In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, as Alfred Lord Tennyson said. But in winter in
, those thoughts definitely turn to truffles. And it’s possible that no man, old or young, has thought more about truffles than Auguste Escoffier. Provence
Escoffier is, of course, the famed French chef (1846–1935) credited with pioneering modern French cuisine and the French dining experience, especially through the meals he prepared at his legendary restaurants at The Savoy (London) and The Ritz (London and Paris). He also created the brigade system used in most French kitchens today. Escoffier was a man of striking contradictions—kind yet imperious, food-obsessed yet rarely hungry, professionally successful but financially unlucky. His married the acclaimed, reserved, and fiercely independent poet and writer Delphine Daffis, whom he won in a billiards game from Delphine’s cash-strapped father, or so the story goes.
And now the haunting story of Auguste, Delphine, and their marriage is imagined in a new 352-page novel called White Truffles in Winter (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), by American author N.M. Kelby. White Truffles transports us into Escoffier’s world, opening our eyes to his revolutionary contributions to French cuisine as well as his convictions about the power and emotional resonance of a perfectly crafted dish.
The book spans the 1880s to the 1930s and opens with World War II on the horizon. After spending most of their marriage apart, Escoffier and Delphine are once again living together, scraping by in their villa in
, surrounded by an extensive brood of visiting family members. Escoffier spends his days struggling to finish his latest book, while Delphine is quickly declining. She is mostly confined to a wheelchair, dependent on morphine, and obsessed with one thought—to make sure her husband creates a dish in her honor before she dies. Escoffier, it seems, has made dishes in honor of everyone from Queen Victoria to Sarah Bernhardt, but never one for his wife. Monte Carlo
Delphine enlists the aid of the villa’s new cook—a young, irritable girl named Sabine—to help in her quest.
Escoffier attempts a memoir of his life, told through the wonderful dishes he has prepared, in order to stave off the growing pile of bills. He teaches Sabine how to cook for them, and she learns that the name “Escoffier” --if wielded with a liberal seasoning of chicanery—can still fill the kitchen with extravagant gifts of foods, even during wartime. Sabine does her best to push Escoffier into making a dish for Delphine, but his mind wanders backward in time with reminiscences of the many exquisite meals he has made along the way. As Escoffier notes, “When you reach a certain age, all you see are ghosts.”
For Escoffier, even the ghosts are extraordinary: Estes, the American chef and former slave, who showed him how to prepare fried chicken; Sarah Bernhardt, for whom he made special birthday meals of scrambled eggs and champagne; and Kaiser Wilhelm, who asked Escoffier to prepare a special dinner onboard his ship and made him privy to deadly state secrets.
All the while, the dish he cannot seem to create for Delphine looms over his head. As the brilliant chef laments, “it is an art that combines the telling of impossible truths and the chemistry of memory that only cuisine can provide. He worries that “some dishes fall short of the profound love that a chef feels and that is insulting.” How is he to distill their long, passionate, exasperating, and bewitched love into a single work that can mimic the complex flavors of their marriage?
In order to explore these themes and bring to life the world of Escoffier, author N. M. Kelby plunged deeply into research about Escoffier, as well as into Escoffier’s own cookbooks, letters and memoir. But, as Kelby discovered, many of the works contradict one another. She found that “the list of facts, and alleged facts, go on and on but what is left unsaid is often the most interesting part of any life.” Did Escoffier have an affair with Sarah Bernhardt as rumored? What was the truth of his marriage with Delphine? We will never know. Kelby believes the more important truth about Escoffier is what he can tell us about ourselves. “We all know that I did not write about the real man,” Kelby says. “The elegant savage found in these pages is who we all are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist—it is our most hungry self.”
From what she calls “the bones of fact,” the author--who lives in
and has published three previous books--has spun an intriguing and romantic story of the brilliant man who made cooking a respectable career. As the Escoffier of this novel wisely tells us, “Food is a thing of enchantment and to believe in enchantment, and to weave its spell, is a radical and necessary act. And so. Silently. Cook.” Minneapolis
But before you do….
The publisher has generously offered me two free copies of this recently published book to give away here. To enter, click “comments” just below this post and leave one. If your comment is about French food…or about food and love…so much the better! Make sure to also leave your email address in the body of your comment or we won’t be able to reach you if you win. Meanwhile if you want to order the book, you can do that on Amazon US here or Amazon UK here. Bon Chance and Bon Appetit!