Everybody Comes to Flicoteaux’s

A good restaurant can become an institution, especially if the menu caters to the weak of spatula or the hungover, destitute student. Cheap greasy spoons can provide the grub that angels fear to concoct — as the shoddy excuse for a stove back at the basement suite might erupt at the first hint of actual cooking. Affordable, reliable, cosy, the dive restaurant is a necessity for down and outers all over the globe.  

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In my first year out on my own, away from my father’s magnificent bolognese and my mother’s heavenly roast potatoes, I survived on a steady diet of bagels, peanut butter, and jam. Whenever I did go out for a bite to eat, I was grateful that downtown Victoria’s longstanding vegeterian hangout, Green Cuisine, was there for me.   The restaurant’s comfortable location, in the heart of tourist central’s beloved Market Square, would lead many to expect high prices; but one of the delicious daily soups with a piece of housemade cornbread was a steal at $2.50, with a hefty pot of black tea for a buck and a half more. The old bamboo furniture had seen better days and the cash register always looked like it had more dents in it than cash, but these little faults became charm in my eyes. That restaurant was all I needed to entertain a friend out of doors, away from my roommate’s incredible mess and my equally disgusting cooking skills. I can’t begin to count the amount of times I strolled downtown and smiled down at the meager change in my pocket, knowing the simple, and delicious, pleasure that awaited me in that frugal haven.  

Places like Green Cuisine live large in the memory of many; but if anyone is capable of doing due diligence to the sordid bastion of the restaurant-dive, it is Honore de Balzac. The great French writer struggled with crippling debt his entire life — he was an artist of loans and interest, never lacking an exorbitant amount of canvas to work with. He was therefore no stranger to the world of the poor supper.  

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Eating out in restaurants was a social necessity in nineteenth-century France — your presence at the communal cafe in the later hours of the day determined your commitment to a set of ideals, a political party, or whatever peer group you aspired to join. Balzac was intimate with the poor writer’s club, the kind of fraternity that was almost more of a curse than a blessing. In Lost Illusions, one of Balzac’s grandest works, the author paints a masterful portrait of food’s central importance to a burgeoning community of young, poorly-fed minds.

The name of Flicoteaux is engraved on many memories. Few indeed were the students who lived in the Latin Quarter during the last twelve years of the Restoration and did not frequent that temple sacred to hunger and impecuniosity. There a dinner of three courses, with a quarter bottle of wine or a bottle of beer, could be had for eighteen sous; or for twenty-two sous the quarter bottle becomes a bottle. Flicoteaux, that friend of youth, would beyond a doubt have amassed a colossal fortune but for a line on his bill of fare, a line which rival establishments are wont to print in capital letters, thus–BREAD AT DISCRETION, which, being interpreted, should read “indiscretion.”  

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Flicoteaux has been nursing-father to many an illustrious name. Verily, the heart of more than one great man ought to wax warm with innumerable recollections of inexpressible enjoyment at the sight of the small, square window panes that look upon the Place de la Sorbonne, and the Rue Neuve-de-Richelieu. Flicoteaux II. and Flicoteaux III. respected the old exterior, maintaining the dingy hue and general air of a respectable, old-established house, showing thereby the depth of their contempt for the charlatanism of the shop-front, the kind of advertisement which feasts the eyes at the expense of the stomach, to which your modern restaurant almost always has recourse. Here you beheld no piles of straw-stuffed game never destined to make the acquaintance of the spit, no fantastical fish to justify mountebank’s remark, “I saw a fine carp to-day; I expect to buy it this day week.” Instead of the prime vegetables more fittingly described by the word primeval, artfully displayed in the window for the delectation of the military man and his fellow country-woman the nursemaid, honest Flicoteaux exhibited full salad-bowls adorned with many a rivet, or pyramids of stewed prunes to rejoice the sight of the customer, and assure him that the word “dessert,” with which other handbills made too free, was in this case no charter to hoodwink the public. Loaves of six pounds’ weight, cut in four quarters, made good the promise of “bread at discretion.” Such was the plenty of the establishment, that Moliere would have celebrated it if it had been in existence in his day, so comically appropriate is the name.

Flicoteaux still subsists; so long as students are minded to live, Flicoteaux will make a living. You feed there, neither more nor less; and you feed as you work, with morose or cheerful industry, according to the circumstances and the temperament.
-Lost Illusions, Part Two, Chapter Two, 1837

Flicoteaux has finally left the streets of Paris, but all over the world, there are frugal, thoughtful restauranteurs willing to take his place. Thanks goodness.

Post-War Foodie: Passion Over Plenty

B.R. Myers’ article for the March, 2011 issue of the Atlantic, “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” carries out a noble inquisition against modern food writers. Pop star blowhards are all around us, Myers warns, and they’re writing about food — or rather, the gluttonous side of that timeless topic. Writers like Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan may be eating free range or organic, but the excessive experience they project onto quality eating is nauseating, says Myers.

I have to agree. In the kitchen, I am my father’s son: born in 1945, my old man is a product of war rationing. Some of his true cooking grit has rubbed off on me — most notably his love for Edouard de Pomiane.

