They came, they saw, they ate

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Thursday October 5, 2017
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Heads up for a lively new book that will appeal to food-lovers and Francophiles. "The Gourmands' Way - Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy" by Justin Spring (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) publishes on Oct. 10.

Spring is the author of "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward," a National Book Award finalist about a great gay figure; and monographs on gay artists Andy Warhol and Paul Cadmus. Only two of the six gourmands profiled in this new volume were part of the LGBT community, and one of those was closeted. But you'd have to say the other was a major out lesbian.

The subjects of these prose portraits are both well-known and perhaps a bit obscure. They are: A.J. Liebling, reporter and The New Yorker war correspondent who entered Paris with Allied forces in 1944; Julia Child, whose "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and subsequent TV career brought French cuisine home to Americans; Alice B. Toklas, partner to celebrated lesbian author Gertrude Stein and author of the famous "Alice B. Toklas Cookbook"; Alexis Lichine, wine merchant and author of "Wines of France"; M.F.K. Fisher, author whose books blended food, travel writing and memoir; and Richard Olney, gay expert on French cuisine who inspired chefs Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower. Let's take them one at a time.

Liebling is credited with "liberating" the Parisian restaurant the Closerie des Lilas on the day the city returned to French control, the first American to set foot in the place since Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940. He also found an underground Nazi trove of Cointreau, Benedictine and Champagne, and you better believe he "liberated" that.

Lichine became the biggest importer of French wines to America, ensuring that the New World would develop a taste for the fruit of the grape. He touted the reputation of wine as "the highest expression of nature," and we'll drink to that!

After Stein's death, Toklas was at loose ends and, not incidentally, in precarious finances, as she didn't just inherit Stein's great art collection as a hetero spouse would. Her new project seemed a natural: "Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me," she wrote. "When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein." Hers contained a famous recipe for hash brownies.

"Like her cat," we learn, Child "loved feasting on a wide variety of little birds." Spring describes a ballottine of veal that Child took days to prepare, "stuffing it with a Cognac-and-Madeira-scented forcemeat of ground veal, finely chopped mushrooms, foie gras, and blanched chard leaves, and serving it with an unctuous Madeira-truffle sauce." She served it to "a fleeting, wren-like person so small that her hat hid her face until she looked up and you noticed that it was Alice B. Toklas."

With his partner the Jewish-American bear Elliott Stein, discreetly gay Olney's coterie included poets John Ashbery and W.H. Auden, author Charles Henri Ford, painter Pavel Tchelitchev, aesthete Harold Acton, poet James Merrill, and author James Baldwin. Not bad for an Iowa farmboy! Here's a night out with Baldwin: "The usual routine was Cafe de Flore until closing at 1 a.m., La Reine Blanche, which closed at 4, and La Pergola, which closed at 6. If one wanted a last drink (which Jimmy Baldwin always did), the Royale opened at 6."

We skipped M.F.K. Fisher. As for Alice's magic brownies, they were from artist Brion Gysin's recipe, and Toklas "assumed that its last ingredient, 'canibus [sic] sativa,' was an obscure North African herb." Obscure no more!

We'll close with a passage from the delicious Time magazine review of Alice's cookbook. "In Palma de Mallorca, a French cook almost started a riot in the marketplace by showing Alice how to smother pigeons (the cook said it made them fuller and tastier). The information came in handy when Alice fixed some braised pigeons on croutons for Gertrude, using six 'sweet young corpses' choked by her own hands." That's amour!