Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, with Audiobook by Blackstone
“In The Gourmands’ Way, Justin Spring brilliantly recounts the French odyssey of six remarkable Americans during the extraordinarily creative 30-year period from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s. So different and yet so similar, these heroes of mine―writers, gourmands and adventurers who were passionately curious about French cuisine, wines and lifestyle―immersed themselves in the culinary culture of Paris.”
“Stunning . . . A thoroughly researched account of how Americans fell in and out of love with French cuisine and cooking . . . A literary meal both luscious and lively―and essential to understanding our vacillating love affair with the French.”
“I recommend this book to anyone interested in gastronomy, but also in the idea of self-transcendence (no less), which is what I think the six protagonists were seeking and, in some cases, achieved. The Gourmands’ Way is an ideal match of subject and author: Justin Spring’s knowledge of gastronomic culture is exhaustive, his storytelling skills unerring, and his grasp of human essences (for better and for worse) exquisitely exact. A splendid exploration of the good life.”
“Any American who has eaten at a French restaurant or had a glass of French wine with dinner, anyone who has used a recipe by Julia Child, peeked at Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook, or loved M. F. K. Fisher, will be delighted by this book. It explores a lovely and undiscovered land with fascinating secrets, the world of the Francophile foodies. Perfectly paced, full of information yet intensely readable, The Gourmands’ Way defines a tradition of distinctively American hospitality, and that is a life-enhancing gift.”
“Justin Spring explores six Americans that were fascinated, and fueled, by French cuisine. The Gourmands’ Way delves deep into their gastronomic lives, which had a profound effect on how we now cook and eat in America today. This book brims with revelations and delicious drama; a fascinating story that any food lover will completely devour.”
“In The Gourmands’ Way, Justin Spring makes superb use of unpublished material and brilliantly portrays the experience of these post-World War II gastronomic pioneers. The desacralization of M. F. K. Fisher is priceless by itself. The real hero, Richard Olney, seems the least likely at the outset. This is a hard book to put down.”
“A brilliant, informative and entertaining study of the cultural dialogue between American and French gastronomes in the years following World War II. The charm of Justin Spring’s book comes from the light touch with which he brings to life the literary and political background of the postwar years in France, his impeccable knowledge of all things culinary, and his talent for ferreting out the most telling and amusing anecdotes.”
“Like a perfectly constructed meal, in which each dish (or story line) retains its own identity, and yet the menu (or narrative) has cohesion, balance, theme. Unlike some group biographies, it goes somewhere and says something, about these extraordinary and all too human people and the era they inhabited and affected. And the presentation – Justin Spring’s lively but elegant prose, and his careful scholarship – is equal to the exalted ingredients. If books got Michelin rankings, this should get three stars: ‘vaut le voyage.’”
As Spring points out in his excellent culinary history, six American writers introduced French cuisine to American restaurants and home kitchens and were responsible for the nation’s postwar love affair with French food and wine. Richard Olney, in Simple French Food and other books, demonstrated that good cooking was a matter of improvisation, like playing jazz. Julia Child and her collaborator Simone Beck Fischbacher produced Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which took the fear out of cooking French meals at home. Alexis Lichine introduced Americans to the bouquets and beauties of French wines in Wines of France and his more ambitious Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. Alice B. Toklas delivered a memoir told through the recipes of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook after her companion, Gertrude Stein, died. Novelist turned food writer M.F.K. Fisher recalled her own glorious moments of eating and drinking as a way of writing about some of her darkest life experiences in Gastronomical Me, and New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling wrote about glorious French repasts with brio and humor in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. Spring’s book is a wonderful culinary history
Spring (Secret Historian, 2010) branches out from his usual study of art history to take an entertaining look at a half-dozen American writers and enthusiastic eaters who helped residents of their home country begin to understand French wine and cuisine in the mid-twentieth century. During the period following WWII and running up through the midseventies, expatriate Julia Child studied cooking in France and then wrote cookbooks and hosted television shows, while the now lesser-known wine merchant Alexis Lichine persuaded Americans of the virtues of French wine, as two examples. Spring juggles all six of his subjects’ stories ably, treating them with affection while dispensing criticism where appropriate, as toward the accuracy of cult author M. F. K. Fisher’s stories of her life. His accounts of the publishing experiences of his subjects, including Alice B. Toklas’ comically horrifying collaboration with the author of The Can- Opener Cookbook, are particularly fascinating.
