Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Larousse Gastronomique

Since the Larousse is alphabetical, every
chapter has its own decorated letter.
The Larousse Gastronomique is an encyclopedic cookbook covering all things French or of interest to French cooks and gourmands. The author, Prosper Montagné (1865 – 1948), was a well-known chef and food writer. He was a friend and colleague of many great chefs of his era such as Escoffier, who wrote the book's introduction. Despite its great length and breadth of contents, Montagné completed it in just a few years' time, with an expert's help on the chemistry and nutritional areas.

The first American edition of the Larousse Gastronomique didn't appear until 1961 – the same year as the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et. al. While both books made a splash, only the Larousse made it onto the New York Times best seller list that year.

This tome was my very first cookbook, as a friend gave it to me as a wedding present. I found the recipes very challenging as they assume you know all the standard techniques and classic French sauces already. Though I had just been living in France for several months, I was quite a novice cook. I managed to make a few good dishes from the Larousse's sketchy recipes, and have occasionally tried some since as well. Luckily, soon afterwards I obtained my copy of Julia Child's book with its carefully explained methods, and have been using it ever since.

The main translator and editor of the English-language Larousse was Charlotte Snyder Turgeon (1912 – 2009), a food writer and book reviewer who had popularized French food for many years. Turgeon coincidentally went to college with Julia Child; they were lifelong friends.

Obviously, the translated version was an instant classic. Evidence for this: if you search the New York Times archive for "Larousse Gastronomique" you'll see dozens of references in food articles, wherever the author wanted an authoritative definition or description of a French standard ingredient or recipe. And in fact, relying on the Larousse as a reference source is what I've been doing all this time.

What's special about the Larousse Gastronomique?

Can you eat hermit crab? Yes, says Larousse!
How can I describe this very large book with well over 1000 pages, packed with alphabetical entries? Well, I thought I would concentrate on one letter, and I chose the letter H. Here are several examples:

Some entries are very brief: "Hedgehog, Hérisson – An insect-eating mammal, regarded by some people as very good to eat." That's all.

Some entries are unexpectedly detailed, such as Hermit-Crab which includes the image above, the French name, as do all entries; a description of the creature's behavior, taking over other animals' shells; and a quote from Alexander Dumas: "the Creator, who had started to dress him as a lobster, was disturbed, or became absent-minded in the middle of the job, and finished him dressed as a slug...." Finally, the entry states: "Hermit-crab can be cooked in the same way as shrimps..."

Some choices are unexpected: "Hippopotamus. – A large amphibious pachyderm whose flesh is much sought after for food by the African natives." Or the entries for Hippocras and Hydromel, the spiced wine or honey beverages from ancient and medieval times, for which there are historic quotations and recipes.

Some are unremarkable, such as the description of Horseradish, giving a description of the plant and a few recipes. Or Haddock, giving recipes for the fish and mentioning where it's popular.

Some are extraordinarily long, such as Hors-D'Oeuvre, which begins: "By definition these snacks are additional to the menu. They should therefore be light and very delicate...." This definition is followed by approximately 32 double-column pages of possible hot and cold hors-d'oeuvres. Recommendations include fourteen ways to serve anchovies; six ways to serve beets; many types of canapés; various egg, tomato, artichoke, and cucumber dishes; escabèche of various fishes; salad of ox tongue; timbales, tartlets, varéniki à la polonaise, and many other little pastries; and lots more ... you get the idea.

"There is clearly no volume in this country [the USA] that has done for the nation's kitchens what Larousse Gastronomique has done for the French," said Pierre Franey, New York Times food columnist in 1981. I don't think any competitors have been published since that time, either.

Besides the invaluable contents, the Larousse is full of beautiful illustrations. Unfortunately, time has somewhat faded the colors in my copy, but the black and white photos and line drawings are still exciting. For example, I love the many images of dishes made from eels, including one of coiled up eels on a platter!

Salade Niçoise: The Larousse recipe calls for anchovies but not tuna!
Later editions of the Larousse have added to the work and modernized the information. Florence Fabricant, reviewing the revised edition of 1984, translated into English in 1988, noted added entries for "banana split, kiwi, spring roll, food additives, microwave ovens, dietetic food and labeling." At the same time the 260 methods of preparing chicken included in the 1961 edition were reduced to a mere 85!

"If there is a culinary bible, it is Larousse Gastronomique," Fabricant said.

Dust jacket from the 1961 edition (the one I have). The dust jacket from my copy disintegrated years ago,
but the little shop called "Found" in Kerrytown Marketplace allowed me to photograph the copy they had for sale.
Aside: Found is a WONDERFUL little shop full of intriguing antiques and remade things.
I don't feel as if I need to obtain the latest edition of the Larousse Gastronomique. The one I have offers way more material than I can ever assimilate!

It's Cookbook Wednesday again at Months of Edible Celebrations, so I'm linking this post to that of Louise over there.


~~louise~~ said...

Happy Cookbook Wednesday Mae!

What a clever way to approach this amazing, but as you said huge book. It may the only way I one day get through it, lol...

Thanks for sharing, Mae and thanks so much for joining us for Cookbook Wednesday!

Jeanie said...

Fascinating. I remember Julia speaking of that in one of the books or on telly. HUGE! Much as I'd like a copy of my own, I think I am too old to wade through it! Lucky you already having one!