November 7, 2012

There’s No Better Cookbook to Learn From Than “Simple French Food”

Adapted from The Art of Eating no. 79

credit: Keith Chamberlin

Credit: Keith Chamberlin

For a long time, I thought Richard Olney was infallible on food. He had moved from the United States to France in 1951, when many wonderful dishes, since grown uncommon, could readily be encountered in restaurants. He also knew home cooking, and he bought the important old books of classical cooking. He was an amateur, in the sense that he never cooked in a restaurant, but his skills and intellectual engagement were far beyond those of any usual cookbook writer, including chefs. He wrote well, but his cookbooks were pushed to the highest level by his focus on taste, his insistence on common sense, and his emphasis on the role of wine with food. Although as cooks, we’re each spoken to by particular voices, I suspect that for many people there is no better cookbook to learn from than Olney’s Simple French Food, published in 1974 and still in print. All his cookbooks are excellent, though, and have similar strengths. In addition to the four he wrote by himself, and the one he wrote based on conversations with Lulu Peyraud (of Domaine Tempier in Provence), his hand is everywhere in the 27 volumes of Time-Life’s “Good Cook” series, published in the 1980s. These impressive instruction manuals have all the clarity and the superlative photographs Time-Life was famous for. The series alone might suffice for a lifetime of cooking, until at last you wanted to hear a more personal voice than the publisher allowed.

The best cookbooks don’t just teach the making of particular dishes, of course, they teach broadly applicable skills and understanding. Olney’s Simple French Food, you might say, is as much about eating as about cooking, in that it insists you must rely on your own taste. Without that, all you are left with is imitating and hoping for good luck.

Olney is among the most sensual cookbook writers. He expresses the inherent warmth of his subject; he is completely involved in it, shunning compromise — a cook at the top of his game, and kind to the reader. He aims to make a cook out of you, if you’ll let him. Especially in Simple French Food, he tells you the why of your actions. He expresses a clear, consistent point of view, presenting cooking as a whole and teaching almost every essential. The book combines an informal approach with high standards and expectations, though he knows we may not achieve them.

The writing is sometimes mannered, and yet the words are exact; every one appears irreplaceable. The words capture his personality and thinking. Simple French Food is the most complex and personal of Olney’s cookbooks, not only in its breadth of information but in the way one thought leads to another with a steady flow of practical asides. The book is an essay in the calculated use of parentheses. Sometimes there is enough detail that I feel I’m standing in his kitchen.

When I first bought Simple French Food, 25 or 30 years ago, I was intimidated by the mix of recipes with densely informative text. I could read only short sections at a time, hardly taking in the meaning. For some years, I cooked just one recipe, a number of times (loving it — pork chops and apples in mustard and cream, a combination that no longer holds much appeal for me). All those things that at first distanced me now draw me in. (An easier book is Ten Vineyard Lunches, confusingly republished as Richard Olney’s French Wine & Food. It’s short but provides many essentials. Meals are composed of somewhat simple regional dishes with specific wines to match; advice is given even on timing; and photos show the food as cooked by the author.) By now, I’ve read Simple French Food a number of times, in bits and pieces according to my interest at the moment, until I carry enough of it inside me that, it may surprise you, I wouldn’t include it on my short list of essential cookbooks. (Instead, I’d choose his Provence the Beautiful Cookbook, because I haven’t cooked much from it and I love that warm, very French yet culturally mixed part of the world.)