Tag Archives: White Truffles in Winter

Five Novels I’ve Read About Food

Cover imageFood features prominently on my agenda of pleasures in life, often overlapping neatly with travel, another priority for me. Naturally, I’ve spent many hours ogling cookery books with their gorgeous pictures of artfully arranged meals but I’m not averse to word pictures of food in fiction either. Here are five favourites which should get you salivating if you have a similar predilection. All but one have links to longer reviews if your appetite’s been whetted.

Kim Thuy’s slim, beautifully expressed Mãn is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language and food. It’s about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know – a match made for security rather than love. Her husband is older than her, a cafe owner who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés longing for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes until the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published and a TV show made. She finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella. It’s a quiet triumph – the kind of book that can be read and re-read many times. Kudos to Sheila Fischman for such a sensitive translation of a book in which the nuance of language is paramount.

With its gentle prose and quietly lyrical evocations of food, Mãn reminded me of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese cook, it’s a very different book but it shares the same lightness of touch and gorgeous delicacy in its use of language. In 1934 Binh is faced with a choice: accompany his employers to America, remain in France where he’s cooked for his ‘Mesdames’ for five years or return to Vietnam from which he fled in disgrace. Deliciously vivid descriptions of food are threaded through Binh’s thoughts and memories as he tries to decide what he should do, unfolding both his own story and that of the two eccentric women whose literary salon is about to be disbandedCover image

N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter keeps us in Paris with the story of the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier who died the year after Binh was faced with his decision. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life – his wife desperate to have a dish named after her as the great man has done for so many others – Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Kelby’s novel recounts the trials and errors of the quest for a dish worthy of the wife Escoffier has adored for decades despite his passion for another woman.

In Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, we first meet the orphaned five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723 enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. He’s rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential throughout his life. He’s the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he’s a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Despite his many interests and responsibilities, he never loses his culinary curiosity. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is.

Cover imageIt was a toss-up between Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter for my fifth foodie title, both excellent novels set in restaurants. In the end, I plumped for Danler’s book, a twenty-first century Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Tess begins her training in what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, subjected to endless snipey backchat, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. Eventually she’s singled out by Simone, revered for her esoteric knowledge and expertise. Tess also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity, but finds herself drawn into the orbit of these two and their dangerous games. Danler writes beautifully about food in this thoroughly engrossing, acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Any novels about food you’d like to recommend?

The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby: A love affair with style

The Pink SuitI’ve never been the girly type and would’ve been first in the booksellers’ queue muttering did we really need another book about the Kennedys – although mercifully with no mention of Marilyn Monroe – so my attraction to The Pink Suit may seem a little odd but I’d enjoyed Nicole Mary Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter so much that it tickled my fancy. By telling her fictionalised story of the infamous suit through Kate, a back room girl at Chez Ninon, Kelby niftily avoids the well-trodden Kennedy path with its apparently endless power to fascinate.

Run by two ageing, somewhat tyrannical but charming old dears, Chez Ninon has stepped into the breach opened up by the political furore over the Wife’s (as she’s known) penchant for French couture. The Garment Workers’ union has been up in arms and must be appeased as must the milliners who are affronted that neither Kennedy wears a hat. The Wife has sketched a suit to be made in pink bouclè, a Chanel suit which will have to be tailored under license from Coco herself. Kate, unsung yet supremely talented, is to make it. She adores her work, incapable of imagining life without the touch of gorgeous fabric, a luxury enjoyed second-hand and sometimes first when there are remnants to liberate. On the fringes of privilege, she’s an invisible observer whose work is barely acknowledged, unaware of how she’s thought of in her rundown neighbourhood until she’s forced to reconsider her friendship with Patrick whose beloved mother recommended her for her job.

Through Kate, Kelby explores the world of high fashion, lightly weaving strands of social history through her lovely descriptions of fabric and the machinations of Maison Blanche as those in control of the Wife’s wardrobe are dubbed at Chez Ninon. There’s a nice little scene in which Kate admires a group of black subway riders musing that many of the Harlem tailors learnt their trade in Italy. It becomes clear that one of the riders is Dr Martin Luther King whose tie she compliments, distancing herself from the nasty piece of casual racism which comes before. The political significance of the suit is cleverly portrayed, from the message it’s to convey on its first wearing – it was worn several times before November 22nd 1963 – to the nit-picking analysis with which it will be met by a media looking for any signs of excess or lack of patriotism, let alone style. Subtle parallels are drawn between the Wife and Kate, both beautiful women from an Irish immigrant background one dedicated to the other who remains in complete ignorance of her. The only foot put wrong for me was towards the end when Kate wears her own replica of the suit but that’s a small quibble in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Hard not to read it without thinking about the intense scrutiny suffered by politicians’ or celebrities’ partners which is infinitely worse now than it was fifty years ago. Coping with the lacerating tabloid observations regularly meted out must be bad enough if you’ve chosen to be in the public eye but seem wholly undeserved if you haven’t.

White Truffles in Winter and The Last Banquet: Two Lip Smacking Novels

Cover image Purely coincidentally, I’ve been reading N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter about the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier alongside Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, set in pre-Revolutionary France. Both are about Frenchmen with a passion for food who love and admire women, both have recipes scattered through them and both men are looking back over eventful lives at a crucial point in history. Kelby’s novel is an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life, his wife desperate to have a dish named after her before she dies, Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Not yet finished it but I’m enjoying it very much.

Escoffier and Jonathan Grimwood’s Jean-Marie d’Aumout would have had much to talk about. We Cover imagefirst meet the five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723: he is enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. Orphaned, he is rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential in his life, and in the world, then marries twice for love – once to a noblewoman he rescues from a wolf, once to a peasant – becomes Manager of the Menagerie for Louis XV, negotiates with Pasquale Pauli on the eve of the Corsican war for independence and is take prisoner, then retires to his chateau where he treats his workers well and pursues his scientific and culinary curiosty, always attended by Tigris, the blind tiger he has reared from a cub. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is. He is the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s encyclopedia, he is a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Having followed the trajectory of the Age of Reason the novel ends in 1790, the year after the Revolution began. Vibrantly original, filled with vividly descriptive passages and with a brilliantly playful cover, The Last Banquet rivals The President’s Hat as my best read of 2013 so far.

Given that the excellent Canongate are Jonathan Grimwood’s publishers it seems appropriate to wish them a happy fortieth birthday. Lots of celebrations planned throughout the rest of the year, apparently, and they’re on the look out for the next generation of storytellers working across all media, from books to film and games – find out more here. You have to be Scottish, though.