Go Back
Print this page

1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published September 1949

S is for sad …

…and for the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem breaking and our lives too bleakly empty. Like every other physical phenomenon, there is good reason for this hunger, if we will be blunt enough to recognize it.

The prettifiers of human passion choose to think that a man who has watched his true love die is lifted above such ugly things as food, that he is exalted by his grief, that his mind dwells exclusively on thoughts of Eternity the Hereafter. The mixture of wails and wassail at an Irish wake is frowned upon as merely an alcoholic excuse by the sticklers for burial etiquette, and the ancient symbolism of funeral baked meats is accepted, somewhat grudgingly, as a pagan custom which has been Christianized sufficiently by our church fathers to justify a good roast of beef and some ice cream and cake after the trip to the family burying ground.

The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers: They want a steak. What is more, they need a steak. Preferably they need it rare, grilled, heavily salted, for that way it is most easily digested, and most quickly turned into the glandular whip their tired adrenals cry for.

A prime story of this need is the chapter in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, just after Ben has died, when his two racked brothers begin to laugh and joke like young colts, and then go in the dawn to Ben’s favorite all-night beanery and eat an enormous, silly meal. Another good example is in Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, as I remember. There are many more, all of them shocking and yet strangely reassuring, too, like some kinds of music.

Perhaps that is because they are true, far past prettiness. They tell us what we then most need to be reminded of, that underneath the anguish of death and pain and ugliness, hunger and unquenchable life are facts, shining, peaceful. It is as if our bodies, wiser than we who wear them, call out for encouragement and strength and, in spite of us and of the patterns of proper behavior we have learned, compel us to answer, and to eat.

More often than not, in such compulsory feastings, we eat enormously, and that too is good, for we are stupefying ourselves, anesthetizing our wrought nerves with a heavy dose of proteins, and our bodies will grow sleepy with digestion and let us rest a little after the long vigil.

I tried to say this once to a man who, being well raised and sensitive, was in a state of shock at his behavior.

It was late at night. He had been driving up and down the coastal highway, cautiously and, in a numb way, almost happily, ever since a little before noon that day, when his love had died. She was one of the most beautiful women in the world, and one of the most famous, and he loved her for these reasons and even more so because she loved him too. But he had to watch her die, for two nights and a day.

When she was finally in peace, he walked from her bedside like a deaf blind man, got into his car, and headed for the coast…and in the next hours he must have stopped at four or five big restaurants alongside, and eaten a thick steak at each one, with other things he usually ignored, like piles of French-fried potatoes, slabs of pie, and whatever bread was in front of him. He had a flask of cognac in the car, but did not touch it; instead he drank cup after cup of searing black coffee, with or without food, in a dozen little joints along the road and then left them humming and whistling.

By the time I saw him be was, literally, bulging and had loosened his belt futilely against the load in his middle. He put his head in his hands and shuddered and said, “How could I? How could I—and she not yet in her coffin!”

It was a helpless protest he made, and I tried, more plainspoken than usual, to cut through his digestive fog, to tell him how right he had been to let his body lead him on this orgy, how it would tide him over the next hours, how his hunger had made him do what his upbringing had taught him was gross, indelicate, unfeeling.

He soon went to his bed, staggering, hardly conscious, certainly uncaring for a time, at least, of his own or the world’s new woe. But years later, so strong was his training, he would think back on that day with a deep embarrassment, no matter how candidly he could admit the basic wisdom of his behavior. He would always feel, in spite of himself, that sadness should not be connected so directly with gastronomy.

T is for turbot…

…as well as trout, and for me, at least, these two gastronomical delights will be forever one…

Do I mean turbot, what dictionaries call “a large flat fish esteemed as food,” or do I mean trout, leering up, twisted and blue, from its pan? My confusion, spiritual at least, springs from an experiment with pressure cookers, which starred sometime around 1820, near the little French village of Villecresnes, and ended in 1948 near the little American village of Beverly Hills.

One of the pleasantest stories, I think, in one of the pleasantest books ever written, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, is his anecdote called, very simply, “The Turbot.” In it he tells, with a ruminative smugness to which he was indeed entitled, how he saved the day as well as the menaced domestic bliss of two of his dearest friends.

They had invited a group of “pleasant people” to lunch at their country place at Villecresnes on Sunday, and when Brillat-Savarin arrived on Saturday night, as their privileged guest, he found them at polite swords’ points over what to do with a magnificent turbot which was, unfortunately, too enormous to fit into any cooking pan.

