7.5

White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby

Love in the Time of Colanders

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White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby

White Truffles in Winter, an unusual, well-seasoned stock of memoir, love story, essay and historical romance, deliciously simmers along, tempting a reader to tear out the pages and eat them as they move through this tasty novel.

Kelby deliciously blends high concept and haute cuisine in a novel exploring the life and loves of Auguste Escoffier, the legendary French chef who started the famous kitchens at The Savoy and The Ritz and perfected the workings of the modern restaurant kitchen. Without Escoffier, we’d have no Paul Bocuse (nouvelle cuisine), no Alice Waters (seasonal organics), no Marco Pierre White (rock ‘n roll in recipe). We’d also live in a world bereft of The Peach Melba, Cherries Jubilee, or Fraises a la Bernhardt.

If you note that these signature dishes created by Escoffier all bear the names of women, you’re on to the general conceit of White Truffles.

Escoffier may have been a man of small stature, but he evidently knew how to use his stirring spoon. He carried on great loves among the ladies of his day, most especially with his wife, the poet Delphine Daffis, and with Sarah Bernhardt, the Lady Gaga of the belle époque. It will be perfectly clear after only a few pages of this book that the way to a woman’s heart is also through her stomach.

Here’s a passage, as the great chef, already famous and established, gives his new bride her first cooking lesson. Escoffier has just won Delphine in a poker game (a tasty fact, one of many sprinkled into the novel), and he wishes to teach her what he knows in the kitchen. The couple starts simply enough. Scrambled eggs.

It’s a dish that won Escoffier great fame. It took him 30 minutes to prepare.

“That won’t do,” he whispered and took her arm and gently pulled her closer to the pan, then stood directly behind her. “What do you smell?”

“Butter.”

“At this point you should only smell cream with a slight edge of garlic. When it smells like butter, it’s beginning to brown. The flavor cannot develop with too much heat. Turn it down. Slow it down. Some tings cannot be rushed. Some things need a gentle hand.”

He then put one hand over hers and held the knife with her. With the other hand, he reached around her thin waist and poured the beaten eggs slowly, a golden ribbon, into the center of the warm butter.

He was standing so close that she could feel the quickness of his breath. She leaned into the heat of him. “Only a moment in the pan to set and then continue to stir,” he said softly. “The eggs cannot cook too quickly or that will cause lumps to form – this is a thing that should be avoided above all. So again, slow. Slow. Do you understand?”

She did.

They stood together like that for a long time – stirring, not speaking, just leaning into each other. There was no need for words.

We do have them, though—words aplenty, especially about foods and tastes. This passage comes on pages 12 and 13 of the novel. The book reads just as sensually and sumptuously up to the last bite of prose on page 332. All through, Kelby looks at food—at cooking—as “how one can define the complexity of love on a single plate,” as she puts it in an excellent reading guide with the book.

Kelby ably characterizes the two major women in the great chef’s life, and sustains a novel’s dilemma for 300-plus pages: How can Escoffier possibly resolve the affairs of his life? And will he finally consummate the love of his life with a dish named for Delphine? Can a lifelong love really be simplified to a plate of food?

Escoffier comes to the reader’s table as an old man, penning a memoir as the book begins. He offers charming chapters (with recipes) of his own between an omniscient third-person narrator storytelling. Sarah Bernhardt comes across as sexy and seductive. Delphine suffers long, but her love hangs over the story like the North Star, and it brings Escoffier grace in the end.

Kelby also serves up the complicated Frenchman (is that redundant?) and his epicurean artistry in deft strokes, tracking career and cooking methods in some detail. The author writes especially fascinating scenes at The Ritz, where Escoffier commands an army of sous-chefs and staff that chops and sears and juliennes and reduces foodstuffs in quantities ample to feed a second army. These sections burst with tremendous energy and fastidiously imagined detail.

Kelby started her own voyage through the foods of the world working the counter at McDonald’s at age 14. She graduated to Dunkin’ Donuts, then at 18 ran a small catering business. Central to her gastronomic upbringing loomed a figure like Escoffier—her mother—a Parisian Jew shot during WWII while trying to escape the Nazis. Though her mother survived the wound, she “had a difficult life,” Kelby writes. The kitchen became her sanctuary, a single place she controlled in an out-of-control world.

“As a child, Escoffier’s cookbooks towered over me on the top shelf over the stove, well worn, and always out of my reach,” Kelby writes in the reader’s guide. “They were a great mystery.”

What better way to unravel mystery than to write a novel?

White Truffles surprised me. I’m more from the Kesey/McGuane/Jim Harrison world than the cosmos of French kitchens. But Kelby writes beguilingly, about beautiful things. Her novel, frankly, enchanted me.

Well, except for a tiny tart taste here and there. The readers finds only fleeting reference goes to a son Escoffier and Delphine lost in WWI—we readers lose a little respect, somehow, at how incidental this seems to pere and mere in light of foodly matters. Other children, surely an important part of a man’s life—even a world-famous chef’s life—seem somehow unimportant in the work. They appear most fully formed at the end, appearing to the reader like orphans from nowhere to claim a place in the book late in its life.

Still, as fall nears and the last bounty of the long summer finds its way to table, here’s a satisfying book to read.

A good Moet and a good reading light and a good few hours in Kelby’s well-dreamed life of Escoffier and friends will fill you up in just the right ways.

Charles McNair is Books Editor of Paste.