To Go Back Forever

Of all the books I repeatedly bring to bed, there’s one that gets L giggling more than any other: When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir by Madeleine Kamman. It’s hard to blame L—there is something comical about that title, with its echoes of “When Worlds Collide,” or “When Titans Clash.” The effect is doubly comical in light of the books I used to read in bed, back before cooking took over my life: big novels, for the most part, written by Big Guy writers like Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford.

But there’s a reason Kamman’s book has captivated me so, and it’s not the recipes, which I have yet to try. I first came to the book in my food-scholar peregrinations the same way I would come by sources while getting a doctorate in English. The idea, more or less, was that you started with fairly general sources and then you began reading through the sources mentioned in all the bibliographies and footnotes. Then you repeated the trick. For example: After cooking from Alice Waters for years, I decided to work backward, learning what I could from the books and cooks Alice seemed to consider essential. Lulu Peyraud clearly loomed large for Alice, so I got cracking on Lulu’s Provençal Table; and then, as I became increasingly entranced by that book, I noticed a line in its introduction, by John Thorne, calling the Lulu book “the first cookbook since Madeleine Kamman’s classic When French Women Cook to capture what goes on in a real French kitchen.” Within days, UPS was delivering the Kamman book to my door. But I found something more interesting than a cookbook. I found a highly idiosyncratic blend of recipe and remembrance—unusual most of all for the sheer beauty of the latter.

I was reminded of this again last night, when I put down the latest lunacy I’m reading for my other work (a history of the martial arts), picked up Kamman, and struck an amazing passage. Kamman spent her childhood in France, and she wrote this book as an adult looking back, having had great culinary success in the United States. And the scene that affected me so was at the beginning of a description of Savoie. She arrives in the Alps in late 1939 after a long train ride “that would protect me and many of my young companions from the madness of war,” and right away you know a master is at work. It’s very hard to conjure the pain of history in this way, without distracting from a tale. But here’s the part that brought me to full attention: “The happiness of those few months was to make the valleys and mountains around Annecy the paradise of my life, the elected homeland of my heart, the place where, to this day, I strive to go back for emotional replenishment, where I want to go back forever.”

Perhaps because my own heart responds to landscape in this very way, I felt an anguished empathy when I first read those lines. Safely hidden from the war, and basking in that alpine beauty, she’d seen something she would never forget.

Flipping to the back of the book, gripped by curiosity, I found the author bio and skimmed it, hoping to learn something very specific. The first part was all about Kamman’s early years in France and then her years at the Modern Gourmet restaurant in Massachusetts. Next were enumerations of TV shows and other books. But like a burst of sunlight came the final line, the line confirming that my newfound friend—this long-ago author I barely even knew, and only through her writing—had followed through on the authentic yearning expressed in the quote above. “Ms. Kamman,” the bio explained, “is a member of many food and wine societies, including the Escoffier Society and the American Culinary Federation. She currently operates a cooking school in Annecy, France.”

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