19 December 2011

Book Review: White Truffles in Winter by N. M. Kelby

First of all, isn't this a lovely cover, sensuously hinting at all of the good food writing contained therein?  I do believe that it is the cover the first drew me to this book back when my Norton sales rep, David, was in town.  He left me a copy of the ARC months ago but I'm just now getting around to reading it.  Like that sweatshirt that my mom got me says, it's always a case of So many books, so little time. 

This is the story of the great French chef, Escoffier, and his life and loves, told in a variety of ways: from the present, in which his wife Delphine, is dying but longing for him to create a dish in her honor; from chapters of the memoir which the present Escoffier is currently writing; and from the past, in which we get third person accounts of Escoffier's feats, ranging from wartime survival to loving Sarah Bernhardt, to running the kitchen at the famed Savoy in London.  This hodgepodge of narratives robs the book of any real coherence.  Early on, at least, the chapters alternate on a regular basis but in the latter half of the novel it switches a little willy-nilly and the novel suffers from this lack of continuity.

There are some gorgeous passages describing food in this novel--probably the best food writing I've read since Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody.  And I found my heart aching a little bit for Delphine, who on her death bed wants her husband to pay her the same compliment that he's paid his lovers through the years: to immortalize her through food.  But there is very little character development here, and what little there is of Escoffier's development leaves me vastly disinterested in him.  He seems to be a man of neither action nor honor. 

The writing serves the story well enough, and there are a few moments of simple eloquence of art, food, & truth--and that narrative integrity simply be a matter of perception:
"Impossible stories--they are the key to all good restaurants.  It [the "fresh" sole] could be frozen; it makes no difference. The diner will think it fresh, glorious. He pays for the story. If the story is told well, with imagination and conviction and the right amount of ego and embroidery, then it is true enough.  And something that is true enough is all anyone can ever ask for."
If I had gone into this novel with any sort of expectations, I might say that I was disappointed. But instead I'll say that this was a pleasant interlude between far more serious and literary novels--an amuse bouche, if you will.  In the end I found myself not caring much whether Escoffier created a dish for Delphine or not, or whether he had betrayed his country or not, or whether Sandra Bernhardt was pitiable or not.  Reading about the intense passions the French reserve for their food, however?  Now that was worth the prix fixe dinner! 


  1. I love reading books with wonderful descriptions of food in them. I am adding this one to my TBR list!

  2. The cover is divine! I do love food-as-character but I wonder if I might be unsatisfied by the lack of characterization or not. Still adding to my TBR!


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