Magazine article The New Yorker

Aspic

Magazine article The New Yorker

Aspic

Article excerpt

In the early nineteen-seventies, I lived in a London suburb south of the Thames, where, for five pounds a week, I rented the garret of a Victorian house. Marie-Annick Lancelot, a French girl studying for her doctorate in Chinese, lived in the flat below. Whenever I needed a proper stove (the garret was equipped with a hot plate), she let me use her kitchen. It became a laboratory filled, at dinnertime, with willing guinea pigs. But of all my aspirational concoctions none was more ambitious than the wedding breakfast that I volunteered to make for my housemate and her fiance, Stuart Schram, Mao's biographer. (A French wedding breakfast is, traditionally, an elegant luncheon served after the couple awaken from their first night; this one followed a late-morning ceremony. As the reception, for thirty, would take place at the groom's house, the logistics dictated a cold buffet.)

Looking back, I'm not sure who was more reckless: I for offering such a gift, or Marie-Annick for accepting it. The Lancelots were a family of epicures, and Stuart was a formidable authority on French cuisine. But at twenty-one I had the perfect self-assurance of an ignoramus (a Marengo, I thought, was an exotic fruit served with veal). Gastronomy was one of the foreign languages that I blithely set out to master, and the breakfast was typical of my experiments; there wasn't a dish on the menu that I had ever even tasted. The two main courses I proposed were inspired by a passage in "Madame Bovary." Flaubert writes of the aristocrats who awe Emma at the chateau, "They had the complexion of wealth," a deceptive blush of youth fed on "a moderate diet of exquisite delicacies." O.K., I thought, let's go for lightness and grandeur--a fancy fish and a poulet en gelee a l'estragon (chicken in aspic), the ultimate feat of a culinary showoff.

The fish I settled on looked easy on paper, but you can never trust the breeziness of an Elizabeth David recipe. This one, from "French Provincial Cooking," was buried in an account of "Escoffier's Shooting Week-End Fifty Years Ago." It involved the poaching in wine of "some ombres-chevaliers," from the lakes of the Haute-Savoie, accompanied by a "completely original" cream sauce of grated horseradish and skinned walnuts. "Completely original" was the epithet that got me, but either David or her copy editor was a bit careless, because it's an omble, not an ombre, chevalier--"a humble knight." No fishmonger in London carried it, although at Harrods they suggested that no one would be the wiser if I substituted salmon trout. …

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