Toujours Paris

A writer returns to the city of her childhood through books old and new.

The day I moved to Paris, I wept. I was 11 years old and full of preteen angst. My new bedroom, with its elegant moldings and deep marble fireplace, held for me none of the comfort of my old bedroom in New York City, which I’d painted a hideous lilac and covered with horse posters. I found no solace, either, in the fact that my new room had once belonged to the writer George Sand. My parents were mystified by my distress but had the good sense to suggest a walk down our new street, the Rue du Cherche-Midi, to the legendary Boulangerie Poilane. Near the cash register, I noticed a basket of butter cookies; the cashier said rather encouragingly, “Je vous en prie, Mademoiselle” (“Go ahead, Miss”). So I took one. It was a simple cookie—just a bite of pure French butter with a hint of sugar and a slightly sandy crunch—but no less a revelation for that. Delicate but sturdy, with almost burnt edges: a cookie with no pretensions, but made by a master. In a nice ironic twist, the cookies were called punitions–punishments. My homesickness ended with my very first bite.

These many years later, I return to Paris as often as possible, which is not nearly often enough, and in between make do by reading and cooking my way back. You could fill several libraries with the versions of the city that various writers have conjured over the years; the Paris books I consistently pull off the shelf don’t hew to any particular era or genre. But if each of the authors reveals a yearning for this place as wholly personal as my own, we all agree that it is food, or the recollection of it, that transports us there most reliably.

A few of these are well-thumbed cookbooks that I keep wedged on the windowsill of my Brooklyn kitchen. To begin with, there is Patricia Wells’s The Paris Cookbook, which translates the glorious food of the city’s best restaurants and shops into recipes that never fail me. If my hankering for Paris is particularly consuming, I might start dinner with the cream of watercress soup I first ate more than a dozen years ago at the venerable restaurant Taillevent, near the Arc de Triomphe; follow it with chef Jean-Guy Lousteau’s “Basque-spiced” (that is, mustard, thyme, dried chiles, and garlic) leg of lamb, created for the tiny bistro Au Bascou in the Marais; and finish with a fresh lemon tart from the Bonbonniere de Buci, a patisserie I loved dearly on one of the Left Bank’s liveliest market streets. Such a cure for homesickness elicits only more, of course, and so, for reassurance, I reach for Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets. It includes many of my favorite Parisian desserts—my beloved punitions from Poilane; the brown-butter financiers that master baker Jean-Luc Poujauran made famous at his eponymous bakery; and the sublime chocolate tart created by Robert Linxe, founder of La Maison du Chocolat.

But of all my cookbooks, the one I revisit most frequently is a little-known volume called Parisian Home Cooking by Michael Roberts, the late, French-trained California chef renowned for his indulgent and creative dishes. Cramped kitchens and temperamental ovens are facts of life in Paris, and the city’s home cooking reflects a marriage of time-honored tradition and last-minute improvisation. Marketing is a daily event. Planning is on the go. Cheese and bread will round out the meal, and a patisserie-bought fruit tart will bring it to a close. Roberts might put a whole chicken in the oven with some shallots and garlic and then make a sauce in the same pot with wine and cream; or he might coddle a steak for two minutes in a skillet with a generous quantity of butter and produce a quick pan sauce with wine, vinegar, and mustard; or he might simply poach a few eggs in a saucepan of tarragon-infused cream. Simple fare, but never austere.

Still, there are times when a perfect recipe, a great meal even, simply will not satiate my longing. That is when I reach for A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. Wickedly witty, loving, and acutely perceptive, this is a book that lends itself to savoring; a page here or there, read on the fly, is as filling as the feasts Liebling so generously recounts. Written in the 1960s, it details a year of formidable “feeding”—as Liebling dubbed his particular style of voracious eating—in the 1920s, when the author was 22, a student, and spending what little money he had in the cafes of the Latin Quarter. “It is from this weighing of delights against their cost,” he insists, “that the student eater (particularly if he is a student at the University of Paris) erects the scale of values that will serve him until he dies or has to reside in the Middle West for a long period.” A “good but simple” restaurant on the Left Bank is the “reference room” in which Liebling develops his critical acumen, the Closerie des Lilas, where he sips vermouth cassis with his boxing partners, and the cafes of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, where he finds female companions. There are tips here for the aspiring feeder—Liebling suggests, for example, seeking out restaurants in which you see “priests eating with priests, or sporting girls with sporting girls,” as those are “two classes of people who like to eat well and get their money’s worth.” But this is really a coming-of-age story, with food in the customary role of sex, restaurants offering the enticements of a brothel, and Paris as, well, Paris—a city that encompasses all varieties of appetites.