It would be another hundred years or so before the great Escoffier was to state sternly, “It is of the greatest importance…that the turbot not be cooked too long beforehand, since it tends to harden, crumple, and lose its flavor,” and the young French couple, happily unconscious of blundering, plainly planned to boil their catch whole, and then serve it the next day in its own jelly, with some such sauce as a mayonnaise, probably garnished with little tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden.

Madame stood up stoutly against the chopper which her exasperated husband was threatening to use as Brillat-Savarin appeared at seven that night, on horseback from Paris, and the tactful Professor insisted, in spite of feeling ravenously hungry, that the whole household help him immediately in coping with this domestic crisis. He sniffed through the establishment like an eager hound, until in the laundry, of all places, he found exactly what he needed: a copper wash boiler, which of course was solidly a part of its own little furnace. He marshaled the servants into a solemn procession, himself at the head bearing the turbot, the doubting cook and his skeptical friend in the rear, and proceeded to carry out his first dramatic assertion that the fish must, and indeed would, remain in one piece until its final appearance.

While the maids built up a fine fire and the cook assembled onions, shallots, and highly flavored herbs, he devised a kind of hammock from a large reed clothes hamper. He laid the fresh herbs thickly upon it, and then the cleaned and salted fish, and then a second layer of the herbs.

“Then the hammock was put across the boiler,” he wrote “which was half full of water, and the whole was covered with a small wash tub around which we banked dry sand, to keep the steam from escaping too easily. Soon the water was boiling madly; steam filled the inside of the tub, which was removed at the end of a half hour, and the hammock was taken out of the boiler with the turbot cooked to perfection, white as snow, and most agreeable to look at.”

The next day all of the guests exclaimed at its handsome appearance, and “…it was unanimously agreed that the fish prepared according to my system was incomparably better than if it had been cooked in the traditional turbot pan…[for] since it had not been passed through boiling water it had lost none of its basic qualities, and had, on the contrary, absorbed all the aroma of the seasoning.”

This is so obvious a result of his method that it surprises me to find some such master as Escoffier ignoring its principles and continuing, a century later, to advise his followers to boil turbot in the classical mixture of seven parts salted water to one of sweet milk.

The Professor himself hoped that his system would be followed and developed for the inexpensive and wholesome feeding of large numbers of people, as in armies and institutions, and I should think that hotel cookery as understood by Escoffier would fall somewhere into these categories. Perhaps it did not because pressure cookers, as such, were still too risky a utensil when the master chef died in 1834. Whatever the reasons, there can be no doubt that the boiled and/or poached fish generally served in even the best restaurants suffers from too much water and too little taste, too much Escoffier and not enough Professor.

The only real harnessing of steam to the pleasures of the table that I know about is done by the Chinese, and I can, in my mind, be at this very minute in the alley doorway of a Cantonese restaurant just off Plymouth Square in San Francisco, watching the exciting rhythm of the steam cookery there.

Ducks and cabbages and bean sprouts and a curled carp are all under the one bell-like top, and a fine fresh vapor rises from it, not mingled, not blurred in savor, as the helper raises and lowers it on a long rope according to the hissed and hectic directions of the cook. The hot room has a good airiness about it, in spite of or perhaps because of the controlled clouds of steam, unknown to most public kitchens. There is a steady chopping sound: everything edible seems to pass from the shelves to the steam stove by way of the chef’s incredibly skilled knife, and fish, fowl, celery, and a hundred other things turn, almost too fast to watch, into the strips, sticks, and mouth-sized morsels proper to being eaten with chopsticks.

There are a dozen or more books on modern pressure cookery. I find most of them dull, after the first simple principles have been laid down and shown to be foolproof to the timid and the superstitious with a series of artful photographs and charts. Perhaps it is because I can attain such comfortable forgetfulness of my life’s problems in the construction of a stew (as some women do in baking bread) that I do not wish to cut the time for it from four hours to forty minutes. And I am not particularly interested in “tenderizing” inferior cuts of meat, being intransigently of the school that would choose one good dinner of prime beef rather than six of thinly disguised chuck.

At times, I confess gastronomically, I grow damned bored. And then is when I call up the Professor’s ghost, and with a bow to him I make, much more time-takingly than any modern recipe would tolerate, my own modest version of his turbot.

