Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Narcisse and Nora

Go out right now and get the anniversary double issue of the New Yorker, the one with the classic Eustace Tilly cover. There are lots of goodies inside--Peter Hessler on the life of a Beijing alleyway, Adam Gopnik on the art of the Shakers, Susan Orlean on pigeon racing (possibly the world's most boring sport, though, and even Orlean can't pep it up much), Joan Acocella on the evolution of Mary Magdalene, even a long R. Crumb cartoon. (The fiction slot, alas, goes to yet another squashed-flat Murakami story, although this one does feature an eleventh-hour appearance by a talking monkey, always a plus.)

But the main reason to get this week's issue is Nora Ephron's extremely entertaining personal essay about her life in cookbooks, and the interior dialogues she's had over the years with their authors. Forget the syrupy screenplays; before Ephron started churning out tripe like You've Got Mail, she was a sharp, witty writer and gimlet-eyed observer of 1970s social mores. Any would-be Tom Wolfes should read Crazy Salad, her pungent, snappy book of essays, circa 1976, on everything from Watergate and the Pillsbury Bake-Off to feminine hygiene sprays and Linda Lovelace, which shows up something like David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster for the big ball of tangled knitting it is. (But make sure to track down the original 1976 edition, not the recently reissued version, which omits several of the best essays.)

Her piece has way too many good lines to quote, but I can't resist this: "This was right around the time arugula was discovered, which was followed by endive, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisee, which was followed by the three Ms--mesclun, mache, and microgreens--and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the past 40 years from the point of view of lettuce."

I'm a sucker for snappy prose, as you may have noticed, and I'm also easily swayed when people with whom I have a mental (or actual) friendship tell me--and anyone else reading them--that this book, this recipe, is the best ever. The other night, I was reading Julie Powell's book Julie and Julia and she described making Paul Prudhomme's Spiced Pecan Cake for a famous actor on whom she had a huge, if completely abstract, crush.

Well, the way she wrote about that cake, I wanted to get up and make it right at that very moment, no matter that it was 1 AM and I had neither butter nor pecans, nor any need for a three-layer pecan cake with a frosting that required three sticks of margarine and 8 egg yolks. Ephron does the same thing with a casual mention of a dessert of caramelized baked pears with cream, taken from a little 1960s book called The Flavour of France by Narcisse Chamberlain. She doesn't say much about them, only that they were great and she made them for years. And yet--damn. I want me some of them pears! Since google has been no help in tracking down the recipe, I forsee a trip up to Kitchen Arts and Letters--the best time-waster I know, always in the guise of getting useful information. But two pals are coming over for dinner on Saturday, and I've already thought out a menu of beef bourguignon, green salad, and something with pears for dessert. What could be better than caramelized pears a la Narcisse et Nora?


farmgirl said...

Great post. I loved reading this.

I popped over to let you know that I received your biscotti cry for help. Ack. I feel so bad. I left you a response here, but I don't know how much help it will be. I'm also waiting to hear from a baking pal who might have an idea of what went wrong. Thanks for taking the time to write me. I hope the next batch comes out perfectly! : )

shuna fish lydon said...

I read the cookbook piece snuggled up in my bed in my new on-my-own-flat last night and laughed aloud! and thought of you reminding me how wonderful it was going to be.

Thank you for the recommendation.