that the authors are frequently eating legendary dishes (or ingredients) which are now almost impossible t

I've been arguing for years that the masscultization of food has had a cheapening effect. So, yeah.

My interest in restaurants has faded since the days when I was traveling constantly to interesting places and having my meals paid for. Eating out well in London is both expensive and noisy; in so many of them, loud pop music is de rigeur. There is a wealth of ethnic restaurants on the outskirts which would interest me, but my wife doesn't relish the weirdly wonderful and she cooks so well that I can't possibly feel cheated.

 

This is not a judgement on those who eat expensively -- I did it myself when I could afford to -- but I have become increasingly aware of the growing number of the formerly middle class whose financial security is rapidly disappearing. There are university lecturers without tenure who are surviving on food stamps. And so I am increasingly aware of gastronomic cost effectiveness. (This isn't a plea for sympathy, we have no financial worries whatsoever.)

 

In a paper on authenticity that I gave at the Oxford Symposium in 2005, Authentic? or Just Expensive? I summed up my feelings in words that I still wouldn't change:

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‘WE have more than enough masterpieces,’ wrote Jane Grigson; ‘what we need is a better standard of ordinariness.’ Carve it on every kitchen wall! M. F. K. Fisher’s Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier, was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however unpromising:

 

Storekeepers automatically lowered their prices when they saw her coming…Up would come the trapdoor to the cellar, and down Madame would climb…he would pick up a handful of bruised oranges, a coconut with a crack in it, perhaps even some sprouting potatoes…And yet…from that little hole, which would have made an American shudder in disgust, she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.

 

What was eccentricity in Madame Ollangier has become necessity for a growing army of the economically challenged. A friend surviving on an avant-garde musician’s income lives in an urban area with the usual mix of food sources. He buys his household’s fresh produce from neighbourhood ethnic markets—much cheaper than ‘bargain’ superstores. Both he and his wife cook well and his family eats with great pleasure and integrity. Most of their staples, however, come from Asda; shopping elsewhere, he has determined, would cost him an extra forty pounds a week. Though he believes firmly in eating locally and seasonally and supports artisanal producers in the various European countries to which he often travels, when he is at home, living day-to-day, he refuses to sacrifice his family’s comfort and well-being to abstract principle.

 

My friend exemplifies the dilemma facing those who must watch the pennies but are possessed of both a palate and a conscience. There are of course others worse off, such as those whose jobs have been exported or their pensions stolen. The trickle-down effect in our laisez-fairyland is draining more and more of the once-middle class into an economic slough. In the West our land-based peasantry has virtually disappeared, but a new proletariat is emerging for whom the manufactured environment is the unnatural world from which they must somehow wring a precarious subsistence. As the supermarket bargain bins become the last wilderness in which to forage, they must revert to the ancient pragmatism of peasant inventiveness.

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This thread caused me to back and review several "Janet Flanner" contributions to the New Yorker. They continue to impress. I'm sure Maurice's and John's and Chambo's work will continue to impress in 60 years.

 

I'm glad they and Fisher took time to report what was so mundane at the time.

This interview with Janet Flanner produced by my old KPFA friend Richard O. Moore will probably interest you

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As Simone Signoret wrote, La Nostalgie n'est plus ce qu'elle était.

 

I'd be interested in hearing from Mr. Whiting who are some of the current-day writers he thinks do come close to the Fishers, the Davids, the Roots, et al.

 

 

Suzanne, that's a large and mixed bag you've presented. One could easily question how they compare to each other. <snip>

Sorry if I was unclear. I did not ask for a disquisition on the past. I merely want to know who writing today Mr. Whiting considers worth reading.

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Suzanne, I am so often disappointed by those modern food writers who are most enthusiastically recommended to me that I no longer bother to keep up with the latest, and so my answer would be useless. One author that I followed with great interest and admiration was John Thorne, but he has retreated from a world that he is no longer interested in writing for. Occasionally we exchange a few laconic words, and so I am able to determine that he is still alive without Googling the obits.

 

There are some who write competently and enthusiastically about food-related matters which don't interest me. That is not intended as a criticism either of them or of me, but merely as a statement of fact. I don't care for what the food world or any other world has become, and so I find "relevance" immaterial.

 

And a P.S. to Robert: The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that your brief summary of the contemporary publishing world says more about modern food-related books than anyting else I've read or heard. For over twenty years Mary and I have been members of the (UK) Guild of Food Writers. During that time it has changed into the Guild of Food Publicists and Recipe Hacks. A recent workshop on how to blog was little more than an extended ego trip for three of its illiterate members.

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In a paper on authenticity that I gave at the Oxford Symposium in 2005, Authentic? or Just Expensive? I summed up my feelings in words that I still wouldn't change:

__________________________________________

 

‘WE have more than enough masterpieces,’ wrote Jane Grigson; ‘what we need is a better standard of ordinariness.’ Carve it on every kitchen wall! M. F. K. Fisher’s Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier, was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however unpromising:

 

Storekeepers automatically lowered their prices when they saw her coming…Up would come the trapdoor to the cellar, and down Madame would climb…he would pick up a handful of bruised oranges, a coconut with a crack in it, perhaps even some sprouting potatoes…And yet…from that little hole, which would have made an American shudder in disgust, she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.

 

 

 

This is interesting, because I'm pretty sure I've heard Jacques Pepin say the same thing about his mother.

 

And his mom was buying many of the raw materials for the restaurant she owned and ran.

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In addition to Waverley Root's Paris Dining Guide, here are some more old restaurant guides I've enjoyed reading.

