It’s Paris in July month, jointly hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea and, although I’m late to the party as usual, I’m glad to be here, posting about a wonderful book which I suspect should best be read just before making a visit to France as otherwise it is likely to cause intense pangs of longing to the non-French reader.
The phrase “When good Americans die, they go to Paris” has been ascribed to many authors including Oscar Wilde, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Appleton but, regardless of who first came up with this aphorism, Ann Mah, the author of Mastering the Art of French Eating and a self-confessed lifelong Francophile, must have felt like she’d died and gone to heaven when her diplomat husband is given a three year posting to Paris. Shortly after arriving, however, their dreams of living in one the world’s most romantic cities are shattered as he is summoned to Iraq for a year. Lonely and worried for his safety, she is suddenly required to create a new life for herself in a new home.
As well as reaching out both to the expat community, to friends of friends and to the colleagues she meets while volunteering as the programs manager at the American Library, Mah, an avid foodie, encouraged mainly via Skype by her other half, launches herself into an investigation of the history and culture of some of France’s most iconic dishes. Along the way, she takes trips to their regions of origin, meets chefs and aficionados and partakes fully of some of France’s most renowned fare.
Most of the items she chooses to focus on are brasserie and bistro such as Paris’ steak-frites, the choucroute garni of Alsace and the cassoulet of the South West. Reading her descriptions of the meals she ate and her encounters with local champions of the dishes is enough to make one’s tummy rumble, something which, in my opinion, is a good indicator of the quality of a book about food. As well as these staples, she touches on a couple of more unusual regional classics, the Provençal soupe au pistou and the crêpes de sarrasin of Brittany and learns of the real passion with which the locals treat their culinary heritage. Of course, it’s not all plain sailing - Mah admits defeat at the, how shall I put this, intestinal odour of true AAAAA approved andouillette from Troyes which, to be fair, although I have acquired the taste, I can understand - Mrs F wasn’t overly impressed when I ordered it at the excellent Brasserie Zedel here in London as its odour is truly of the farmyard. About the only grumble I really had was her contention that aligot, the cheese and mashed potato concoction of the Aveyron region is not very well-known outside the area. I can’t speak for the US, of course, but here in the UK, it has featured in a Delia Smith cookbook (the bestselling cookbook author of them all here) as well as the late Mireille Johnston’s A Cook’s Tour of France, albeit masquerading under another name - so it’s not exactly a secret.
Mastering the Art of French Eating is part travelogue, part memoir, part foodie investigation but it is, as much as anything, a love letter to France and Paris in particular and a bittersweet tale of involuntary separation. Mah’s exploratory trips into the French regions are nicely interspersed with the story of her life in Paris, which, although difficult as life can be for the trailing spouse of a diplomat (something even the title alludes with its nudge towards another lonely diplomatic wife in Paris - Julia Child who also found purpose and solace in French cooking), is also full of new experiences.
Mah, the daughter of Adeline Yen Mah, the author of Falling Leaves, is a gifted writer who conveys a real sense of place and of feeling as well as being a dab hand at foodie description. I thoroughly enjoyed Mastering the Art of French Eating and would recommend it to anyone who likes France, food or travel-writing. Thank you very much to Penguin for allowing me to read this via Netgalley.