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The Old School Big 3

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Escoffier, Larousse & Julia Child

Back in the day, Fine Dining and French Food were synonyms. There's a reason why they called it haute cuisine. I'm agnostic when it comes to food trends and am willing to try – and usually enjoy – anything, but I do like the classics. Dressing up to go out to an ornately furnished, ever so slightly stuffy restaurant with the frightening maître d', 500 piece place setting and a tab equal to your paycheck.

Alas, there's not many places like that left. I have to satisfy my jones by reading about such experiences. And when I do, I will tell you about them. My experience, though, is not that deep, so I have to rely on experts to help me fill in the details and provide the backstory. This is what I mean when I make references to Old School Big 3.

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier
Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

M. Escoffier is the founding deity of what we now think of as the fancy restaurant. At the time of his death, in 1935 at the age of 88, he was called the King of Cooks and the Cook of Kings. The GC (pronounce it "Zhay Say" if you like putting on airs) was his effort to systematize restaurant cooking. This was not written for the home chef. In fact, it assumes that the reader has a fair amount of knowledge and skills. It has to, there's over 5000 recipes and 68 menus packed into only 600 or so pages!

It's a fascinating read, though. You'll run across tid-bits like this one, early in the book, for Sauce Currie à l'Indienne:

In India, there are innumerable variations of this sauce but the basis of its preparation always remains the same. It may be of interest to note that the authentic type of Indian curry is not suitable for European tastes, but the flavour of of the above sauce is generally acceptable.

I also like the suggested wines in the menus, like the Perrier Jouet, extra dry, 1898. I bet, even if I could find and afford one, it ain't tasting too great any more.

If you're looking for your own copy, be aware that there is a recently published abridged version with only 2300 recipes in it. You can still find the original, if you look on eBay, Amazon or a good used book dealer, but it's not cheap. I consider myself lucky that mine was just under $50, shipped, but it is a former library book that's been well loved.

Larousse Gastronimique by Prosper Montagné

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne
Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne

This encyclopedia of French cuisine was originally published in 1938. Each succeeding edition expanded the coverage to include some elements other cuisines, but it still remained primarily French. As with the GC, Larousse is not a cook book. It's a source of information that the classically trained French chef of old could consult when preparing a menu. True, there are entries for specific dishes, but also included are descriptions of equipment, ingredients and methods. A typical entry reads:

Dieppoise (A LA) — A method of preparation special to sea water fish. Fish à la Dieppoise is cooked in white wine, garnished with mussels and shelled fresh-water crayfish tails, and masked with a wite wine sauce made with the cooking stock of the fish and mussels. See Brill à la Dieppoise.

The Brill entry he refers to (there are 54 of them for this Flounder-like fish) pretty much repeats the above with the suggestion to serve as is or after glazing it in a very hot oven. As for the white wine sauce, there are three versions listed in a more recipe-like manner that a modern reader may recognize. So, you can track down what you need, but you'll be flipping back and forth to gather all of your data. Painful, yes, but then you'll run into the odd entry such as the one for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. I know him as one of the architects of post-Napoleon Europe, but his contemporaries thought of him as the greatest of French gastronomes. This makes it the effort worthwhile.

This book is easier to track down than the GC, but it's big, so you will still pay about $60 for a copy. I inherited mine, 1965 printing, from my mother, who seems to have bought hers new. Can't recall her ever consulting it, though, but then, the copy is as old as me.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child

Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Yes, I realize that three people contributed to this book. There's a fascinating story in The United States of Arugula that recounts why Julia is the only one remembered today by most. So forgive me if I refer only to her. You must love a woman who, in supposedly prudish mid-20th century America, blurts out, "Wow! These damn things are as hot as a stiff cock." I'll tip my hat to Simone and Luisette, but I'll invite Julia to my party.

Unlike the other two, this book (or two, depending on which version you have) is written for the home chef. It is organized roughly by main ingredient / course and presents the information in the now standard recipe format of ingredients and steps (I do like how these are displayed in parallel columns, at least in my edition). The authors assume nothing on the part of the reader, so this is not just a straight list of recipes. Terms, equipment and techniques are described so that anyone can prepare the dishes in the book. The recently released movie, Julie & Julia appears completely plausible once you've leafed through this.

You should have no problems tracking this book down. In fact, they are selling more now, after the release of the movie, than ever. I also inherited this from my mother and it looks well used, though I cannot tell the source of the food stains. Was it a Bourguignon or just a little bit of the cooking Sherry?