Julia Child says yes. I say no.
Back when I was still in graduate school and living on a considerably severer budget than I am now, I did not buy cookbooks. Instead, I got them out of the library and typed up any recipes I thought I might like to fit when printed on an index card. Actually, this is not a bad strategy, if you don’t count the loss of valuable time in typing. I still vet potential cookbook purchases at the library.
Anyway, I ran across a reference to a revered French cookbook, Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells. I loved good food and the French are famous for being the best at good food, so me and this cookbook should be a brilliant match, right? I put it on request and greedily took it home when it arrived.
I was utterly disappointed.
I paged through its chapters—from hors d’oeuvres and soups and salads to “Eggs, Cheese, Terrines, and Tartes” to various kind of meat and desserts at the end. I don’t get it, I thought to myself. What is the big deal about this food? Nothing appealed to me at all. It seemed like a vague, bland imitation of food with real flavor, like Mexican or Thai. I returned the book to the library without regrets and determined that I would forget about French cuisine.
I was still determined to ignore French cuisine when I actually moved to France. On arrival I behaved like any immigrant: I did my darnedest to re-create the beloved dishes of home. I stalked the city in search of peanut butter and cilantro (both found at the Asian market) and brown sugar and molasses (never found; closest approximations were turbinado sugar and sugar-beet syrup, which just didn’t work right in baking). I very distinctly remember my mother asking me during a visit if I was getting into French food, to which I replied loftily, “Oh no, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s just not that interesting.”
You can see where this is going, right?
Approximately seven months after touchdown in Strasbourg, the three of us went to Iceland—I had a work meeting there and Andrew had friends to visit. He went by way of New Jersey to defend his disseration (congratulations, Dr. Wilson!) and when we met up again in Reykjavik we left Zeke for the night with the friends and went to a fancy restaurant to celebrate his achievement. And that is where Stage 1 of 2 of my French food conversion took place.
It was a really good dinner; no criticism intended to Icelandic chefs at all. Turns out puffin is extremely tasty. But—it’s hard to explain it exactly—but I suddenly realized that it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi (ha ha) that I had enjoyed in restaurants in Strasbourg. There was something to French food after all. Perhaps I should reconsider.
However, I went back home and made nothing but brownies and curries and chilaquiles with our precious supply of corn tortillas (also impossible to source in France—though you can get wheat flour tortillas from Old El Paso if you’re slumming it).
Stage 2 of 2 occurred back in the U.S. I was at a much beloved used book store and, browsing the cookbook shelves (now having enough money to indulge rather more often), I came across Recipes from a French Herb Garden by Geraldene Holt. As you might guess from the title, it’s an extremely beautiful book with wonderful photography, and all the herbs made me suspect that this would be flavorful French food. I bought it: my very first French cookbook. Then we went back to Strasbourg and I made Holt’s recipe for Suprêmes de Volaille au Vinaigre, chicken breasts with a butter-vinegar sauce flavored with raspberries and tarragon. Sacre bleu! This was the French food I’d been looking for without even knowing it. It was merveilleux, and I was hooked.
After hysterically tearing through a huge number of Holt’s recipes, I remembered Bistro Cooking and thought maybe it was worth a second glance. I ordered it (thank you, Amazon.fr). My reaction could not have been more opposite from the first time around. I was qualified at last to recognize the book for the work of genius that it is. I cooked mussels half a dozen ways. I learned to love sorrel’s bizarre disintegration under heat to an ugly, delicious purée. Who knew you could dress poached eggs with a red wine sauce and it would be divine? Then there were all these new ingredients with such amazing potential: Duck gizzards! Frisée! Fennel! Foie gras! Celeriac! Headcheese! Le Puy lentils! Walnut oil! Rabbit! Oxtail! Salt cod! Skate! Porgy! Guinea hen! Chervil! And everything available at my grocery store and farmer’s market! I went on to cook every single recipe in the whole entire cookbook (as I have done with Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table and a few others).
