Clementine in the Kitchen (Modern Library Food Series)by Ruth Reichl, Narcisse Chamberlain (Revised by)
The Chamberlain family spent a dozen blissful years in pre World War II France, with their beloved cook, Clementine, learning the gustatory pleasures of snail hunting in their backyard and bottling their own wine. When war rumblings sent them scurrying Stateside, Clementine 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, Clementine 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. This Modern Library Food series edition includes a new Introduction by Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic for Vogue and author of The Man Who Ate Everything, winner of the Julia Child Book Award.
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Twelve years of living in France made the transplanted Beck family blissfully, incurably conscious of good food. When the initial novelty of representing an American firm in Paris in the Roaring Twenties had begun to wear off, and as French schools, taxes, politics, red tape, and bicycle races began to puzzle us less, one towering realization dawned upon us:
These French people know how to LIVE!
With great enthusiasm we had begun serving our apprenticeship at the art of graceful living in a Paris apartment in the Faubourg-St.-Germain. By the time we moved to the sleepy country town of Senlis in the Ile-de-France,
where we had bought an eighteenth-century stone house, we were well along the gourmet's path, from which there is no turning back. And when the final blessing of a perfect French cook appeared to make our domestic picture complete, we became utter sybarites, frank worshippers of the splendors of the French cuisine. Now we would rather talk about a good sauce béarnaise than football, finance, or infidelity. Our French table has been the scene of endless gastronomic adventure and gustatory improvisation. Our library shelf of well-thumbed cookbooks has yielded secrets that have given us rapturous hours of research into "new taste thrills" altogether unknown to the advertising men who coined the phrase. Our kitchen is the most important shrine in the house, and our nostrils are instinctively strained in that direction any time after ten in the morning.
Much as we appreciate oil heaters, air conditioning, electric refrigerators, and other creative comforts of the American way of life, we admit, without shame, that we are hopelessly Francophile on the question of food. We will run a mile from ham and pineapple, jelly and lamb, sweet potatoes and marshmallows, but will warm right up to sweetbreads and peas,
snails and Burgundy, radishes and butter. We like wine with our meals and think that beef steak and ice water is a barbarous combination. We don't think cranberry sauce helps turkey or that catsup is a necessary companion of well-cooked meat. We would rather have a few leaves of crisp lettuce,
properly seasoned with olive oil and wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of chopped chives, than any of the exotic tea-room salads that are rightly the targets of wise-cracking columnists. I hope our patriotism won't be challenged when the truth is told about daughter Diane, for example, who has all the qualities of a good American girl of sixteen, but who remains entirely indifferent to fudge cake, baked beans, pancakes,
tomato juice, and corn fritters. But she's a fervent enthusiast of tripe à
la mode de Caen (Hemingway or Faulkner would call it cowbelly, I suppose).
She prefers the grey-green portugaise oysters of France, aromatic with iodine and sea water, to our placid Cotuits. 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 a 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. She does weaken at eel, almost revolts at squid and octopus,
and puts her foot down when it comes to blood sausage and andouillette, a
Breton sausage the taste and texture of which lead to the blackest of suspicions.
Well, that's the kind of a family we are. I won't blame you a bit if you slam this book shut with impatience and dismiss us as a troupe of gastronomic Fifth Columnists. But if you are still with us, may I take you back to the month of May 1931 and to our kitchen in France where the estimable Clémentine, in all her culinary splendor, began her reign of many years.
We'll never forget when Clémentine came to us, out of the blue, as the result of a stray telephone number that Mrs. Beck had picked up at a Paris dinner party. She had just discharged the fifth cook in eight weeks and was scouting forlornly for a sixth. Clémentine sounded so good over the telephone that my desperate wife at once sent her fifty francs for transportation to our little town north of Paris. One look at the smiling,
pink-cheeked Clémentine and we knew that she would be a godsend after the succession of indifferent cooks who had presided in our venerable cuisine.
Old Amélie had been too cranky. Noëlie could prepare some toothsome specialties (her cassoulet still haunts us), but she was fantastically sloppy. Jeanne had made frequent and abnormal inroads into my wine cellar.
But the fair, black-eyed Clémentine seemed to possess all virtues and no faults. She arrived on the five-o'clock local, a demure and smiling little person, and was busy preparing dinner within an hour. The Becks heard snatches of song coming from the kitchen and then sniffed the heavenly mélange of shallots, butter, and herbs browning in Clémentine's casserole.
Our day of good fortune seemed to be at hand. And when we learned that our rosy discovery was a genuine Cordon Bleu and a resident of Beaune, the gastronomic heart of Burgundy, our joy knew no bounds.
