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.
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.