Some of you avid readers out there may have heard of Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was an indie bookstore favorite a few years ago when it was translated from the French. Due to its success, Barbery’s first novel was subsequently translated for English speaking audiences as well. I don’t know that I would have been compelled to read it on the strength of Hedgehog alone, but when I discovered it was a food-related novel, I decided to give it a try.
Gourmet Rhapsody (Une Gourmandise is the original French title) concerns famous food critic Pierre Arthens (aka”le Maître“) on his deathbed, who struggles in vain to conjure the memory of a certain flavor that once thrilled him, in order to experience it one last time. Interspersed with vignettes of le Maître‘s food recollections, we hear from various characters in his life: family, mistress, colleagues, even pets. Their collective voice tells us that this was a man who, although respected and admired by some, was despised by others. His children and wife are mere appendages that annoy and distract him from his calling, and who respectively resent him and long for crumbs of his affections.
The author seems to be putting forth the opinion that true “geniuses” must necessarily be too single-minded in following their passion to be able to truly love other people. Biographies of several well-known artists, writers and even scientists could certainly be cited to back up this theory. But interesting as this notion may be, the manner in which the book is written does not allow the idea to be fully explored. The characters recall their relationships to and memories of Arthens, but they are all one-sided. The brief vignette structure and lack of dialogue lend an isolating effect, although perhaps this is precisely what the author had in mind.
The book ends without any salvation for the dying gourmand in regards to his family; he does not attempt to make any last-ditch amends to his slighted family for his life of detachment and disregard. At the risk of a “spoiler”, Arthens does ultimately remember the haunting lost flavor, but I was a bit disappointed by its revelation- after all that buildup, though, I’m not sure what could have lived up to the hype. (I won’t ruin the ending by discussing the food in question, but I will say that its intended irony fell a bit flat for me.) The final scene in which the flavor is recalled reinforces a sense of le Maître’s humanity that only surfaces when he is deeply enjoying food. However, the fact that he clearly possesses this humanity makes it all the more unforgivable that he refuses to share it.
In spite of some depressing scenes, there are moments of pure joy, celebration and whimsy, and this is when the book is at its best. The author marvelously evokes all sorts of food memories: bread greedily devoured after childhood days on a salty Moroccan beach; briny oysters slurped with Norman peasants; the first blissful taste of sushi; a grandfather’s penchant for grilled sardines… Seeing as how these passages comprise at least half the book, and that Barbery’s food writing turns out to be so very delectable, I would recommend this to any literary foodie based on that alone. It’s not often that food gets center stage in a novel, let alone at the hands of an author who can do it the eloquent justice that Barbery has in this book.
As someone who has many interests but never a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, it’s a little hard not to envy Liz Thorpe. In 2002, she quit a corporate job to work behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York for minimum wage, because she decided on a romantic whim that she wanted to work in cheese (in her paraphrased words, the reason was something like “I thought it would sound cool at cocktail parties”). In seven short years her new career has skyrocketed: she is now Vice President of Murray’s, has traveled all over the U.S., advises chefs as reknowned as Thomas Keller on their cheese menus, and just recently appeared on Martha Stewart. Oh, and did I mention she wrote a book?
The Cheese Chronicles is Liz’s self-proclaimed attempt to trace and document the origins and history of cheesemaking in America. The chapters loosely group together various artisanal cheesemakers into somewhat arbitrary categories such as “Pastured”, “Farmers’ Markets” and “Restaurants”. Within each chapter, Liz describes her visits and experiences with the cheesemakers, their back stories, and of course their products. The cheese operations she features run the gamut from tiny creameries who only sell their cheese locally, to larger, nationally distributed companies such as Cypress Grove, and everything in between. Each chapter has several sidebars that are interesting and informative but tend to interrupt the book’s “flow”, requiring the reader to hop around a lot.
If the book’s organization is its biggest flaw (and it’s a minor one at that), its most shining quality is Liz’s ebullient prose. You can tell that, dammit, this is a woman who loves cheese! While her descriptors sometimes verge on wanky (think snooty wine critic), I can forgive her that because a) let’s face it, there are a limited amount of adjectives one can use when describing cheese flavors, and b) her willingness to go out on a limb just goes to show her enthusiasm. Rather than come across as pretentious or stuffy, Liz’s tasting notes convey the depth of her infatuation and continued excitement for her subject.
With its narrow subject matter, you may think The Cheese Chronicles would only be of interest to a very small minority of food-snob cheese fanatic types, but I think anyone who loves good food and who cares about artisanal production will find something of interest in this book. There are lots of “people stories” here too, so it’s a good balance of factual information and storytelling and never gets dull. Cheesemakers, as it turns out, are a colorful bunch.
I picked up The Cheese Chronicles in part because my burgeoning food curiosity has led me to want to explore whether there might be any feasible careers in food. Having worked in restaurants, I know the life of a chef is not for me, but what about producing and selling a food product? One of the great things about this book is that Liz goes into detail of how each and every producer got started. It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that there are success stories from those who had never had a whit of experience as well as from those who had dairy farming in their blood. I did attend a cheesemaking class at a goat farm recently and am investigating the possibilities of home cheesemaking, so who knows? Meanwhile, I’ve got a new list of must-try cheeses to get my hands on. Expensive, yes, but hey, it could end up being “market research”!
Follow Liz on Twitter: twitter/LizCheese