I have to tell you that the cookbook lists that come out every year around Christmas time drive me crazy. Like you’re really going to savor, say, 101 Recipes Using ___________? (Fill in the blank.) Or you’re going to run out and buy another Italian cookbook when you already own somewhere in the neighborhood of 225? (I do. Really.)
And since I am an unabashed Francophile, I cringe over the lack of French cookbooks on these lists.
So I decided to come up with my own list and it has nothing to do with the latest books in publisher’s catalogues. (Though the Maranville book appeared in 2011.)
You probably think of French food as being too snooty, too chef-driven, and too rigid in its execution to be everyday fare. Qualities too passé, in other words, for today’s cooks. To be honest, as much as I respect Julia Child, her laborious recipes scare me and I usually find a simpler recipe using the ingredients in my refrigerator. As I think about it, I am not sure Julia really helped cooks to cook French food other than for dinner parties. In other words, Julia is not an everyday thing, at least not in my kitchen.
But, at the same time, it is hard to imagine how those svelte Parisian women, who could not possibly be eating chicken breasts in cream sauce on a regular basis, stay so thin if they eat French food every day. Granted, many of them smoke … .
Thus, when TV celebrities like Mario Batali and Giada de Laurentiis make Italian cooking appear easy and doable and healthy and cheap (no foie gras, no truffles, or not too many), well, anything remotely French goes the way of Steller’s Sea Cow.
Italian cooking crops up everywhere these days. Seriously …
Yet, guess what? Millions of French people cook French food every day. And most are not chefs.
Open-air markets in Paris and elsewhere might be fading away slowly, thanks to the encroachment of huge chain stores like Monoprix. But these markets still exist and no matter where French people shop for food, the crowds attest to the fact that people are cooking and eating at home in large numbers. Rolling carts trail behind stylishly coiffed ladies dressed properly in sweater “twin-sets,” and jeans-clad young matrons push baby carriages with babies in front and large pockets in back filled with groceries. People don’t have as much time to cook and France is no different from the United States in that regard: prepared foods and frozen foods abound everywhere in modern France.
Nonetheless, feathery leaves of fennel and thick quarters of country bread poke out of those carts and onto French tables at nearly every meal. There may even be a pineapple or a mango or a papaya tucked into that cart, with a few limes and possibly some pre-cooked couscous.
Obviously the French cook prepares dishes on a daily basis, dishes that have nothing to do with haute cuisine. That’s why regional cookbooks add so much to an understanding of French cuisine. The major (haute) French cookbooks of the past, discussed in part by Barbara Wheaton in Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, resulted from the impact of a palatial cuisine, something stemming from the upper classes and the court of kings and dukes and princes of the blood.
Few people recorded the everyday cooking going on in peasant huts or in the kitchens of the bourgeois. Several regional cuisine projects in France managed to salvage recipes via oral history and through manuscript family cookbooks carefully tended by women.*
So here’s a brief, very brief, list of French cookbooks for everyday home cooking that actually work and provide you with the opportunity to discover an amazing fact: French cooking is really not any harder than Italian. (I know, because once in my misguided culinary “youth,” I cooked only Italian food for a whole year, rarely repeating a dish, testament to the ingenuity of Italian cooks and la cucina povera.)
These sturdy bridges to French cuisine rarely have the taint of chef about them, though given the ambience of food in France, a little pinch of the haute would not be unexpected. And the recipes taste good. Best of all, you won’t need a brigade of kitchen slaveys.
*Next: A list of facsimile cookbooks for the curious cook and some discussion of French regional cooking.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen