ILLUSTRATION: John Wm Burdett (1943-2019)
5 Av Victor Hugo is written by Robert Burdett
Chapter 4, Falling in Love with Haricot Verts
”C’est bon, n’est-ce pas? Ça vous plait, Bob?” How many times did that lovely question float my way in a year in school and learning to eat?
That huge, steaming platter of green beans turned out to be but a first course – the vegetable course – of a French in-home dinner prepared by a woman who lived to cook.
Of course there was bread – more than enough for the meal and then to have the next morning as a buttered tartine with the bowl of coffee or hot chocolate. Every neighborhood had its boulangeries, and every family had its favorite.
The first course was followed by a meat dish, just a tiny slice or cuisse of animal protein with its pan sauce and bread. Back then there was always meat or fish, but the portions at our table were always very small. And very delicious.
Then came the lettuce salad with vinaigrette. Perfect, but imagine my Midwestern surprise to be served a salad after the main plates. Bread, of course.
Because it was a special occasion Madame brought out a cheese or four that could be eaten with the salad, or after. And a bowl of oranges and apples to slice and eat along. And the bread.
“Ça vous plait, Bob?” And I found the words so often later said: “Oui Madame. Ça me plait beaucoup.”
Well, that was a life-altering experience, but this little story was supposed to be about haricots verts.
The green beans that night (and many meals thereafter) set a culinary gold standard that somehow never made it into the Pantheon of American cooking. I’ve always been tempted to blame Chez Panisse, that California beacon of perfection for this culinary misfortune.
Whether due to Chez Panisse or some other trendsetter of the day, the notion of crisp, crisp, crisp somehow became the American notion of how vegetables needed to be in order to feature their je ne sais quoi. Carrots and celery, yes. Perfect, fresh, slender green beans – first of the season – not necessarily.
Ethereal green beans in the highest French style have a few simple requirements. Very fresh green beans. Skinny. Cook in lots of boiling, salty water until al dente (like good spaghetti al dente) – NOT CRISP. Drain. Toss in enough high quality melted BUTTER to thoroughly coat, and serve hot. With wonderful crusty bread.
Somewhere in Heaven Madame C looks down and says, “Oui, Bob.”
Finding the beans is the hard part in most of America. Those pretty supermarket haricots verts imported from Guatemala have been embalmed or something. They’ll do, but I grew my own in the summers when I had a garden, and there are stories there, too.
Chapter 5, Everything but bread
I was 21 when I got back to the Midwest after my junior year of college in Paris, and a summer of hitchhiking all over Europe. It was late summer of 1963. Kennedy was still President of the USA.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the food I had learned to love in France had not come with me on my return trip to New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth.
In the past pages I’ve only alluded to that food by way of an example or two but I can tell you that daily meals at 5 av Victor Hugo in St. Mande were a kaleidoscope of unforgettable tastes. Suddenly, that was nothing but a memory, and I wanted more.
That’s when I started teaching myself how to cook.
I went to the Bookshop, our little bookstore on Dixie Highway (yes, Dixie Highway) in my south suburban hometown of Homewood, Illinois, and without anything other than chance going for me I grabbed a cookbook focused on French cooking. God smiled. It was Contemporary French Cooking by Waverley Root (First Edition, Random House, 1962).
Few people reading this blog will recognize the name of Waverly Root, or associate Root with A.J. Liebling, or Earnest Hemmingway or so many other luminaries. Look it up if you want to.
Main thing to know is that Root was one of those journalist-cooks who found themselves in France after the Big War when a dollar bought anything you could desire. Contemporary French Cooking was way before Julia Child, and is full of recipes that showed the way to recreating the food I craved.
Root’s book was written for a U.S. audience in the sense that it generally made allowances for food items that could be found in American grocery stores. But it was not a “cooking for dummies” kind of book, and it presented a wide variety of challenging and authentic tasting French recipes presented with minimal instruction.
My food goal once back in the States was to fix and share some of the dishes I had come to love in Paris with family and friends. I’d leaf through Root searching for right-sounding titles, try to imagine how the ingredients and prep steps would end up tasting, and then give it a try. How about a coq au vin, or champignons a la crème, or whatever else came to mind?
I had little knowledge of cooking technique, but I always had a taste and smell memory that served as a roadmap to where I wanted to go. My guests were generally less critical of what came out of the kitchen than I was, and so I got lots of encouragement even when the results were mediocre.
It was an adventure. I learned how to do things. I got pretty good – and as a young 20-something guy in the mid-1960s I quickly gained the reputation with my peers for being a cool and eccentric Francophile.
But one thing was missing. Bread. Nothing available in the Chicago market could even pretend to mimic a good French loaf. And Waverley Root knew better than to suggest trying to bake French bread at home. No, bread would come later.
Next up: Chapter 6: The Many Steps to Later