N.M. Kelby talks about her new book, White Truffles in Winter

Categories: Celebrity Eats

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W.W. Norton & Co.
A local author's new novel channels Escoffier.
Local novelist N.M. Kelby (In the Company of Angels and Murder at the Bad Girl's Bar and Grill are among her works) recently finished a book about the life of the famous French chef Escoffier called White Truffles in Winter.

The story imagines Escoffier's complicated world--he's "a man of contradictions--kind yet imperious, food-obsessed yet rarely hungry," who's torn between two women, the actress Sarah Bernhardt and his wife, the poet Delphine Daffis. And he's struggling with a request posed by his wife: to name a dish in her honor, as he has for both Bernhardt and Queen Victoria.

After finishing the book, Kelby decided she wanted to start a blog to chronicle her attempts to eat more like Escoffier, treating each meal not just as fuel but "a sacred adventure." The blog offers some fun tidbits about the great chef--"Escoffier ended each day about 2 a.m. with a 'youth elixir' that included a raw egg, hot milk, and a split of champagne"--and a few local food tips (try 45th Parallel vodka, from a Wisconsin distillery part-owned by the folks behind Toast wine bar) among the recipes and bon mots, including "farmer's markets are like organic used car lots."

The book won't be released until this fall (more details forthcoming for the Escoffier-themed book launch dinner on November 14 at Heidi's). But in the meantime, the Hot Dish checked in with Kelby to learn more about the inspiration for the novel and what she hopes to learn from her blog.

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Ann Marsden
N. M. Kelby offers food for thought.
1. How long have you been writing in the Twin Cities, and where do you live?
I'd been a journalist, playwright, and poet for decades here before I finally came to writing novels. When I sold my second, my husband and I wanted an adventure, and so we bought a house in Florida. All I can say about that adventure is that "Be careful what you wish for" is a very old adage for a very good reason.

We currently live in a condo by the Twins stadium, but we have an offer on a Victorian house back in Crocus Hill in St. Paul. It's down the street from where we used to live. It's a beautiful old thing that is essentially a huge kitchen with room for a wood-burning oven in the backyard. Works for me.

2. What inspired White Truffles in Winter? Did you know much about Escoffier beforehand? How did you become acquainted with his work and world?
White Truffles in Winter began in my mother's kitchen. She was Parisian, a Jew shot during WWII while trying to escape. She had a very difficult life. Cooking was her solace, the only thing I think she thought she had control over. And she certainly had control. She never let me near the kitchen. As a child, Escoffier's cookbooks towered over me on the top shelf over the stove, well worn, and always out of my reach. They were a great mystery.

When my mother began the long process of her death, I became more and more interested in this famous chef who, despite his contributions to modern dining such as the discovery of unami and the creation of Cherries Jubilee and Peach Melba, had nearly been forgotten. When I'd come upon the fact that he'd created hundreds of dishes for all sorts of people, but never one for his wife who (by most accounts) he was quite devoted to, I just began to wonder who this man was. But, more importantly, I started thinking about how one can define the complexity of love on a single plate. My understanding of food suddenly shifted.

While Escoffier's cookbooks, memoir, letters, and the articles about him created the voice of his character in White Truffles in Winter, it is my hope that the elegant savage found in these pages is who we all are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist--it is our most hungry self.

3. What inspired your blog project? Explain more about your plan to write about your relationship to food?
Despite my upbringing, or maybe because of it, I'm the first one to forget to eat. I get busy and often work right through mealtime. And I do it a lot. Unfortunately, after spending two years thinking as a great chef, and eating like him, as soon as I turned the book in I went back to my old ways.

Luckily, our late April snowstorm threw me into a terrible funk, and I found myself at the grocery store wandering around looking for spring. It was that moment that I clearly understood that the two years I spent writing White Truffles in Winter were the happiest time in my life. Every farmer's market was a new adventure where a few duck eggs could lead to a rapturous rich chocolate cake and where a bit of farmer's cheese could bring you to tears. And, here's the crazy part--I lost weight. Apparently, eating joyously made me thin.

That day in April was an epiphany. I was so lonely for Escoffier, for the way he looked at food and the joy that food could bring, that I was standing in Whole Foods holding a perfect bunch of rapini and weeping.

4. Why do you think such a practice will be worthwhile?
I really hope that this experience will not only change my eating habits for good but also the habits of others. We all need to make it a practice to come to the table, Escoffier's table, to celebrate our lives on a regular basis. It's not a difficult thing to do. The great chef's table was lush because he celebrated both the ingredients and the diner. His approach to food is incredibly accessible, despite the fact that some of his techniques can't be easily replicated in a home kitchen. Still, you don't need truffles, foie gras, and caviar to cook like a French chef. I have an amazing stuffed pumpkin recipe from Provence that is as easy as making meatloaf and yet has such a deep flavor profile it astonishes the palate. Not to mention that it's pretty cool to serve dinner baked in a perfect shiny pumpkin.

I want us all to eat without compromise. We need to demand the best. We need to demand joy.

5. Any favorite food destinations in the Twin Cities?
I love the farmer's markets--every one of them. The International Marketplace on Marion in St. Paul is a wonderful crazy place to get the best Hmong papaya salad, a bushel of bitter balls to pickle (a wildly bitter eggplant), and watch some water-buffalo races [on video]. El Burrito Mercado on the Cesar Chavez Street is also a happy place of mine. You can often find me there eating pickled cactus with my fingers and tossing food into my cart with reckless abandon.

6. Any local foods you are most looking forward to this season?
Garlic scapes to cover with olive oil and sea salt and grill. Black currants to make into jam. Beets to pickle. All of it. I love it all. Well, except for the fiddlehead fern shoots, but you'll have to read about that misadventure in the blog.



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