Richard Olney: A Memory
First off, let me apologize for my silence. I had major computer issues over the past few days that threw a total glitch into my writing schedule and left me in a state of anxiety. I used to write with a pen and a legal pad—I had no idea how dependent I’ve become on the machine.
In recompense, I’m offering you a longer than usual reminiscence—if you get weary halfway through, please feel free to go away and come again another day.
One Christmas years ago when I was living in Beirut, I was given a short stack of cookbooks as a present from my then husband, who was eager to foster the quality of the home kitchen even though he contributed little--apart from paying for the food, of course, and savoring the results. In the stack, one book stood out: The French Menu Cookbook by Richard Olney, a name unknown to me, as it was to most Americans then--and still is. To this day, Olney’s cookbook has a prominent place on my narrow kitchen shelf of frequently consulted books, along with his Simple French Food, which came along a few years later. I pulled out the French menu book just this afternoon and read the inscription, in my own handwriting, on the inside page: “Beirut,” it says, “Christmas, 1970.”
That long ago morning, when the children’s Christmas toys had been assembled and disassembled and the elements of the feast put in place for later consumption, I gathered together my acquisitions and settled down on the sunny balcony for a good solid read. (This is the point at which I’m expected to say, “I read cookbooks like novels.”) It’s balmy at Christmas in the eastern Mediterranean and the far corner of our wide terrace overlooking the black-and-white striped manara, the old Beirut lighthouse, and the blue sea beyond was flooded with low December sunlight, a golden place in which to hide from Christmas clutter. So I opened The French Menu Cookbook and plunged headlong into its fearless renditions of grilled lambs’ hearts, tripe à la lyonnaise, lamb kidneys with herb butter, boiled pigs’ tails and ears in a substantial potée with green beans, dried beans, turnips, and carrots, all food that I would probably never dream of cooking even though I already had a considerable kitchen repertoire of which I was inordinately proud. The food described was remarkable, but so were the recipes. One in particular stood out and stands out now in my memories of Richard whom I got to know, many years later, on several occasions. The recipe was for “Oreilles de Veau Farcies, Sauce Béarnaise,” stuffed calves’ ears with a béarnaise sauce.
Béarnaise I understood and had made several times, a rich, tarragon-flavored sort of hollandaise, itself one of the classic “mother sauces” of French cuisine. Béarnaise is often served with very tender cuts of beef, tournedos for instance or Chateaubriand, occasionally also with poached fish fillets or tender asparagus. But calves’ ears? Yes, and one must clean them very carefully after parboiling, Olney explained, “scraping here and there to remove any remaining hairs, and cleaning out the canal-like areas.” (Ear wax? Do calves have ear wax?)
That was only the beginning of the recipe. After that, the ears were wrapped, each one in a cloth, simmered in white wine and stock for 3½ hours, left to cool then packed with a farce or filling made from braised sweetbreads, butter-simmered chicken breasts and livers, and 3 large, fresh, black truffles, all chopped together and mixed with eggs and cream, after which the stuffed ears were to be dipped in egg whites and rolled in freshly grated breadcrumbs, not once but twice, before being set to dry for 7 or 8 hours, then gently fried in clarified butter and oil and served immediately with the sauce béarnaise in a separate bowl. Including the béarnaise, that recipe took up five, exquisitely detailed pages. It is unclear to me whether any reader, with the possible exception of Jeremiah Tower, ever reproduced it. Certainly, I never had the temerity to demand of my butcher six calves’ ears, preferably all of the same size and all cleansed of hairs and distressing elements in the ear canals.
But Olney’s recipes were not always so strange, thankfully. I had no doubt, reading through the ingredients and instructions for “Soufflés a la Suissesse,” for example, a dish hitherto unknown to me, that it would work beautifully although it was time-consuming (not so much as the calves’ ears but you get the point): You were to poach cheesy little soufflés in ramekins or muffin tins, then unmold them into a gratin dish, pour thick fresh cream around them, grate more cheese on top, and bake them until “a light, golden gratin has been formed.”
Here's the full recipe:
Soufflés à la Suissesse, it was clear, I could make without fail. And I did, although later I began to add much more cheese to the bechamel along with a dollop of strong French mustard to boost the flavor. Richard would have been appalled, had he but known, and put it down to my weakened American palate, unable to appreciate the delicacy of his version.
Soufflés à la Suissesse, as they come from the oven, hot and bubbling.
