Almost 40 years ago, Paul Aratow, a UC Berkeley graduate student living in Paris, wandered into a bookstore with the vague intention of learning to cook. He picked up the thickest book he could find and took it home. He cooked his way through it, and it opened up for him a glorious new world.
Eventually he used what he learned to help start a new restaurant back home, called Chez Panisse.
This year, he returned the favor. Aratow’s newly published translation of “La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange” brings to English speakers for the first time a book that has often been called the “French ‘Joy of Cooking.’ ”
It’s a fascinating work, at once an encyclopedia of the basic techniques of cooking and a snapshot of French cuisine as it existed in the early 20th century. This is not the lighter, brighter experimental cooking of today’s three-star palaces, but traditional cuisine bourgeoise -- dishes such as blanquette de veau, salsify au gratin, floating islands.
It’s the kind of food the great chefs’ moms undoubtedly cooked when they were kids (and that chefs might still cook for themselves at home). And Madame explains things every good French cook should know, such as how to fold egg whites, how to turn mushrooms, how to make a roux.
The flavors are rich and layered. It is nothing for Madame Saint-Ange to bard a fattened hen with bacon, poach it in veal stock, thicken the sauce with flour and butter and then enrich it with plenty of heavy cream.
That is precisely the dish Aratow is preparing in the kitchen of his Studio City home in the hills of Laurel Canyon. He begins by laying strips of bacon across the breast of the chicken and then trussing it in place with twine. He then poaches the chicken in a veal stock he made the day before.
Aratow, a remarkably youthful 68, constantly refers to the book and then reports back as if having checked in with the lady herself: “Madame says when you poach something, you don’t just drop it in boiling liquid. You start it in lukewarm,” he says. “Boiling liquid seizes the flesh and that will change the texture.”
It seems obvious from the constant back-and-forth that Aratow’s job as translator did not include actually retesting the recipes, something he happily concedes.
“I didn’t see the need,” he says. “I’ve been cooking from the book since 1966 and I have never been betrayed. And it has been in print since 1927 without ever being revised. I think that argues for how strong the recipes are.”
Instead, Aratow dictated his translation into a digital recorder and sent it to a typist for transcription. He then went over the material again for a final polish. Working this way, it took more than two years to translate the 3,000-page manuscript.
Paid out over three years, his $10,000 advance barely covered the cost of a new computer and digital recorder, but Aratow says he looks at his work as a long-term investment.
“I believe the book will sell well and continue to sell well and I’ll make money in royalties,” he says. “The most beautiful words an author can hear are, ‘This is a back-list book,’ and that’s what my publisher told me.”
Little is known about Madame Saint-Ange except that that wasn’t really her name. The author, whose maiden name is unknown, married Saint-Ange Ebrard, taking Madame E. Saint-Ange as her pen name.
With her husband, she wrote and edited a monthly publication called Le Pot-au-Feu: Journal de Cuisine Pratique et d’Economie Domestique, much of which was collected into the book.
First published in 1927, the book became the standard text for French housewives for most of the 20th century and, in fact, it is still in print.
One of those who learned from the book was Julia Child, whom her biographer Noel Riley Fitch quotes as saying: "[It was] one of my bibles.”
Indeed, one of Aratow’s prized possessions is an edition of Madame Saint-Ange that Child gave to her editor-to-be, Avis DeVoto, with the inscription: “This is the best French cookbook I know,” dated 1956.
“Do you know what this means?” he asks, with a conspiratorial glint in his eye. “Notice, she didn’t sign it ‘Avis, Happy Birthday.’ No, this is ‘Avis, this is a book we can use.’ ”
While Child certainly drew inspiration from the book, she just as surely put her own stamp on the recipes. Most importantly, she organized them in a practical fashion.
Trying to cook from Madame Saint-Ange can be maddening. A dish may call for a stock described in one chapter, thickened by a method described in another chapter and finished in a way described in yet another chapter.
It is clear that Madame intended this to be a work of instruction rather than something a cook would dip into when he felt like making dinner.
And that, undoubtedly, was how an earnest grad student like Aratow would have approached it.
