They are six. They are American. They are at the height of their powers in the middle years of the 20th century. They are all entranced in some way with Paris, and they all write about it.
Their cumulative work will change the way Americans think about food, and the way you and I eat, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Justin Spring is a biographer and former National Book Award finalist with roots in southern Minnesota, with family in St. Cloud, and who has spent many of his Christmases here in the snow among us.
His latest book, “The Gourmands’ Way: The Story of Six Americans in Paris Who Changed Our Relationship With Food” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 383 pages, $30), has just been published. It’s a deeply researched and vividly entertaining exploration of the lives of these six figures — some legendary, some lesser known — who together laid the foundation of America’s relationship with French cuisine during the 30 years of French cultural and gastronomic flowering that followed the end of World War II.
It can be difficult, from an early 21st-century vantage point, to imagine a time when French cooking, French wine and the French approach to gracious living were not strong and recognizable currents in the flow of American life.
But Spring does an admirable job of establishing the extent of our general gastronomic impoverishment in the 1940s and 1950s, and giving the reader an idea of what a new and wondrous thing French food must have seemed after war rationing, during the first wave of the industrial food invasion.
This was a time when, for example, what most Americans drank with dinner was not wine, but hot black coffee. This was an era when more than 60 percent of the wines we drank were sweetened, fortified wines, such as Thunderbird and Night Train.
By varying paths and not always at the same time, Spring’s six American ambassadors find their way to Paris and fall in love, with the city, yes, but more broadly with culinary France, which is to say not just with French cooking, but with the French approach to food and wine — the inseparability of the table and its pleasures from the highest expression of a certain kind of good life.
There is A.J. Liebling, a New Yorker war correspondent and gluttonous food obsessive, plying interview subjects with Calvados as he wanders post-invasion Normandy, then stumbling, disbelievingly, onto the German surrender of Paris in the waiting room of the Gare Montparnasse train station. He goes on to write “Between Meals,” one of the 20th century’s most beloved food memoirs, about the joys and excesses of his life in Paris.
There is Alice B. Toklas — bereft at the loss of her twin soul and lifetime partner, Gertrude Stein — living penniless among kerosene fumes in a Paris flat, surrounded by priceless Picassos, but unable, for personal and estate-related reasons, to sell them. In order to pay some bills, she writes “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,” the first cookbook-memoir, a gentle, idiosyncratic celebration of cooking and of life with her great love.
There is Julia Child, busy being Julia Child, but also living out a beautifully intrasupportive and earthily passionate marriage with her husband, Paul, and in the meantime introducing America, step by carefully tested step, to the intricacies of French cuisine bourgeoise, with her revolutionary “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
There is M.F.K. Fisher, her personal life as incoherent, chaotic and tragic as her prose is limpid, sensual and evocative, who becomes perhaps the first American food writer to be taken seriously as a literary stylist, in such books as “The Gastronomical Me” and the compendium “The Art of Eating.”
There is wine merchant Alexis Lichine, bringing American entrepreneurial energy (and smarm) to corseted and history-bound Bordeaux and Burgundy, while simultaneously and almost single-handedly introducing midcentury America to what it means to be interested in French wine.
And there is Midwesterner Richard Olney, in some ways the hero of the book, migrating from Marathon, Iowa, to Paris and Provence, where, in a small house on a rocky hillside, he sets up a kind of secular hermitage dedicated to the worship of sensual delight and artful well-being. Wishing to be an artist most of his life, he is ultimately unable to avoid his calling as a cook of almost unbelievable depth and delicacy, a savant-level wine expert and taster, and possibly America’s most lyrical food writer.
Along the way, we get to know a spirited cast of minor characters, as well, including many of the great French and American chefs, restaurateurs and culinary writers of the past two centuries. And we get to meet an entirely delicious villain named Poppy Cannon.
In fact, it is Cannon — a magazine food editor and the author in 1951 of “The Can Opener Cookbook,” which sounds like a parody but is not — who most vividly embodies all that was wrong with postwar American eating. We get to watch, with a queasy kind of fascination, as she breezily and relentlessly sells her soul, arguing throughout the 1950s, with gleeful corporate backing, that processed, canned and frozen foods are equal, and in many ways superior, to fresh ingredients and meals made from scratch.
Spring describes one of her recipes that is difficult even to read, much less imagine eating — Roast Canned Chicken with Black Cherries — which involves “rubbing a whole canned chicken with salad oil, rum and Kitchen Bouquet (a seasoning featuring dark, brown caramel coloring, intended to make foods look as if ‘roasted’), briefly baking it, surrounding it with a garnish of canned Bing cherries, and then dousing everything with rum and setting it alight at the dinner table.”
From such postwar culinary ruins rose a financially flush American middle class, ready to embrace new flavors and a new kind of sophistication. France, emerging from the war more unscathed than most of the rest of Europe, had a ready supply of gastronomic tradition and Old World refinement, to service this wakening hunger.
We now take for granted that the house of American food is built on footings of French technique and tradition, that almost all of our food ways exist in accordance with or in reaction to France. But this was not inevitable or always true.
It took Spring’s six Americans in Paris to act as translators — tutoring midcentury America in the complex, subtle and, until then, mostly inaccessible rewards of French restaurant cuisine, French home cooking, French wine, French sensuality and, by extension, French savoir vivre. We are all their beneficiaries.
“Gourmands” is a book for gourmands, of course, but also serves as an expertly told introduction, and launchpad for further exploration, into these six seminal influences on our way of eating.
Steve Hoffman is a Twin Cities writer and tax preparer, and an occasional French villager. Find him on Instagram at @sjrhoffman.