Kathleen Flinn takes the Book Babes book club on a delightful – and delectable! – excursion to The City of Light in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry
This past Sunday night, the Book Babes (also known by its more refined name, the Literary Ladies) discussed The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. This is a memoir of Flinn’s experience attending the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. Most emphatically, this is not a book I would ordinarily choose to read on my own, but our leader was to be Jean, who herself just got back from Paris. Her presentation really brought the author’s experience to life for us. And of course, as always, it was a pleasure to hear the fluent French that trips so easily and beautifully off her tongue.
The Sharper Your Knife belongs in the genre (subgenre?) of culinary memoirs. The reason I personally shy away from these books – from any books about the cooking life, in fact – is that Type Two Diabetes has caused me to develop an extremely vexed relationship with food. Fact is, though, that I was never an especially good cook. Why go to all that trouble, after all, when my absolute favorite thing to eat could be found safely sealed in a bag? No freshness issues here; I always knew they would taste great – would crunch deliciously – would make me feel wonderful…. Yes, here they are again: . Ah,yes; once they were to me what the Sirens were to Ulysses and his shipmates – but alas, those days are gone forever…
Well – back to the book: Kathleen Flinn’s Cordon Bleu experience made for some pretty entertaining reading. And talk about going to trouble! Some of those dishes, not to mention the techniques that had to be mastered beforehand, were positively mind boggling in their complexity. As someone who considers the production of a decent plate scrambled eggs a culinary triumph, I was deeply impressed, I can tell you! Of course, the Cordon Bleu students get to concentrate on the food preparation while someone else does the washing up. In fact, when Flinn tells us about one of the dishwashers, I thought she was speaking of genus Whirlpool or Bosch, but no – she was actually referring to “…a tiny, pleasant Algerian who comes up as high as my shoulders.” Les plongeurs, Flinn assures us, form a vital component of the Cordon Blue staff: “They’re the only ones who can get you a passoire when urgently needed.” (A passoire is a colander or strainer. When I did an image search on this term, I got this unexpectedly delightful result.)
I liked the bright and breezy style with which Kathleen Flinn narrates her Parisian life in general, and her cooking school experiences in particular. Chapters have headings like “La Catastrophe Americaine;” these are usually followed by “Lesson highlights;” in this case: “The International Buffet, Why You Can’t Make Substitutions with Cheesecake.” As one would expect, there are plenty of recipes, ranging all the way from surprisingly basic to dauntingly complex. (There’s an index to the recipes in the back of the book.) At this point in my life, I cannot read a recipe without first assessing the dish’s carbohydrate content. The French tendency to bake food en croute – wrapped in pastry – and the frequent presence of potatoes, rice, and pasta caused me to shake my head sadly. But there were a good number of recipes that were fairly low in carbs. For instance, there’s a recipe I’d like to try for Diffusion de Tomate Provencal – Provencal Tomato Spread. The ingredients are as follows: olive oil, red bell pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, Nicoise olives, capers, fresh basil, and coarse sea salt. Of course, what do you do with this delectable mixture? Spread it on bread or crackers, of course, those notorious repositories of carbohydrates! But even I must consume some carbs, after all, and Kathleen recommends this spread for seared or grilled fish as well.
Flinn introduces us to her fellow Cordon Bleu students, and we get to share in their awe as they’re taught by the creme de la creme of the culinary universe. I expected to encounter screaming, uncompromising perfectionists who would think nothing of humiliating the poor struggling students. That did happen a couple of times, but mostly Flinn describes individual chefs who are eccentric rather than tyrannical, each with his own unique approach to the art of la cuisine francaise. (I use the masculine pronoun deliberately, as there seemed to be very few, if any, women chefs on the premises.)
And speaking of which, Flinn was at a distinct linguistic disadvantage when she began her studies: her knowledge of French was rudimentary at best. The school did provided translators, but not on every occasion. As her tenure at the school progressed, Flinn’s grasp of the language did likewise. I was once more reminded – as if I needed reminding – of the beauty of this language, which I can read with a fair amount of fluency but can speak only in a very halting fashion. (I was also reminded of the delightful film series from the BBC Sandrine’s Paris, featuring art historian Sandrine Voillet. This aired some months ago on PBS and has since been rebroadcast at least once that I know of. Otherwise, both the book and the DVD are difficult to obtain here. )
While at the Cordon Bleu, Flinn was also in the midst of a rapturous love affair, begun in Seattle, and continued in France when Mike, the object of her affection, flew over to join her there. Jean asked us if we became impatient with the details of this relationship – but we older and wiser folk (plus the young and already wise Joanne) declared that if you couldn’t indulge your passions in Paris – well, then, where could you?
Another theme running though The Sharper Your Knife is the abandonment of an unrewarding job, or series of jobs, in order to pursue a dream. This is what Kathleen Flinn did when she decided to move to Paris and enroll at the Cordon Bleu. I admired her daring; I also wondered at her ability to get along without a regular paycheck – an ability apparently shared by Mike. (Well, it’s good to have things in common with the one you love!)
For me, the most interesting part of this book came near the end, when Flinn’s class took a field trip to Rungis. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Well may you ask. I had never heard of it, but Rungis, located on the outskirts of Paris, is purported to be the largest wholesale food market in the world. It replaced Les Halles, the storied marketplace that had existed in the heart of the city for hundreds of years. In 1971, Les Halles shut down, to be replaced by Marche d’Interet National de Rungis. Click here for the market’s official site. And don’t miss the video of the month. You’ll hear some lovely French spoken, as praise is heaped upon the humble turnip!
Here are some pictures of the market: . Click here to see more, but I should warn you: formerly living creatures destined for the dinner table are delivered to the market – shall we say, unprocessed. This includes rabbits…sigh. It’s enough to make one a vegetarian, n’est-ce pas? Dealing with raw ingredients in this form was something that Kathleen Flinn had to work to get used to. (Full disclosure: I had a grilled hamburger at Applebee’s last night – delicious!)
The French do love their meat. In fact, many of the recipes that Flinn first learned featured “meat stuffed with meat.” When my son and his wife were in Paris last Spring, they had to search long and hard for a vegetarian restaurant. (They finally succeeded in finding one – I don’t recall its name. They also took some great pictures.)
Inevitably, as our discussion wound down, much longing was expressed to be once again in the City of Light, where Jean just was and where lucky Marge and her husband will be next month. I was last there in 1995, when my son was spending a college semester there. I have intensely happy memories of that time, especially of my solo visit to the Musee Cluny ( now the Musee national du Moyen Age), where I sat for some time communing with the fabulous Unicorn Tapestries.
Thanks to Jean for the lively discussion of a rather unusual selection that proved to be exactement a propos. What we really need to do, of course, is to descend on the city en masse, with Jean as our guide!
Here’s another recent film I look forward to viewing: It too appeared recently on PBS. I missed it, but have just managed to acquire the DVD. And speaking of DVD’s, do yourself a favor and watch the BBC comedy Chef! – one of the most entertaining programs I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing on television.