Read before Eating
     by Steve Jenkins

"I arrived in the Alps in the middle of October, 1939, after a long train ride toward the mountains that would protect me and many of my young compatriots from the madness of war.

"Mimi already knew how to make a solid, chewy loaf of bread with cracked wheat, corn flour, and wheat flour and that nice little hunk of pungent yeast brought back from Thones every week by her father (whose business was in Reblochon cheeses up the valley). For Sunday morning after Mass, she often baked a dozen or so egg dough petit pains in which she would enclose the grattons or cracklings left over from making lard or rendering bacon. And all that bread (huge wheels about 16 inches in diameter) would be sliced to become the support for slices of mountain ham topped with melted Reblochon cheese, or cubed to dip into a pot full of Beaufort cheese melted into berton (fondue) with a good bottle of Roussettes wine and a few cloves of garlic.

"When I came back as a junior counselor in the children’s home, Mimi was a woman and the mother of a blond, blue-eyed two- year-old child. She lived alone with the child in the chalet; her mother and father had been killed by solders for giving refuge to resistance fighters from the nearby Glieres Maquis.

"Mimi was the sole heir to a fortune of mountain slopes and cows, to woods, Reblochon-making fruiters. She signed it all over to her daughter, now thirty years old. She is still my friend and I still go to see her, stealing the time whenever I can. I bounce down the road in a rented car after spending a most expectant night on a transatlantic flight. We cook, Mimi and I. She shares with me what we call la passion de la casserole, the passion for pots and pans. We go gathering wild cyclamens together, or cepes to make a gratin. I have never been able to catch up with the morels, but she always keeps some dried for me and never fails to bake a chicken chock-full of them for me. We go visit L'aline in her chateaux Aravis and every time we come down the mountain with a half a pound of fresh, neatly pressed butter and I rejoice, seeing the new Reblochons ripening on racks and listening happily, blissfully to the cowbells calling across the valley."

I am stunned that many of us in the business of food haven't read the books. How can that be? Don't you know what you're missing? Is there not a shapeable element within ourselves about which this body of food-related literature acts as the spinning potter's wheel? Sure I've traveled to the sources of the foods we sell. I've traveled a lot. But if you somehow delivered me of all the food stuff I've learned from my books I can't imagine how on earth I could earn a living. I would be but a sheep in terms of product mix. My salesmanship would be the equivalent to that of a supermarket deli clerk. My merchandising would have all the impact of a five-and-dime. And, I would be lacking what for me is absolute love and devotion for our medium – food – the result being an oppressively tedious life.

I have given you a portion of Madeleine Kamman's When French Women Cook (Atheneum 1981). In it, she relates her experiences with French women, each from a different region, each having touched her life significantly in a manner that further fuels her passion for pots and pans. The result is that the reader gains irreplaceable insight into regional French way of living, precious examples of production and actual use of many of the very French products we all sell, as well as poignant sociological and historical revelations that serve as mortar for our business. Business is our lives. Our lives are about food. Food is more beautiful and fascinating than anything I know of.

So how can you profess to have mastered the art of your business, to feel as though you've left no store unturned unless you know all there is to know about food? Sure, there are a lot of dumb bunnies out there who have made loads of money who couldn't tell the difference between fois gras and Spam. But that fact cuts no ice with me. I maintain that if my command of the entire realm of food is superior to yours, I am better equipped to make more money than you. There. That should elevate crassness to a new level.

I always insist that my clients and customers start (and finish) with Waverly Root's (God rest his wonderful soul) The Food of France and his Food of Italy (both Vintage 1971). Here, in paperback, cleverly and passionately, is all you need to know about the geography (regionality) and substance of the foods of these two countries, both of which figure, arguably, in cardinal prominence with regards to our business. Man, if he was still alive and did a book on Spain...

