A HOME-STYLE TASTE OF PARIS: Review of PARISIAN HOME COOKING by Michael Roberts

“Cooking at home?” Michael Roberts wonders. “It’s not the first thought that comes to mind when one thinks of Paris.” His cookbook, Parisian Home Cooking: Conversations, Recipes, and Tips from the Cooks and Food Merchants of Paris, champions the everyday meals made in a city more often celebrated for its glamour and elegance. Many of the recipes are for simple family dishes, some of them served so often for so many generations, they don’t stand out in their significance—except to an outsider.

Roberts is an American. He “earned a Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnel from École Supérieure de Cuisine Jean-Ferrandi.” He knows French cooking, but realizes “I had learned to cook but not to nourish.”

Roberts seems less excited about haute cuisine than in taking us down cobbled streets and up winding staircases into the tiny, modest, cluttered kitchens of friends (some of whom are professional chefs), all of whom can prepare, and share, at least one great dish. “[W]hen someone makes a big deal over something, plans their menu around a certain dish, you know to expect something special, usually something in sauce—for after all, what is French cooking if there’s no sauce?”

What is the criteria for greatness here? “You start with fine ingredients. You cook things in a way that brings out the flavors. No need to complicate a recipe with many ingredients, because they only end up fighting each other.”

The book is divided into courses: Small Plates; Small Dishes; Second Courses; Side Dishes; Desserts. Roberts confesses that he “isn’t much of a sweets person,” and indeed, “Les Desserts” is the most uninspired part of the book. The recipes seem rather ho-hum (pound cake, lemon tart) maybe because “it’s the rare Parisian who tries to compete with the pâtisser.”

Each recipe is introduced by a story of its origin, or a little anecdote that has nothing to do with the recipe, per se, but does so much to evoke a mood. In the section on “Green Salads” (Les Salades Simples), Roberts begins, “When there’s a chill in the autumn evening air but it’s not yet cold enough for coats, out come the cashmere scarves that people wrap around their necks, men tucking the ends between the lapels of their jackets, women contriving to form shawls.”

The recipes themselves are presented in a way that’s admirably direct. Clear instructions; limited steps; no fancy knife skills required. “Parisians keep their everyday cooking simple and straightforward. They have to. Kitchens are small…few [people] have the luxury of time.” The writing here feels as plain and reliable as a cotton dishcloth.

Accompanying the recipes are photos by Pierre-Gilles Vidoli, printed in blue and white, not of the dishes themselves, but of the markets; of displays of bread and cheeses; of shoppers; of cramped kitchens, crowded shelves, and the shy smiling faces of friends caught in a moment preparing a meal in their modest kitchens. The casualness of these snapshots is part of what gives the book its charm.

Roberts sees shopping for the meal as much fun as the cooking itself. “I worry that the joy of shopping for food is lost on most Americans, that it’s a chore. People shop with lists and try to get it over with as quickly as possible.” Roberts makes going to a place like a farmers market sound like a treasure hunt, looking for vegetables “picked at their peak of ripeness….chickens that had been allowed to roam free and peck at the ground; meat from animals fed a diet of nutritious grains.” He celebrates the community of merchants and shoppers, praises the socialization and the common bond of people who “talked about food and cooking.”

Little sidebars, like parenthetical asides, give the reader tips or trivia about a particular ingredient. “The French don’t always use more salt and pepper, they just want to taste it more clearly,” he explains. These moments, floating between recipes, feel as though the cook popped out of the kitchen for a second, or is talking to you absentmindedly while stirring a pot.

Roberts has a nice touch for sprinkling in evocative little details. Each time I read something like “[o]n a drizzly Saturday afternoon in January,” I was hungry for more. He does a wonderful job of creating a mood, and a kind of narrative starts to form, a story about friends with busy lives who make time to prepare and share a meal together. The book was written “in appreciation of all my Parisian friends,” and Roberts often lets the cooks speak for themselves. “’Michael,’ one friend implores, ‘can you stay with me this afternoon? I don’t feel like being une prisonière in the kitchen.’” It’s wonderful to read about someone feeling this way in a cookbook.

Part of the pleasure for me in reading this book was remembering a world of the “armchair” traveler, when imagination made the only pictures the mind saw of a trip. This book was published in 1999, pre-European Union. This was before the heyday of the internet and the age of global tourism, when for many people Paris wasn’t a place, but an idea.

Not too many years ago, I went to Paris for the first time with a few friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. We stayed with a pair of sisters and planned a celebration. The afternoon of the party, we went to the local open-air market and went from stall to stall making selections of cheeses and breads and flowers and fruit, and carried them home in bags and baskets, then spent the afternoon preparing things. The kitchen was small, one little brown counter, so we each worked and chopped on a different flat surface: a card table, the coffee table, a big book propped across a lap. That night, the sisters threw open the floor-to-ceiling windows, and swags of the gold fabric we’d festooned them with blew out into the night. The noise and light spilled out onto the street below, and a passerby, ripe for mischief, threw a tomato through an open window. As Roberts points out, “a large part of the pleasure of the table lies in the nostalgia it evokes and the tradition that it represents.”

While reading, I dog-eared several recipes I planned to try. None seems so difficult nor expensive that you’d need a special occasion to feel motivated to make them. I’ve already made a few, starting with the soups. Cream of Mushroom Soup (Volute de Champignons) was outstanding. “What makes it unusual is that [Roberts’ friend, the chef] adds puréed mushrooms…and just heats it through enough to release the flavor.” White Bean Soup (Potage à la Soissonnaise) was another winner, and though I’m not much of a meat eater, I’d agree that “[t]he important ingredient is the bacon.” Now I know that “Parisians rarely cook beans without it.”

“All life’s occurrences, major or minor, happy or sad, somehow involve sitting down to a meal and some wine, “ Roberts writes. At one point, he pauses among his own recollections to recall an earlier, recurring one: “I’d think, ‘Soup is something you don’t mind eating alone.’” I agree. But it’s also nice having a book like this not just for the recipes, but for the company.

Parisian Home Cooking: Conversations, Recipes, and Tips from the Cooks and Food Merchants of Paris, Michael Roberts, William Morrow and Company, Inc., First American Edition, 335 pp.