If you’re having a hard time getting excited by this list, it’s no surprise. There are two barriers to entry here for American cooks. First, most of these items are really freaking expensive in the U.S. They’re not well known, so there’s not much demand, so the cost is high. And second, even if you could get them—lentils are easy to import and we have rabbits and oxen over here too, after all—well, they’re just not the same. With good reason are the French renowned for their devotion to ingredients. I find I have almost no desire to cook out of my beloved French cookbooks stateside. The taste is too different.
Over time I got dozens of French cookbooks. Some were actually in French and by French authors, of course, but they were written with the assumption that the cook was already formed with French culinary instincts. Happily, so many British and American writers have devoted their lives to French cooking that there were more than enough wonderful options in the anglophone world. Elizabeth David made French food famous in postwar Britain, and even if you don’t ever cook out of it you should get her French Provincial Cooking anyway for the sheer joy of reading her prose. Her recipe for Salade Verte à l’Angevine reads: “The salad consists simply of a few leaves of green stuff (lettuce or curly endive or dandelion) and little cubes of Gruyère cheese, the salad seasoned with savory and dressed with olive oil and no more than a suspicion of vinegar. It is simple, interesting and good.” (She’s right. And this is one that could actually work in America.) I also loved her stew of goose necks, hearts, and giblets, but the one I’ve made the most number of times so far is the braised-then-fried breast of lamb—we practically fight over it when it hits the table.
Two others I’ve kept post-France are Susan Hermann Loomis’s The French Farmhouse Cookbook and Josephine Araldo and Robert Reynolds’s From a Breton Garden. These are both odes to the vegetable, and again, it’s no accident that the rediscovery of the joy of vegetables in America happened through encounters with French cooking. Araldo’s book is quirky, and I must admit that I like it more for inspiration than for the recipes themselves, but they do bust up any preconceived notions you might have about what goes with what. Loomis has far more than just vegetables, and the food has the virtue of being simple and hearty, which means it could work in the U.S. if you were getting your ingredients from a farmer’s market or your garden. Her honey-and-hazelnut spread is way better than Nutella, and hers is the best recipe I’ve ever come across for buckwheat galettes.
Of course, the conspicuous absence in all of this is… Julia Child. Don’t get me wrong, I love Julia, just like every other right-thinking human being does. I have and happily re-read her lovely autobiography, My Life in France. The thing is—her famous two volumes, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are explicitly for American home cooks. Maybe if I’d found them before France (and with a much bigger salary) it would have been different. Be that as it may, I got them once I’d already been cooking French food for a few years, and in France. I tried a few; they didn’t really do much for me. Eventually I gave them away.
Terroir is a common term for the foodies to throw around now: that essence of a particular place as expressed in its food or wine. My feeling is that it is precisely the subtlety of French cooking—lacking the explosive, obnoxious, enthralling flavors of hot chile or fish sauce or odiferous herbs—that makes it so hard to re-create outside of France. The genius is a local one; it doesn’t travel well.
All of which is to say, if you’ve ever felt a twinge of shame for not “getting” French food, you are hereby released. Compensate by booking a flight for Paris, but then heading out to the smaller cities. Eat your way through the bistros and boulangeries. But when you come back home, stick with tamales and Pad Thai.
Or… try Geraldene Holt’s raspberry-tarragon chicken and prepare to have your life’s plans massively interrupted. Here’s my take on her recipe.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 Tbsp. butter
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, into which you have mashed 5 or 6 fresh raspberries
3 sprigs of fresh tarragon
Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a sturdy skillet. Sprinkle the chicken breasts on both sides with salt and pepper. When the butter has stopped foaming and started to turn golden, lay in the chicken. Cook gently over medium heat for 10–15 minutes until it is just cooked through and still tender and moist. Remove and set aside. Add the onion to the butter in the pan and cook over medium heat until soft but not browning. Pour in the raspberried vinegar and the leaves picked off one sprig of tarragon. Turn up the heat to medium-high and let it bubble until it starts to get a bit thick and syrupy. Add the last 2 Tbsp. of butter off heat, whisking steadily so it gets incorporated into the sauce. Put the chicken back in the pan to warm it up, then serve at once, each piece decorated with a sprig of tarragon.
Needless to say, the better your ingredients, the better the recipe will be. This dish is too simple to skimp on anything.