Then I urge them to read everything they can get their hands on - by Roy Andries de Groot (specifically The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, The Ecco Press 1992, and a compilation of his articles entitled In Search of the Perfect Meal, selected by Lorna J. Sass, St. Martin's Press, 1986). If The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth doesn't bring tears to your eyes, I don't know what would. Then of course comes MFK Fisher. Many of Frances' books must be described as utterly joyous, masterly, and more personally, it was she who helped me realize that I had chosen the right endeavor. And, though, when recently that philistine Rob Kaufelt, the otherwise sensitive owner of New York's famous Murray's Cheese, told me he was having trouble getting through Fisher's remarkable faux-trilogy How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster and The Gastronomical Me (all North Point Press 1998), I further realized that with some people you just have to be patient. And with some books be patient as well. The information and incipient is there. You just have to allow it to reveal itself. Give it a chance.

After Roy and Mary Frances must come Elizabeth David - everything! All her books belong in your home. Particularly that last one, a re-issue of her old Italian Food book (Penguin 1999), but now with color reproductions of all those staggeringly gorgeous Renaissance painting of fish, fowl, fruits and vegetables by painters like Bimbi, Garsoni, Recco and Ceruti. Also that compilation of her articles entitled An Omelette and a Glass Of Wine (Viking 1985).

Paula Wolfert's books are invaluable. You should have them all. Marcella Hasan's books, in our house, actually, in our kitchen, are so encrusted with sauce and greasy with olive oil that I'd be embarrassed to loan them out.

I don't know how I ever functioned without the technical information effortlessly obtained by reading Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking (1984 Scribners).

There are food books like Harold's that must be described as texts, and there are several others I can't imagine not having at my fingertips if only to provide fodder for effective signage, and don't you know I use these texts for this purpose on a daily basis. They include Elizabeth Schneider's Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables (Harper and Row 1989), a vastly under sung piece of work; the exhausted encyclopedia of food: The Food of the Western World by Theodora Fitzgibbon (Quadrangle 1976); and certainly the Larousse Gastronomique (Crown 1966).

There are literally thousands of other food books worthy of remark, each with its own value, each offering bankable knowledge for you as a food businessperson. You simply must own Patience Gray's Honey From a Weed (Harper and Row 1987), Patrick Rance's French Cheese and British Cheese – both utterly seminal (and out-of-print).

My wine books are as important to me as food books, indeed I consider them food books; they share shelf space. If you have the following, you're got the subject covered. First, Hugh Johnson's Vintage (Fineside-Simon and Schuster 1989). Second, everything Robert M. Parker has published. Third, Hugh Johnson's The World Atlas of Wine (Simon and Schuster 1971).

Not forgetting Richard Olney's books, and Julia della Croce's Pasta Classica (Chronicle Books 1987), nor Eleanor Clark's Oysters of Locmariaquer (Vintage 1964) , nor A.J. Leibling's stuff, everything by Alan Davidson, Brother Juniper's Bread Book (Addison Wesley Longman 1993) by Brother Peter Reinhart, MFK Fisher's translation of the classic and wonderful Physiology of Taste (North Point Press, 1986) originally published in 1825, having been written over thirty-some years by Jean Anthelne Brillant-Savarin; AJ McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, (1965) and certainly his The Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery (both Holt, Rinehart) - McClane just recently died, but I notice he finished his game cookery book which has just come out and it looks beautiful...

But if you've read this far, you deserve to know which are my absolutely favorite books. They are Patricia Wells' A Foodlover's Guide to France, 1987 and her Foodlover's Guide to Paris, 1999, both by Workman (don't be without her Bistro Cooking, Workman 1989, either!) Now, keep in mind that the criteria for SWJ's favorite books include inspiration and appreciation, each offering material that I can transfer, physically manifest, and execute, and execution, my friends, means sales.

And the last three: A Taste of France (Stewart, Tabori and Chang 1994) photos by Robert Freson with essays by numerous food writers. I can't decide which is more effective, the essays or the photos. This book is a killer. Savoring Italy (Harper Collins/Callaway 1992) - the same format, same people - Robert Freson should be canonized. The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc, also full of photography by Christopher Baker. This book will revivify the jaded and push those of you near the cusp of greatness over the top.

Ast the Expert
Buy Cheese !!!!!!