May marks my third monthly reading round up. Last month the focus seemed to be mainly on various cozy mysteries. This month I’ve got a couple of more cozies, and another one of the Bruno books that I read. Along with them there are three more books where France and French food play a major role. There’s a book about dining alone, and finally the biography of one of the most interesting, although not necessarily best known, food writers of the last century
I’ll start off with my ongoing fascination for all things food and France.
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones
Judith Jones, the legendary editor for Alfred E. Knopf and company is a name that keeps popping up over and over if you read about food, particularly if you read about cookbooks. Her name is most closely tied with Julia Childs and Childs’s collaborative effort, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I really enjoyed reading about this time period from Jones’s perspective. She gives everyone their proper do, without the pitting of one author against the other as some other books have done.
Yet Jones’s influence stretches beyond that, with many people crediting her with the development of the modern cookbook. Among names that pop up in this account are such notable authors as Marcella Hazan, and Lidia Bastianich. Throughout her career Jones has displayed a real keen eye for talent. She has also been a very strong promoter of women in food, and cooking.
Jones story is also a love story. She has two lovers that stand out. One is her long time husband and partner Evan Jones. The second is the city of Paris. It is in Paris where she met Jones, and where she developed her love of great food. It was also in Paris where her nose for a good story first showed up, where after an afternoon spent reading a discarded French manuscript, she suggested to her employer that they should definitely publish an English language version of this book. We have Judith Jones to thank for the English language version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.
One of the things that made Jones so successful is that she was a life long learner. Throughout the book she is constantly taking on new tasks, learning about new food, learning about the way food is produced, and committing herself wholeheartedly to each new project. The Tenth Muse is a delightful read.
M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child & Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table,– Joan Reardon
This book was just an okay read. In large part, for me, because it didn’t really add anything to what I’ve read of Fisher or Child, and even to some extent of Alice Waters. If you’re not familiar with any of these three women, this wouldn’t make a bad place to start. The one thing it does do, by including Waters, is delineate a line of succession, as far as the most significant women in American cookbook writing and American taste setting are concerned.
Having said that, I don’t see this as a book I would return to for a second read.
Coquilles, Calva, & Creme: Exploring France’s Culinary Heritage A Love Affair with Real French Food, G. Y. Dryansky, with Joanna Dryansky
This was a book that I had trouble putting down. Written by G.Y. along with his wife, if is clear throughout that G.Y.’s is the dominant voice in this narrative. Given the breadth and scope of his writing career, that isn’t surprising. He has written on a broad range of topics from fashion to economics to politics and everything in between.
Cooquilles, has a lot in common with Justin Spring’s, The Gourmands Way, and Michael Steinburger’s, Au Revoir to All That. All three lament the passing of a way of life and a style of French Cuisine. The big difference with the Dryansky book, is that the author have taken it upon themselves to traverse France to find those ways where the old ways are still honoured.
One thing that elevates, to use a term popular in the world of televised chefs, the Dryansky book is that it is not so much an exercise in nostalgia, but one that hopes to cultivate a living memory. The recipes in the book offer the reader to experience, although at some remove, the great cooking tradition that created the great restaurants. This is further helped along by Dryansky’s commentary on the restaurants he visits.
Much like the books by Spring and Steinburger, there is a culinary gossip aspect to Coquilles. Again, though, the fact that Dryansky can relate tales of events such as a one-upmanship show of wine tasting between Alexis Lichine and Baron de Rothschild, shows that Dryansky himself moves in circles more rarefied than many.
There is also a goodly amount of railing against what Dryansky sees as putting the food itself higher than it should be. While Dryansky appreciates great talent, he doesn’t believe that food should all be about the pizzaz and display, but rather about bringing people together.
Despite this, and a healthy dose of snobbery that is evident throughout the book, Dryansky has managed to come up with a work that explains some of the mysteries of French Cuisine, and French life, to anyone willing to learn. As well, the book towards it conclusions features Dryansky in a French restaurant, enjoying his meal, and reflecting on his fellow diners, who he observes enjoying the food and conversation. The conversation not revolving around the food, but food being what the people gather around as they discuss their lives. This according to Dryansky is how it should be, and I most certainly agree.
