Some Like It Haute

The Gourmands' Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy BY Justin Spring. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 448 pages. $30.

The cover of The Gourmands' Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy

There is more to the title of Justin Spring’s riveting biography of six American food writers in love with France than meets the eye. If you say it fast enough, The Gourmands’ Way sounds a lot like The Guermantes Way, volume three of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. As I made my way through its artfully constructed chapters, I kept thinking about the “paths” or “ways” that Proust imagined for his cast of characters and the model he provided for Spring’s celebration of French cuisine. The Gourmands’ Way is a biography of food writers from vastly different backgrounds—a scrappy war reporter, a modernist icon, a fabulist, an Iowa intellectual, a smooth-talking wine impresario, a domineering all-American. Like the characters in Proust’s Search, they appear and reappear, occasionally meeting one another in their search to capture the genius of French food. Together, Spring’s six central figures fostered a midcentury American consciousness of French food and wine that has not been equaled since.

Spring understands that every cookbook and wine encyclopedia has a fascinating backstory, which he uncovers by exploring the character and situation of each of his writers. He is interested in what they know and don’t know about French food and French culture, what ambitions they bring to their work, and how much they are willing to compromise with the demands of editors. He is interested in the ingredients they gather from markets, the food they cook, and the restaurants that inspire and disappoint them. Among the most original aspects of The Gourmands’ Way is Spring’s revelatory use of publishers’ archives and contract negotiations, which helps us understand the books these writers created. M. F. K. Fisher, who careened from disaster to disaster in her personal life, was always hard up for money, and she worked too quickly. Alice B. Toklas was living in glorious poverty, surrounded by the masterpieces of modern art collected by her partner, Gertrude Stein. Alexis Lichine, the “dreamer of wine,” was an accumulator, always making deals, and never satisfied with his treatment by his editors. His grandiose wine château and ongoing challenge to the Bordeaux wine establishment are recounted here with verve, and so is the debacle that ensues when Lichine sells his name to a company that produces poor-quality wines.

Spring’s critical acumen and use of research help him achieve much more than the standard celebratory portraits of beloved figures. Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France (2006) gives the impression that the cook lived modestly as an expatriate, but Spring points out that the Childs were wealthy by any standard, and willing to spend lavishly on dinners and a well-appointed kitchen. He also reminds us of how Child obtained her diploma from the Cordon Bleu cooking school. After she failed the exam, she arranged for a friend at the school to give her a “do-over” exam in the comfort of her own kitchen. Through Spring’s analysis, we come to understand Child’s growing impatience with the French and her stubborn insistence that she knows better than they do how things should be done.

Julia Child, France, 1971. Paul Child/Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Julia Child, France, 1971. Paul Child/Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Spring’s image of a Julia Child wedded to American simplicity gave me pause at first: The most dreaded wedding present of the early 1960s was surely Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which seemed to condemn a bride to hours in the kitchen, and an infinite number of steps in each recipe. But Spring’s depiction of Child draws both on his infallible sense of class and character and on his understanding of the long arc of her career: “Even though Child’s background was unmistakably wealthy, socially exclusive, and privileged, and even though her own manners, bearing, and accent were undeniably patrician, her newfound ambition was really just the opposite: to create a cooking school, a cookbook, and (in time) a television cooking program that would enable anyone from any background to have easy access to knowledge.”

Richard Olney comes closest to Spring’s ideal food writer. A Midwesterner who came to Paris to paint, Olney eventually moves south and pursues a career in food writing. He ultimately merges with French culture so fully that he contributes a regular food and wine column, written in French, to the top professional magazine. He restores a modest home in Provence and lives an extremely simple life, attentive to the rhythms of the seasons and the local produce. He entertains both American and French family and friends, and his home becomes a retreat, a model for authentic living. Unlike Fisher, Lichine, and Child, Olney is without commercial ambition, and he appears in these pages as the ethereal high priest of cooking. We also learn along the way about a relationship with a violent lover in expatriate circles in Paris who threatens his well-being and even his property. The account of this unhappy love affair makes Olney’s dedication to his work even more moving. Spring writes of Olney that “even in a casual note to a friend, his observations on wine can astonish.” One example is Olney’s definition of finesse in wine: “When a Burgundian discovers finesse in a wine, he may compare it to the Christ Child’s velvet britches. Words are useless. Finesse is not a fruit, a smell, or a taste, it is an aura. No tasting note can touch it.”