Edouard knows how to keep it simple. A physician (de Pomiane lectured at the Institut Pasteur in Paris) with a hate-on for aristocratic French cooking practices, he became the cook celebre of post-war France: his weekly radio show told people living under rationing and an exhausting work schedule (that included an unprecedented number of new mouths to feed for war-time couples) how to throw a few nourishing ingredients together for the maximum effect. And while Cooking in Ten Minutes certainly restricts itself to recipes of simplicity suitable to the stated time limit — noodles with gravy, minute steak, six pancakes — the prose that layers the recipes and different chapters is of the highest quality. Conversational in tone, de Pomiane hooks you directly, inspiring you to turn your tiny kitchenette into a palatial oasis while you throw a pot of water on the element — you will need it no matter what, the master instructs, and while it heats up, you can pause for a breath.

The language in Cooking in Ten Minutes is very rich indeed, although the food it describes is at times quite plain. Through de Pomiane’s direction, there’s more magic to be seen in the ritual and process of eating, rather than the trumped up qualities and endangered meats (like force-fed songbirds) that Myers’ foodies deal in. Any student or minimum wage earner can learn a lot from de Pomiane.

But the post-war gastronomic fecundity doesn’t end there. Journalist Ann Rogers’ delightful A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others delves into the art of group meals on the cheap. While de Pomiane focusses on quick bites for variable company, most of Rogers’ fantastic one pots and carb-heavy dishes entail the gathering of the tribe. She describes the unfailing constants of the poor larder: butter, bread, and wine; but the recipes in her book are meant for the exorcism of collective poverty/ scarcity. There’s always the promise of success around the corner in Rogers’ culinary discussions, as if the promise of a meal is the promise of the world (whenever wonderful friends are in tow, that is.)

Finally, the heavyweight Elizabeth David. It sounds strange doesn’t it? David is known for revolutionizing British kitchens with her introduction of French, Italian, and Mediterannean cuisine to the average Briton. Her French Country Cooking is cited by the Guardian as one of the hundred most important English language works written by a woman. But David lived through the post-war years as a writer, not a countess, and her recipes cater to her food stamp fellows. She has written two beautiful essays on de Pomiane and how much can be learned from the man’s wit and wisdom, and her dedication to ten-minute cooking pops up throughout her work. David plays both hands in her books: she glorifies both the high and the low ends of the culinary spectrum; but the option to make much out of little is always there, and I treasure her little recipes that can bring the French countryside or a Greek fishing village to my table for ten dollars or less.

I don’t know what these three writers would say about the current excessive North American food culture. Horror has to factor into it. It does for me. After a long walk, my father always knew how to throw a few simple ingredients together to hit the right notes, no matter how slim the pickings might have been. That is the cooking ritual that I want to embrace as I continue to learn new recipes, evolve my kitchen technique and grow as a cook. It’s too much to ask that elitist gastronomes should abandon their gluttony and pretenses (that was true of de Pomiane’s time, just as it is now); but it is comforting to know that history offers up examples of frugal cooking for those with the spirit, but not the pocket change, to make wonderful food at home.

March Madness Menu

I was sitting in the bunker of CFUV’s fundraising inner sanctum yesterday, trying to keep up with the rapid phone calls and happy visitors that make our yearly Fundrive such a pleasure, when our program director jumped on the air. Johnnie Regalado’s show, Music to Make Dinner By, is always a treat — but yesterday, the sound of “Peaches” by The Stranglers hit me in an off place, causing me to break into a cold sweat. All the food-related songs that interspersed Johnnie’s expert fundraising pitches reminded me that I had yet to sit down and start a new round of blog posts for March.

It’s all about food this month! I was considering pouring some thought into religion. Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists has been a perfect Theology 100 for me, showing off some of the bright sparks in the darkness that is organized religion. But what with the twenty-four hour Pope alert going on the last few weeks, I thought it would be interesting to dedicate some time to something more essential than a lot of cloth and temples. Food is one of the essential elements of a community. What would early Christian meetings have been without bread to break and wine to drink? Feasting is an essential part of bringing people together, wherever you are in the world. I want to celebrate that a little on My Pet Lobster.

At the beginning of March, I attended the Fernwood University lecture on the history of food in Victoria. Dr. Robert Griffin talked about the many twisting trends of gold rush grocers and cannery crazies that have graced the shores of our little island. It struck me as a brilliant way of understanding a community, something I’m sure anthropologists and archaeologists understand perfectly. Victorians have lived in an import-heavy community since the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Fort Victoria. The home gardening and local food movements that have cropped up here on the rock reflect a history of self-reliance that I want to touch on a little in the coming weeks. Food is very likely the ultimate reason for young twenty-somethings like myself to develop a level of self-sufficiency.

One precautionary note: I am not a culinary expert. My position in my immediate family is that of the black chef; while my mother, father, and sister all concoct beautiful dishes and deserts, I take my joy from the simple meals of bolognese, rice and beans, and whatever else I can scrounge. I hope some day to look into my larder and realize that I’ve magically bridged the gap between amateur and guru, but for now, I keep things simple. So, the posts to come may seem naive to more initiated cooks — or even veteran Food Network viewers — but I’ll make my humble vision of cuisine enjoyable, if not entirely groundbreaking.