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So this is a book that is both an Acknowledged Classic and also really trendy right now, and I had never read it because um.

I kind of hate French food.

Don't get me wrong, there are things about French food I love desperately. When we were in France we spent huge chunks of time eating nothing but bread, cheese, and the occasional piece of fruit and those were some of the best meals of my life, because the French have demonstrably won at both bread and cheese. It's just that every time I go to a French restaurant I order something that looks interesting and it tastes lovely for the first three bites and then it is so rich that either I have to stop right there or it just starts tasting cloying, as though I am sitting there eating a stick of butter. (Oddly enough, when I was a child my mother cooked with no fat at all, on a rather misguided health kick, and so I was sufficiently fat-deprived for doctors to come into it at one point and I have had the experience of simply eating, and enjoying, an entire stick of butter. I knew I was getting enough fat in my diet when that stopped tasting awesome. I can remember what it tasted like, though, and slightly miss it. Maybe it resembles what people who aren't me like about French food?)

But this book was very interesting, though it continued to demonstrate that this is neither my natural idiom of cooking nor of eating and there is no use pretending that it is. The foods I feel most comfortable in a kitchen with are Indian and Chinese and some vernacular English; you want massaman curry, char siu bao or summer pudding and I can do that. You want a boeuf bourguignon and I start fumbling for my instruction manual and fretting. This is why I wanted to read this, because it is not remotely in my comfort zone.

And as a good cookbook should be it is designed to increase that comfort zone. It's really well laid out, very systematic-- each family of preparations has a master recipe, which then has usually about seventeen variations, some of which would taste entirely different, but which use the same basic methods. Get the first one down and you can make all of the others, probably without anyone noticing that you really just know one dish. The really intimidating things are also spelled out plainly, with diagrams, and the places you can cut corners are noted, as well as the places you shouldn't. The book has a way of blithely assuming that a determined person can deal with anything, which is both reassuring and slightly intimidating all on its own-- no, I do not think I am ever going to find a souffle something to approach without some element of trepidation, thank you, no matter how often I am told that with practice I can whip one out.

The technique notes are also good. I may never need to flute a mushroom cap, but it's interesting to know how it's done.

So there were entire huge sections of this which I am never, ever going to want to make (I mean, no one in the house eats veal), but there kept being things I would strongly consider: the aforementioned boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, pot-au-feu, pretty much the entire dessert section. And I do feel vague smugness at already being able to make mayonnaise and Hollandaise and poached eggs and creme anglaise, because it means the variations and changes on them are things I can note down for future use. This really is one of those books which can and does serve as an introduction and overview of an entire way of looking at food, and so inevitably there are some things I would like to swipe, even if I will never be able to figure out why in hell anybody would want to braise lettuce.

Deservedly classic. At some point I should read volume two.


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