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‘The Gourmands’ Way’ review: Six Americans in Paris who changed the way we eat

Julia Child is one of six American writers

Julia Child is one of six American writers who lived in France and are featured in "The Gourmands' Way." Credit: Magnum Photos / Marc Riboud

THE GOURMANDS’ WAY: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy, by Justin Spring. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 433 pp., $30.

For Americans growing up in the post-World War II affluence of peace and plenty, convenience cooking, supermarket produce and processed foods formed the basis of most meals. Within a generation, however, a new food culture had evolved in the United States — one favoring fresh local ingredients, simple seasonal dishes and imaginative combinations. Chefs such as Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower were standard-bearers, using the grand tradition of French cuisine as a starting point to develop an improvisational approach to food in America. How did this happen?

This is the territory into which Justin Spring ventures with “The Gourmands’ Way,” his engrossing account of six American writers who came to Paris in the 1950s and ’60s and fell in love with what the locals ate and how they went about preparing it. Add the discovery of fine French wines and you see the beginnings of a great infatuation.

Spring has a grand theory — interesting in some of its particulars but not altogether compelling — that these six discovered the essential genius of traditional French cooking (one thinks of astronauts exploring a vast and unknown domain) and brought the good news home to their readers, changing the American palate forever. Well, maybe. The theory doesn’t matter as much as the stories, and Spring’s versions are exhaustive, engaging, at times hilarious.

Spring has chosen three women — Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Alice B. Toklas — and three men — A.J. Liebling, Richard Olney, Alexis Lichine — to advance his thesis; it’s an improbable assemblage for what amounts to a group biography. They all lived in Paris after World War II and wrote about food and wine with varying degrees of intensity. Today, Julia Child is the only one of the six who is a household name, and then chiefly because of Meryl Streep’s star turn playing her in the movie “Julie and Julia” rather than her writing in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” in all its authoritative splendor.

Strangely, only a few examples of these writers’ prose appear in the text. So we are left with the stories of how these six very different writers made their way in the postwar world of French food. Here Spring finds his voice.

What strikes the reader is the essential role that Paris plays for everyone in this narrative, as if its unique and timeless blend of culture, history and sensuality infused everything these American visitors thought about, no matter how varied their individual paths, giving them a grasp not just of French cuisine but of something essential about life itself. What emerges is a vision of Paris as a magical place at a magical time for the French-American connection. How can you not like a book with as simple a declaration as this opening to a section about Paul and Julia Child?

“The kitchen is a sensual place, and few household activities are more gratifying to the home cook than satisfying the gastronomic whims of a lover or spouse.”

What follows is an account of how a hesitant Julia, newly arrived in Paris, threw herself into French cooking with the support of her adored husband. It changed her life entirely, Spring shows us, as she discovered the immense pleasure of mastering a new realm, thereby deepening the bonds of her marriage.

For the serious student of gastronomy, this book is part academic tome, part gossipy treatise, part anthropological monograph of a rarefied little world that no longer exists. Spring does a masterful job of getting all the details straight, but we sometimes stagger beneath their weight. We find notes and footnotes, an endless bibliography, an index. His subjects engage in affairs and betrayals, frustrated passions and brazen business deals, all described in often breathy particulars that it’s hard to care about. But then, frequently in his footnotes, Spring serves up something so unexpected, so full of passion and mischief, so quintessentially French, that the imagination quickens:

“For instance, tête de veau a la vinaigrette calls for splitting a calf’s head, removing the tongue and brains and cooking them apart, soaking the head overnight in cold water, boiling it for two hours, cutting the remaining flesh from the skull, and then arranging it on a platter (along with the sliced brains and tongue) accompanied by a garnish of parsley, with a vinaigrette passed separately.”

That image of the head soaking overnight is hard to shake. When your spouse discovers it unawares, what do you say? Spring doesn’t tell us, but for a gourmand, apparently, it’s all in a day’s work.

Justin Spring will talk about and signs copies of  “The Gourmands’ Way” on Saturday, Nov. 4 at 5 p.m. at BookHampton, 41 Main St., East Hampton; 631-324-4939, bookhampton.com

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