I love reading foodie memoirs and food-related non-fiction, especially when there are recipes offered within the pages as well. It all started years ago with Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, leading to her other memoirs… and then on to whatever others I’d find on the shelves of bookstores that somehow enchanted me. If the story makes me laugh, it’s all the better. And pastry chef David Lebovitz made me laugh ALOT while devouring The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City (Broadway Books, 2009).
I knew I’d heard Lebovitz’s name before- well, read it somewhere. Turns out it must have been when I’d read a volume about the famous California restaurant, Chez Panisse, established and run by Alice Waters. He spent 13 years there, mostly doing pastry. Looking for a career change, Lebovitz decided to write a book of desserts (apparently encouraged by Alice). After a few years working at home – and a life-changing loss – it was time for a change. He chose a major one: a move to Paris, a city he’d always loved. His story is about becoming un vrai parisien, a true Parisian, and he took me along on his journey. He made me wish I could do the same thing. He gives good advice that any traveler headed to Paris might be wise to heed, as he reports his own mistakes, faux pas after faux pas.
Here’s one his funniest tales, related to an earlier not-so-great grasp of the French language:
My most unnerving mangling of the French language was at Sur Les Quais, a fantastic epicerie, where I was explaining to out-of-towners the different flavors of jam made by Christine Ferber, a famed confiseuse. (Yes, there’s a gender-specific word for a female who specializes in cooking sugar.)
I was translating the lineup of flavors for each pot de conserve, to the best of my abilities, for someone. (An empty jar is un bocal, but putting jam into it turns it into un pot.) When I mentioned there were jars of red currant jam, confiture de groseilles, my guest perked up, “Oh yes! That’s what I’d like.”
So I asked the salesclerk for a jar of confiture de groseilles, which is pronounced “gro-zay.” But with my less-than-stellar command of the language, I asked for “confiture de grosses selles” (which I pronounced as “gross sells”). The saleswoman’s jaw nearly hit the counter: I’d ordered turd jam… make that big-turd jam.
At this point, I realized that I needed to seek professional help, an assessment that salesclerk probably shared, and enrolled in a French class.
After reading Lefkovitz’s book, I had to Google him to see what came up. Turns out he’s got a great blog: http://www.davidlebovitz.com, with terrific recipes plus a “My Paris” page that I’d sure want to scour if I ever get the chance to head for that amazing city. I now own his book of ice cream desserts, The Perfect Scoop (for which he was testing recipes while writing The Sweet Life), and hope to get his latest book of desserts eventually as well. Actually, every time I’ve almost picked it up at Barnes & Noble, I’ve stopped to ask myself, “What cookbook will you get rid of to make room on the shelf for this one?” I guess I buy it when I can answer that question.
I highly recommend this memoir. Great reading, yummy-sounding recipes (haven’t made any yet but there are currently 11 skinny post-it markers sticking up from various pages, one of which truly tempts me: Gateau Moka-Chocolat a la Creme Fraiche – Mocha-Creme Fraiche Cake) and your own free, albeit imagined, move to Paris!