Escoffier was there first

You haven't lived until you've had one of these. From Larousse Gastronomique, American Edition, 1960.

Where do my memories come from? Sometimes I worry I have made up most of them, or that I was programmed with them just yesterday. But if someone had programmed me, surely that someone would have done a better job at researching the facts.

Foods undreamt of in your gastronomy.

For years, the apotheosis-throne of Difficult Food has been occupied, for me, by headcheese. This is because I remember leafing through my mother’s Larousse Gastronomique and being both disgusted and awed by a recipe for it. Most of the thousands of recipes in that tome of gastronomy were a few concise sentences. The one for headcheese took up three pages and had exquisite detail of how to transform a pig head into a deli meat. I recall being disgusted and simultaneously determined to make my own someday. It is a memory that may explain a lot about me, and one that I have recounted a few times for friends under circumstances I no longer remember but surely must have been relevant.

What do you know. I checked out the vaunted Escoffier volume from the Madison library, and guess what? No headcheese recipe. It’s not even in the index. One little mention at the end of the “Pork Offal or Variety Meats” entry: “Pig’s tongue is also used as an ingredient for potted heads (head cheese) and head brawn.” That, friends, after two whole pages of instructions for preparing things like pig’s bladders, “lights” (lungs … including “Pig’s lights a la bonne femme”), kidneys, livers, stomachs, spleens, tongues, ears, etc. What gives?

Did I dream it up? Or am I the first person ever to confuse Larousse with the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Less Popular Meats?

Mysteries aside, there’s still plenty in the 1960 Larousse edition to get excited about. For instance, while I’m thinking about less popular meats (a phrase that inspires me to write a book), let me share some entries proving that, on the subject of expanding what we consider food, Escoffier and Gilbert were there first. For instance, on the page from which headcheese was inexplicably omitted, this instead appears:

HEDGEHOG. Herisson — Insect-eating mammal, regarded by some people as very good to eat.

It’s an example of what I love about Larousse. A “scientific” (quoth the foreword) dedication to an objective description of all things gastronomical, combined with a French inability to resist taking a swat at the ill-advised food choices of “some people.”

Pink radishes cooked in cream. Cocks’ kidneys as garnish. Field-poppy oil. Fire-crested wren (“small singing bird which is prepared like lark”). Lark (“In some countries it is in great demand more as an aviary bird than as food, because of its varied and harmonious song.” But not in France, where they have nine different ways of preparing it. Including larks a la bonne femme … Of course the good woman who knows what to do with lungs would have no problem with a little larks … which are prepared “like thrushes.”) Thrushes. Plovers, teals, woodcocks, capercaillies, curlews, hares (all good in April, says the Game Calendar). If it moves, the French have eaten it. Crickets get an entry (“eaten in some countries”) but are not on the Game Calendar. A surprising number of recipes for hash.

At the moment I am interested in hares, because we have so many of them in Wisconsin and they don’t seem exceptionally bright.

Larousse says the male is a buck; the female, a doe. The baby hare is called a financier, but do not mistake this for “sauce financiere,” one of the compound brown sauces, and it is hard to guess what either of these has in common with the bankers. It is “always” tender in its first year, and grows tough and stringy, the males faster than the females. First-year hares can be recognized by their slender paws, smooth coats, and lack of protruding claws. “The hares of northern France and Brittany are of inferior quality,” as are English hares, while German hares are larger than French but “inferior in flavor,” and the transatlantic hares are not mentioned at all.

Hare souffle. Potted hare. Fillets of hare a la Lucullus, the Roman general and gastronome: “Decorate the fillets of hare with pickled tongue and truffles cut in the shape of cocks’ combs and dipped in white of egg.” … I was setting my sights on the “Civet of hare” recipe right up to the last graf, where they say to thicken the sauce with “the hare’s blood mixed with 3 or 4 tablespoons of cream.” I don’t know about you, but that seems shockingly unkosher. But at least they don’t specify “hare cream.”

Probably in a few years I’ll be telling people about the hare cream entry.

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