The writer who takes the biggest hit in The Gourmands’ Way is surely M. F. K. Fisher. Once Spring has finished describing her idiotic stereotypes about the dirty, vulgar French, and the host of mistakes about ingredients and recipes, there isn’t much to be salvaged. In one hilarious episode, a publisher hires the venerable Parisian food critic Robert J. Courtine to supply footnotes to the French translation of Fisher’s wildly inaccurate Time-Life guide The Cooking of Provincial France. Courtine’s running footnotes expose the cookbook’s total fraudulence in the most polite and understated way—but no one involved with the publication really notices the relationship of text to notes until the book is in print. Spring’s artful play with his sources—Fisher’s negotiations with Time-Life, the lies in her book, her disdain for the French, the cascade of disbelieving reviews—adds up to a narrative that had me laughing out loud.

The most touching figure in The Gourmands’ Way is Toklas, life partner of the great literary modernist Gertrude Stein. After Stein’s death, Toklas, financially strapped yet free from Stein’s domineering ways, published a classic and original cookbook-memoir, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954). Spring begins his chapter on Toklas with an important reminder of the essential role she played in Stein’s literary career. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the book that made Gertrude Stein famous, was derived in style, tone, and content from Toklas’s own stories. Yet with no official legal connection to her life partner and pitted against Stein’s hostile nephew Allan, she had no say in the fate of the masterpieces of modern art that surrounded her, and no financial security. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book was born of this desperate situation.

Spring’s descriptions of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book are irresistible. The book is “both discreet and monumental,” not only a cookbook but “a gentle, unassuming memoir of her life with Gertrude Stein.” By accident, a recipe for hashish fudge sent to Toklas by a friend slips through the editing process and creates a scandal. Here, as elsewhere in The Gourmands’ Way, Spring reminds us that cookbooks are also literary achievements. Toklas’s cookbook tells a story, involving the search for ingredients, the pairing of food and wine, the disasters averted, and the novelty of the expatriate kitchen. Today, a writer like David Lebovitz, whose My Paris Kitchen (2014) offers recipes alongside tales of an American cook living in contemporary Paris, is an heir to Toklas’s charm.

Four years after The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book appeared, triumph turned to farce: Toklas, still hard up for funds, published a second cookbook, Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present, in collaboration with Poppy Cannon, the House Beautiful food editor, self-promoter, and author of The Can-Opener Cookbook. The story of a worn-out Toklas in the grips of a frozen-food fanatic would be tragic if it weren’t so funny. Fortunately, the first cookbook has gone down in literary history as a masterpiece; the second is virtually unknown.

If I have a criticism of The Gourmands’ Way, it comes in the chapter “The End of the Affair,” in which Spring suggests that in the late ’60s, American enthusiasm for French food declined in tandem with American enthusiasm for France. He cites odd examples of American disillusionment with the romance of France, such as an American complaining of uncouth draft dodgers at the American Center in Paris, or even the grim film Last Tango in Paris, which captured “a gradual shift in mood” about France, and“would haunt the city for decades to come.” He’s more convincing in his assessments of the legendary haute cuisine restaurants of New York, threatened by unappealingly spare nouvelle cuisine and by people seeking both more exotic and less caloric food. And, as he makes clear in an afterword, Americans’ love affair with French food lives on: The techniques and ingredients from Olney’s garden or Toklas’s kitchen are so thoroughly assimilated into our best food practices today that “we no longer think of them as French.”

I read The Gourmands’ Way with constant interest, and I read it slowly for its many delicious details and astonishing backstories. Spring clearly expresses his understanding of food and wine without any pretense. The knowledge he has at his fingertips might easily have overwhelmed this book. Instead, he uses footnotes for the kind of information that is too intricate for the text but still relevant. As you read, you lower your gaze from time to time for a definition of a Paulée de Meursault or for the ingredients in a poulet gratiné, one of Julia Child’s favorite dishes. More than asides, these footnotes allow Spring to dig deeper into the critique of a writer or to tease an extra bit of humor out of an anecdote. Only a writer of Spring’s talent and Proustian sensibilities would add to a discussion of Olney’s visits to the bistro Chez l’Ami Louis a note about François Mitterrand’s last meal, on New Year’s Eve, 1995. It was a plate of ortolans, the delicate, endangered French songbirds.

Alice Kaplan is the author of Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (University of Chicago Press, 2016).