What are my literary influences? The main ones? The ones I wouldn’t even notice? The ones that “don’t count” such as the person who taught you to write with your first pencil or crayon? The small text on the side of a Rice Krispies box? Where do you start? I’m not going to. Instead I’m gonna talk about a classic cookbook, the kind that Moss Reid reads…
Hardboiled fiction is dark. Noir-dark.
It comes in short sentences. Minimal. Stripped.
Its central characters are wise-cracking. World-weary. You know the kinda thing: from Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, Edouard De Pomiane.
Yes, if there’s an equivalent of classic hardboiled fiction in the culinary world, it’s the work of Docteur Édouard de Pomiane (1875-1964).
Not known as a chef as such, he was a broadcaster and eminent food scientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. His writing is crisp, practical, funny, direct, timeless, yet of its time and ahead of its time, and… well… hardboiled. It also shows an amazing love and warmth about food.
My first encounter with him was the 1993 re-issue (with a splendid foreword by Raymond Blanc) of his little cookbook La Cuisine en Dix Minutes ou l’Adaptation au Rythme Modern (“Cooking In Ten Minutes, or The Adaptation to the Rhythm of Our Time”). This is 10-minute food, literally. Fast food in the best sense, and unashamedly populist.
As he says himself, it’s not for professional chefs and restaurant critics but for foodies and kitchen newbies. For ordinary you and me…
My book is meant for the student, for the midinette [Google Translate says ‘shopgirl’; my Hugo Dictionary says: ‘milliner’s work-girl’], for the clerk, for the artist, for lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers and scientists, for everyone who has only an hour for lunch or dinner and yet wants half an hour of peace to watch the smoke of a cigarette whilst they sip a cup of coffee which has not even had time to get cold.
Excellent. My kind of cooking – and my kind of reading. Don’t you love the light touch about the fag and the coffee? Here’s another tiny taste of his style: his recipe for a fried fish feast…
When you reach home put the deep frying pan on the gas. Clean the whiting and dry them. Dip them in flour. Throw them into the smoking fat. Wait five minutes. Take them out. Heat the fat for three minutes. Plunge in the fish for three minutes. Take them out and drain them. Salt. Slices of lemon.
Look at the writing. From the personal touch in the opening sentence (“When you reach home…”) to the machine-gun bursts of the closing two sentences (“Salt. Slices of lemon.”).
How would today’s Nigels and Nigellas tackle such a recipe? Like a rugby forward, with wildly flapping puffed up prose, chock-full of bluff and bluster and Lifestyle Nonsense, perfect for the gushy glossy gastroporn book tie-in of the soft-focus TV version for the Food & Discovery channel.
Not. One. Syllable. Wasted.
Ed is also a gentle wise-cracker. After various detailed recipes for pork, Breaded Pig’s Trotters and Breaded Pig’s Ears, the book arrives at Breaded Pig’s Tail…
Prepare like the ears and trotters. Unfortunately these are very rarely to be had. It is true that each pig has only one tail for every pair of ears and eight half-feet. Perhaps this is the explanation.
OK, we’re not all into pig’s tail or crubeens, and I’m not a great fan of some of his “ultra-rapid soups” (anyone for more semolina soup?). There’s also a preoccupation with some ingredients that might still have been relative novelties at the time he was writing – e.g. tinned sardines, tinned peas where we would probably use frozen stuff nowadays (one monstrosity you come across in French supermarkets today is tinned brussels sprouts) – as well as foodstuffs quite hard to find, such as vegetable flours (in Dublin, check out the Asia Market – their potato flour is excellent for thickening soups and gravy).
But do not despair. This book tackles everything from bechamel sauce to the brilliant “Oysters And Chipolata Sausages” to various pancakes and even, yes, good old hardboiled eggs. Pomiane does it all with stylish good sense.
The book is very much a child of its epoch. He wrote it in the late 1920s, and was kicking against the taboos and traditions of the French cuisine establishment.
What he produced was as earth-shatteringly radically different as… well… the best hardboiled fiction, the greatest film noir B-movie, or the pared-back three-chord wonders of early punk rock. Demystifying, debunking, simplifying, reducing, distilling everything down into an elegant rare beauty.
Easily one of the greatest cookbooks of all time (with a foolproof recipe for hollandaise).