My Favorite Food Books, Day 11: Larousse Gastronomique
Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
Do you find yourself losing sleep arguing with strangers on the internet about the difference between poutine and disco fries?
Did you know (and more importantly, do you make sure that other people know you know) that Napoleon was actually above average height for his era?
When someone says, "Adding salt to water makes it boil sooner," do you respond with "Actually, it barely changes the boiling point at all. It simply adds nucleation sites?"
Are you the kind of person that gets a little buzz when you hear Alex Trebek's voice come on the TV at the bar?
If so, you sound like a well, technically... kind of person, and Larousse Gastronomique is a well, technically... kind of book. It's a big, fat, 1,300 page encyclopedia* of French cooking terms that run all the way from Abaisse (a term used in French cookery for a sheet of rolled-out pastry) to Zuppa Inglese (a Neapolitan dessert consisting of sponge soaked with kirsch, filled with confectioner's custard, and crystallized fruits, then covered with Italian meringue and browned in the oven). I'd consider it an essential volume for anyone who cooks at a professional level. It's a good-sized chunk of the common language of Western kitchens, all packed into a single volume.
* Well, technically, an encyclopædia**
** Okay, technically either spelling is correct, but why would you ever pass up the opportunity to use an ash, or to show people that you know what an ash is?
The book was first published in France in 1938, but I picked up my edition some time in 2002, when I was first starting to work in fancy restaurants that stressed French technique. Back then, Larousse (as it's popularly known) seemed like the perfect complement to the hands-on education I was getting in the kitchen. French technique reigned supreme. Even in modern restaurants that drew influences from all over the world, it was always "Thai ingredients and flavors paired with classic French technique," never "French ingredients with Thai technique."
What culinary lessons could we possibly learn from anyone outside France? So when I needed to know the difference between a sauté pan and a poêlon,*** when I wanted to feel like I was using my noodle (not to be confused with my knödel****) it was to Larousse that I'd flip.
*** Sauté pan: a round shallow pan with straight or slightly flared sides and a handle used to facilitate easy stirring. Poêlon: a small, long-handled lidded saucepan suitable for slow-cooking, simmering, or braising foods on the stovetop.
**** Noodle: long pasta. Knödel: A type of sweet or savory dumpling.
That France-knows-best attitude has, of course, changed since then, and with each new edition of Larousse, more and more non-French terms have been added. Whenever I come across one of these stabs at cosmopolitanism, I feel like I should gently take Larousse aside and whisper, stick with what you know.*****
***** I feel the same way when the modern Michelin guide decided to start awarding random stars to the mediocre Indian joint down the street.
These additions can make what was once a flawlessly authoritative manual feel a little quaint, or even provincial. The entry for "Taco," for instance, reads, "A cornmeal pancake filled with a thick sauce, minced meat seasoned with chili pepper, black beans, or avocado purée with onion"—a description that seems to have been written by someone whose only research into tacos was scanning the menu (without ordering) at the Taco Bell drive-thru. It's technically a description of a very specific taco, but this is one of those rare cases where technically right is definitely not the best kind of right.
Still, with its thousands of no-nonsense entries, hundreds of recipes (mostly leaning toward hoity-toity French haute cuisine), and dozens of full-color photographs, it's hard to think of a better single-volume resource for the well, technically...-type cook inside all of us. If you get the book and win on Jeopardy when the "French Culinary Terms" category comes up, technically it'll have already paid for itself. (And as you well, technically... people know, technically right is almost always the best kind of right.)
You can buy Larousse Gastronomique here.