The right word & the right technique
More than the recipes and the menus, though, it was Olney’s language that seduced me, as it did almost everyone who came across it. There was a kind of happy fussiness to it, not an old lady fussiness but a meticulous insistence on the right word that matched his insistence on the right technique. Here he is on skewered lambs’ kidneys, the simplest of preparations: “If rosemary bushes are handy, the branches, sharpened at one end and a tuft of leaves left at the other, not only afford a much prettier presentation than the usual metal skewers but lend their delicate perfume to the meats.” Not to the meat, mind you, but the “meats.” His language had a mandarin quality, as if Henry James had written the instructions. “Agrestic” was a favorite word, I am reminded by my friend the writer Bob Clark (who does an amazing imitation of Richard’s strange, rather mournful way of speaking)--agrestic meaning “associated with rural or rustic life,” but the dictionary also cautions that it is a literary construction. “Agrestic flavors,” for Richard, were those dry, pungent flavors of the Provençal countryside that surrounded him on his beloved hillside north of Toulon—wild herbal scents of sage, rosemary, oregano, and thyme plus the resinous fragrance of Aleppo pine and eucalyptus and the earthy, bosky, mushroomy freshness that followed a brief summer rain. And tobacco: He loved his Gauloises and reveled in their fragrance.
I think of him now as I prepare a Bolognese ragù in my own kitchen. Ragù bolognese is a long way from Olney’s beloved French cuisine (and yet, I was surprised to learn from Reflexions, his unfortunate attempt at memoir, he actually spent quite a lot of enjoyable time in Italy). But it demands the same kind of scrupulous attention to detail that he applied to every dish. It’s not a sauce to be thrown together at the last minute, requiring as it does at least a half hour of judicious attention over a soffritto of chopped vegetables to melt them down to the just-beginning-to-brown stage, a carefully constructed flavor base for the whole thing. “Carefully constructed”—those were words that made Olney’s heart sing.
But where did he learn to write and speak like this? And where did he learn to cook? About the latter question, the answer is unambiguous: in France, where he arrived in 1951, filled with ambitions to become a great painter. Growing up in tiny Marathon, Iowa, one of eight children in the very comfortable family of a local banker, he recalls in Reflexions, that they ate well and appreciated good food. “But even in those early days I learned to rely on Escoffier for inspiration,” he says. Now, if you take the trouble to look up Marathon, as I just did, you will find that it is a very small town, little more than a village, with a population somewhat below 250 and a median household income of less than $40,000. That is today. Ed Behr, who joined the conversation on the Kitchen Porch from his home in Vermont (where he edits and publishes the most excellent quarterly The Art of Eating) has actually visited Marathon. Back in the 1940s, Ed says, Marathon may have been somewhat larger but it was still rural Middle America. And today, it’s a picture of depopulation: “Most storefronts empty, a small closed movie theater. Sadness. Going back decades now.” I find it hard to fit Escoffier into this picture.
I first met Richard at the London home of the late Alan and Jane Davidson. Alan had been in the British diplomatic corps, at one point serving as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Laos, but he became known in food circles with the publication of Mediterranean Seafood, still to this day the definitive catalog of Mediterranean fishes and all their various uses (and languages—if you’re along the seacoast in Bosnia and looking for the local word for langoustine, for instance, you can look it up in Davidson’s compendium). Together the Davidsons had established Prospect Books, to publish worthy food writing that failed to flourish in the world of commercial publishing, and Petits Propos Culinaires, a thrice-yearly journal of eclectic food ruminations. I had stopped off for Sunday lunch at the Davidsons on my way to Heathrow for a flight to New York; Richard and several others made up the party. As a lively conversation surged round the table, Alan mentioned one of his daughters who was living in Moscow and enjoying caviar. I sat bolt upright. “Oh my god,” I said, “I forgot the caviar!” A full pound of the stuff, freshly purchased in Teheran by the man to whom I was then married, had been tucked away in the fridge of a friend’s flat in Knightsbridge where I’d been staying. My job was to transport this precious cargo safely to New York and unaccountably I’d gone off and left it behind. A rapid series of phone calls led to my hostess meeting me at Victoria Station with the goods—and left Richard mightily impressed, as he later assured me.
He was in London then working on the Time & Life series that would become the twenty-eight volumes of “The Good Cook,” an authoritative corpus of kitchen techniques, from Breads to Soups to Terrines, Patés & Galantines, with step-by-step instructions, heavily illustrated; he often said he had the most photographed hands in the food world. Every technique in the books was painstakingly documented as Richard mounted egg whites, stuffed a roast, boned a chicken, rolled out rough-puff pastry, even iced a cake. It was an exhausting job, operating on a rigid time table for publication, but it paid very well and put him in touch with an influential group of admirers outside of France, where he was already well known and respected by wine makers, important chefs, and connoisseurs. He always claimed that Julia Child had tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from getting the Time & Life job but the evidence, presented in his memoir, is slim and I’ve never found anything to confirm it. Working as a consultant on the series, Julia had argued forcibly for including American-style measurements as well as metric ones, but this is hardly an attempt at character assassination, which is how Richard always described it.
