C’EST LA DOUCE FRANCE
by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious—and Perplexing—City
by David Lebovitz
Broadway Books, May 2009
Hardcover 304 pp., ISBN: 9780767928885
Being a parisienne, I must confess that I share the daily frustration of my compatriots who express their shuffled dismay (Mon Dieu or Quelle horreur) at hordes of Americans treating Paris like a Disneyland, walking around the city as barbarics in high-above-the-knee shorts, exhibiting loudly their identity as Americans. They often forget that Paris is neither merely a tourist highlight nor a romanticized fixation of beauty and elegance—but very much an organic city where parisiens discreetly lead their French quotidian lives.
This rift sustains much of the various sweeping cultural stereotypes that define "dismay" from both ends. Such a nutshell seems to be the essence of what David Lebovitz, an American ex-pastry-chef-turned-cookbook-writer residing in Paris, explores in his anecdotal travel book, The Sweet Life in Paris, as he illustrates each enticing chocolate-related or French dessert recipe with his adventures as an expatriate in this (in)famous City of Light.
Paris, in Lebovitz’s colorful vocabulary, is the "world’s most glorious—and perplexing—city." Not perplexingly, he sets out to describe the numerous paradoxes that a typical American may possibly encounter when attempting to live the French life. Humor and sincerity shines throughout this delightful book that alternates simple and concise dessert recipes with chronicles of Lebovitz’s new life in Paris. (He arrived in France without quite knowing how to speak or write French, as a start). To add a refreshing touch to this seemingly banal Franco-American cultural account, he is determined to understand and to become an authentic parisien through a most attractive—and vital—means: food. Or to be precise, chocolat.
For Lebovitz, food is clearly an art, a telling facet of how one lives life, a revelation of one’s interior world. Trained at Alice Waters’ restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, he spent over a decade in the pastry department creating top-notch desserts with an international array of fruits, nuts, and all sorts of organic farm-fresh diary products. Chocolate is his specialty, and his life-long passion. Convinced by the healthy notion that no "sane" human being can easily run away from a pure chocolate temptation, he sprinkles in this book surprising recipes of innovative chocolate desserts such as Chocolate Yogurt Snack Cakes (Bouchées chocolat au yaourt), Nancy Meyers’ Hot Fudge Sauce (oui, Nancy Meyers the Hollywood filmmaker who directed Something’s Gotta Give, starring the almost nude Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton), Chocolate-Coconut Marshmallows (Guimauve chocolat coco); Individual Chocolate Almond Cakes (Financiers au chocolat); and Dulce de Leche Brownies (Brownies à la confiture de lait), just to name a few. Occasionally, he also slides in accessible, user-friendly recipes of slightly-more-sophisticated dishes, for instance: Pork Ribs (Travers de porc), Pork Roast with Brown Sugar-Bourbon Glaze (Rôti de porc marine à la cassonade et au whisky), Braised Turkey in Beaujolais Nouveau with Prunes (Dinde braisée au Beaujolais Nouveau et aux pruneaux) as well as Chicken and Apple Spread (Pâté de foie de volaille aux pommes). Also of worthy note is the feature chapter on Café français, which is just as original as informative, as Lebovitz differentiates the subtle (or are they?) nuances between café express, café au lait, café américain—or any sort of pseudo-Italian café that French bistros may serve.
Although he entertains with hilarious episodes of trying to settle in France—like chasing off his apartment painter who never wished to leave, or working at 5 a.m. in a fish market so as to cure his fear of squids—our author is serious about eating as much as most Frenchmen who would rather enjoy a three-hour dinner instead of eating pizza because of hunger and the biological clock. Ultimately, it is not about gastronomy or high art, but simply respecting the body (the temple, as a metaphor), and a desire to live with a more profound consciousness or presence. After all, what is la cuisine if not another denominator that constitutes the complex French culture and lifestyle à la mode? As Lebovitz asserts wisely, "But mostly it’s all about l’attitude." Whether exaggerated or not, he has succeeded in evoking emotions and cultural memories in his food writing. Casting aside his identity as a pastry chef, he has gathered a recollection of moments in his life, French or un-French. Voilà my favorite passage, near the end of the book, in which he describes a scene of eating cheese at a dinner chez un ami:
I actually gasped when the platter was put before us. Everyone around the table fell silent to inhale the aromas, savoring the moment of being in the presence of perhaps the ripest, most perfect specimens of cheese available anywhere in the world. Then the calm was broken. With self-assurance, a guest visiting from New York grabbed the lead—and the cheese knife. "Here, I’ll make this easier," he announced.
Making good on his promise, with a few deft strokes of the knife, he pounced on the cheese and started hacking away, cutting them all into little cubes as if they were going to be served with frilled toothpicks at a gallery opening alongside jugs of Mountain Chablis. In a matter of moments, he’d managed to decimate what had taken several generations of cheesemakers to perfect. We all sat in stunned silence, horrified by the desecration; our cheese course was ruined. ("Fancying le fromage," pp. 184-185.)