2000s Archive

Of Cabbages and Kings

Originally Published June 2000
Why don’t cookbooks reflect what’s really going on in the kitchen? Verlyn Klinkenborg visits the author who runs a boot camp for culinary historians.

On a bitterly cold winter night in Boston—so cold that snow seems to fall from a cloud of warm breath—I step from a cab onto the sidewalk outside Hamersley’s Bistro, on the corner of Tremont and Clarendon. It’s the kind of night when the lights look inviting in every bowfront window, but none are as inviting as the warm glow of dinner that Hamersley’s casts onto the salted walk outside.

Inside, I take my seat at a table for five and admire the way the preliminaries of a restaurant meal—shuffling menus, listening to additions, choosing wine—create short chapters of conversation, making strangers feel somehow less strange to each other by the time the eating has actually begun. For seated next to me is a stranger named Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, the author of Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, a landmark in the still-young discipline of culinary history. She admits feeling foolish knowing I’ve come to interview her. But discomfort doesn’t last long with her. We turn to the menus, and after a moment or two I hear her say, almost to herself, “Ahhh, I brake for cassoulet.”

And that, perhaps, is the first thing to know about Barbara Wheaton: Through her conversation there runs a subrosa wickedness, an irony that would be quite deadly if it weren’t softened by something jovial, as well as something scholarly, in the tone of her voice. She is “just saturated with character,” as she herself says of La Maison de Campagne, a 19th-century manual of country living by Aglaé Adanson, which she is translating and annotating.

It is still easy to see in 68-year-old Wheaton the Mount Holyoke student she once was or the young graduate student who came to Harvard intending to study art history. As with many scholars, there’s a directness in her eyes that may be a sign of inner focus, or inner distraction. Her diction and accent suggest a society upbringing, but, she admits, “I was a dud in society. I was always peculiar.” And so, like many peculiar people, she has made a career of her own peculiarity.

Instead of finishing her Ph.D., Wheaton, as she tells it, “dropped out, got married, had babies.” With her husband, Robert, and ten-month-old first child she moved to the Netherlands and began cooking from a book called La Bonne Cuisine de Mme. E. Saint-Ange, which first appeared in 1927, a crowning example of cuisine bourgeoise, the superb domestic cooking that has been a staple of French life since the 18th century.

“I like to work with my hands,” Wheaton told me, “and if you have small children and you’re sitting, they will swarm all over you. But if you’re standing up doing something, it’s all right.” The difference between scholars and ordinary people—one difference at least—is that scholars take wondering as a course of action. “I began to wonder,” Wheaton explained, “why cooking varied so much over the face of western Europe and why it changed so much over time. When did people start doing this or that? But one thing leads to another. I became like Stephen Leacock’s hero, who jumped onto his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”

Just what Wheaton means is not quite apparent until the next afternoon, when I visit her in her study in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a pleasurable sight, familiar to anyone who has been overcome by a lifelong, book-laden passion. On one wall hangs a portrait of her grandfather, who, she says, “taught me how to look things up in books.” Her computer database of cookbooks is a paragon of order: searchable by ingredients, by recipes, by the analogies used to describe the size of lumps of dough or the consistency of batters, and by a dozen other parameters as well.

But then, while hunting up a copy of Mme. Saint-Ange from the stacks of books leaning against the rows of bookcases, Wheaton cries, “We’re going to have another avalanche!” and it becomes clear that avalanches are an everyday hazard in this part of the house. Another book-slide nearly begins as she takes down an early copy of Nicolas de Bonnefons’s Les Délices de la Campagne, which was first published in 1654.

“Bonnefons” is one of Wheaton’s answers when I ask her who her favorite food writers are. (The others on her shortlist are Julia Child, Jane Grigson, and Mme. Saint-Ange.) In a way, Bonnefons defines the transition from medieval and Renaissance French cooking—increasingly absorbed in complexity and spectacle—to a simpler way of thinking about food, which leads to the first edition of La Cuisinière Bourgeoise by François Menon in 1746, to Mme. Saint-Ange in 1927, and on to Julia Child’s first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. While cooking at the French court had headed off into a late-17th-century realm of spectacular voluptuary excess, Bonnefons provided an education in rural economy and the discreet pleasures of the senses. He is really the first figure in French cooking to assert the primacy of simplicity, taste, and variety. Describing Bonnefons’s recipe for baked apples—little more than cooking cored apples on the hearth with sweet butter rolled in powdered sugar—Wheaton writes, “A medieval recipe would have had more ingredients, and the flavor of the apple would have mattered less.” She also notes that Bonnefons lists 77 kinds of pears ripening in August and September.

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