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.

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