A cook's escape into French fantasy
Reviewing Dinner in French by Melissa Clark
Anthony Bourdain proving to his parents that he would eat anything France had to offer by savoring his first fresh oyster at ten years old, learning something “viscerally, instinctively, spiritually--even in some small, precursive way, sexually--and there was no turning back.” Alice Waters learning to eat salad to cleanse the palate before dessert, and observing “beautiful, unusual types of lettuce” that were so distant from the crunchy iceberg wedges of her youth. And most famously, Julia Child eating “the most exciting meal of [her] life,” the lunch of sole meuniere and bread with cultured butter on her first day in France. For so many major figures in the American food world, a trip to France is the inciting incident of their culinary careers–and their very public love affairs with the cuisine captured the imagination of home cooks across the country.
This obsession has a well-established basis in the restaurant world. Our concept of fine dining is measured by a French tire company. Our high end restaurant kitchens are structured by the French “brigade” system based on the military. Despite the enormous variety of cuisines that have been brought to the U.S. from all around the world, our culinary schools still teach French technique.
I’ve spent a lot of time in this newsletter teasing out the evidence that fluency with ingredients and dishes from non-European cultures (the “global pantry”) have become the new status quo for aspirational home cooks. But the glamour of French food still has a powerful allure–and it’s what drew me to Melissa Clark’s Dinner in French. With refined but relatively simple recipes interspersed with romantic lifestyle photos, the book is a perfect representation of the “effortlessly glamorous” stereotype that defines America’s view of French aesthetics. But it left me wanting to better understand how French cooking has evolved since Julia Child helped us to Master the Art 60 years ago.
In Dinner in French, prolific New York Times columnist and cookbook writer Melissa Clark brings readers into her favorite way to cook. She explains in the introduction that as a result of her family’s annual house-exchange vacations in France during her childhood, “the merging of classic French cuisine and the food I grew up eating in Brooklyn is the foundation of how I approach cooking–and the raison d’être of this book.” There are plenty of mashups of French dishes with American ingredients or preparations, like Sweet Potato Aligot with Fried Sage (pommes aligot is a French dish made with boiled potatoes beaten with cheese until they become smooth and stretchy) and Poulet au Pot Pie. With other recipes, Clark “elevates” American dishes with a French sensibility, like peanut butter pie with chocolate cookie crust reimagined as Hazelnut Butter Raspberry Pie–Clark assures us, “I doubt anyone would recognize its humble inspiration;” and Deviled Eggs with Creme Fraiche and Roquefort, “elegant enough to nibble with champagne at a cocktail party, casual enough to serve in your backyard at a cookout.” Sometimes the incorporation of an ingredient like herbes de Provence, tarragon, hazelnut, or chestnut is what gives a simple dish like roast chicken or an icebox cake its French inflection.
The overall vibe of the book is that of a Bon Appetit spread on what a New York chef cooks in their rental house on vacation in the French countryside. Along with the French touches that bring terms like “elegant” and “sophisticated” into many of the headnotes, the book still belies the accessible, deliciousness-first style that makes Melissa Clark a star of the New York Times Food section. That style shows up in the Ratatouille Sheet Pan Chicken–her answer to the question, “would adding chicken schmaltz to ratatouille be a good thing?” and a Scalloped Potato Gratin that’s laid out on a baking sheet for maximum crispy edges. And then there’s the Campari Olive Oil cake, a relatively simple concept enhanced by a dose of Campari that adds a completely new dimension of flavor.
I made that cake, along with Brown Butter Scallops with Parsley and Lemon, and Roasted Tomatoes with Lemony Anchovy for a tiny birthday dinner with a friend. We ate on my rooftop on a cool windy night in March 2021 just a few weeks before we would both get our second COVID vaccine shots and be on the road to dining indoors safely once again (or so we thought; shoutout to Omicron!). The roasted tomato dish is simple to make and meant to work well with weak off-season tomatoes, punching up their flavor with cheesy, herby, lemony breadcrumbs and oil infused with garlic and anchovies. The scallops, sauteed in browned butter laced with parsley, lemon zest, garlic, and coriander seeds and finished with lemon juice, came together super quickly and were a perfectly delicate match for the juicy tomato dish. The olive oil cake was by far the most time consuming recipe, requiring the zest and juice of three different citrus fruits, but hey, it was a celebration! And the color and complex flavor brought the special quality of a restaurant dessert at a time when eating out felt like a gamble.
It’s that “fancy,” special feeling that drew me to this book. I bought it right at the start of the pandemic when I was seeking an escape and had no idea that I wouldn’t be cooking dinner party recipes like this for friends again for nearly a year. The photography is perfectly calibrated to transport you to the France of your dreams, foregoing the saturated, high-contrast flat lay style that dominates food imagery today for muted colors and natural textures. Photos of the dishes are interspersed with images of patrons chatting outside a cafe, Clark shopping at the farmer’s market or hanging laundry, and ornate French architecture. The lighting is always partly cloudy or softly dappled. The imagery wants to let you believe that the leisurely pace and appreciation for beauty that we all treasure about vacation are actually the everyday reality of the French lifestyle.
I just wish Clark went a little deeper on the modern French influences so that the reader could see more clearly how French food has changed over the years. The American image of the cuisine is tied up in buttery sauces, pillowy eggs, and veneration of products and traditions so intrinsically perfect they’re exported around the world to elevate other countries’ cuisines. But the topnote of the Chicken Tagine with Blood Orange recipe, the tale of Clark’s first taste of Moroccan tagine that she and a friend tracked down using a Food Lover’s Guide to Paris during a semester abroad in college, hints at the influences that have helped French food to evolve past white sauces and toward more seasoned preparations. The book also has a vegetarian tagine recipe and a Moroccan Eggplant Salad. Coriander, pomegranate molasses, and preserved lemon show up periodically throughout the book. But Clark gives much more space to explaining what aligot, poulet au pot, and other traditional French dishes are than what North African dishes and ingredients are doing in a book about France. Yes, I know it’s colonialism. But would every reader? At least we know Clark’s vision of French cuisine isn’t totally trapped in the past, but I wish she could have done a little more work to help readers understand what present French food culture looks like and why.
The topnote stories and intimate photography communicate clearly that Dinner in French is a book about Clark’s personal experience of France and how the cuisine has influenced her cooking–she never promised a primer on French food writ large. For all that the author has been visiting the country and cooking there for decades, her book still conveys the perspective of a tourist, with all the sense of fantasy that naturally creates. Still, it stings that this fantasy can’t account more explicitly for the contributions to French cuisine that have come from further ashore.
You can read the intro to the book, and check out a few recipes including the Campari Olive Oil Cake, here.
Unlike a confusing majority of cookbooks, this book does have a table of contents!
Hi there, it’s been a minute! Welcome to all the new subscribers that signed up after I was featured on Substack’s blog, and welcome back to all of you who haven’t heard from me since last September. I unexpectedly had to move twice in two months so I had to cut back on extracurriculars for a bit. But the fun news is, I spent some time in Boston and got to dig into some exciting research that will come through in future issues! Turns out that Cambridge is home to the most well-known cookbook archive in the country, at the Schlesinger Library at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute; and Boston University houses a gastronomy department founded by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin! You’ll be hearing from figures from both of those institutions in upcoming issues that will zoom out to look at some more historical topics.
I already had a rough draft of this issue before all my moving drama so I wanted to publish it, but I anticipate that this year the newsletter will have a wider scope and mix in more reporting and analysis without always being pegged to specific cookbooks. I hope you’ll continue to join me for the ride!