Dig deep enough – past the supermarket sushi and avocado toast, and past the quinoa bowls and Asian-Latin fusion food trucks – and you can still hear the voice of France speaking to American diners. Although fine dining is always evolving, many of its first incarnations in this country took their inspiration from their counterparts in France, a place that has been synonymous with great food and wine for centuries. From the procession of a multi-coursed meal to the service culture that governs the front of the house to a reliance on seasonal ingredients with a farm pedigree, French rules still inform the way America's best restaurants operate, even when those rules are being bent or broken.
The new culinary history book The Gourmands' Way looks at the way this still-solid foundation was built. Much of the work took place in the middle of the 20th century, undertaken by a remarkably talented group of writers who helped bring Paris to America. Author Justin Spring's subjects include the legendary and luminary Julia Child, essayist M.F.K. Fisher, wine entrepreneur and author Alexis Lichine, New Yorker journalist A.J. Liebling, artist-turned-culinary savant Richard Olney, and art world notable Alice B. Toklas.
What all of Spring's six gourmands have in common is an interest in carrying the ideals of French food from Paris to America. But their motivations and methods vary wildly. Lichine was looking to sell wine and become rich (goals he accomplished, albeit at great cost to his own happiness). Julia Child, already wealthy, wanted to de-stuffify French cooking and make it available to anyone who cared to learn. Toklas needed to pay the rent. Liebling truly loved to eat, Olney tackled the finest gastronomic details like the serious artist that he was, and Fisher indifferently spun threads of fact, fiction, and wishful thinking into gold.
Spring starts out strong, which is not unexpected – the first 100 pages of any given book from a major press tend to be carefully manicured in order to ensnare the half-committed reader. But "The Gourmands' Way" really finds its voice in its second half, when Spring spins bigger, bolder, longer, and considerably wilder tales about his subjects, rewarding the persistent reader with some legitimately shocking stories.
The author's portrait of M.F.K. Fisher, for example, is admirably merciless. His depiction of her as a fabulist, delinquent researcher, and outright liar is supported by ample evidence and peer testimony, and it makes for grimly fascinating reading for anyone who has ever been beguiled by her beautifully written work.
And Spring's account of Alice B. Toklas's second book of cookery, the rightfully unknown "Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present," must surely rank among the most darkly hilarious anecdotes about food writing ever put into print. By pairing Toklas with the great gadget popularizer and processed food shill Poppy Cannon, the publisher of "Aromas" created a fiasco of massive proportions. Each of Toklas's carefully considered, often complex, slow food recipes appeared in "Aromas" ringed by foodnotes written by Cannon advocating the use of canned and frozen substitutes and the dispensation of entire crucial steps in the name of convenience. A Rachael Ray/Anthony Bourdain collaboration would make more sense than this publishing boondoggle.
The brilliant rise and money-cushioned fall of winemaker Alexis Lichine as he tilts against the tired nobility of France's Bordeaux region is equally captivating, and it has enough twists, turns, and moments of high drama that it could have easily been spun into its own 250-page biography.
And along the way as readers dive into these rich life stories, they are rewarded with virtual tastes of food and wine that are skillfully executed by these masters of the art.
In the process of writing "The Gourmands' Way," Spring had to wrestle with six incredibly complex stories that were entangled with the stories of dozens of other people, muster reams of facts, find themes without oversimplifying, and render his subjects fully as individuals. On all counts he succeeded – clear, confident, witty prose supported by robust research carries the day in this absorbing work. If you've ever dined in Paris, or dreamed vividly of doing so, this book is a lovely way to visit one of the world's dining capitals for a fraction of the price. And as an added bonus, you'll be introduced to a world of food writing you might not already have read – a beautifully written book about books is a fine way to branch out and continue dining on stories of great food and drink.