1950s Archive

Classes in Classic Cuisine

Easter Menus

Originally Published April 1957

Strange to say, la cuisine does not begin in the kitchen. That is a paradox, seemingly, but it is true; a gourmet meal does not begin in the kitchen, no, nor even in the market. A truly memorable repast begins with its menu, and that, as any chef knows, must be planned before the marketing is done and long before the cooking begins. Judging from my experience in planning parties for the guests at the old Ritz-Carlton, I feel sure that menu planning is a bewildering chore for most hosts and hostesses. And unfortunately it is true that all the good foods that you may buy, all the fine dishes you may make, all the eye-catching garnishes over which you work and work, will suffer a gastronomic defeat if the menu itself has been poorly planned. So a lesson in menu-making should not be overlooked, among these classes in the classic cuisine.

There are many ways to approach menu-making, each with its special advantages, and all of them good. For example, menus may be based on the availability of certain seasonal foods, or, on the other hand, on the very difficulty of obtaining foods not in season. And if the latter approach seems surprising, let me remind you that the dinners of some very well known hostesses became famous just because the guests knew chat something out of season and from far away would always be served, such as melon, strawberries, and asparagus when the snow was a foot deep, Dover sole from the English Channel, pré-salé lamb from the salt meadows of France. Other cooks take equal pride in serving the best of local products, bought at the height of each season. These gourmets believe that nothing can surpass the foods supplied by nature right at your door, eaten at the very moment when they are in their prime. I must admit that I tend to lean, myself, just the least bit in that direction.

Also, there are the menus for special occasions, the ones which require traditional foods. Thanksgiving, for instance, calls for its turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin or mince pie, and deviations are frowned on; such a menu is de rigueur. There are menus planned around the tastes of guests with known dislikes, or those for whom certain foods are proscribed because of diets or allergies. And, enfin, there is the best kind of menu, the one planned by an especially thoughtful person who remembers the foods that he and his guest have enjoyed together in the past; in effect, a nostalgic' menu. A memorable supper I had on my last trip to France immediately comes to mind.

About seventy miles south of Paris the famous cathedral city of Vézelay rises out of the otherwise level countryside. Its dramatic charm and beauty, and its history that goes back to the Crusades, made the friends with whom I was traveling want to stop there on our way to the Burgundy wine country. And I was more than pleased because I would be e to see an old friend who was living in retirement in the little town of Saint-Père, tucked under the hillside in the shadow of the great cathedral. My letter to him brought an invitation to dinner. Monsieur Chapuis had owned and managed one of the finest hotels in that area, and no one could be better qualified to serve an elaborate dinner, perfect in every detail. No one, either, would have been more happy to do so, but Monsieur was a devout Catholic, and the day, Good Friday, required a simple meatless supper. However, any gourmet would have pronounced this simple supper a perfect one. The thing that made it so wonderful to me was the fact that Monsieur had gone out of his way to put together a menu that included the country foods he knew I loved, and would not find in the restaurants we visited-the simple foods I had eaten at home as a boy in France.

This was the menu: Hors-d'oeuvre of sardines, stuffed eggs on nests of shredded lettuce, and a lightly dressed potato salad the sight of which took me back fifty years to the days when I watched my mother make a potato salad like this. Then, fresh brook trout caught that afternoon in the stream that ran alongside the chateau, a beautiful dish of the fish laid diagonally in precise order on a long silver fish platter, each glistening with golden brown beurre à la meunière, each topped with a parsley-Sprinkled slice of lemon. How many trout had my brother and I caught long ago in the turbulent streams near our Bourbonnais home and eaten, like these, only an hour or two out of the water! liven the pnmmes frites were cut and cooked as I remembered them at home, about half the size of those that we serve in America, fried to a light color, and as crispy outside as the tenters were soft. But for me the pièce de résistance, la grande surprise, was the next course. A large oval bowl with two rounds of cheese in it was brought in. Cheese, mon dieu, just like my petite grand'-mère had made on the farm-I hadn't tasted its like in years. This is a soft type that is served with a spoon and eaten with a little very heavy cream and a sprinkling of fine sugar, a cheese that has lightness and delicacy like cottage cheese and the fine smoothness of cream cheese without, however, the ilatter's compact richness. And we finished this supper with a confiture of pears, made from home-grown fruits, an amber-colored conserve in which the succulent pieces of fruit were large and quite firm. I only wish that I could repeat again, on any Good Friday, this supper.

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