 

Dining out in New York and what to order. 1939 Fougner, Selmer

 

Where Paris dines : with information about restaurants of all kinds, costly and cheap, dignified and gay, known and little known : and how to enjoy them 1929

Street, Julian

 

Dining in New York 1930 James, Rian

 

Dining, wining and dancing in New York 1938 Middleton, Scudder

 

Tips on tables : being a guide to dining and wining in New York at 365 restaurants suitable to every
1934 Ross, George

 

Where to eat in New York. 1948 Dana, Robert W

 

Bohemian San Francisco: Its Restaurants and Their Most Famous Recipes; The Elegant Art of Dining. 1914 Ross Brown

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John, thank you for your response. I guess this is one (rare) instance in which I tend to be an optimist--always hoping that there is a new M. F. K. Fisher out there somewhere. All those writers you so love were unknown when they started out, after all. (My only fear is that it is a blogger, and I will be doomed to spend even more hours sitting at a screen.)

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Wilfrid - Mary and I used Waverley Root's Paris Dining Guide in 1973. It led us to l'Auberge Basque in the 7th (closed), Bistro 121 in the 15th and Chez la Mere Michel in the 17th (closed).

 

Twenty years later when Mere Michele was still serving up her wonderful beurre blanc, I went alone one early evening for dinner. Shortly after I was seated a Frenchman appeared and was greeted with the sort of warmth that's reserved for regular diners. He had already generously lubricated his larynx and made his way to the table next to mine with the careful precision of a man intent on demonstrating his sobriety. He continued chattering away to the waitress and then turned to me, making a remark to which he obviously expected an answer.

"Pardon, monsieur," I responded apologetically, "Je ne parle Francais."

"Ugh!" he responded, drawing out the syllable in obvious disgust. He ignored me for the rest of the evening, getting easily through another bottle of wine. Finally over coffee he turned to me again and addressed a civil remark in strongly accented but perfectly grammatical English. We exchanged pleasantries until he departed half an hour later.

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Another two Paris guides of considerable interest are Alexander Watt, Paris Bistro Cookery, MacGibbon and Kee, 1957, and James Beard and Alexander Watt, Paris Cuisine, MacGibbon and Kee, 1952

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John, to think that Jason Epstein married Judith Miller!!!

 

What a wonderful farewell you write to Mireille Johnston. I remember her series on PBS.

 

Quoting John Thorne ("Food writing's shameful secret is its intellectual poverty") to start the obituary was brilliant, not to mention controversial; and it plays right into a point I wanted to bring up. The quote is the handmaiden of the issue of is cooking an art form. I think the point that John Thorne is implying is that food writing isn't about the spiritual and the workings of the psyche; that its literary qualities are something more akin to journalism than to profound literature. (Much of the universe we are talking about concerns the gastronomic landscape, which would encompass Waverly Root and Samuel Chamberlin among others and the kind of books that you and Wilfrid reference above which then and now comprise a branch of travel writing or consumerism)

 

I have to admit I haven’t made a through examination of MFK Fisher, although I have read parts of a couple of her books. As much as I agree with John Thorne, I’ve nonetheless read my share of what we now call “food narratives” and numerous essays in magazines. When French gastronomic touring was still new and wondrous to me, I was carried away reading “The Inn of the Flowering Hearth” by Roy Andries de Groot, so much so that I tried to reach him by telephone to find out more about the inn. I apparently reached his wife,(who referred to him as “the colonel”) and I think she told me that the inn no longer existed. Of course the miraculous part is that de Groot had lost his eyesight years before. To me that book was literature in its finest guise.

 

I’m not sure where you draw the line between literary food writing, journalism and practical exposition, almost guidebook material. Admittedly I’m biased toward France since its gastronomic history and patrimony has nothing even close in the rest of the world despite the wonders of Italian and Japanese cuisine. My two favorite other works—one truly a guide and the other documentation in essays and photographs are Gault & Millau’s “Guide Gourmand de la France” (1970) and Quentin Crewe’s and the photographer Anthony Blake’s “The Great Chefs of France” (1978).

 

If you want to call the “Guide Gourmand de la France” food writing, it is a candidate for the most Herculean food book ever written. In short it’s the “Guide Bleu” format adapted to gastronomic travel. Just as the original general-tourism volumes, it lays out specific highways and byways in connecting itineraries all over France describing and locating restaurants, regional food specialties (savory and sweet dishes, cheeses), vineyards and distilleries, food shops and whatever else you can think of. The best idea I ever had for a food book is to retrace some of the routes today to take stock of what has been lost or no longer exists and what has replaced it.

 

I can’t think of a book that has better penetrate the hearts and souls of restaurants than “The Great Chefs of France”. By the time the book appeared, I had visited every one of the provincial restaurants the book covers. Even though most of the Mouthfuls contributors are too young to have been around then, I still think you’ll get a vivid idea of what a an “age d’or de la gastronomie” comprised and why I rail against all that I rail against in contemporary gastronomic life.

 

If I had to come up with a succinct thought of what both restaurant-going and food writing no longer have, they would be Romanticism and ritual. As I recently posted, the bar to entry for food writing is very low. (I find those best food writing of the year compendiums unreadable.) At least in the post-WWII, you had to be a very good writer with the appropriate sensibilities to write about food and wine. None of these writers were subsidized beyond their advances or acting as shills. Of course I come across the occasional contemporary book or article, but it’s a whole different kettle of fish than it once was even 30 or 35 years ago.

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