“There is pleasure in the contemplation of the object one desires; there is a pleasure in tasting, touching, hearing, or seeing the object; and there is a pleasure in the remembrance of the object enjoyed.” –Michael Curtis
The 1977 edition of The New Larousse Gastronomique has a particular heft to it, a bulk in your hands that renders the fragility of its binding somewhat ironic. Nothing breaks the solid reddish brown of its cover except the title in thick, serif lettering. Despite the cliché, this book’s outward appearance exemplifies the nature of its contents: elegant, simple, and to-the-point. For instance:
“Roast potatoes. Peel big, long potatoes, and put them into a sauté pan in which some butter or lard has been heated. Season with salt. Cook in the oven, basting frequently, until golden all over.”
Though basic, this recipe evokes the profound: that provocative bite of potato, a little crunchy on the edges but with soft, buttery flavor inside. Amid such classics, the Larousse strives for comprehensiveness, even as a single volume. It contains methods for preparing an astonishing number of ingredients far less universal than tubers:
“Devilled sheep’s (lambs’) tongues. LANGUES DE MOUTON D’AGNEAU, à la diable – Braise the tongues and leave to cool in their stock. Cut them in half and spread each half with mustard seasoned with a touch of cayenne pepper. Baste with butter. Dip in breadcrumbs, pour butter over them and grill slowly.”
Though lambs’ tongues have never graced my kitchen, if ever they do, I will know this method. And “method” describes it in a way that “recipe” does not. Many entries, like these, contain no measurements and no times or temperatures, only the outline of a concept an experienced cook can use to recreate a particular dish. One’s culinary skills, like muscle, get into better shape the more one uses the book. But the Larousse’s practical content only speaks to the most obvious of the three kinds of pleasure it provides.
I am this book’s fourth owner, and it is older than I am. My cousin Michael gave it to me thinking that I would use it prolifically, and perhaps sensing that I might have an appreciation for its eccentricities. The book had belonged to Michael’s father Greg, a logging mechanic with exceptional gourmet cooking abilities. While I never met Greg, his legacy continues its markedly fantastic impact through the many members of his extended family I know, and through the stories they tell about Greg around campfires over adult beverages, frothy in nature and otherwise. Greg had originally given the book as a gift to his father-in-law Gordon, who used the book to learn and apply methods of pickling. Greg’s giving to Gordon, an engineer who many describe as irreverent, a somewhat pretentious and highfalutin French book about gastronomy and cuisine seems wonderfully campy. This history, the book’s significance as a family heirloom and the undeserved honor I have in being its present owner, constitutes a second pleasurable level to appreciate.
Finally, I cannot overstate the Larousse’s bookness. It saddens me when I see vibrant and interesting cookbooks available for Kindle, a format that reduces them to nothing more than ephemeral content on an aggressively marketed portable electronic device. I understand the benefit of a Kindle: being able to have an entire library on a tiny, lightweight object. For traveling with reading material, and for those with limited space for bookshelves, this benefit makes good, practical sense. But if pleasure is important, give me a physical book. Let me look at its cover and feel the pages on my fingers. Let me see it on the shelf as I pass by so that it reminds me of the time in my life when I first read it, and of how I came to have it. If I did not walk past the Larousse every day, I would not pick it up and find passages like this one, which appears next to a black and white drawing of a long-legged wading bird:
“AGAMI (Trumpeter) – A bird of the wader family of which the Guiana agami is typical. Its flesh has appreciable merit. The agami is used in cookery mainly in South America, boiled in consummé or braised with rice. Its flesh has a pleasant flavour but is rather dry, although less so in the domesticated bird.”
Or this one, part of the Larousse’s section about Canadian cuisine:
“The Huron and Iroquoi Indians cooked their beans in the embers, and lived mainly on a porridge made of water and crushed in maize, to which they added fish or meat. However, pork trotter stew is said to be of Indian origin.”
That 1977 Larousse is the first reference I consult when I need culinary guidance, even before the ubiquitous internet, and the first book I pull from the shelf when I have 2 free minutes and want to make good use of them. It is, in the best and fullest sense, a book.