French cuisine became more familiar in America post-World War II, as soldiers returned home. This interest was often fanned by the likes of six authors and chefs: A.J. Liebling, Alice B. Toklas, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Alexis Lichine, and Richard Olney. While Child and Fisher may be household names, some of the others are lesser known, particularly for their culinary contributions. However, all six figures profiled in this book by Spring (Secret Historian) loved food and wine, and spent much of their lives cooking, eating, drinking, or writing about the same. Spring chronicles specific chapters in each of their lives, while also placing them in the context of mid-20th-century French and American culinary, literary, and social history. Quite lengthy and detailed, this is a well-crafted and entertaining book in which readers will constantly find something new to think about or discuss, particularly at the dinner table. VERDICT A solid read for both foodies and literary history buffs.
They came, they saw, they ateby Roberto FriedmanHeads up for a lively new book that will appeal to food-lovers and Francophiles. “The Gourmands’ Way – Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy” by Justin Spring (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) publishes on Oct. 10.Spring is the author of “Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward,” a National Book Award finalist about a great gay figure; and monographs on gay artists Andy Warhol and Paul Cadmus. Only two of the six gourmands profiled in this new volume were part of the LGBT community, and one of those was closeted. But you’d have to say the other was a major out lesbian.The subjects of these prose portraits are both well-known and perhaps a bit obscure. They are: A.J. Liebling , reporter and The New Yorker war correspondent who entered Paris with Allied forces in 1944; Julia Child , whose “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and subsequent TV career brought French cuisine home to Americans; Alice B. Toklas, partner to celebrated lesbian author Gertrude Stein and author of the famous “Alice B. Toklas Cookbook”; Alexis Lichine, wine merchant and author of “Wines of France”; M.F.K. Fisher, author whose books blended food, travel writing and memoir; and Richard Olney, gay expert on French cuisine who inspired chefs Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower . Let’s take them one at a time.Liebling is credited with “liberating” the Parisian restaurant the Closerie des Lilas on the day the city returned to French control, the first American to set foot in the place since Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940. He also found an underground Nazi trove of Cointreau, Benedictine and Champagne, and you better believe he “liberated” that.Lichine became the biggest importer of French wines to America, ensuring that the New World would develop a taste for the fruit of the grape. He touted the reputation of wine as “the highest expression of nature,” and we’ll drink to that!After Stein’s death, Toklas was at loose ends and, not incidentally, in precarious finances, as she didn’t just inherit Stein’s great art collection as a hetero spouse would. Her new project seemed a natural: “Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me,” she wrote. “When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein.” Hers contained a famous recipe for hash brownies.”Like her cat,” we learn, Child “loved feasting on a wide variety of little birds.” Spring describes a ballottine of veal that Child took days to prepare, “stuffing it with a Cognac-and-Madeira-scented forcemeat of ground veal, finely chopped mushrooms, foie gras, and blanched chard leaves, and serving it with an unctuous Madeira-truffle sauce.” She served it to “a fleeting, wren-like person so small that her hat hid her face until she looked up and you noticed that it was Alice B. Toklas.”With his partner the Jewish-American bear Elliott Stein , discreetly gay Olney’s coterie included poets John Ashbery and W.H. Auden , author Charles Henri Ford , painter Pavel Tchelitchev , aesthete Harold Acton , poet James Merrill , and author James Baldwin . Not bad for an Iowa farmboy! Here’s a night out with Baldwin: “The usual routine was Cafe de Flore until closing at 1 a.m., La Reine Blanche, which closed at 4, and La Pergola, which closed at 6. If one wanted a last drink (which Jimmy Baldwin always did), the Royale opened at 6.”We skipped M.F.K. Fisher. As for Alice’s magic brownies, they were from artist Brion Gysin’s recipe, and Toklas “assumed that its last ingredient, ‘canibus [sic] sativa,’ was an obscure North African herb.” Obscure no more!We’ll close with a passage from the delicious Time magazine review of Alice’s cookbook. “In Palma de Mallorca, a French cook almost started a riot in the marketplace by showing Alice how to smother pigeons (the cook said it made them fuller and tastier). The information came in handy when Alice fixed some braised pigeons on croutons for Gertrude, using six ‘sweet young corpses’ choked by her own hands.” That’s amour!
As French cuisine’s once-powerful hold on the aspirational American middle class fades with time, so does our understanding of how and why it conquered us. Employing his own auteur theory, Spring credits the spread of coq au vin, et al. to six homegrown writers who channeled their Francophilia into delectable cookbooks or indelible memoirs. Julia Child looms largest, but Spring makes room for excellent proselytizers like A.J. Liebling and M.F.K Fisher and even Alice B. Toklas, who followed up her avant-garde partner Gertrude Stein’s pseudo-autobiography with The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (including a recipe for Moroccan “Haschich Fudge”).