Remembering Mireille Johnston: Memories of a French Food Writer on a Fall Day

As I sniffed the seductive odor of pumpkin pies emanating from the bakery that day, a menu composed itself in my head, shouting “It’s FALL, finally!” I went wild over the cheap chicken thighs at my local Kroger, dumping package after package into my grocery cart. Mushrooms, walnuts, shallots joined the chicken in the cart, and then I wound my way up the mountain to home, exhilarated as well by the sporadic bursts of leaf color on the oaks and maples along the road.

Fall, I thought, is not just for football fans. It’s for cooks, too.

Once I’d laid out everything on the counter, I grabbed Mireille Johnston’s The Cuisine of the Rose and spread the pages open to “Poulet aux Noix” (Chicken Cooked with Mushrooms, Shallots, Garlic, Walnuts, and Vermouth). A magical combination.

Who was Mireille Johnston?

French, born in Nice, with the name Mireille Busticaccia. A sensitive cook. Television star. Scholar of American Indian culture at Oberlin, later a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale. Married to an American.

And a talented writer who wrote of her past:

“I was born in a tall apricot-coloured house with green shutters overlooking the sea,” she began her first cookbook. “When I think of  my childhood I remember the bright colours, the sounds, the smells and tastes of Nice. We were constantly sent to the seashore, the garden or the hills to find ingredients for the kitchen.”

Johnston, who married an American, died October 5, 2000, one day after her 65th birthday. Heart-twanging obituaries followed, conveying the same regret that I also felt at the time that there’d be no more books from this marvelous cook and scholar.

Yet despite the years since her death, her presence still permeates my kitchen, much like the familiar smell of a departed loved one in a well-worn jacket. Two of her five cookbooks still sit on a rattan bookshelf near my kitchen: The Cuisine of the Sun: Classical Recipes from Nice and Provence and The Cuisine of the Rose: Classical French Cooking from Burgundy and Lyonnais. Milton Glaser, famed artist, designed both.

As for Johnston’s The Cuisine of the Rose, which I bought in a spurious moment while browsing the shelves of a small bookstore in Gibraltar, it enchanted me from the very first time I touched the slick covers and flipped through the pages like a Black Jack dealer hedging the bets by slowly shuffling the cards. After living in Morocco for a year, immersed in a cuisine eschewing pork, I found Johnston’s book — brimming with dozens of recipes for pork —  a sheer unmitigated pleasure. My copy now requires a thick rubber band to keep the pages together, its initial binding falling into complete disrepair at least a decade ago.

Along with the watercolor cover illustration, Johnston’s ode to Burgundy caught my attention with her very first sentence, sealing the deal:

“As one enters Burgundy there should be a warning sign, ‘No one can come here if he is not ready to fall madly in love with life.’ ”

But it was the ending of Johnston’s “Introduction” that convinced me of yet another soul mate who breathed common air with me:

“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!”

Then, years later, I read the obituary section in The New York Times. Mireille Johnston. My initial shocked reaction said it all: “Oh no, that’s the woman who wrote that great book on Burgundian cooking. The one who’d called aioli the ‘butter of Provence,’ truly dynamite in the mouth.”

There’d be no sequel, ever:

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.”

But her books granted her immortality, in a way. The magic still lay on the pages, between the covers.

And magic happened once again that fall evening in my house because Mireille Johnston taught me to marry walnut oil with chicken.

*Note: This month of Women’s History, I’m featuring several women whose names might be fading in the flurry of food-related social media and the extreme focus on the so-called “influencers.”

2 thoughts on “Remembering Mireille Johnston: Memories of a French Food Writer on a Fall Day

  1. I didn’t know, that she passed away so long ago. I love her cookbooks too, especially Cuisine of the Rose.

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