Books & Cookbooks

Book Update, Part I: The Book Deal

Book Update

Since I officially announced a few weeks ago that there was a C&Z book in the works, I have received quite a few emails asking me for more details. I would hate to spoil the surprise, but I can share a few facts: it will be a book with stories and recipes, a book that you can cook from but also read, curled up on the couch with a mug of tea (or cocoa, as you prefer). I’ve always been much more attracted to cookbooks in which the author’s voice resonates clearly and warmly, giving you a sense of who he/she is, where he/she is coming from, and what gets him/her into the kitchen to play. I believe that this is what most readers love about food blogs, and this is the spirit in which I am writing my book. My publisher is Broadway Books, a division of Random House, the manuscript is due in five months, and the book can be expected to hit the bookshelves in the spring of 2007.

This is the first book I write (not the first book I attempt to write though: like many kids with spectacles and imagination, I wrote many a first chapter for a variety of abandoned novels, mostly speculative fiction or the now very trendy autofiction [self-fiction], including one written with my childhood friend Emilie — a very fun way to make bad things happen to the kids you don’t like at school), and as a first-time book writer, I am literally making it up as I go, exploring and trying to find my way around, following my instincts and discovering the unique set of challenges and rewards that happen to be hiding under this rock I picked up.

The process of writing a book (and getting it published) is a mysterious and fascinating one. It has many folds and crevices, and the journey is no doubt very different from one writer to the next, but I thought I would share the landscapes I am riding through, the stops and stations and buffet cars, to offer my humble experience and let you catch a glimpse backstage. I am personally ever-hungry for accounts of other author’s creative process, so whether you are just curious or have an aspiration to write yourself, I hope this will answer some of your questions.

But first things first: how did the book deal land on my doorstep?

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Modern Culinary Art

L'Art Culinaire Moderne

I have written about my grandmother on a few occasions in the past. She is my father’s mother and she lives not too far from me, which allows me to visit and bask in the glow of her tenderness and her general wisdom on all things life.

In the past few years, my ever-growing passion for food and cooking have definitely brought us closer: as a devoted cook herself, I can see how happy she is that a grandchild of hers would share that interest and be delighted to converse endlessly about tips and recipes and tricks of the trade.

Since she doesn’t speak English and has never used a computer — much less been on the Internet — it is somewhat difficult to explain what C&Z is, but I try (clippings help), she gets the general idea, and she’s very eager to help. Most recently, she decided to entrust me with one of her cooking bibles called L’Art Culinaire Moderne written by Henri-Paul Pellaprat, which she acquired in late 1946 as her handwritten ex-libris attests.

I am fascinated by vintage cookbooks and this one is no exception. With more than 700 pages, 3,500 recipes and 270 pages of illustrations, the author’s ambition is to establish the standards of la bonne table française et étrangère — French and foreign cuisine — for the use of the home cook (needless to say, this is a woman we’re talking about here).

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Mary Frances! I’ve heard so much about you!

MFK

I had been told wonderful things about MFK Fisher (1908-1992, full name Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher), but had never had a chance to read the work of the brightest shining light in American food writing. I had been looking for her books in the English-language bookstores I frequent, but they never seemed to have them in stock and since I wasn’t sure which one I wanted, I didn’t wish to have them ordered for me.

Just last week though, I stopped by Galignani on the rue de Rivoli, went straight to the section I had been pointed to on a previous visit, and with a jolt of excitement discovered a selection of five. There was just one copy of each so I pulled them all out from the shelf, lest another customer snidely took one before I had time to examine each of them properly.

After an intense session of picking up, leafing through, putting down and picking up again, the finalists were announced: The Gastronomical Me (food memories from 1912 to 1941, from California to Mexico by way of Dijon) and An Alphabet for Gourmets, which compiles 26 of her essays and instantly won me over with the first chapter I read standing in the store: “A is for dining Alone”.

Unable to decide between the two, I did what any sensible book lover would do and bought both, even though the price tags very clearly stated: “1 arm + 1 leg”. (The cost of imported books in Paris is one of my pet peeves, so I suggest we not go there.) Now I can’t wait to finish the book I’m currently reading and immerse myself into Mary Frances’ world — but one problem remains: which one will I start with?

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The Belly of Paris

Le Ventre de Paris

Le Ventre de Paris, translated into The Belly of Paris, is a novel written by Emile Zola in 1873. It is the third of the twenty novels of his naturalist cycle of books, Les Rougon Macquart. The series is about two branches of a large family and their members — the rich and powerful Rougon, and the poor and miserable Macquart — whose lives intertwine from the middle of the 18th to the late 19th century.

Each novel focuses on certain nodes of the family tree, and is the occasion to cast a sharp and crude light on the different social layers, situations and worlds of that time : miners, farmers, department stores employees, priests, financial magnates, small-town inhabitants, workers, prostitutes, artists, doctors, soldiers…

In this one, Zola takes a dive into the fascinating universe of the Paris food market, Les Halles. Since the 12th century, this area in the center of Paris has been devoted to food vendors of all kinds, selling a vast profusion of goods, coming in fresh every morning. Huge halls of iron and glass, Les Pavillons Baltard, were constructed in the 1850’s to organize the different markets, and each street around the pavilions was specialized in a type of product. In 1969 however, the area had become too small to accommodate all the activity, and the traffic was terrible : Les Halles were moved to Rungis, in the South of Paris, and the beautiful Pavillons Baltard were torn down, to the scandalized clamor of the Parisians. The only remnants of that era are some buildings and restaurants, and the presence of many cooking apparel stores, E. Dehillerin in particular.

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