BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

One of the greats ...

This was another Dollar Store find … I was down in Urbana (home of the University of Illinois) to pick up my engineering student daughter at the end of her semester, and we swung by to grab a couple of things “for the road”. I, of course, had to check out the book section and found five books of interest (oddly, mostly on a “culinary” theme). I don't know how these all showed up there, and, in particular, the subject of this review – Auguste Escoffier's Memories of My Life – seemed strangely out of place. Not only is this a large-format hardcover, but it's also a 1996 first edition … which means that it had been kicking around for twenty years. Now, I'm used to getting “vintage” books at things like the Newberry Library book fair, or box sales at Open Books, but those are typically there via estate liquidations (i.e. “dead people's books”), and this seems to have been in various retail channels for a long time (including stickers three deep over the dust jacket's original UPC).

As I no doubt have mentioned, I grew up in the orbit of the food biz, and the name Escoffier was familiar in its own right, but was bandied about a good deal at home, as my Mother had been a long-time member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, and a recipient of their “Dames of Distinction” award. Needless to say, seeing Escoffier's autobiography sitting there for a buck was NOT something I was going to take a pass on!

As with most dollar store finds, this was a bit of a “pig in a poke”, with my not having any particular expectations going in, but I sort of anticipated a bit of a dry “book of its time”. While Escoffier had been putting together a memoir intended for the cooking profession, this was assembled from a lot of additional materials that his family had collected following his death (at age 88) in 1935. The book as it stands, however, is based on a far more recent translation of these materials by a great-granddaughter, Laurence Escoffier, and I'm thinking that she imbued the English version with more than a soupçon of modern tone, making this a far easier read than it might have been.

Escoffier was born in 1846 on the Mediterranean coast of France, between Cannes and Nice, and at 13 he was instructed that he was to be a cook at his uncle's restaurant in the latter. He took to this as a discipline, and from his earliest years (barely six months into his training, he came up with a design for serving platters that would eventually be produced by Christofle as “Escoffier Plates”) he was dedicated to the craft. He writes of his focus:
      My natural curiosity also encouraged me to look for anything that could develop and embellish the art of our national cuisine. My aim was twofold: to increase awareness abroad of French products and of ways to use them.
By the age of 19, he had found his way (through various recommendations) to Paris, and worked at Le Petit Moulin Rouge, where he stayed for five years prior to his being called up for the Franco-Prussian war, and some subsequent military cooking. There are fascinating stories of his work at this time, as French military officers were typically nobility, and had their own staffs, including chefs. At one time his part of the army is captured and spent some time as prisoners of war in Germany (this comes back as an uncomfortable point when he later hosts the Kaiser). Upon his return to Paris, he becomes the head chef at Le Petit Moulin Rouge, then at a series of other postings, eventually ending up at the Grand Hôtel in Monte Carlo, where he meets hotelier César Ritz, and becomes his go-to Chef for major projects such as the Savoy Hotel and later the Carlton Hotel in London, where he creates some of his most famous dishes.

A lot of the book focuses on specific events and dinners produced for “big names” over the years, including menus, and the occasional recipe. There are photo pages that include reproductions of some of these (very ornate) menus, and pictures of a few of the “notables” and venues discussed. Two things that are basic in today's restaurant world were introduced back then: one, the prix fixe menu, and the other being service “à la russe”. In discussing his book for chefs, the Guide Culinaire, which he dedicates to his friend Urbain Dubois, he notes:
      One of Dubois' greatest contributions was the important role he played in the growing use of the so-called service à la russe, that is to say the presentation of dishes one after the other, rather than the service à la française that was then popular, with all dishes being presented together at the beginning of the meal.
One of the most shocking (from the modern perspective) aspects of these menus is how extensive they are … there is a section here where Escoffier looks back to a time when things were even more extravagant … no doubt reflecting the excesses of the nobility:
      Current fashion and habits are such that one can only spend one hour, or an hour and a half, at any single meal.
      For the last thirty years, even the most substantial menus have generally been made up of only one or two soups, an hors d'oeuvre (hot or cold), a fish, two entrées, a roast, a cold meat, a salad, one or two accompanying vegetables, two hot or cold sweets, and various desserts.
      In the old days, depending on the importance of the host and the number of his invited guests, the expected menu consisted of an incredible number of dishes that we can hardly imagine today … between thirty and sixty dishes, not to mention the desserts, which were often just as numerous.
Needless to say, I find it amusing that what his menus encompass are things that “we can hardly imagine today”, let alone those of “the old days”! Another subject I found interesting was the extensive use of truffles (the fungus, not the chocolate). Now, I like truffles as well as (or more than) any other gourmand, so I was drawn to this side note (by the translator?) on these:
Truffles reached their apogee in France in the nineteenth century when nearly every grand meal featured at least one dish that was bejeweled with the prized black diamond. Such liberal use of truffles today is impractical, not only because of their price but also because of diminished supplies. In 1892 two thousand tons of truffles were harvested in France; today only 25 to 150 tons are gathered annually.
As a fan of the truffle, it's a sad thing to think that we only have a tiny fraction of them available compared to Escoffier's heyday (and there certainly has been a lot of effort and money dedicated to finding ways to cultivate truffles, beyond planting spore-innoculated saplings and waiting a decade to see if any fungus forms on their roots).

Oh, and while there are recipes here, they are definitely targeted to a professional kitchen's staff, and not to the home cook. There are some that one might successfully produce at home (such as the famous La Pêche Melba, probably minus the carved ice swan it's supposed to be served in, commemorating the opera singer's appearance in Wagner's Lohengrin that enchanted Escoffier), but most involve multiple pre-prepped sauces, etc., and are frequently addressing quantities like “add about 50 frog legs that have previously been washed, drained on a towel, and rolled in flour” that might not be practical for the home cook.

The book continues through Escoffier's extensive career, in France, London, on a number of ocean liners, and at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. His recounting of events of the First World War as “seen from London” is also interesting, and that chapter starts out with another side note which tells of a fascinating, if peripheral, historical confluence:
On the night Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were dining at the Carlton. Ho Chi Minh, the future communist leader of North Vietnam, was working in Escoffier's kitchen preparing vegetables.
The narrative goes up to 1930, five years before his death, and I guess his family decided to just let it go at that. There is an interesting timeline in the back, which tracks the highlights of his life against world and (generally unrelated to anything in the book) American events, plus a very useful glossary, and some other bits and pieces (photos of letters, brief biographies of people important in his life, etc.) as well.

Escoffier's Memories of My Life appears to be long out of print (again, I'm amazed to have found this where I did), but “very good” copies are available for under ten bucks on the new/used channels of the on-line big boys. If you have an interest in fine dining, the restaurant biz, or might be wanting to learn about a notable man who rose from nothing to be lionized by his nation and the world, this is something you might well want to track down.

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Tags: book review
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