I could not duplicate it, of course, even if I did indeed have the turbot…and an ancient copper boiler in a laundry house. But thanks to fast trains and efficient fish farms, there are beautiful, almost instant-fresh rainbow trout. And there is my postmaternal necessity for something besides beans and zucchini. There is, finally, my sentimental feeling about Brillat-Savarin himself…

The recipe which I devoutly evolve, then, assumes that I have two fresh trout, handsome and alike, a somewhat impertinent assumption on the side of a sage-covered desert hill, but not so much a one near the fine markets of Beverly Hills where I first assumed it. The trout, unfortunately, are all that my cooker willhold. But the fine thing about the recipe is that it can be repeated with no great deterioration to the net result as long a there is material for it to cope with . . and a dozen or so pretty fish, side by side in their clear jelly upon their couch of herbs, is a sight worth any coping, especially when it can be saluted, while the Professor’s ghost smiles just over my left shoulder, with a bottle of something like Wente’s Pinot Chardonnay or, drier and just as cold, Grey Riesling.

Then I can feel, almost as justifiably smug as the old Frenchman when he wrote about his turbot, that I have bolstered my own self-esteem as a cook, if not saved such domestic bliss as he fought for. I can forget the sometime tiresome routine of nourishing my family and instead sit back happily, in the company of One, and eat as artful a combination of fresh natural flavors as ever lay upon a plate. I can compliment myself unashamedly that I have dared ponder on what a gaffer wrote down more than a hundred years ago and have adapted it to my mode of living.

“While my ears drank their fill of the compliments which were showered upon me,” Brillat-Savarin wrote contentedly, “my eyes sought out other even more sincere ones in the visible post-mortem verdict of the guests, and I observed with secret satisfaction that General Labassee was so pleased that he smiled anew at each bite, while the curé had his chin stretched upwards and his ecstatic eye fixed upon the ceiling, and…Monsieur Villemain leaned his head with his jaw tipped to the west, like a man who is listening…”

“All of this is useful to remember,” he went on. I know how right he is, for though no general has tasted my little offshoot of the famous turbot, or no curé, a good man has, and with me, and shall remember the usefulness of the recipe many times again, and the magic of its flavors, when I may, being human, have become boresome…

U is for universal…

…and for a fleeting discussion of bread and salt, which remains man’s universal need in spite of the understandable assumption that it may instead be restaurant-sauce, as served from Singapore to Buenos Aires and back again in any upper-class chophouse.

There is a special and unmistakable liquid, a staple of the chef who must maintain his so-called standards but still is to busy to start afresh for each patron, which at this very moment is being doused indiscriminately upon veal cutlets, filets of beef, and even slices of salmon, in uncountable kitchens all over the world. It is thinner than thick, browner than red, a consummate mixture of mediocrity which baffles and impresses the ignorant and nauseates the knowing. Its sparing use denotes a clever restaurant cook, its prodigality a reckless one…for even the dullest diner will in the end revolt and go elsewhere, if every entree he orders swims in the same questionable flood.

Perhaps gastronomers of a few hundred years from now will consider it the universal food of our century. Meanwhile, I prefer to think of an older and much simpler one: the bread that has been broken, for countless years, and the salt that has been eaten with it, as well as sprinkled over the doorsteps of our ancestors and offered with incense to the gods, even unto now.

Salt, sodium chloride, NaCI, is perhaps too much a part of today’s table, or so at least many of our doctors feel, and rightly, when they can point to their patients who have hardened arteries and palsy and less often, but with equal poignancy, to the palace-deadened children and traveling salesmen and such who whip themselves at every meal the way a cow must in the spring, licking at salt to stimulate her glands.

It has always been vegetable- and cereal-eaters, cows and humankind alike, who most crave the taste of salt, and men who live on roasted meat, like the Bedouins, need never touch it, for natural flavors can appease them without any help. But once meat is boiled, with its goodness in part drained from it, salt must be added to make it decently palatable. There is a sensual satisfaction about the rough, bitter crystals of rock salt that are sprinkled over a true pot-au-feu, at least as I used to eat it in Burgundy, that no grilled kid could equal. .. and yet I never put salt on beef to be seared and roasted over the coals in my patio barbecue, and people who in restaurants would automatically reach for the salt cellar eat it blissfully, incredulous when they eventually learn what they have done.

I was taught when very young that it is an insult to the cook to salt a dish before it has been tasted, and in spite of my adult knowledge of the reasons for such an unthinking gesture, I still resent it when anyone at my table seasons something as soon as it is put before him. I know that his tongue is jaded, calloused even, by restaurant sauces and a thousand dinners that have had to be heightened with anything at hand in order to be swallowed at all. Still I wish, silently most of the time, that he would take a chance and eat just one bite before he sprinkles the ubiquitous salt and pepper upon whatever has been prepared for him: I have great pride in my culinary knowingness and feel, with good proof of my rightness, that some things need salt and some do not. Green beans in butter, for instance, as opposed to my patio steak: the first need an ample touch of salt, ample sweet butter, and then an ample grind of fresh pepper, while the second never sees anything but herbs and wine.

