Now that life is absent so many of the things that make it worth living — rock shows, theater, movies, restaurants, dinner parties, opera, candlepin bowling — one learns to take one’s pleasures where one can.
One Covid-era hero, in my house, is Jacques Pépin, the French-born cookbook writer. Shortly after lockdown started, Pépin, who is 84, began issuing short videos on Facebook that explained how to cook really well using the simplest and homeliest things you have in your house.
There he is, preparing vegetable soup from odds and sods in his refrigerator, nonchalantly cutting the dark bits from old vegetables. Making a choucroute garnie, he throws in sliced hot dogs as well as other sausages. His quick chicken breasts resemble an entree that might have been served to Hemingway and Fitzgerald at the Café du Dôme. He’s a king of the tortilla pizza.
With people out of work, and others fearful of joining them, and still others shellshocked and instinctively practicing thrift, Pépin’s recipes speak to this moment. I’ve found many of his videos to be, on certain late insomniac nights, strangely and almost unbearably moving. His age, his battered good looks, his accent, the slight sibilance in his voice, his culinary erudition worn lightly, his finely honed knife skills and the ’70s-era funk of his wood-paneled kitchen: It is somehow a mesmerizing package.
He’s got a new cookbook out now, “Jacques Pépin Quick & Simple,” which is really just an update of one he first published in 1990. It’s very good, if dowdy in places. I’m now so loyal to him that I’ve been cooking from it every night.
Recipe writers, ostensibly preaching frugality, inevitably tell you that whatever ingredient they’re discussing — oil, chocolate, eggs, bread, poultry, vanilla — is the one thing you should never economize on, so that your shopping bill approaches the cost of a weekly speeding ticket. Pépin doesn’t do a lot of that.
About food and money, I keep in mind the rueful lesson of “Babette’s Feast,” the Isak Dinesen story that became an excellent movie: To throw a great dinner party, you’ll first need to win the lottery, and you will be broke again by the end of the night.
If you’ve followed Pépin and his career, his lessons in economy won’t be surprising. In “The Apprentice” (2003), his memoir, he spoke about the scarcity of food in France during World War II, when he was a child. His family water-glassed eggs, pickling them in lime powder and salt, to preserve them. George Orwell wrote about doing this, too, in a diary entry from 1947.
“I actually feel ill when I see food wasted,” Pépin wrote in his memoir. He describes how, when he ran a restaurant with his wife in central New York State, he poked through the garbage every morning to make sure nothing usable had been tossed out.
He and his wife live in a rural town, and he remarks that when his daughter was young “most of the deer meat we enjoyed was road kill that otherwise would have gone to waste; we stewed it in red wine or roasted or grilled it, turning extra meat into sausages.” Did Pépin hit the deer himself? He doesn’t say.
Pépin’s videos, and the recipes in his new book, will put many readers in mind of M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” (1942), also written at a turbulent moment. With wartime rationing, Fisher’s recipes comprised a cuisine of scarcity. Her book concerned itself with “the pressing problem of how to exist the best possible way for the least amount of money.”
Hers is a volume that holds up as a literary document and a culinary one. Her Parisian onion soup recipe, which calls for rye bread and “grated snappy cheese,” remains a thing worth having in your pocket.
Privation has long brought out the best in home cooks. Alice B. Toklas, in “The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book,” wrote that it was in “conditions of rationing and shortage that I learned not only to cook seriously but to buy food in a restricted market and not to take too much time in doing it, since there were so many more important and more amusing things to do.”
Toklas took matters into her own hands, in terms of procuring protein. Her next sentence is the keeper: “It was at this time, then, that murder in the kitchen began.”
In his new cookbook, Pépin often remarks that a recipe is perfect for when friends drop over at the last minute. Remember when friends could drop over?
In her classic cookbook “Vibration Cooking: Or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” (1970), Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor talks about the joy of serving good food, on little, for friends. “I liked to have people come by surprise,” she writes, “and then figure out how to feed six people on two fish and a loaf of bread.”
Clean your plate, many of us were told when young, for others are starving. In Ocean Vuong’s novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” this stricture is put more starkly: “Every grain of rice you leave behind is one maggot you eat in hell.”
Edna O’Brien, in “The Country Girls,” wrote that a blob of Vicks VapoRub placed on the back of the tongue would blot hunger. The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald was so poor at certain moments in her life that she would enter a restaurant with her daughters, eat the bread and olive oil, then pretend to be disgusted by the menu and leave. The literary critic Terry Eagleton suggested that Samuel Beckett’s “starved words, gaunt bodies and sterile landscapes” were informed by memories of the Irish famine.
Shackleton’s crew, poignantly, was forced to eat the sled dogs. In the final months of World War II, people ate most of the cats in Paris, Eugene Walter wrote in his memoir “Milking the Moon.” The writer Ha Jin told me, when I profiled him for The New York Times Magazine in 2000, that when he arrived in America from China he knew we were an affluent nation because squirrels were everywhere and no one was eating them.
Pépin’s foraging does not go so far. But in one of the best scenes in his memoir, he gathers hundreds of wild snails and places them in his hotel room’s bathtub, in a covered basket, before going to dinner with his wife.
When the couple returns, the snails have covered the walls, ceiling and mirror.
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