Rustic & agrestic in Provence
Years later I visited him several times at his agrestic home high on a stony hillside overlooking the village of Solliès Toucas in Provence. Solliès is just a few miles north of the maritime port of Toulon where the French Navy historically had its Mediterranean base. Richard had built his place practically by hand, hauling bags of sand and concrete on his back up the steep path that led to the abandoned and derelict relic for which he had paid around $1,000 in 1961. By the 1980s, when I arrived for the first time, a winding, zigzag road had been carved into the hillside that led up to the house. There was a south-facing vine-shaded terrace where he liked to dine on clement days and he was there, waiting for me at the table with Mary Garin, the American wife of his old friend Georges Garin, a multi-starred French chef who had died in an accident some years earlier. Richard did not drive, never owned a car, and relied on Mary to provide him with whatever groceries he needed and to drive him when he wanted to set off on a trip. I was supposed to have come for lunch with Mary but my flight to Marseilles was delayed and by the time I arrived lunch was long gone although many wine bottles remained on the table, half of them empty. Richard cut a slice of bread and a hefty chunk of a firm-textured sheep’s milk cheese and poured a large glass of—well, who knows what it was? He was famous for his palate and for his enormous and very well-stocked wine cellar but by that time of the afternoon, it was something red and deliciously rustic to fit the surroundings. Côtes-du-Rhone, most likely. Mary seemed hostile at first but I later learned that by that time of day and after a long and bibulous lunch, she tended to become somewhat vague and disconnected from her surroundings.
There were chickens of various breeds in a spacious fenced yard, there were grape vines plump with fruit, there was a well-tended garden filled with salad greens, tomatoes, peppers, and big terracotta jugs of herbs. There was a rustic kitchen with a long work table and a wide fireplace broad enough to handle spits of roasting meats. On the mantle over the fireplace, was a wooden keg where remains of wine got tossed, maturing into a vinegar that resonated with aromas and flavors. There was even a swimming pool roughly hewn in the rock face of the cliff above the house. The pool had begun as a watering hole for sheep, Richard said, and was enlarged by him with the help of his brothers when they visited in the summer. And there was the wine cellar, dug by hand like the swimming pool and lined and shored up with concrete. “I think I don’t need ever actually to buy another bottle of wine,” Richard said as he went before me down the steps into the spidery cavern. “But,” he added with a wistful gaze, “I probably shall.”
And he did. Maybe not buy, but he was given wine, often very prestigious wines, by wine makers who treasured both his opinion and his ability to promote a high-flying, expensive cru. Another time, when I arrived at Solliès utterly exhausted after an all-night flight from the US and a drive from Marseilles, Richard met me as I stopped the car. “I think,” he said, “if we leave right now, we can make it to the train station in Toulon before the baggage room shuts down. I’ve a case of Corton waiting for me.” There was no arguing with him so we set out—it was a mere 20 kilometers to Toulon after all, and he entertained me all the way, smoking his Gauloises bleus, one after the other and passing them to me when my energies began to flag.
At his best, Richard had an appealing shyness that may have developed as a way to conceal or compensate for his homosexuality, which, back in Marathon when he grew up there in the 1930s and 40s, must have presented unimaginable difficulties. In any case, he remained closely tied to his five siblings and his parents, and they to him. (In Reflexions, there’s a sweet memory of his father struggling with the menu at Georges Garin’s celebrated Paris restaurant in the early 1970s, a menu that was totally strange to a banker from Marathon.)
But Richard was not always appealingly shy. Indeed, he was famous for his out-spoken antipathy toward any number of his colleagues, beginning with Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, both of whom apparently tried but failed to please him. And his tongue turned to vinegar at the mere mention of Patricia Wells, an American writer who lived north of him in Vaison-la-Romaine (and who was incongruously asked to write an introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of Simple French Food—there’s an irony in that that would not have been lost on Richard). He was cantankerous and difficult by nature, bitchy, egocentric, and venomous toward people who crossed him—or who he imagined had crossed him. If his hostility was unhappily fueled by booze, it was also based in part, I think, on simple envy. (It’s something I’ve encountered over and over among people involved with food, especially among writers, as if the food-writing pie were so very small that only a few slices could be cut from it, therefore the knives come out to stop anyone from cutting into my slice. Perhaps the same is true among other professionals, whether lawyers, cardiac surgeons, or indeed truck drivers. I wouldn’t know.) I’m not naïve enough to think niceness should be a universal goal but Richard’s comments today would be called snarky. Back then, they were just plain mean.