The Becks had been in Beaune only a few weeks before and had reveled in the luxurious cuisine of that epicurean stronghold. Would our newly found treasure be able to duplicate the memorable Sunday dinner in Beaune, which we had enjoyed with the Bellon family, par exemple? We wondered. If she could, our reputation as Lucullan hosts was everlastingly made. Papa Bellon had spread himself on that memorable Sunday, and the enraptured Becks remembered every detail of the feast. A bourgeois dinner in Burgundy lacks finesse, perhaps, but it is glorious in earthy fundamentals. The menu of
Papa Bellon's dinner was simply worded, but it made a more lasting impression upon us than many an ornamental menu of la grande cuisine française that we had sampled. Le voici:
Escargots de Bourgogne
Truite de la Rivière Nageante dans le Beurre
Coq au Chambertin
Petits Pois à la Française
Pâté en Croûte
Salade de Laitue
Tarte aux Mirabelles
Papa Bellon had ordered the dinner two days ahead of time at the leading restaurant in Beaune. From his confident air the Becks knew that auspicious things were in the offing. Besides the plump Monsieur et Madame Bellon there were with us two buxom daughters, a solemn son-in-law, and a strapping son of twelve. We sat down for the obligatory apéritif on the terrace while our host went inside to talk to the chef.
A clink of glasses, a few appraising glances at the townspeople walking home from church, and we were ready to go into the restaurant, where our table, decked with red-and-white checkered cloth, shimmering with glassware, and heaped high with crusty bread, had been set for ten guests.
The prodigal plenty of that dinner saddens us now, when we think of the daily fare of the Nazi-held Burgundians. At each place were a dozen beautiful escargots de Bourgogne in their light ochre shells, very hot and very fragrant, exuding a heavenly aroma of garlic, parsley, and fresh butter. This rare comestible calls for specially designed platters,
holders, and forks, but how well worth their acquisition! With the snails we sipped a full-blooded Nuits-Saint-Georges. Some people have the idea that snails, because they live in a shell, are closely related to seafood and therefore must be accompanied by a white wine. Escargots de Bourgogne are land snails exclusively, growing fat on the leaves of the grape vines.
They never get even close to the sea, and Burgundians prefer them with red wine.
The ancient waiter shifted plates and appeared with a massive oval, copper casserole containing ten handsome trout, deep in a prodigal bath of melted butter. Nageante dans le beurre was indeed the expression to use. The wine was a lighter gold than the butter, a clean, tempting Meursault Charmes of
1926. Coq au Chambertin, the pièce de résistance, could not have been more typical of Burgundy. It is doubtful if any Chambertin went into that delectable dish, which usually is content to be called coq au vin, but the sauce wasn't made from just any bottle of red wine, either. Then came a rich and fragrant pâté en croûte. Ham, veal, sausage meat, strips of fat,
spices, pistachio nuts, and a symphony of herbs had been mixed and encased in a golden crust. This was served hot with a salad of plain green lettuce.
We watched the headwaiter with fascination as he mixed the dressing on a flat plate-five parts of olive oil to one of strong wine vinegar, salt,
ground pepper, and a generous daub of Dijon mustard. The wine was a lusty
Pommard Rugiens 1926, which held over handsomely for the cheese platter, an impressive plank of Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, and Port-du-Salut.
Individual tartes aux mirabelles after this, accompanied by a rich Château
Chalon poured from its distinctive bottle, then some very black coffee and a trio of liqueurs: Vieux Marc for those who could take it (papa and son-in-law), Armagnac for me, and rich purple Cassis for the ladies.
Well, it was quite a Sunday dinner. Do you wonder that we were enthused about the splendors of gastronomy in Beaune?
Would Clémentine, the native Burgundian, give us splurges such as this?
Could our figures and my pocketbook take it? The answer, we soon found out,
was magnificently in the affirmative. Clémentine was a Cordon Bleu in the best tradition. My son Phinney and I began to dream of fabulous banquets,
and I began to recall uneasily that one gets gout in Burgundy. Luckily there were two deterrents to shield us from mad, headlong gourmandise-Clémentine's mastery of simple dishes, and Mrs. Beck's insistence upon a sane and healthy fare. Regardless of our curiosity about exotic dishes and our desire to sample all of Clémentine's sauces, our daily menu contained the same well-balanced fare that prevailed in countless conventional French homes. We had no huge dinners à la Papa
Bellon. My unruffled wife saw to that. Our daily living was based, I
suppose, upon no more than twenty-five classic French dishes, all of which
Clémentine handled with the sure hand of a master. They are elemental dishes throughout France, as fundamental as bread, cheese, and wine. They vary, of course, from one family to the next. But the following list, taken from the most thumb-worn pages in Clémentine's notebook is typical, and eloquent, of the way a civilized French family lives.
