Sunday, June 17, 2018

"When French Women Cook"

When French Women Cook, 2002 edition.
Madeleine Kamman's cookbooks have been held in esteem for a long time. Her restaurant in Boston was very highly rated, her several cookbooks received good reviews, and her later cooking school and TV show were popular. However, she was a controversial figure because of her harsh criticisms of others: especially, she was very nasty about Julia Child.

Kamman was born in France in 1931. During World War II, she spent time in various cities in France, visiting relatives or friends while escaping from wartime Paris. She emigrated to Boston in 1960, and spent her career entirely in the US except for a brief and unsuccessful effort to found a cooking school in France.

When French Women Cook, published in 1976, is a memoir of seven women who taught her important cooking skills. She begins with her own great-grandmother in Paris when she was a small child before the war; continues with her World War II experiences, and concludes with a visit to Provence in the early 1970s. I've never been particularly aware of Kamman and her books -- having always been a huge fan of Julia Child -- but finally decided it was time to read this one.

The food descriptions in When French Women Cook are masterful, and the recipes -- which make up the major portion of the book -- are remarkable. At this point, I don't have the patience or the nerve to try them! Kamman says, and I think it's true: "Most of the recipes in this book have never been written down before. " (p. 3)

The brief sketches of the seven women featured in the book are very focused on their ways with food, but I was also very impressed by Kamman's descriptions of the aromas and smells that she experienced as she visited each of them. These quotes illustrate how she conveyed her strong sense of nostalgia for childhood in a much-changed and distant country; a nostalgia that is the principal emotion of the entire book.

Here are some of the aroma descriptions worth noting -- I've isolated them from the rest of the text because they are so unusual.
"The France I left, my France, does not exist anymore; it has disappeared, slowly receding into time past. When I was growing up... The game one hunted for was really wild and I recall fondly the distinct smell of hare pelts and pheasant feathers. ... The air smelled nice; clean, fresh, and permeated wit the happy essences of bread baking, the nostalgic aroma of wood burning, or the earthy smells of cattle ruminating in nearby barns." (Introduction) 
"Every so often, out came a nice side of pork which she washed and rubbed with crushed bay leaf to give it a good smell." (p. 24) 
"I was awakened by the pungent smell of café au lait mixed with steam and coal from the train engine. ... People left the train compartment only to be replaced by others in regional costumes, heavy blue denim smocks for the men, black dresses and white round coifs for the women. I recognized the familiar smells of the country. The pungent homey smells of cows, dairy products, whey, grass, manure were all there mixed and blended, having steeped and seeped into these people's clothes for decades. They were not dirty people; they were people smelling of their profession." (p. 57-58) 
"The room smelled of everything, smoke, bacon, garlic, cows, cheese and lentils cooking in a huge iron pot buried in the ashes of the hearth." (p. 59) 
"The village smelled of fresh grass and of freshwater fish." (p. 96) 
"Every Saturday, the dominant smell of the house was that of red wine in which either a rabbit, a hare, or a piece of pork was cooking." (p. 138) 
"I first visited Château-la-Vallerière in June of 1940 when we took refuge there after the invasion of Paris. I remember a long walk; it is a good two miles from the station to Claire's hotel. We arrived in the middle of the dinner service. The house had that smell of generous, voluptuous food so typical of good French restaurants; it was the rush hour." (p. 173) 
"She learned everything from making galettes aux pommes to Krampoch à la canelle, those two lovely raised crêpes of the Bigouden [in Brittany] country, all fragrant with butter, fresh yeast, and sometimes cinnamon or orange flour water." (p. 269)


Jeanie said...

This sounds just lovely, Mae. I love recipe books that bring the personalities of those who created them to life.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I have never heard of Kamman. Love the review though, it makes me want to learn more about her.