Living in Paris while his then-wife was on her Fulbright scholarship (they had spent the previous year in Italy on his), he took to cooking as a break from his comparative literature studies.
When they returned to Berkeley the next year, the couple began giving dinner parties. One of their frequent guests was a cinema buff named Tom Luddy, who ended up asking Aratow if he would like to help out his girlfriend, a would-be restaurateur named Alice Waters. (There is a strong bond between cinema and Chez Panisse -- the restaurant’s name comes from a character in a Marcel Pagnol movie).
“They had found some backers for a restaurant, and he said Alice could cook, but she couldn’t handle a commercial kitchen by herself; she needed some help,” Aratow remembers.
As the chicken poaches, he begins to prepare the sauce, measuring equal weights of butter and flour in an antique French balancing scale and then whisking them together in a saucepan.
The butter and flour mixture is a little thick, so he adds more butter to make a smoother paste. Then he sets it aside to cool. Madame recommends combining the stock and the roux when both are lukewarm.
Aratow says he joined Waters at Chez Panisse on the condition that they would hire workers to do the actual cooking while he supervised, making sure the dishes were prepared according to Madame Saint-Ange.
“The idea was to open a restaurant like a French bistro, good solid country fare,” he says. “We wanted to serve things that were not on anybody’s menu back then -- boeuf bourguignon, poulet au blanc, cassoulet -- things that most people hadn’t heard of. But they were all there in Madame Saint-Ange.”
Then a couple of the cooks quit, and as part-owner he had to step in.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to die, the stress was just brutal,” Aratow says. “We were flat broke. I’d be trying to figure out how to make payroll and I’d step into the kitchen and find a pool of fetid water under the refrigerator and start panicking about how much food had gone bad and how much we could save.”
‘See, no lumps’
The chicken is done, so he removes it from the pan, strains the poaching liquid, reduces it by half and sets it aside to cool. After a few minutes, he whisks the cooled liquid into the cooled roux and then heats it. Gradually it thickens to a smooth, thick sauce.
“See, no lumps,” Aratow says. “Just like Madame says.” The broth fully incorporated, he begins beating whipping cream into the sauce.
At about the same time Aratow was becoming disenchanted with the restaurant world, Hollywood beckoned. He cashed out his half of the restaurant for $9,000 and headed south with a friend to make movies.
He had worked in film in the Bay Area, making mostly what he describes as “abstract shorts and really self-consciously arty things.”
He’d also worked on documentaries, including one called “Weed” on marijuana use in Asia. Another documentary project resulted in his first book. He wanted to do a history of stag movies, so he advertised for collectors. He didn’t find any films but did discover a mountain of vintage still photographs, which he turned into “100 Years of Erotica,” published in 1971.
Eventually, Aratow wound up producing two movies, 1984’s “Sheena,” the story of the famous queen of the jungle, which received multiple nominations from the Razzie Awards -- the reverse Oscars -- and “My Man Adam,” which was released in 1985.
Aratow painstakingly cuts the chicken into pieces, peels away the skin and then arranges the meat on a platter. The sauce is a pale ivory, thick and rich. He begins to pour it over the chicken straight from the pan, then stops and carefully spoons it on instead.
“What would Madame say?” he asks.
He put together the Madame Saint-Ange project the same way he would produce a movie. He had negotiated a deal for the American rights from Larousse, the French publisher, and then began a long campaign of persuading a friend at Ten Speed Press to fund it.
“I’d been talking to Ten Speed for 10 or 15 years, telling them this was the best cookbook in the world,” he says. “Finally they called and said they’d asked Madeleine Kamman [author of “When French Women Cook”] about it and she agreed, so they were going to publish it.” Kamman wrote the foreword.
Aratow arranges cooked mushroom caps around the edge of the plate, and the poularde a l’ivoire is completed. The chicken is moist, perfectly cooked, with a deep, pure flavor. The sauce is silky and subtle, tasting mostly of cream with a shadowy bass note of rich stock. It’s the kind of thing we’re not used to tasting anymore, the culinary equivalent of a Louis XIV chair.
“Wow,” says Aratow. “Doesn’t that taste French?”