Writing about food is like writing about sex: it’s no substitute for the real thing, but meanwhile it’s a creative way to pass the time.
I first thought about writing about food when I was twelve years old. My Dad wrote advertising copy for a publishing company in New York, and he often kept samples. One day, he brought home a book of pancake recipes, and for the next month I buried my family under an avalanche of pancakes – pancakes with bananas, pancakes with strawberries, diced with bacon, rolled into crêpes, stuffed with sausages…
I persisted against all odds and against the continual complaints about mushy pancakes and burnt pans and unwashed bowls until I had tried every recipe in that (thankfully) slim volume. I doodled my own recipes and imagined a mimeographed newsletter that I could sell for a penny a copy to my unsuspecting neighbors. A year passed inconsequently, and then adolescence crept upon me. Cooking breakfast started to seem less important than my drum kit or my record collection.
This gastronomic urge returned in my early twenties, when I started to work in a second-hand bookshop in Upper Manhattan that happened to be a block away from a food boutique. The combination of easy access to old cookbooks by Elizabeth David and Craig Claiborne and a shop that sold fresh pasta, coffee beans, French cheeses, and Italian charcuterie was irresistible. I provisioned my dime-sized New York kitchen with stainless steel gadgets and cheap cast iron pans, and started to read and cook, and I’ve been doing it, on and off, ever since.
I have tried to write about food for publication twice. The first time, while I was still in New York and was thinking about ways of making some extra money, I wrote a few pieces on spec about fish and barbecuing and sent them off – to no avail, of course -- to Gourmetmagazine. I tried a second time while living in the Boston area and after successfully publishing books on film, hoping to interest my agent in a combination cookbook and memoir. Again: silence.
Many decades have intervened since. My serpentine journey in retirement (Ecuador, Malta, Verona) landed me in Prague. A few months after moving here a French restaurant opened up across the street from our apartment. And not just any French restaurant, but one run by the grandson of one of the great chefs of the twentieth century. Grégory Oliver’s grandfather Raymond owned La Grand Véfour in the heart of Paris, where he cooked for Churchill and De Gaulle and movie stars and starred in one of the earliest cooking shows on television.
Grégory and his mother Stéphane (who once ran her own restaurant in Paris) were, jus sanguinis, brilliant chefs, and their restaurant Papi Oliver (named for Raymond) is the kind of sensory experience that just might replace sex, if one needed an alternative. My husband John and I visit regularly, and an idea born of reverse engineering occurred to me: how could I feel as I did when I was in my twenties, reading Elizabeth David and rolling out pasta on my old Atlas machine? What if I was to try to recreate in words, as best I know how, how it feels to be in the midst of such inspired culinary creativity and history?
Grégory learned to cook from his mother; his mother learned to cook from her father. Raymond Oliver was born in Langon, Gascogny and moved to Paris. Greg was born in Paris and moved to Prague. Three generations, three cities: I have a story.
Now, over my daily café Americanoand a croissant, I ponder a book about food where I will try to entwine the threads that have brought me from suburban pancakes to boeuf bourguignon with the ones that brought la famille Oliver from southwest France to central Europe and see what kind of literary garment can be wrought from them.
Like the days of our lives, recipes never turn out the same way twice. But the act of putting words on a page and weaving them into a story that can say something about my friends and myself seems worth the effort.
The title of this piece is a parody of Marcel Proust. He called his novel À la recherche de temps perdu – In memory of lost time. The French name for French toast is pain perdu – lost bread. Food, memory, time: I hope they’re the perfect ingredients for a good book.