Excerpted from Coquilles, Calva and Crème: Exploring France’s Culinary Heritage by G.Y. Dryansky with Joanne Dryansky. Copyright © 2012 by Andara Films. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved. Support your local bookstore or purchase the book through our affiliate link at either Indiebound or Amazon.
In what is left of old French etiquette, it is actually impolite to use the word manger, to eat. One lunches, one dines, one sups, and takes the little breakfast. If you were “well reared,” you eschewed making reference to a bodily function. In a larger sense, what seems so quaintly punctilious is very wise. Eating, with profound associations, is more than stimulating or titillating the taste buds and sating hunger. I like the expression “soul food.” Its textured meaning conveys all that I have to say in this book. A fully satisfying repast is one evanescent, evocative touchstone to a time and a place … and to a civilization, of which France, all things told, is an admirable example.
Soul food: that expression that Americans of African descent gave us is of two words profoundly mated. Eating, among our most fundamental physical acts, is bound firmly into the warp and weave of our lives, which we call our culture. We are what we eat, yes, but more than that, our rituals of eating are ways of communing with the culture that defines who we are.
Hitler called us Americans mongrels. Ask most Americans where their families are from and you can get a roll call of geography. But it has been this mixture that has made us such a vibrant, open, and creative society. A mixture that is at the same time more of an emulsion of things that don’t dissolve. So many of us are bound, indelibly, to the someplace else that brought a bounty of its presence here. And part of that bounty we sometimes identify as soul food.
I grew up without religion, which is not to say without being taught morals, and with no real ethnic allegiances. But my mother was a Litvak, an Ashkenazi whose mother came from Lithuania, a lovely country my grandmother left to meet the man she loved who was in America, and who never showed up at the New York pier to greet her. Marriage to a scoundrel afterward left her a single mother with three children. I can remember my mother telling me how poor they were, about their sharing a pear for dinner.
Somehow, though, my grandmother passed on a wonderful way with cooking that brought her back to the land of woods and fields covered with sun-bleached linen that was her true home. My mother inherited her hearty but fine way with food. I remember her kreplach, those Ashkenazi ravioli or wontons. I remember her hand with blintzes, twice fried, and rolled, not folded, the ends tucked in, remotely like a mille-feuille.
All that reverence, if you will, about what food meant was part of my baggage when I moved to France and had the luck of getting to know intimately the food of that culture, not as a critic of someone’s imagination, but by making contact with a way of life that was varied, complex, and devoted to refined pleasure.
Some time after I began writing this, the newspaper Le Monde was at my doorstep with the news that UNESCO had inscribed “the French gastronomical meal” into the annals of the “immaterial culture of humanity.” UNESCO calls the French gastronomical meal a “social practice” by which the French celebrate important moments of their lives.
Some of those terms do resonate ponderously. And many French themselves contest the accolade. Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Sébastien Lepaque, the journalist and literary critic, lashed out against it.
“Putting French cuisine on a pedestal is grotesque,” he wrote, “even indecent…. French cuisine is under threat despite the elaborate meals consumed in luxury Parisian restaurants and hotels by the super-rich with a taste for the flashy, who order the most expensive dishes rather than the best. It is threatened despite multi-starred chefs appearing on TV.”
He adds: “The excellence of sophisticated ‘trophy’ cuisine cannot make amends for the slow disappearance of popular cuisine.”
Strong words yet clear observations. Competition for the trophies bestowed by critics—with the stars, the scores, and celebrity interviews—has indeed turned dining in the most noted restaurants into something like shopping in an art gallery. A narrow reduction of what la cuisine has meant to a people’s way of life. A privilege for diners who seem not to get indigestion from paying—check the guidebook menus—more than a thousand dollars for two for a single esoteric experience. I said just a thousand dollars, wine included, unless, of course, you’ve set your heart on a trophy wine.
Yet, talking to many people, traveling and sampling exceptional food, I was encouraged to learn that there’s a groundswell now in France for keeping cultural roots alive, and with that comes appreciation of a meal as an event with ripples of important associations. People are also talking more about convivialité in restaurants than créativité. The outdoor markets where food arrives directly from the farms are more heavily crowded than they’ve been, and more and more restaurants are boasting of la cuisine traditionelle. Terroir, the term that defines the formative presence of a particular, geographical place in a food, is being rehabilitated by a group of chefs, revolting against globalized “fusion food.” They coyly call themselves the terroiristes.
Creative cuisine has become a worldwide phenomenon, and the critics, ever keen to reveal what’s new, have reached beyond France, the matriarch of gastronomy, to proclaim as superior talents chefs elsewhere, be it Spain or, say, Denmark. In reaction, the leading stars of French cuisine have banded together in an effort to reclaim their turf. The Collège Culinaire de France’s fifteen members are calling on the government to help bolster their image—to promote what, in the group’s inaugural meeting with the international press, Guy Savoy modestly called “the gastronomic pedestal of cuisine on this planet.” They received the journalists at a restaurant on the iconic Eiffel Tower. Beyond the subjectivity of their talents, their proclaimed allies are incomparable French products—the bounty of France’s particular soils and of devoted artisans. “La cuisine française,” Michel Guérard insisted, “is a cuisine of terroir.”
I remember what Curnonsky, the best-known critic and gourmet in the annals of early twentieth-century French gastronomy, said, when he was interviewed about his love for simplicity—while he admired the “clever dishes” of la haute cuisine:
“Perfection in cuisine, it’s . . . when things have the taste of what they are.”
Ever careful of being out of fashion, the most media savvy of all the famous chefs, Alain Ducasse, has, as we’ll see, proclaimed—at least proclaimed—an era of “simplicity.”
Meanwhile the confréries that celebrate and promote the unique, gastronomical presences of a region continue to flourish throughout the nation. Those “brotherhoods” that include women, with their robes and ceremonies for the sake, say, of a variety of tripes, a distinct sausage, or a special garlic may seem silly, until you understand that they perpetuate rituals of attachment that go back to the Middle Ages.
France is a country where places and folkways come together and assert unique and cherished presences in a globalizing world. Would it be pretentious to suppose that our forays ahead in gastronomy were also anthropological?
I think again of what Guy Savoy, perhaps the most down-to-earth of the French stars of the kitchen, repeats whenever he’s interviewed:
“Cuisine is the art of transforming instantly into joy products carrying the presence of history.” Art? Let’s not go there. But there is soundness to his motto. In any case, I hope that, like a basketful of Proust’s madeleines, the savors evoked in our journeys in this book will be endearing touchstones: to knowing the people, to their ways of life, to the several cultures that make France such an enviable place to live, as it has been for Joanne and me over a long time.
NB: In France, chefs invariably cook without measuring—au pif, by instinct regarding proportions. Those who have given me their recipes have had to scratch their heads to come up with the measures, which I’ve translated into American standards. If the proportions don’t seem to suit your taste, the essential methods are correct. Up to you to proceed au pif to your personal accomplishments.
G. Y. Dryansky has been living and writing about the good life in Europe for most of his life. His innumerable stories appeared in major American publications before he became the senior European correspondent for Condé Nast Traveler. Along the way he has met and written about Nobel Prize winners, heads of state, and cultural heroes of literature, cinema, and fashion. His fascination with food is a story of personal pleasure and also part of an interest in what we create and perpetuate to define our world, beyond the current superficial star wars of exalted chefs.
Gerry and his wife Joanne moved to Paris not long after he’d earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and have made it their home ever since. They write screenplays and fiction together. Their recent novel, Fatima’s Good Fortune, after being published in the United States and worldwide, is going to the screen.