Last year I bought a book that I had no obvious need for. That book is A Guide to Modern Cookery by Auguste Escoffier. It’s not that the lack of need stems from my not cooking, though in recent months, I’ve cooked much less due to work commitments. The lack of ‘need’, if seen instead as a ‘want’, is a desire to leaf through something with neither purpose nor commitment.
I could do this with any number of contemporary cookbooks. But my Escoffier is a 1951 reprint of the original 1907 edition, whose translation into English from the original edition conjures up the height of French cuisine in 1903. There’s therefore very little I’d even attempt to cook from this guide. Many recipes are elaborate, expensive, and decorative in a way that befitted hotel menus for the well heeled. Few of them are what you’d be able to rustle up after a day at work. And being French, the book is also crammed with meat and dairy, of which I consume little.
Yet there’s so much of interest here. There’s the strange terminology such as ‘roundels’ and ‘tournedos’. There’s the over-abundance of eggs. English dishes, surprisingly, are treated kindly (though, even more surprisingly, the recipe for chipped potatoes is simply wrong wrong wrong). This can even be implicit. The Russet, a very English apple, for example, appears unannounced as such in several recipes as the best choice. And then there’s the language. ‘Besprinkle with grated parmesan’ says the recipe for Mousselines de Volaille a la Sicilienne. ‘Dish them in the form of a crown’ says the recipe for Tournedos Coligny.
The above are only some reasons to read the book. What makes it indulgent is that the only point I have in reading any of it is in enjoying this description of a world in whose place and time I don’t belong. As concrete as that world’s cookery is, this book both makes me aware of it while keeping it at a distance through the imagination.