Omelette aux Fines HerbesGigot d'Agneau
Soufflé au FromageCôtelettes de Mouton
Coquilles Saint-JacquesBoeuf à la Mode
Turbot au Vin BlancBoeuf Bourguignon
Moules MarinièreFaux-Filet Rôti
Truite MeunièreEntrecôte Béarnaise
Poulet RôtiBlanquette de Veau
Coq au VinSauté de Veau
Poule au RizRôti de Veau
Poulet SautéPaupiettes de Veau
Poulet CocotteFoie de Veau Meunière
Canard aux Navets
pork and ham
Rôti de Porc en Casserole
Jambon, Sauce Madère
Saucissons aux Pommes Purées
Any one of these dishes serves as the pièce de résistance in numberless
French meals. At lunch time such a plat would be preceded by an hors-d'oeuvre and followed by the classic légume, salade, fromage, et fruits. The menu varied little at the evening meal, except that it was briefer and began with a hot soup. It was accompanied, of course, by plenty of good crusty bread and an honest, substantial vin ordinaire. In view of the present plight of France, the use of the past tense is advisable and eloquent.
Clémentine in the kitchen! The bright-eyed little cook brought new significance to that part of the house, which had waited so long for a presiding genius. It was a neat and ample kitchen. Its red tile floor was worn down in spots but always beautifully waxed. Above the stove was our pride and joy, a shimmering batterie de cuisine, fourteen heavy copper pans, polished and tin lined, hanging against the wall in mathematical progression. They ranged from a huge fellow big enough to roast a duck to the tiny vessel just about right for poaching an egg. There was an efficient stove, a commodious and rather ancient soapstone sink, a shelf for a library of cookbooks, from Tante Marie to Ali-Bab, a massive oak chopping board, and some well-balanced scales with a squad of neat little metric weights. A white marble-topped table stood in the middle of the kitchen, its drawer crammed with sauce whisks, wooden spoons, and a murderous collection of sharp steel knives. In a low cupboard was a mighty assemblage of seasoned earthen casseroles, some with handles, some with covers that could be hermetically sealed. On top of the cupboard was a husky stone mortar with a dark wooden pestle. Hanging near the door were the two invariable adjuncts of a French kitchen-a salad basket and a birdcage.
Here the cheerful Clémentine reigned, not as a despot (like a few French cooks we had known), but as a genial collaborator who, if coddled by the right amount of flattery, appreciated our insatiable interest and didn't mind our incessant intrusions into her domain. Her Burgundian good nature had to stand for a lot. Each of the Becks had a specialty. Diane interested herself (far too much) in the desserts. The young man of the house was absorbed in his vegetable garden and the possibilities for pecuniary profit that it held. The cheese, wine, and cookbook departments were indisputably mine. But there is no question, of course, as to who really holds the reins in a French household. It is madame la patronne, and our house was no exception. Once the authority and prestige of Mrs. Beck stood unquestioned,
this family of incorrigible epicures went at a gallop, but in safe hands,
down the road to gastronomic adventure.
The marketplace in many French towns is a rather dreary affair, usually an open-air edifice of ornamental iron, covered with a tin roof and resounding with the hoarse shouts of local vegetable barons. Numberless early-morning sightseers have been attracted to Les Halles in Paris, of course, but they were looking for atmosphere and onion soup rather than architectural splendor. Even the sad events of 1940 do not dim the memory that most
French markets are unlovely. But one notable exception to the rule is the market in our little town of Senlis in the Oise. Located in the disaffected medieval church of St. Pierre, this market is an absolute pageant of the picturesque. In its cool, white-washed nave the symphony of color caused by the vegetable and fruit stands and by the brilliantly costumed African
Spahi orderlies, buying provisions for their officers, was something to delight the eye of an artist. Rare was the summer day, in fact, when an easel was not set up in some corner of the side aisles, with a painter working feverishly behind it.
Meet the Author
Samuel Chamberlain was the author of nearly fifty illustrated books on European, American, and gastronomic subjects. After living for more than a dozen years in France, he and his family settled permanently in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1939. He and his wife, Narcissa, were frequent contributors to Gourmet magazine.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- January 16, 1948
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- B.A., University of Michigan, 1968; M.A., University of Michigan, 1970
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