Books / Culture / food

Book Talk: “Mastering the Art of French Eating” by Ann Mah

Unlike my mother and my sister, I have never had a strong desire nor much skill towards culinary endeavors. In fact, my mom often shoos me out of the kitchen because she says I just hover over the food too much instead of making myself useful. It may be the journalist in me which prompts me to just observe the ingredients, the cooking techniques and understand the way in which someone else cooks rather than have the urge to try it myself. But, I love to eat. If there’s one thing about cooking I do enjoy, it’s learning about food and trying every and any type of food dish.

My love for food and not specifically the cooking part, is probably why I enjoyed reading Ann Mah’s new food memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love From a Year in Paris. I didn’t expect I’d like this book as much as I did since, like I said, cooking isn’t really my thing. But Mah’s clever ode to Julia Child’s classic cookbook title, Mastering the Art of French Cooking should’ve tipped me off that this isn’t your ordinary food memoir.

When her diplomat husband announces his next assignment is in Paris, Mah’s dream city, she envisions nothing but adventures and food excursions galore in the City of Lights with the love of her life. Nearly months after moving to Paris, her husband is suddenly called away to a last-minute post to Iraq for a year and Mah is left alone in a bustling foreign city, losing sight of her dreams for Paris.

I missed my husband like an internal organ, and the city, which had seemed so quaintly formal when we were together– with its bonjours and bonsoirs, and four-course-dinner parties, and cheek kisses instead of hugs– felt a little cold now that I was alone. (3)

Finding solace in food and French culture, Mah decides to channel her loneliness and passion for food by uncovering the origins and history behind true French cuisine. She begins to learn more about herself, French cuisine and love while on this journey. This book covers many dishes and distances, her story starts in Paris to uncover the city’s famous steak frites, traverses to Britanny to cover crepes, ambles to Alsace to learn about choucroute and stumbles to Burgundy to discover Julia Child’s signature dish, boeuf bourguignon among many other places and dishes Mah writes about.

The fries were hand-cut, hot enough to sting my fingers, a glass of red wine was cheaper than bottled water, a pile of nondescript steamed green beans turned oddly addictive when dipped into the tarrag0n-scented bearnaise sauce. I pursed my mouth and sawed at my steak, took a bite and chewed, put down my fork to circle an address in a restaurant review. I felt almost Parisian. (23)

Ann Mah takes you on a culinary, wander-lusting journey across France investigating quintessential French dishes and telling the traditions behind these foods. The only adverse effect this book had was that I would always feel so hungry that I didn’t think I could continue reading. Mah’s delectable imagery, honest and emotional prose and hilarious and humble stories left my stomach growling at every chapter and my fingers racing to turn the pages. I may have even gotten more inspired to step into the kitchen myself.

Without love, my work felt a bit meaningless; just as when I cooked for myself– the food never tasted as good. (122)
Images:, Bon Appetit

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