Monday, July 19, 2010

French Cookbooks from Caliban Book Store, Pittsburgh

The Caliban Bookstore in Pittsburgh offered a delightful and tempting selection of cookbooks and food books, and I bought several. I have been reading and enjoying them.

Who was Madame Maigret?

Madame Maigret's Recipes by Robert Courtine reviews many of the memorable meals that Georges Simenon's fictional character Inspector Maigret enjoyed (in some detail) while investigating murders and other crimes. Maigret often stopped to eat in small neighborhood restaurants or, when appropriate, in somewhat grander restaurants. When he could, he went home for a midday meal of Madame's excellent home cooking.

Courtine provides recipes for all of these types of food as they would have existed in Maigret's lifetime -- or that of Simenon. Many of the Inspector Maigret books date from the 30s to the 60s, though Simenon, born in 1903, lived until 1989. The cookbook was published in translation in 1975.

I've always loved following Maigret's adventures in both food and detection. Once while wandering around in Paris, I stopped for lunch at a brasserie quite near the police headquarters where Maigret worked, and pretended that I was eating in the same place as he had eaten. In fact, the Paris where Maigret lived and worked was already vanishing when I spent time there, and by now it's probably unrecognizable.

The book itself is enjoyable. Courtine's recipes are accompanied by nice line drawings of food or ingredients. The instructions appear quite detailed and useful.

However, many of the products he used would be very difficult to find today -- I was especially intrigued by the above illustration of songbirds ready to grill on a skewer (as well as the recipe on how to do it). Virtually no American would choose to eat such a thing now, and hunting songbirds is illegal in France. However, I imagine a few are still clandestinely snared and secretly consumed in those mysterious French farmhouses and summer vacation houses you can see on side roads in Provence and Roussillon. I admit that at a restaurant in a remote village I once tried some lark pate, but that was very long ago.

Who was Christian Guy?

Christian Guy sure sounds like a pseudonym, but I've been unable to google up any information about this author or his book, An Illustrated History of French Cuisine, which I also bought at Caliban. Dated 1962, this book represents a very obsolete style of writing. For one thing, there are no references whatsoever: even the illustrations are credited to the photographer who reproduced them, without information about the artist, source, or date.

As I read, I felt as if everything that was said was rather suspect -- my bullsh!t detector kept going off. (Do they scan these blogs for bad words? I'm not taking any chances.) I don't think there was much differentiation between myths and reality. Sample illustration:
Notice that there is a caption on this picture, but no information about its origin. All in all, it's a most frustrating work, with little to say for its grandiose claims about French cuisine and its minor anecdotes about gourmets, historic food events, and chefs.

The most suspect part of the book was was some great praise for the author of Les Amanachs gourmands de L'Action Française -- Marthe Allard, wife of a journalist who promoted the politics of L'Action Française. As you may know, this was an extreme right and antisemitic organization, founded during the Dreyfus affair to work against him, evolving with post-World-War I fascism, and continuing as a pro-Nazi force through the end of World War II. So I really wonder: who was Christian Guy? What was he promoting when he wrote this odd work.

Once more I'm taken by the idea of French food as I remember it from years in the past. I'm planning a little not-too-ambitious French appetizer to take to a dinner party tonight. If I remember to take a photo, it will appear here later on.

3 comments:

~~louise~~ said...

Now, that sounds like my kinda bookstore. What GREAT finds Mae. Are you visiting Pittsburg?

Mae Travels said...

Yes, amazing bookstore!

I visited Pittsburgh last week -- had a great visit, mainly documented at maetravels.blogspot.com my other non-food blog.

Jeanie said...

This is fascinating -- and reminds me I must check for things like this at used book stores.

You should send your link to the folks I mention in my Paris In July post -- anything French/Parisian! It's one of those blog-hopping times. But I haven't read much about French cooking, food or cookbooks yet!

The Maigret book is a real treasure -- As much as I love mysteries I haven't read those, and now must ferret them out and add them to the list. I think I would love reading about him (always liked the PBS Mystery series of his stories.) The book sounds really fun!