White Truffles in Winter
As N.M. Kelby writes in her afterword to WHITE TRUFFLES IN WINTER, her novel is "based on the bones of facts." Although the main characters are actual historical figures, only the broadest outlines of famed chef August Escoffier's life are known. But perhaps that makes her job as a novelist that much more fun, as she uses her own imagination to fill in the numerous gaps in his official biography.
"Kelby's writing is languid and lush throughout....but her imaginative approach to this man's life and loves...makes reading WHITE TRUFFLES IN WINTER as satisfying as a five-course feast."
Escoffier (1846-1935) was responsible for a number of innovations and ideas that seem commonplace in our current foodie culture. His reconfiguration of the restaurant kitchen --- with a number of cooks each responsible for an element on the plate, overseen by a head chef --- is still largely used in restaurant kitchens today. In Kelby's novel, Escoffier is credited with sagely developing the "prix fixe menu" so that his customers at the Savoy Hotel in London wouldn't feel intimidated by having to order complicated dishes with French names a la carte. Escoffier's inventiveness and charisma was responsible, in large part, for the elevation of a restaurant cook to a chef, with greater responsibilities and the opportunity --- in the right time and place --- for genuine fame. In the broadest terms, Escoffier could be considered the forerunner of today's celebrity chefs, like Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain.
Although these facets of Escoffier's career will be of interest to any amateur chef or food historian, Kelby's primary focus is on the man's private life, specifically his long marriage to the surprisingly independent poet Delphine Daffis and his lifelong love affair with actress and artist Sarah Bernhardt. As the novel opens, Delphine --- who, like Escoffier himself, is aging and quite ill --- is desperate to have her husband finally name a dish for her. He has already named dishes for "kings, queens, emperors, dukes, duchesses, opera singers, cardinals, diplomats, clowns…actresses (including so many for that Sarah Bernhardt that Delphine had lost count)," but none for his long-suffering wife. She implores their new cook, Sabine (who bears a striking resemblance to Bernhardt and whose humble French peasant cooking is at odds with Escoffier's more elevated tastes), to encourage Escoffier in this direction, but Escoffier's mind is focused on episodes from his past, particularly those involving Bernhardt herself.
The scenes with Bernhardt inevitably involve titillating uses of food on naked skin, but the fact of the matter is that Kelby's descriptions of food would be mouthwatering regardless of any erotic subtext: "small briny oysters from Corsica were nestled into a bed of pink rock salt; white asparagus were trimmed and served alongside a smoked duck salad; cream-fed pork was braised with pears and apples, and new potatoes were browned in duck fat and dusted with late summer truffles." It's probably a good idea to read this book on a full stomach.
Kelby's writing is languid and lush throughout (perhaps verging a bit on purple prose, or at least a relentless earnestness that can grow a bit tiresome), but her imaginative approach to this man's life and loves --- not to mention the fantastic meals he created --- makes reading WHITE TRUFFLES IN WINTER as satisfying as a five-course feast.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 8, 2011