Alone in The Kitchen With an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
If Coquilles, Calva, and Crême is about the appeal of preparing, sharing, and eating good food, Alone in the Kitchen looks at what happens to people when they are forced to fend for themselves. Often the results aren’t pretty, and after reading this book I didn’t feel the need or desire to increase the number of meals I enjoy on my own.
Ferrari-Adler has put together a good collection of stories, about how people eat, when they eat alone. It covers a wide range of conditions: lack of money, lack of time, broken relationships. lack of preparation space. The reasons are myriad, but there are some commonalities. In general most of the writers listed don’t particularly enjoy dining alone, at least not over an extended period. However. sometimes as a parent, such as Holly Hughes, being alone is the only time you get to enjoy or luxuriate in any meal.
It is also not surprising that most of the meals in this collection do not fall under the category of gourmet, or even relatively healthy. One of the difficulties of dining alone is feeling that you are deserve and worth the effort of a proper meal(I know, I’m in that place quite often). For people who write about food(which I do, after a fashion), aloneness is often a side effect, as many people think you approach every home meal in the same fashion you would at a restaurant you are reviewing, as one example.
The essays in this meal are perfect for dining alone. They merely take a few minutes of your time on an individual basis, much like a bowl of pasta and salad dressing(my university years favourite snack). Or you can read several in a row and feed yourself a luxurious, and languid, literary feast.
Killer Pancake: A Culinary Mystery, by Diane Mott Davidson
It was Mott Davidson’s first book, Catering to Nobody, that send me down the garden path of crime and cuisine. This book is the fifth in the series. I wanted to give another one in this series a try, and didn’t want to wait until I had managed to get a reserved copy of the second title.
In this book, the characters have moved on. Goldy, the catering hero of the series has remarried, although her ex is still on the scene. Not only have the characters moved on, but they’ve also developed. While Goldy isn’t raking in the dough, the business has settled into a familiar routine.
The plot in Killer Pancake revolves around the sale of cosmetics. While watching the solution to the murder unfold, we are led into a world of high pressure sales, shady retail employees, along with animal rights activists.
While I enjoyed the story, I must say that the recipes featured in the book don’t particularly appeal to me at all. Still, I’m going to keep my eyes open for any of Mott’s books in various bargain bins.
I reviewed the first two books in this series. To my mind this is one of the better food related crime series that I’ve come across. Like the Mott series, I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but the recipes in this series are ones that I might want to have a go at one day.
One thing I said last month that I liked about the series was that the food scenes struck me as realistic and that the authors didn’t try to oversell the food. This book, along with an interesting murder, delves into the question of employee theft in restaurants.
I like the fact that the relationship between Chloe and Josh is developing but not without difficulties. The other characters are also evolving well. The addition of Isabelle as a link between Chloe’s Social Work life and the her connection to Josh and his restaurant is a nice touch.
On the whole the book is quite tightly plotted, and fairly plausible as such mysteries go. I’m definitely going to be picking up book 4 in this series, sooner rather than later
This is the latest installment in the Bruno series, with a new novel coming out in the next few months. Once again Bruno is caught up in what seems like a straightforward death, but one which reaches deep into the heart of French culture and society.
Despite the volume’s title, The Templars’ Last Secret doesn’t veer to far into Dan Brown territory, focusing more on the historical aspect of the Templars with less of the arcane and recondite conspiracy theories favoured by Brown. The book introduces a couple of characters from an earlier book, which adds a good touch to the series overall continuity.
As with all the Bruno novels, this one deals as much with life in the Dordogne as it does with the mystery that Bruno is called on to solve. No case is too important for a good meal with friends, and often those meals also aid in the solving of the mystery. All of the main characters that we have grown to love are featured here, and the ending gives a hint that perhaps the next book (due later this year), will see some resolution in Bruno’s romantic life.