Far too much has been written about food, by everyone from enthusiastic bloggers to world renowned chefs. Loosely meeting the criteria for the former, I willingly concede my culpability in adding to the over-supply. Not that I plan to let that staunch the flow any time soon.
What prompted me to take to the keyboard again on matters culinary was an article I read recently by Paul Schmidt, entitled “As If a Cookbook Had Anything To Do With Writing”. The article was published in a 1974 edition of Prose Journal, so it’s hardly topical, but nevertheless still relevant. The title is a quotation from the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Alice B. Toklas is perhaps better known as the subject of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” and the source of the mind altering brownies that spawned a movie.
As the concluding sentence in the book, the statement isn’t expanded or explained. Whether or not you think writing a cookbook defines you as a writer, Alice, the consummate self-effacer, didn’t. But when you consider the absence of moral support she got from those close to her, it’s hardly surprising she had a low opinion of her writing skills. Of a couple of friends to whom she confided her aspirations, one reportedly said “How very amusing,” and the other (with some alarm) “But Alice, have you ever tried to write?” With friends like these …
What’s more, her significant other Gertrude Stein, according to letters exchanged between friends of the couple, invariably poured scorn over the idea of Alice writing anything, “even a cookbook” whenever the subject arose. Which probably explains why Gertrude had to resort to writing Alice’s autobiography for her. One genius per household of course is quite enough and in any case Alice was kept so busy catering to the whims of the great one, she’d never have found the time to write.
It wasn’t until six years after the demise of Gertrude that at the age of 75 Alice finally put pen to paper. To suggest that when she did the result was infinitely more readable than the creations of her erstwhile partner, would doubtless be literary heresy. But so be it. And for Alice, writing well was the best revenge.
However I digress a long way from the aforementioned article. Writing about food, according to Paul Schmidt, is like writing about anything else, in that we follow the example of those who have written before us. To support his theory he uses the example of four famous Californian food writers (Julia Child, Adelle Davis, Alice B. Toklas and M.F.K. Fisher). These writers, he claims, were all influenced by two great traditions of food writing, founded respectively by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Auguste Escoffier. Brillat-Savarin was a French lawyer and politician who became a celebrated epicure and gastronome. His classic, La Physiologie du Gout”, published in 1825, established what became recognised as a philosophy of gastronomy. The book is a series of meditations on food in which he elevates the pleasures of the table to heights never before imagined. And incidentally, it was he who was responsible for the done to death aphorism “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”.
Auguste Escoffier, on the other hand, in his book “Le Guide Culinaire”, published in 1903, took the low road of pragmatism. A French chef and restaurateur, he wrote what is basically a cookery textbook. While Brillat-Savarin loved food, it’s hard to imagine him rolling up his sleeves in the kitchen, whereas Escoffier did so on a regular basis.
Savarinists are classified by Schmidt as “amateurs” of the table, not in the sense of being inept, but of being motivated by the love of food, while Escoffians prioritise the acquisition of culinary prowess. It’s a sort of art versus craft argument. Toklas and Fisher, Schmidt claims, are Savarinists, while Child and Davis he puts firmly in the Escoffian camp.
Despite their philosophically opposed predispositions, all writers according to Schmidt (and arguably all writers anywhere) are motivated by the quest for perfection. When it comes to food however, this presents a dilemma. Isn’t it just a little futile to strive for the zenith in a creation that will ultimately be rendered into worse than nothingness?
But Schmidt is far from ready to throw the leftovers out with the dirty dishes. On the contrary, in what might look to the unenlightened as just a plate of chops and three veg, he perceives a “strange metaphysics”. In the most lyrical passage I’ve recently come across in food writing, he states that “in the triumphant swell of a souffle, or in its collapse, we find that we can speculate on mortality and immortality, upon perfection and disaster.” Ah, if life were only so simple that triumph or disaster could hang on the precarious balance of egg whites, yolks and air.
What prompted his ascent to the loftier heights of food discourse was a closer study of Brillat-Savarin’s work, which is subtitled “Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy”. And while gastronomic transcendence could mean the triumph of a perfectly puffy souffle, its broader interpretation, according to Schmidt, is the associations we make through taste; the “reflective sensations” aroused by everything that goes along with the pleasures of the table.
So, in this sense, any writing that celebrates the power of food to engage, stimulate, inspire or even dream, is of the Savarinist school. Food in this context is elevated to the level of art.
Those who are of the Escoffier persuasion, being content to just write cookbooks, clearly care more about measurements than metaphysics. However, Schmidt finds that even here it’s impossible to restrain the imagination completely. Julia Child, in order to establish the realistic, practical nature of her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” informs the reader that “we have purposely omitted cobwebbed bottles, the patron in his white cap bustling among his sauces, anecdotes about charming little restaurants”. And yet it’s impossible to read her meticulously detailed and intensively researched recipes and not be aware that she was passionate about food and the importance of cooking it properly.
Schmidt’s article goes on at some length to analyse and compare the respective writing styles of the four writers. In closing, he questions again the folly of any kind of quest for perfection in food and cooking, given the impermanence of both. “For all we harvest perishes, and perishes to preserve us” at least in the short term. Futility seems to overhang the whole process, but not completely. There is one fleeting moment, Schmidt suggests, between the transitions from life to death of eater and eaten, when whatever it is “quivers with the life it came from and with the life it goes toward”. Transformed by enough passion and skill, the food becomes truly transcendental and something that can delight the mind while it nourishes, just for a little while, the body.
The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a perfect example of the power of food to transcend the baser instincts. Her lovingly documented recipes are interspersed with witty reminiscences of her extraordinary life with Gertrude Stein, which alone make the book a fascinating read. She is a true disciple of Brillat-Savarin, whose words she must have held subconsciously in her mind as she wrote, especially these:
“If, in the midst of these solemn meditations, a piquant anecdote, a pleasant memory, or some adventure of an active life forms itself at the tip of our pen, we shall let it take shape, to divert for a little while the close attention of our readers …”
It sounds like the recipe for the perfect cookbook.
But the last word should surely be Alice’s – the cookbook author who didn’t consider herself a writer. I hope, like me, you disagree.
“When treasures are recipes, they are less clearly, less distinctly remembered than when they are tangible objects. They evoke however quite as vivid a feeling – that is, to some of us who, considering cooking an art, feel that a way of cooking can produce something that approaches an aesthetic emotion. What more can one say? If one had the choice of again hearing Pachmann play the two Chopin sonatas or dining once more at the Cafe Anglais, which would one choose?”
by Anne Green