Six Hungry Writers
This book follows six American culinary writers active in France in the decades after World War II. The cast features Julia Child, chief propagator of our cult of French cooking; Alexis Lichine, a hard-charging wine merchant who helped bring wine into U.S. family life; A.J. Liebling, the legendary New Yorker writer; Alice B. Toklas, an eccentric gardener and cook; M.F.K. Fisher, the novelist and memoirist marketed as a sultry epicure; and Richard Olney, a Midwesterner and self-made gastronome. Very different personalities, they all served in the effort, writes Justin Spring ’84, to “democratize and demystify French cuisine for Americans.”

Thorough and informative, The Gourmands’ Way illuminates topics ranging from the history of the Guide Michelin to the rise of the U.S. processed-food industry. The splendors of the French table are not stinted; Spring describes meals of pâté de campagne, foie gras, pheasant and on and on. But the book hangs on its portraits of our “six hungry bon viveurs.”

For an account of Americans in Paris, this book is notably unromantic.

I chuckled over how Toklas’s 1954 Cook Book unwittingly included a recipe for hashish brownies, calling the chief ingredient “an obscure North African herb.” And I have long revered Liebling, a journalist of incorrigible wit (“I write better than anyone who writes faster, and faster than anyone who writes better”) and equally incorrigible gluttony. A war correspondent, Liebling witnessed the German surrender of Paris—then personally “liberated” the Closerie des Lilas, Hemingway’s favorite café, earning himself a precious bottle of scotch.

The Gourmands' Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy
For an account of Americans in Paris, The Gourmands’ Way is notably unromantic. Spring never forgets that his subjects’ passions are professions, sparked by ambition and necessity and shaped to the realities of a commercial market. Toklas started writing recipes for American magazines in order to gain access, amid the straitened circumstances of postwar Paris, to the well-stocked U.S. embassy commissary. Lichine’s success as an evangelist for wine reflected not only his love of wine’s beauty but his prowess as a “hustler” adept at what Spring calls “flattery and intimidation.”

There is one odd person out in this collection. While Spring admires five of his subjects, he treats Fisher with barely concealed contempt, calling her reputation as a leading authority on French food “a gross misperception” and deriding her 1969 Time Life publication, The Cooking of Provincial France, as “the most error-ridden book on French cooking ever brought out by a major American publisher.” Fisher wasn’t even much of a cook, Spring tells us. Accusing her of chronic dishonesty, he challenges her account of one Parisian trip, dismissing it as “a vast heap of careless fabrications.”

Spring’s demolition of Fisher seems churlish and in places tendentious. He cites what he calls Craig Claiborne’s “denunciation” of The Cooking of Provincial France in The New York Times. In fact, that review praised Fisher (“She has authority, experience, memory, and a pen to admire and envy”), but Spring omits those lines.

Fisher’s admirers will wonder why he lingers over flaws in her lesser productions while giving a scant paragraph to her 1948 masterpiece, The Gastronomical Me, a luminous meditation on love and loss. I’m not saying Spring is wrong in his cavils about Fisher’s mercurial personality, but the action with Fisher lies elsewhere, in a place he chooses not to see. 

Spring’s prevoius book was a National Book Award finalist. His Amherst thesis was a comic novel in the style of Anthony Powell

Olney emerges as Spring’s ideal gastronome. A painter well-read in writers from Baudelaire to Virginia Woolf, living simply in the French countryside, Olney presents an attractive combination of the aesthetic and the ascetic. Spring admires the methodical way this “thinker-writer-cook” educated himself in French language and foodways; his books for Americans were outgrowths of writings he had already been producing for years—in French, for a French audience.

He was the real deal, in other words, and his influence remains strong; Spring maps the direct path from Olney, via his connection to Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower—who worshiped his writings—to the farm-to-table movement that dominates American restaurant life today.

Spring notes that Olney grew up in rural Illinois and liked to serve his mother’s apple pie with a 100-year-old Château d’Yquem. This novel pairing of iconic American and French products captures the spirit of The Gourmands’ Way. Spring far prefers the studiousness of Olney to the capering emotionality of Fisher, whom he calls “a performer of her own life.” And if he is put off by that performance, while others of us are enchanted, in the end that’s OK too. Chacun á son goût.

Cooper has been a New York Times restaurant reviewer and a Bon Appétit contributing editor.