For something a little less rich but no less satisfying, I’ll reach for Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet and turn immediately to the essays by Joseph Wechsberg. A Gourmet magazine correspondent from the end of the 1940s until the beginning of the 1980s, Wechsberg was a thinker and an observer; he had an intimate knowledge of the city and its habitudes. Of a waiter in a favorite bistro Wechsberg writes, “He nodded his approval when I kept my knife and fork after the hors d’oeuvre, and for the first time he gave me a glance. He saw that I knew the rules.” And his appreciation for the great Parisian chefs was such that at the legendary La Tour d’Argent, he reserves some of his most loving prose for a simple salad “that shows what these artists in the kitchen do with a few fine lettuce leaves, a very light vinaigrette dressing, thinly sliced mushrooms, and cut boiled potatoes, which take the vinegar out of the vinaigrette and make it mild and soft and wonderful.” There are superb essays on Paris, too, in Wechsberg’s memoir Blue Trout and Black Truffles and in the collection Trifles Make Perfection, both of which have been reprinted in paperback in the past ten years—a very good thing, because his writings mightily deserve rediscovery.

All of these are books I’ve returned to repeatedly over the years, but since Paris is probably the most obsessively documented of all cities, I am also occasionally presented with a new and arresting view. I’ve lately taken to poring over the photographs by Christian Sarramon in the lavish coffee-table book Paris Patisseries, among the sexiest I’ve seen. One particular image of a cheesecake, a glistening white dome topped with a single dark raspberry made by pastry chef Claire Damon, almost makes one turn away for decorum’s sake. “Ispahan,” an utterly romantic structure of rose, raspberry, and litchi created at the trendy patisserie Pierre Herme, has a fleeting, fragile beauty that should inspire a line of lingerie if not a book of sonnets. But it’s the last photograph in the book that makes me want to reach for a spoon: a cloud of chantilly cream with a dusting of hazelnut praline shards presented in a stemmed metal dish, from Berthillon, maker of the best ice cream in Paris.

Berthillon steadfastly refuses to reveal its recipes, but I can happily make do with the one for espresso-caramel ice cream in David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris. Lebovitz was a pastry chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, and this, his memoir of life as an expatriate in Paris, is punctuated by excellent recipes—for fromage blanc souffle, cinnamon meringue, and bacon and blue cheese cake, to name a few favorites. And while I find myself smiling at his gripes and quips about Parisians, there’s little room in my nostalgia for such complaints. There is, however, always room for his chocolate mousse laced with floral, spicy Chartreuse liqueur.

But this afternoon, here in Brooklyn, I will sit with my six-year-old son, Garrick, in our garden, looking at his favorite Paris book: Paris From Above, photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial portrait of the city. With my mouth already beginning to water, I’ll challenge him to find Boulangerie Poilane, on the street of my childhood, and reward him with a punition, still warm from our own oven. He is finding his way to Paris already.

See the recipe for Cream of Watercress Soup »

A Paris Reading List

The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells (HarperCollins, 2001)

Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan (Broadway Books, 2002)

Parisian Home Cooking by Michael Roberts (William Morrow, 1999)

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling (Simon and Schuster, 1962)

Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet ed., Ruth Reichl (Modern Library, 2004)

Blue Trout and Black Truffles by Joseph Wechsberg (Knopf, 1954)

Trifles Make Perfection by Joseph Wechsberg (David R. Godine, 1999)

Paris Patisseries by Christian Sarramon (Flammarion, 2010)

The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz (Broadway Books, 2009)

Paris from Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (Chene, 2010)