Bread is another thing again, a cereal which in one way or another carries itself most easily with salt somewhere about it. I know a man of parts who, when he can eat reddish-brown Russian rye bread, will spread it thickly with sweet butter and then to my own private horror coat the whole with an impossible load of table salt. He likes the odor, texture, taste…it makes him feel good, again like the cow in springtime, to eat this honest, enriching fare and to feel the stimulation of the sodium chloride.

Bread made without salt has a strange sweetness about it, almost a nutmeg taste, much more of a chemical difference than the one small omission would be expected to make. And in the making it does not smell so yeasty and irresistible, somehow. It still is good, and worth the bother, if indeed it can be called bother to mix the whole and then pound it and let it rise and pound it again, in the age-old ritual of baking.

It is too bad, I think, that fewer and fewer people try its classical rhythm. It brings a mysterious satisfaction with it, which I saw not long ago when a fine woman was told never to touch salt again, and suddenly her whole house became more peaceful, all because the cook had to make salt-free bread twice weekly.

The cook herself was drunk less often for having to concentrate and remember: bread-making is not a quarter-hour task like making pie crust or dumplings.

The fine woman’s fine husband came home oftener and sniffed happily at the round pan of dough rising on a dining room chair near the furnace register, with a clean linen napkin laid lightly over it.

People, too, not just husbands, came in on baking days and sat, flairing the air with a discretion geared to their social background, and no matter what their financial bracket sat back gladly to eat a slice or two or three of the warm, delicious, fresh-baked loaf and taste its strange sweetness and never miss the salt that supposedly should make it palatable.

A cook who must rely upon his own skill to make something edible, rather than toss in an impossible load of salt in the hope that it will stupefy if not soothe the outraged palates of his guests, can count himself fortunate indeed, for there is no culinary challenge quite so demanding as salt-free food in the modern diet. It can be good food, as I know.

There are a thousand tricks at hand, of course, to make saltless food full enough of natural flavor to be satisfying. In general the simplest procedures are the best, and a cook who finds himself by force or by his own choice in a salt-free kitchen will soon revert to an almost primitive way of roasting, basting, and poaching. He will also, if he is worth his forbidden salt, think back on his own more ornate skills and dream of a perfect soubise in the way some men dream of power. And he will, and this I can swear to, next make that soubise with a tenderness and respect unknown to him in the old days when he did it daily, and at times too casually, assuming with most of his clients that too much of a good thing might be a sin but was still more desirable than not enough of it.

I am convinced that coping with a saltless regimen should be part of every good chef’s schedule, at least once a year or so, to sharpen his dulled appreciation of food’s basic flavors and to make him consider them with caution before his routine boiling and peeling. In a strange kitchen fashion, some such penance as this might act as a kind of purification, connected in its own way with the religious significance that has always cloaked bread and salt.

Having made honest bread again, with or without salt, and recollected its mysterious, moving fragrance, having grilled meat again, uncalloused by the chemistry of salt, the cook would be able to sense fundamental flavors that are quite beyond too many of us and would be refreshed, strengthened, able once more to make his cunning sauces without stooping, as he has found it increasingly easy to do, to the universal brew, the one served in so many restaurants, the one recognizable from Here to There.

He would, knowing it or not, remember that salt and bread are to be honored, not turned into dull necessity and the puffed packaged furnishings of any corner grocery. He would be a better chef…

V is for venality…

…and for the mixture of gastronomical pleasure with corruption that helps senators and actresses to pounce with such slyly hidden skill upon their prey.

Wherever politics are played, of no matter what color, sex, or reason, the table is an intrinsic part of them, so much so that Brillat-Savarin asserted, enthusiastically if not too correctly, that every great event in history has been consummated over a banquet board. Though I may question his statement, I still admit the loose rightness of it and bow to the companion thought that history is indeed largely venal, no matter what its ultimate nobility. Surely many a soldier has been saved from death because his general slept the night before the battle with Ottilia instead of Claudia, and more than one pretty creature in a Hollywood restaurant has missed stardom but kept her female balance because a producer did not like the way she ate asparagus...

Wherever politics are played, then, which means wherever in the world more than five men forgather; venality sits at table with them, corrupt, all-powerful. In every city from Oskaloosa to Madrid, there is one meeting place which above all others furthers and comforts the inevitable progress of the evil-bent, and the ghost of a Paris senator who last lunched at Foyot’s in 1897 would find itself perfectly at home in a certain air-conditioned restaurant in Washington, this year or next, or in some such place as Mike Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills.

