Sunday, May 6, 2012

My i-Pod: Larousse Gastronomique

As a college sophomore I lived
with the French language ver-
sion of the Larousse Gastron-
omique, on extended loan from
the university library. For
those who do not know the Lar-
ousse, it is the compendious
database of the cuisines of
France, and it has the power
to transform the borough of
Manhattan into the proximate,
crucial laboratory of inves-
tigation that one's dazzled
browsings in its entries re-

In the 60 days since undergoing a substantial surgery at the university down the road, I have consulted my i-Pod no more than once or twice. It is a convenient cistern of stored pleasures, but it is not a patch on the Larousse. The i-Pod's genius for isolation and daydreams in the familiar is enormously surpassed by the book's capacity to inspire and to restore through the common mechanism of hunger. Yes, their assumptions are the same: One can turn without chronology to anything one wants, to revive memory and haul it forth by witty indexing. But the one expects renewal and the other supports retreat. I cannot re-orchestrate Il Quattro Stagioni, but at home I can and must reconstitute my marmite Dieppoise.

I'd take myself, alone, in those early years, to educate my palate in some parity with the mind-and-body training I pursued then with my peers. Oh, I made many mistakes. I remember stepping into an infa-mously marvelous restaurant in the East 60s in my earnest college tweeds on my 19th birthday, and being conducted as the bambino to an unobtrusive table around the back. But I remember the classic meunière I tried that day as if I prepared it just now. I've heard Blowin' in the Wind 5,000 times, and I could not recite two verses of it here. When do you forget the resonance of a lemon, in a finishing clarified butter?

And now the new Larousse is hip, can you stand it, to the preparations and styles of our time; and I read it in English, because I haven't lived with French since boyhood. The editors haven't abandoned the classics, they've simply expanded the thing to a truly prodigious dimension for one lap to bear. Yet there never was anything mistaken in the text that lasted some 70 years since its inception; how do you reform the profile of a prize of supple seaflesh if it's destined for the kiss of a Meursault? If you have no deference to the fish's maritime origin, you may certainly resort to grapeseed oil and serve yourself with an up-the-Loire Vouvray. But this doesn't just re-orchstrate the music, it changes its tempo, materially; and I do believe in the integrity of the natural palate length of the under-lying ingredient. Why enjoy less?

At a time when the concept of terroir in viticulture is finally making conservatives of us all, when it comes to varietal typicity in wine, the Larousse has always been there in its respect for provinciality in cuisine. It isn't so much that a fish has to be prepared one of only 14 different ways, approximately, barring vanity's intervention with some shibboleth of antiquity. It's that the place where it comes from can be trusted to have learned how to handle it. I will always prefer to go to that place, than to haul the beast to mine, which I know already, rather well. Why is my i-Pod in such constant disuse? Because its contents lose their place somewhere in there.

Aude Mantoux, editor
Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique
Larousse, 2007©
Hamlyn [English edition], 2009©

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