The food philosopher

The culinary wisdom of Édouard de Pomiane transcends mere recipe writing

In 1930, the young Samuel Beckett was living in Paris and teaching at the École Normale. Towards the end of the year, he published an essay on Marcel Proust which posited that human life was basically one long sequence of habit occasionally punctuated by suffering. Beckett was later to disparage the work as having been written in “cheap flashy philosophical jargon” and it’s interesting to speculate whether he was aware of another much less flashy philosophical work published by another Parisian academic at roughly the same time.

Cooking in 10 Minutes: The Adaptation to the Rhythm of Our Time by Édouard de Pomiane quickly became a cult classic. Pomiane was the child of Polish émigrés who became respectively a food scientist at the Institut Pasteur and a popular radio broadcaster. Like Beckett’s, his book is obsessed with time, but unlike Beckett’s it admits of something beyond suffering to wake us from our stupor. Pomiane is one of the great recorders of delight, of the pleasure accorded by food. As he writes in the preface: “My book is meant for the student, for the midinette, for the clerk, for the artist, for lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers and scientists, for everyone who has only an hour for lunch or dinner and yet wants half an hour of peace to watch the smoke of a cigarette whilst they sip a cup of coffee which has not even time to get cold.”

He can turn the simple act of boiling an egg into something magnificent

If ever I am in the grip of culinary paralysis, at a loss to know what to cook, oppressed by the groaning shelf of cookbooks in my kitchen, depressed by the decaying leftovers crammed into the fridge, I reach for Pomiane. He never lets me down. His love of life, his subtlety, his common sense, stir me into action. He can turn the simple act of boiling an egg into something magnificent: “Wait two and a half minutes, lift out the eggs, put them into egg cups and without waiting a second, slice off the tops and eat them with crisp bread, fresh butter, the finest sauce and a glass of cool dry white wine. This is a feast.”

Or contemplating the choice between an expensive steak and that humblest of all fish, the whiting. “You can grill the beefsteak, or you can fry it in a pan which comes to very much the same thing. As for the whiting, you can…” and then goes on to list seven delicious modes of preparation ending with the characteristic flourish: “I simply can’t go on. It makes me too hungry.”

His poulet canaille uses thirty cloves of garlic: “Eat some chicken and then put a clove of garlic into your mouth. Bite it and the inside will slip out. It is exquisite. Spit the skin discreetly onto the rim of your plate. You can repeat this pleasure five times more, sipping as you do a very dry white wine.”

I simply can’t go on. It makes me too hungry.

As Elizabeth David describes it: “I know of no cookery writer who has a greater mastery of the captivating phrase, the detail indelibly imprinted on our memories.” It is a quality you find in her own work and some of our best recipe writers like Fergus Henderson and Jeremy Lee.

But there’s a Beckettian depth to Pomiane’s writing too. Both writers were obsessed with memory and for Pomiane, the preparation of food opens a direct connection with the past: “Tradition represents a momentary pause in the course of toil. Tradition brings back to life those whom we have loved, those to whom we owe the present and in consequence, the future.”

This connection with childhood memories inspires some of his best writing:

“Wash six medium-sized potatoes and wipe them dry. Put them into the hot ashes. After 20 minutes, lift them out, burning your fingers as you do so, and eat them, skins and all, sprinkled with salt, and dripping with fresh butter.

“This is no new idea, you may say. You cooked potatoes like this as children. Granted, but they are so delicious I could not resist the pleasure of describing them once more.”

Nor I in sharing his wise, kind words.

John Mitchinson is the co-founder of Unbound, the crowdfunding platform for books, and co-host of “Backlisted”, the popular book podcast

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