Some of the best food in America can be, and occasionally is, found at his eating place, although architecture rather than gastronomy seems at first glance to be what makes it a necessary part of the nourishment of Hollywood politicians.

The perfection of a rack of lamb served from Mike’s overpoweringly beautiful silver meat cart is unimportant; it is where that lamb is consumed that matters. And the interior of this all-important chophouse is so cunningly arranged that its zigzag windowed partitions change it from a long, dull store building into a series of rigidly protected social levels, of almost homicidal significance.

There are the few tables by the Bar, known as Stockholders’ Row, and with much of the well-padded comfortable aura of an exclusive club. Probably fifty people in the whole world are qualified to sit at them, and any slight deviation from the twice-daily pattern of familiar paunches causes as much local speculation as a mysterious drop in the market.

Then there is the Reinhardt Room, named for its professorial and omnipotent head captain. It was rightly ignored at first because of its unbecoming pink sides and its dull isolation, until large peepholes were cut in the wall nearest the bar, and a celebrated columnist was prevailed upon with true Romanoff tact to make it the center of her sharpest political operations. Now anyone in Hollywood is glad to lunch or dine there, in order to catch her eye, and nod and smile, and guarantee himself one more kind printed word.

Off Reinhardt’s stronghold and down a step or two, but still with low partitions so that no Keneth Hopkins hat, no famous toupee need be missed by a quick-eyed loiterer at the Bar, is a small, quiet room where big deals are made. There fading stars form independent companies with other people’s fortunes and themselves as writer-director-producers. Story editors buy unwritten masterpieces for a quarter million. Agents murder other agents with invisible bloodshed.

In spite of the fact that the silver meat cart is too luxuriously weighty to go down the steps, rack of lamb tastes better in the little quiet room, temporarily at least, than anywhere except Stockholders’ Row. Certainly it would taste infinitely better there, basted with cyanide and laced with strychnine and garnished with Paris green, than it ever could if, by some trick, it were served plain and unpoisoned to the star or the story editor or the agent in the Back Room!

The Back Room, quite simply, is suicide. It used to be the whole restaurant, and a few old-timers smile fondly if discreetly at the remembrance of its early days, when Romanoff had not quite enough money to buy chairs and tables for it, and it was cut off from the half-deserted Bar by long, gloomy curtains that flapped dismally in the draughts of debt and insecurity and emptiness. That was before Prince Mike and his royal architect, in mutual desperation, had evolved their fantastically successful scheme of separating the local dukes, cabinet ministers, and lesser nobility into their proper groups, and their fair ladies into the correctly improper ones. Now the room, the dread Back Room, is reserved for a few miserable people whose options have just been dropped, and a blissfully ignorant flow of Eastern visitors who do not realize that they are actually enjoying what to a local inhabitant would mean social death.

Well-groomed matrons from the hinterland chatter brightly over excellent cocktails and down great quantities of delicious pastries served with skill and tact, and never suspect that from the Row and the Reinhardt Room and even from the far-west quiet corner where big deals are made, any glances that may come their way are heavy with scorn, boredom, or at best a faint pity.

Producers shudder at the thought of ever stepping over the sill of that airy, pleasant limbo. Producers’ girl friends in very new mink coats shudder, too, at the chance that some crowded day they might have to sit two tables in. Ambitious and “promising young” writers of no matter what age recognize the ugly truth that in a pinch they might penetrate as far as the third small table to the left, but pray that it will never be necessary. And meanwhile the happy visitors from Iowa and New York sip and chatter under the same artful roof with countless movie-great, oblivious of their wretched lot…and of one other room, which perhaps even the aristocracy up front might envy: a cool trellised garden off the kitchens, where one day I saw waiters and cooks and the lowliest busboys sitting at a long clean table in the dappled light, eating amicably together without benefit of silver meat cart, but from bowls and platters that looked well laden.

Mike Romanoff and his architect had built exceedingly well, I thought with my own kind of snobbism…and I wondered if there, and at the Chambord still and once at Foyot’s and once at the place in Amsterdam where there were, before the bombs fell, strawberries served two by enormous two upon white damask napkins, and at a hundred other great restaurants around the globe, venality and its huggermugger of intricate play upon the senses did indeed work maggotlike through the kitchens as well as the Bar and the Reinhardt Room. I looked at the men and boys eating with such seeming friendliness and pleasure under the vine leaves, and wondered if, for them, cuts of smuggled venison and truffles en papillote took the place of red-haired actresses, of senators of the opposition, to be manipulated and wooed in the full sense of the word venal…It was harder to believe, there in the sunlight, than it could have been elsewhere.