The Chamberlain family spent a dozen blissful years in pre-World War II France, with their beloved cook, Clémentine, learning the gustatory pleasures of snail hunting in their backyard and bottling their own wine. When war rumblings sent them scurrying Stateside, Clémentine refused to be left behind - and made a new home for herself in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where she introduced the initially suspicious Yankees to the pleasures of la cuisine de bonne femme. First published in 1943, Clémentine in the Kitchen is a charming portrait of a family of gastronomic adventurers, and a mouth-watering collection of more than 170 traditional French recipes. [back-cover blurb from the Modern Library Food edition, 2001]Last weekend, just on impulse, I started watching "Haute Cuisine" on Netflix. I had never heard of it before, but it was recommended to me because I watched "Mostly Martha." This "food-rich drama" about "Hortense Laborie's experiences as personal chef for the president of France" reminded me of this book. When I first read about it on Audrey's blog, it went straight on my own reading list. But like too many books, it has languished too long on my TBR stacks.
When the book opens, the author's family is living in Senlis, a small town in the Ile-de-France. (He changed his family's name to Beck for the book, as well as some other details.) They had already learned to appreciate many aspects of life in France, particularly the food. And once the apple-cheeked Clémentine Bouchard, a Burgundian, came to work as their cook, "we became utter sybarites, frank worshipers of the splendors of the French cuisine." The first chapters describe life in their small town, with its shops dedicated to different types of foods, and the kitchen where Clémentine presided. Interspersed are recipes, which have been adapted, sometimes with explanations, for American kitchens. (Additional recipes are included in the final section of the book, organized by main ingredient.)
The shadows of the war lie over these happy chapters, though. In June of 1939, Beck's American employers informed him that they were shutting their European offices down, directing him to return to the United States and a position in Boston. The family had only a short time to pack, and to make arrangements for what they had to leave behind. To their joy, Clémentine wanted to come with them. The later chapters detail the family's re-introduction to life in the United States, which was also Clémentine's introduction. They describe their united attempts to cook the familiar dishes of France in their new home. This sometimes meant searching out sources for hard-to-find items such as veal (according to Beck/Chamberlain, rarely served at this time). It also meant adapting recipes for new ingredients, like the wide variety of seafood available in Marblehead.
The author's enthusiasm, particularly for good food, is infectious. Reading this reminded me of Julia Child's My Life in France, though Beck/Chamberlain was not interested in learning to cook himself. Like Child, he wanted to convince his readers that they too could cook good, basic French food at home. The recipes are clear, with step-by-step instructions. While it was difficult for the Becks to find some ingredients, particularly once war-time rationing set in, I think most would be easily available today. The variety of pans required might be more of an issue. I also enjoyed Chamberlain's portrait of France in the 1930s, illustrated with his own charming drawings; and of the United States, just on the eve of World War II. Both Senlis and Marblehead sound like lovely places to live, each in its own way.
What I found least palatable about the book was actually the food - specifically, the meat-heavy dishes. I am a "flexitarian," which I define as eating meat occasionally, usually at restaurants. I don't cook meat at home, so I sometimes describe myself as "socially carnivorous." Some of the descriptions and recipes actually left me feeling a bit ill, as when Chamberlain notes that his daughter "remains entirely indifferent to fudge cake, baked beans, pancakes, tomato juice, and corn fritters," but she
adores cervelle de mouton au beurre noir, those delicate little mounds of sheep's brains swimming in black butter. At one sitting she has eaten a dozen and half husky Burgundian snails before being halted. Sweetbreads, calf's head à la vinaigrette (including the eye), head cheese, mussels, rabbit stew - all delight her.The family was a little slower to warm up to tête de veau à la vinaigrette - an entire calf's head, complete with eyes. Eventually the parents at least "came to relish the jiggly parts and the ears," though they never managed the eyes. That's one recipe that didn't make it into the book. Many of the recipes that did include cream-based sauces, which I often find too rich.
The final section includes vegetable, egg and cheese dishes in addition to the the various meats, and I have marked some of those to try. However, I think I'll return to this book more for the people in it, and the life it describes, both in France and in the United States.