What’s not to like about John Baxter’s “The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France”? Part travelogue, part history, part culinary scavenger hunt for some of the most celebrated – yet endangered – ingredients and dishes of a celebrated cuisine, “The Perfect Meal,” will satisfy the appetites of anyone who loves France and food. There are even recipes for some traditional French dishes.
Baxter, a memoirist, film critic, and biographer is a perfect companion on a hunt to discover what makes the ideal classic French meal, which today, he finds, is composed of “lost dishes.” These days, “two thirds of French restaurants admitted to using plats en kit – precooked meals bought canned, frozen, or as boil-in-a-bag portions.”
He sets out, with a little guidance from his friend Boris and support from his wife and daughter to “catch” the ingredients and techniques of the mind-blowing meals of the past:
Was there, somewhere in France, even a vestige of the food culture represented by . . . the menu of 1912? If so, where was it hiding? Might there even be, in some remote corner of the country, an ox waiting to be roasted and the people who knew how to perform this medieval rite?
It would be fun to find out, to create, even in imagination, [this] kind of feast.
His account of his discoveries is liberally seasoned with enough anecdotes and trivia to pique the interest of anyone who loves to eat. Sturgeon, which merit a chapter of their own, for instance are farmed to produce about six tons of caviar a year in France.
Was there any better appetizer than caviar with which to begin my imaginary banquet?
I couldn’t think of one.
Was it worth the fortune it would cost?
I engulfed the delicious mouthful.
He reveals that Proust’s famous nostalgia-inducing Madeleine was, in fact, “a piece of toast.”
He is astonished by the infinite creativity of French chefs, such as the ones who cooked a Christmas menu d during 1870 Prussian siege of Paris that featured proteins from – the zoo. He travels to Provence in search of the perfect bouillabaisse. He is shocked to discover that steak tartare – a French classic – was nothing more than an American innovation. “Steak tartare was just a burger and fries, with the ingredients rearranged to suit French taste.” He makes a perfect batch of onion soup.
In the end, Baxter does, indeed, find his ox roast, which was a deeply affecting experience:
All our lives we’d eaten meat. But that had been in fragments. To see the animal entire made us aware of our kinship. . . What our trivial society has abandoned, and might never retrieve, was what I felt at this moment – awe, and humility, and a profound respect.
“The Perfect Meal” is a book to savor. Bon appetit!
“The Perfect Meal” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.