Ode to an Upside-Down Prawn:
or, The Lure of the Culinary Encyclopedia
[Originally written in 2002 for the now-defunct internet magazine Neat Lesson.]
In front of me as I write is the 1988 English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, or, as its subtitle designates it, "The New American Edition of the World's Great Culinary Encyclopedia." When I found my copy in a used bookstore on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I discovered several inscriptions on the inside front cover, all addressed to someone named Marco: "Marco, I care about you! Good luck. Linda." "8-18-91. Best of luck. Val." And, in a big round high-school-girl hand, "Marco, I love you. I know you can get what you want! I [HEART] you. Love, Sam." Whether or not Marco got what he wanted, he didn't keep the book. Maybe he upgraded to a newer edition. Maybe he had a fatal accident with a broiler. Maybe he and Sam broke up and he wanted to get rid of everything connected with the relationship — entirely understandable if Sam was the kind of person who used the expression "I [HEART] you" on a regular basis. Whatever happened to Marco, his Larousse found its way into the cookbook section at Dawn Treader Books. Eventually, after several visits to make sure no one else had bought it, and several inner debates over the price ("You know, you could spend that $25 on food instead of spending it on books about food." "But how else will I learn how to make authentic boeuf en daube?"), I gave in and handed over the $25. Now the Larousse lives in the bookshelf I've crammed into the foot or so of free space in my tiny apartment kitchen, where it intimidates the hell out of all the other cookbooks in my collection, by virtue of its encyclopedic format and its sheer physical heft. It must weigh at least ten pounds. The day I bought it, I also found a practically-new copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition, and their combined bulk as I lugged them home gave me an excuse to skip the weight room at the gym that week.
I love the Larousse for its arbitrary mixing of recipes and obscure food trivia, its learned entries on the ingredients I buy on sale at Kroger and the ingredients I have yet to locate anywhere in the Midwest, its biographies of Great French Chefs You've Never Heard Of, its culinary notes on famous writers — one reads in the Larousse, for instance, that Charles Baudelaire "sang 'the profound joys of wine' in verse and prose" and "dreamed of a more exotic cuisine rich in truffles and spices." I love its illustrations, which are frequently photographs of massive spreads of food or of the showier individual dishes; the picture of Fillets of Sole Joinville, which is garnished with eight small prawns standing on their heads, makes me laugh every time I flip past it. And then there is the deadpan reference-book tone in which the Larousse informs you of indecorous food facts: for instance, that the dandelion is commonly known in France as pissenlit (literally "piss-in-bed"), "a reference to its supposed diuretic properties"; or that there exists a type of snack called pets de nonne, "nuns' farts," made of puff pastry fried in oil; or that "the consumption of horse flesh has been controversial for a long time" (there follow two recipes for roast horse, one with cinnamon sticks and the other en chevreuil, i.e. prepared like venison).
Other things I've learned from the Larousse:
- the answer to the eternal question "Is it polite to eat asparagus with one's fingers?" (yes, especially if one's hostess encourages it);
- what python stew tastes like (chicken — that didn't really surprise you, did it?) and how to make it (the recipe involves flaming brandy and a tomato and onion sauce);
- which animal parts constitute offal and are still considered edible (you're better off not knowing);
- how to cook a grapefruit (cut in half, brush with butter, and grill);
- how to get a dish that you haven't invented named after you (be a famous general, a famous opera singer, a famous actress, a famous composer, or, if all else fails, the mistress of someone really important. If you are a famous novelist, you might even get a wine named after you.).
This edition of the Larousse — I haven't compared it with others — seems to hover uncomfortably between classical French cuisine of the kind that Louis XVI might have enjoyed when he wasn't dodging angry revolutionary mobs, on the one hand, and 20th-century multiculturalism, on the other. Thus there are entries on the subject of sashimi, couscous, Vietnamese fish sauce, spring rolls, curry, and even, noblesse oblige, American food. "It would be wrong to dismiss American cuisine as being confined to fast food and the snack-bar, and to believe that its contributions to gastronomy are limited to cocktails, ice cream, corned beef, and hot dogs," the entry on "North America" begins earnestly. (Although the recipe for salade americaine, which calls for pineapple wedges, corn, chicken, cucumber, and "vinaigrette flavoured with tomato ketchup," all on a bed of lettuce, makes one suspect that the French really do hate us as much as they're reputed to.) But the majority of the recipes fall into the "grate some black Perigord truffles into a pint of heavy cream and simmer" category. They are frequently, and magnificently, impractical. I might want to essay a buche de Noel Christmas cake, the kind that's shaped like a Yule log — and I would, in fact, like to try that someday — but the directions for marking the chestnut icing with a fork to resemble tree bark, and then decorating the entire thing with "small sugar or meringue figures" shaped like mushrooms, gives me pause.
All of this, in other words, falls into the category of "useless knowledge." I'm in favor of useless knowledge; it's why I went to graduate school and it's why I keep accumulating recipes like the one for stewed python. When I was younger, I used to browse through my mother's cookbooks, and the most entertaining recipe I know is the one for fagioli nel fiasco (beans in a wine-flask) from her copy of Ada Boni's Italian Regional Cooking. It goes something like this: Buy one of those big straw-bottomed flasks of Chianti. Take some friends on a picnic, drink the Chianti, remove the straw covering from the flask but don't rinse it, and put in some fresh white beans, olive oil, water, and a few herbs. Then stick the flask on an open fire or on a charcoal-burner until the beans are cooked. I keep this recipe filed away in my head in case I ever end up at a picnic in the vicinity of Florence or Siena, with a mostly-empty Chianti flask, some beans, and a charcoal burner on hand — which I doubt will happen, at least not precisely like that. In the same way, I think I've made maybe two of all the hundreds of recipes in the Larousse. I don't think I'll ever try out the fillets of sole Joinville with their hilarious upside-down prawn garnish; I don't even like prawns. Still, it's good to know that there are methods for cooking salmon in champagne and ways to cover every conceivable foodstuff with an attractive layer of aspic. It's a cuisine that frequently seems like pure fantasy. Somewhere, Roland Barthes says the same thing about the recipes in certain French magazines, which feature food glazed pink and gotten up to look like anything but itself, so maybe this is characteristic of French cooking and not just a peculiarity on the part of the Larousse authors.
You could almost read the Larousse Gastronomique like a novel — one of those weird, postmodern novels that pretends to be some whole other literary form, like, say, an encyclopedia. In fact, if you aren't much of a one for novels to begin with — if, for instance, you read Like Water for Chocolate primarily for the recipes, and maybe you won't make the roast quail with rose-petal sauce, but that doesn't matter because even if you did, it wouldn't have the aphrodisiacal effects that it did in the book — then a cookbook is probably more consistently satisfying for you than a novel about food would be. You can stock up on the useless knowledge and rehearse it while you make yourself an unremarkable omelette and boiled potatoes for dinner, and you can imagine yourself on a picnic in Tuscany, systematically pouring beans into a wine-flask. You can try to visualize what kinds of detours your life would have to take before you'd get there. You can ask why there are no instructions for such detours, and whether you can find instructions like that in a reference book. But in the meantime, you'll just find yourself poring endlessly over advice on cleaning morels and definitions of terms like "demi-glace." Your re-mapped life will have to wait, which is just as well, because there's a peach crisp (recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook) that's going to burn if you don't take it out of the oven immediately.