The Man Who Drew Too Much

Samuel Chamberlain
Samuel Chamberlain

As a writer for Gourmet magazine in its early years, illustrator and engraver Samuel Chamberlain introduced Americans to European food, mostly French. According to Nathalie Jordi,* his columns about his French cook Clémentine** — who cooked in the Chamberlain kitchen in Marblehead, Massachusetts — subtly reinforced Gourmet’s original image as a magazine intent upon luring Americans into a sense of the upper-class lifestyle.

Clementine in the Kitchen (original 1943 cover)
Clementine in the Kitchen (original 1943 cover)

Writing his Clémentine columns under the pseudonym Phineas Beck (after the French term for a food expert, bec fin), Chamberlain humorously describes the challenges facing Clémentine as she attempts to elevate the Beck family above the common herd at the trough.  With her

copper kettles and earthen casseroles, with a five-foot shelf of French cook books against the wall, she was … ready to attempt the Great Experiment and prove that la cuisine française can thrive in a small New England town.

Because Chamberlain possessed, at least in the minds of Gourmet’s editors, the street creds as a French culinary expert, based on his trencher-manning through France after the Great War and twelve-year stint afterward, it wasn’t too great a leap to send Chamberlain and his wife Narcisse on a food-writing tour of Italy.

Modeled after the Chamberlains’ highly successful Bouquet de France volume, Italian Bouquet (1958) lacks some of the finesse of the French volume. Yet, dated as much of the hotel and restaurant material might be, Chamberlain’s humorous attention to detail and his superb illustrations document a time and space no longer with us. As this one short comment about Bologna proves:

Only one sausage is totally missing from local shops in this region (Emilia-Romgna), the one we call Bologna. Nothing vaguely resembling it  can be found anywhere. Yes, we have no Bologna in Bologna. Mortadella is that city’s particular pride. … Its origin dates back to the Middle Ages, and the monks may have been mixed up in its invention. At all events, old engravings show robed ecclesiastics happily pounding pork in a mortar, while large sausages hang overhead.

Chamberlain’s wife Narcisse translated all the recipes in the book from Italian, which were given to the Chamberlains by various restaurateurs mentioned in the text.

An Example of a Chamberlain Etching (Castle Walls)
An Example of a Chamberlain Etching (Castle Walls)

I only wish Chamberlain spent more time eating and not so much time drawing!

*”Samuel Chamberlain’s Clémentine in the Kitchen,” Gastronomica, Fall 2007, p. 42-52. Clémentine in the Kitchen, originally published in 1943, is still available in book form, published by Modern Library.
**Actually a composite of two cooks.

For more about Samuel Chamberlain, read his autobiography, Etched in Sunlight. To appreciate the prolificity of his work and writing, see Samuel Chamberlain: A Bibliography, by Mary A. Vance.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “The Man Who Drew Too Much

  1. I meant that he spent so much time drawing and observing buildings (that was his real work) and he didn’t spend the time eating and observing food. Therefore he didn’t write as much about food as I wish he would have!

  2. how interesting! and how wonderful to learn about him! thanks cynthia -but what do you mean by you wish he had spent more time eating and less time drawing?

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