Classic French Cookbooks from the 20th Century (Hint: NOT Julia)

olney-simple-french-food-2Richard Olney’s Simple French Food and Mireille Johnston’s Cuisine of the Rose: Classical French Cooking from Burgundy and Lyonnais both grabbed me from the very first time I touched the covers and flipped through the pages like a Black Jack player hedging his bets by rearranging his cards

Mireille Johnston
Mireille Johnston

Right away I knew that both of these authors — Olney, the expatriate American living like a recluse in Provence and Johnston, the expatriate Frenchwoman occasionally living in America — embodied the very core of France’s cuisine, the marrow, as it were.

Olney’s book I came late to, I must admit, thinking that far too much had been made of French food. Wishing to be liberated from the rigidity of that classic approach to the kitchen, I threw myself into Mexican and Chinese and Indian cooking. It was in Haiti that I first discovered Olney’s book, a ratty paperback I found at a”jumble” sale put on by the British women I played mah jongg with.

As I read Olney’s words, I knew that a kindred soul breathed the same air as I did:

“I have sometimes been accused of thinking of nothing but food and wine — of being bound irreparably to the bestial pole. I do, in fact, think a great deal about food and wine and I would like my readers to share with me the belief that food and wine — that the formalization of gastro-sensory pleasure — must be an essential aspect of the whole life …”

Cuisine of the RoseAnd as for Johnston’s book, that one I bought in Gibraltar in a spurious moment. After living in Morocco for a year, immersed in a cuisine that eschewed pork, I found Johnston’s book — brimming with dozens of recipes for pork —  a sheer pleasure.

Along with the watercolor cover illustration Johnston’s ode to Burgundy caught my attention from the very first sentence:

“As one enters Burgundy there should be a warning sign, ‘No one can come here if he [sic] is not really to fall madly in love with life’ ” But it was the ending of Johnston’s “Introduction” that convinced me yet another soul mate breathed common air: “The song of the world grabs me — I know I am in the right place to enjoy life. Burgundy is one of those perfect achievements in which nature and and craft fulfill each other. It is reassuring to know there is an actual paradise in this world. Let the feast begin! À table, que la fête commence!”

In October 2000, I read the following obituary in The International Herald Tribune, and my initial reaction said it all: “Oh no, that’s the woman who wrote that great book on Burgundian cooking.” There’d be no sequel:

Mireille Johnston, 65, an author and television personality whose work was well known in France, the United States and Britain, died Thursday in Paris, where she lived.

Mrs. Johnston taught comparative literature at Yale University and Sarah Lawrence College in the United States. She wrote a series of books on the foods of France, including “Cuisine of the Sun,” on the cuisine of Provence, “Cuisine of the Rose,” on the cuisine of Burgundy, “French Family Feast” and two volumes derived from her BBC series, “A Cook’s Tour of France.”

olney-self-portrait-1955As for Olney, who died in 1999 and lay dead in his house for three days until his gardener found him, The Independent in the U.K. had this to say:

Olney was the first American amateur cook to write about the art of cooking in a style that captivated an audience; not only for his engaging narrative prose, but for the precision in describing mechanical details and thorough explanations of culinary alchemy. Although his audience was limited at first to the enlightened few, his readership steadily grew, based on the seriousness of his writing and the philosophy he nurtured. His singular success reached beyond the heights that any carefully planned public relations strategy could dream of achieving.

One of Olney’s books, about the obscure, almost mythical Romanée-Conti wine produced in Burgundy, Romanée-Conti, testifies to Olney’s powerful presence on the page. He also wrote a book about Yquem.

So what in these two writers’ book makes their work classic, worthy of being praised in the same breath as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for instance?

Both speak with the same authoritative voice that Julia does. But more than that, both elicit that elusive essence of what French cuisine is all about, that French je ne sais pas quoi: terroir.

(Omelette au Pain)
Serves 1

From Richard Olney’s Simple French Food

2 ounces stale but not dried-out bread, without crusts
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt, pepper
2 eggs
2 T. butter

Mash the bread with 1/4 cup of the cream until the mixture forms a consistent paste, add Parmesan, salt and pepper, the remaining cream, and work the mixture together until the consistency is smooth and creamy. Stir in the eggs, beating lightly, and prepare like other flat omelets. The bread and cream make a lighter and more tender mixture than that of the usual omelet and it is more difficult to to toss it without splashing — it may be finished oven. [Note: turn oven to 350 and cook until just set.]

A Bread-crumb, Cream and Herb Omelet

From Mireille Johnston’s The Cuisine of the Rose

1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup light cream
2 eggs, beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
1 T. chopped fresh herbs
1 T. butter
1 T. oil

In a bowl, mix all ingredients except the last two. Heat the butter and oil a skillet and pour in the mixture. Lower the flame and cook for about 5 minutes on ne side. Invert the omelette on a flat plate, slide it back into the skillet and cook for about 3 minutes.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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