Monday, February 19, 2018

Thoughts on reading "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry"

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School in Paris by Kathleen Flinn (published 2007) is the selection for my next culinary reading group discussion. I'm going to make notes on my impressions as I proceed through the book, since I know it's a feel-good book, a type the group has hardly ever chosen for our discussions, and definitely a type that normally does not at all appeal to me. (And yes, I know I'm pretty much alone in my views; the amazon reviews for example are highly adoring.)

After reading 20 pages: This author's problems would be a luxury even for most first-world ladies. Poor thing, she lost her very high-powered management job. Her mother says find another job. Her upstairs neighbor and her boyfriend tell her to go to Paris and spend tens of thousands of dollars going to the Cordon Bleu cooking school because she always said she wanted to. Yes, the one where Julia Child went: you saw it in the movie with Merrill Streep. Their message: "You should do exactly what your spoiled brat entitled snowflake personality tells you to do." (That's a quote from me, not from the book.)

The author doesn't want to be a chef, she just wants to have the experience. The first scene at the cooking school, she's excoriated in French (which she doesn't quite understand), runs away from the mean instructor and the classroom, and ends up crying uncontrollably in the bathroom. I always finish book club books if I possibly can. This will take some self-discipline.

After reading 100 pages: I have learned, for one thing, that the title about crying is actually a warning about how to chop onions properly... the sharper your knife, the less you cry because you won't release the tear gas in the onion cells. But I still suspect, based on how hard it was to force myself to keep reading, that my instinct is right: I should never read a book with the word "cry" in the title.

I'm sick of the author's perfect boyfriend, both before and after he joins her in Paris. Their nightlife adventures drinking in bars were probably overworked in literature by the time Hemingway got around to them (though he presented them vividly, never mind.) I've read too many accounts of the search for an apartment in Paris. I'm not impressed by references to Audrey Hepburn movies or feel-good French movies either.

The constant cliches about food are the most unlikeable feature of this book. Does anyone know so little about French cooking methods to find her descriptions interesting? Ho hum: rabbit heads with eyes, fish guts and scales, web-like caul fat, splatters of blood, sausages made of tripe, and other things that freak out her fellow students. Ho hum: instructors demanding conformity with the Cordon Bleu rules. Ho hum: after each chapter are very ordinary recipes that aren't necessarily from the Cordon Bleu but from her free association with the things they cook. Who needs a recipe for her mother's minestrone soup or for chicken cordon bleu which doesn't have anything to do with the school? Or a recipe for bog-standard Boeuf Bourguignon or a soufflé, recipes that might or might not come from her class?

Two quotes that make me say puh-LEEZE --
"The week makes me appreciate that love is a fragile thing. It can be as precarious as those steps on the Sacré Coeur or as unpredictable as the eggs in a cheese soufflé. And in love, there are no handrails or any safe recipes to keep your heart from falling." (p. 89) 
"That afternoon, I nurse my consommé and finish yet another round of disappointing puff pastry. As I do, I consider how wonderful it would be to toss some hamburger, egg whites, and tomatoes into the soup of life. Suddenly everything would be clear and the purpose of it all would be revealed." (p. 95)
After reading 200 pages: My reactions haven't changed. As the author's cooking lessons at Cordon Bleu continue, she seems to find less to say about them and more to say about her life in Paris, about her perfect boyfriend who becomes her fiancé and then husband, and about their travels. And it's pretty standard stuff. She mentions her emotions constantly, but without depth or convincing descriptions.

When she adds bits of history or culture -- say, about regional French cuisine or about learning a language -- it's usually pretty superficial and predictable. She continues to mention gross-out food preparation challenges -- dealing with lobster death, more fish guts, guinea fowl tendons, and watching as a baby lamb gets "hacked into bits." (p. 144) Frankly, I'm bored.

The recipes that follow each chapter continue to be only peripherally related to her cooking school lessons -- virtually no French haute cuisine. I suspect, moreover, that her recipes are not very good. For example, Flinn includes a recipe for grilled pizza that I am certain could not work well if followed as she wrote it, unless you were already experienced at open-fire grilling of pizza.  She says "Spray grill with cooking spray. Grill dough two or three minutes per side." She doesn't mention the challenge of flipping or sliding the floppy unbaked pizza dough onto the fire -- the tricky part! (We learned to do this from barbecue expert Steven Raichlen, who gives detailed instructions.) Otherwise it's a very unimaginative pizza recipe. Pathetic. (p. 156-157)

The rest of the book: Well, I guess I didn't hate the author enough to be sorry that she passed her final exam and received her Cordon Bleu diploma, which is the not-surprising end of the story. Trying to be positive: I did admire Flinn's description of the Cordon Bleu class trip to Rungis, the wholesale market outside Paris that after 1973 replaced the famous market at Les Halles. For once, she managed a relatively vivid description of the fish market which had already run out of fish, the busy meat market, the bounty of the produce markets, and "the world's largest cheese shop, where nearly one hundred thousand pounds of cheese are stacked in virtually every corner of the stalls." (p. 227)

But she can't resist a cliche when it comes to the recipe for the Rungis chapter: it's for French Onion Soup. As you no doubt know, onion soup was the traditional post-midnight supper for visitors to the old Les Halles. It was already a predictable part of any Les Halles story when it appeared in the film Irma La Douce in 1963, and was probably already inevitable in The Belly of Paris, Zola's classic Les Halles novel published in 1873. I suspect that Julia Child's onion soup recipe is better than hers.

She gives us a few more superficial and hackneyed Paris stories as well: like her attempt to find designer-clothing bargains in Paris thrift shops, where she sees "an aging, rail-thin transvestite wearing a sequin-studded denim jacket and leopard miniskirt." (p. 206) I didn't like this snide stereotype. Similarly, I was somewhat uncomfortable with her stereotypes of her Asian fellow students at the Cordon Bleu.

She also adds several tales of difficult house guests who invade her various Parisian apartments and take advantage of her and her husband -- these tales appear throughout the entire book. This theme is at least familiar to me: when we lived in Paris we had houseguests almost every week, but we were lucky -- they were all lovely! However, I was sympathetic to her for being somewhat challenged in this area.

All in all, my low expectations for this book were completely fulfilled. I would not have chosen to read it, but nevertheless, I persisted, and I don't expect to get a medal. Or even an inspiration for something good to cook.

Oh yes, one more thing. How did she have the nerve to introduce one of the sections of her book with the Ernest Hemingway quote that Paris is a moveable feast? Puh-LEEZE.


Vicki said...

Think I won't be reading this one.

Pam said...

I read her "Burnt Toast..." just because I like burnt toast and the title caught my eye. It was OK, a little humorous at times in the history of her family. Then, I had a sample of "The Sharper Your Knife...." sent to my Kindle, it has been taking up space there for about a year, and after reading your review, I will gladly remove it. And I don't even want to get started with the snowflake nonsense!
I would imagine you had the time of your life while living in Paris, as I know I did while living in Germany.
You made me chuckle with your Ernest Hemingway reference! Now there was a man!
Excellent review, Mae!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Those two awful quotes that made you say PUL-LEEZE are a riot! Ugh, nothing worse than bad writing!

Jeanie said...

I would like to like this book but I have a feeling I would feel MUCH the same as you! I think I'll give this a pass.