Sunday, May 02, 2010

Review: Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes

I'm enjoying this book, in spite of myself.

I mean no disrespect to Elizabeth Bard with that remark; it's just that Francophile nonfiction written for an American audience tends to come in two flavors: 'look-at-the-fabulous-sophisticated-life-I-lead' and 'you-fat-stupid-American-why-can't-you-stop-gaining-weight-or-learn-the-language'.

Luckily, Elizabeth Bard's book is neither of those. It's a rather enjoyable first-person account of her life in France, starting with a one-afternoon stand and ending with a new chapter in her life (both literally and figuratively). On the way, we meet the in-laws, plan a wedding and get to laugh good-naturedly at Elizabeth and her outsider's perspective on French culture.

The book is peppered with recipes the author gleaned from her future husband and his family as well as her own American one. Her honest advice on ingredients and preparation ("Do not, I repeat, do not attempt this (or any) recipe with those baby carrots sold in the plastic bag. They are fine for dip but miserable for cooking.") is a fresh take in our Food Network-inspired culture of, ahem, "take a little help from the store."

Elizabeth is what I would call a Francophile by relation - she wasn't someone who steeped herself in French culture willingly. In fact, she seems to have been a staunch Anglophile prior to the events of the book. She became a Francophile because she loves a French person, namely her husband, Gwendal.

I really should explain my feelings a bit here. Any Francophile who has studied the language in a university will tell you that French majors are not an "all for one and one for all" kind of bunch. We're secretive, jealously guarding the insider information we've gleaned from French friends or books or independent study over the years. It isn't until we've finally made our first pilgrimmage that we want to share - and then mainly it's about bragging - by specifically NOT bragging, you understand, but that all is implied merely by the stories that are produced from such a trip. It's a syndrome that is further exacerbated by the culture of academia and its constant political jockeying for position: who has the most skill? Who has the most talent? Who is the authority? And, most importantly, who gets the recognition?

In short, we don't truly want to be happy for fellow Francophiles who have gone further in Francophilia than we have, especially if they haven't seriously studied the language or culture (staring at your future French husband's behind every weekend for a year doesn't count - though maybe as "cul-ture" which is another thing entirely).

Elizabeth went as far as marrying in France and perhaps obtaining French citizenship, further than I am likely to go, as much as I dislike admitting it. But, for some reason, I can be happy for Elizabeth. She's just that likeable and her writing style is so un-complicated by not having been a traditional Francophile. In fact, I had a hard time putting her book down long enough to write this review. I enjoyed her book so much that I intend to buy my own copy (the one I read belongs to the Carnegie Library) and make some of her recipes for my own parents and in-laws.

I find her infinitely more likeable than other semi-famous people who have married into French families (Melissa D'Arabian, for one). The tendency toward snobbery that sometimes affects other New York Times writers-turned-authors doesn't seem to have affected Elizabeth. At least she gives credit where it is due, admitting when she has adapted a recipe from another chef (she cites Christian Ecckhout and Gaston Lenôtre, among others) instead of passing each one off as an entirely new recipe.

Perhaps one of the reasons I find Elizabeth so likeable is that we seem to be kindred spirits on more than just an admiration of French food and culture. Elizabeth is a girl after my own heart where it comes to art, Victorian architecture and just general appreciation of historical places and objects:

"I like to think I was born in the wrong century. I'm sure I would have done very well with a hoop skirt, a fan, and a drawing master. (My mother likes to remind me that, more likely, I would have been a very nearsighted scullery maid.) Paris is the perfect city for my kind of mental time travel. There are very few streets that don't bear some small imprint of a grander, more gracious time - the swooping curve of a wrought-iron balcony or a fading stencil above the window of a boulangerie."

I couldn't agree more. (Though I would probably have been either the Irish parlor maid, if I'd been lucky, or, if I'd been unlucky, the Italian wench who wasn't considered trustworthy enough to wash the parlor maid's knickers.)

And, on art historians:

"I believe most art historians are just poor collectors, traveling the world making a secret inventory. I'll take that, and that, and that."

Also true - I have a trove of postcards and the occasional photograph (sans flash, of course!) documenting just what I'd like to have in my dream collection.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with the beginnings of what became its manuscript as well as a baby on the horizon. (The couple's son, Augustin, was born in August 2009 - félicitations!)

And now, I'm off to jealously guard this book and use its recipes as secret weapons at my next party.