And yet. He was also brilliant and funny, with an enormously sensitive understanding of French cooking and French wines, and a great gift for relating that understanding through clear, crisp prose.
His awareness of flavor and texture was so sensitive and astute, so beautifully expressed, that one can forgive him. “One can only eat marvelously by respecting the seasons; each is sufficiently rich to afford a perfect table the year round.” That’s from the Introduction to The French Menu Cookbook. And is there any reason, I can hear Richard rumbling, to want to eat less than marvelously? I am tempted to say he never did, at least not as long as he was in charge of the kitchen. But he was a stern critic of other kitchens, whether professional or not.
It was not necessarily luxurious dining that pleased him. Here is his paean to a potage bonne-femme, the leek and potato soup that is a near obligatory inclusion in any compendium of French recipes (as I read him, my own language drifts perilously into his: “a near obligatory inclusion in any compendium,” indeed!). This comes from Simple French Food: “The potato and leek soup that is prepared night after night in the kitchens of nearly every Parisian concierge. . . is nothing more than potatoes and leeks, more or less finely sliced or cut up, depending on the bonne femme, boiled in salted water, and served, a piece of butter being either added then to the soup or being put to join the inevitable crust of bread in the soup plate before the boiled vegetables are poured over. It carries within it always the message of well-being and, were my vice and my curiosity more restrained, I, too, would adore to eat it every evening of my life.” NB: No stock, consommé, broth, milk or cream!
In my experience, there was one person who made him blossom into generosity, who brought out the benevolent spirit that I suspect lived much of the time hidden inside him. That person was Lulu Peyraud, doyenne of the celebrated Bandol winery, Domaine Tempier. One sunny afternoon Richard insisted that we must drive down to Bandol to see Lulu. I understood he was taking advantage of me and my rental car to pay a visit to an old friend whom he hadn’t seen in a while (just as he had done with that case of Corton in the Toulon railway baggage room), but I didn’t mind in the slightest. In fact, I was delighted to spend time with the most famous hostess and second most famous cook (Richard himself being the first) in all of Provence.
Something about this tiny woman, bubbling with enthusiasm and with a wide generous smile that took in everything around her, brought out the best in him. He basked, like a farmyard cat, in the sunshine of her admiration. He expanded and grew generous himself, his malice dissipated. It was quite astonishing and very pleasant to witness. What evoked this response may have been simply her open admiration not just for his knowledge but also for his thoughtful sensitivity to taste and texture, fragrance and color, in food as well as wine. But I also believe that Richard responded to Lulu’s love which was equally generous, outgoing and all-encompassing, the kind of love that asks no questions but simply accepts. If she had been ten years younger, if he had not been gay, I like to think they might have been lovers, as in an unphysical sense they certainly were.
When asked what we ate at Lulu’s legendary table, I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that I have no clear memory. I do recall that while we toured the cellars, tasting from various barrels, Lulu had done something with seafood in the kitchen, something remarkably simple and delicious that seemed to cook itself while we sipped and gossiped. And she also served a sort of ratatouille that she called la bohémienne, made with eggplant and tomato and fresh basil. But the food was the least of my interests that day. I felt as if I were in the presence not so much of great cooks as of two great personalities. Like Colette, who was also a fine cook of course, Lulu had a way of enchanting her visitors, drawing them into her circle, making them feel as if they had every right to be part of the charmed life she led. It didn’t matter, in the end, what we ate or how it was cooked because the whole scene was imbued with her enchantment that reached out and transformed even a crotchety old crank like Richard Olney and brought out the best in him.
And I felt so fortunate to have witnessed it.
A question for you:
Ed Behr also knew Richard, perhaps better than I did, and admired his work and his philosophy. But Ed has doubts about whether anyone else is interested. This is what Ed said: “This is a preoccupation of mine lately: is French food really interesting to current audiences? Do they get it? By that I mean precisely the importance of seasonal eating that Richard describes. Yes, there’s all this talk about farms and farmer's markets, but I suspect it's more about romance than taste. What people really respond to are strong or unusual flavors or both--hot peppers, spices, intensity.” Ed went on to describe his own most recent meal: “Just-picked (within the hour) asparagus with sauce maltaise and a glass of non-high-alcohol Condrieu. Each year, when I taste the first asparagus, I realize I've forgotten just how amazingly sweet and good it is.”
Are we forgetting those flavors, those tastes and textures that Richard Olney taught us to cherish? In our tireless pursuit of the new, are we discarding what has nourished us in the past?
What do you think? I’d love to know!