by Ann Mah
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking 2013
Hardbound 271 pages $25.95
Ann Mah has included a few recipes in this memoir, but it's hardly a cookbook. Mastering the Art of French Eating is way more than that.
The author, who grew up in Southern California, became a Francophile at age six when her family visited Paris on a European vacation. Twenty-two years later she returned to the City of Light with her new husband, Calvin, who had been an exchange student in France and worked there for a couple of years before joining the American diplomatic corps. That visit was brief but convinced them that they wanted to spend extended time France, something that seemed unlikely until her husband's retirement distant years into the future. In 2007 they were living in Washington D.C. after four years in China and were anticipating another overseas posting. When asked for input regarding his next assignment, Calvin requests Paris, apparently thinking “Not likely, but why not?”
Wishes sometimes come true and Ann and Calvin are off to Paris for a three-year assignment. However, soon after their arrival in country he is required to spend a year in Iraq before completing the Parisian portion of his career. Disquieting as this is to his wife, she takes the opportunity to delve deeper into the cuisine of the country. Studying the food of any region lends understanding to the culture of its of its people. Perhaps this is so nowhere more than in France.
It's one thing to follow a recipe in a cookbook. It's an infinitely richer experience to come away with a recipe from the restaurant or home kitchen in which you observed its preparation first-hand. Ann Mah's excursions take her to the source of classic french dishes, some familiar to most Americans, others more obscure. Boeuf Bourguignon—a fancy version of beef stew with red wine, right? Well, yes, but the story is much deeper than that. Over the course of 27 pages the author references Thomas Jefferson's travels in Burgundy, recalls reading about Julia Child traveling in Burgundy with Paul, her diplomat husband, 60 years earlier and provides readers with a recipe for beef cooked in the Burgundian style, a riff on the instructions for the traditional version given her by Olivier Walch, head chef at the Château du Clos de Vougeot.
For someone who loves food and has traveled in France, Mastering the Art of French Eating will evoke good memories, as well as engender plans to see more of that country. However, time spent in France is no prerequisite for enjoying this book.
Mah's travels give depth and texture to the stories of Crêpes in Brittany, Salade Lyonnaise (from Lyon, of course), Soupe au Pistou from Provence and Cassoulet as defined in Toulouse, Carcassonne and, finally, Castlenaudary. Foods from other French regions are investigated, too. The stories are personal, warm and delightful to read.
Reviewer Dan Clarke admires Ann Mah's style and looks forward to reading more of her work.