Sic transit Gloria mundi
Sometimes my path to a recipe is straightforward, other times it takes a detour –– this one took quite a turn.
It all started with Alexandre Dumaine and his legendary "Hostellerie de la Côte d'Or".
Curnonsky and Dumaine
I had come upon his name in my research for the Jeremiah Tower post and wanted to know more (Tower had said that he wanted his restaurant to be “worth the journey” like Dumaine’s).
The name was familiar –– it sort of buzzed around in my brain and settled in the Fernand Point – Curnonsky realm of French food luminaries from the middle of the 20th century but went no further. I quickly found out that everyone went to the out of their way to dine at Dumaine’s Côte d’Or restaurant on their way to the Riviera (like King Alfonso XIII of Spain , the Aga Khan , Rainier III of Monaco, Orson Welles, Édith Piaf, Charlie Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, Gary Cooper and Salvador Dalí who booked months in advance requesting the same menu his King had enjoyed).
I did a search to find out more about Dumaine (his own 1972 cookbook is written in French and not easy to come by) and one of the first things that came up was a Gourmet article from 1964 by Naomi Berry –– a Gourmet staff writer I first discovered thanks to a present of a thick stack of 60s and 70s Gourmet Magazines from an elderly Greenwich Village neighbor. By the time I got my own Gourmet subscription in the 1980’s, I knew her work well and was a fan.
Reading the article and the description of this magnificent, easy dish, I quickly remembered what a great food writer she was –– I made the eggs immediately:
“On this memorable first occasion, we were asked at the end of luncheon what time we would like to have dinner. We fixed the hour for 8:15 and chose a comparatively simple dish that I happen to love: les oeufs toupinel. For this dish baked potatoes are scooped from their shells, coarsely mashed with butter, and returned to the shells with a julienne of ham and truffles. A hollow is left in the center for a poached egg which is covered with Mornay sauce. The potatoes are quickly returned to the oven to be gratinéed. To be perfect, the yolks of those eggs have to be runny.”
The Gourmet article captured her friend Dumaine's genius, but also spoke of mining tradition and keeping great food of the past alive:
“Cooking is like music in that, once composed, it requires great interpreters to keep it alive. Alexandre Dumaine probably the greatest interpreter of Carême, Vatel. Prosper Montagué, and Escoffier in our generation. There is nothing that belongs to the cooking tradition of his country that he cannot realize—and with exquisite finesse. He has never limited himself to his specialties but, upon request, is willing to draw from the entire classic repertory. Dishes that became but reading recipes in old books have been brought back to existence...."
“If there is one dominant principle at work in the kitchens of the Côte-d'Or, it is the idea that a sauce should be made supple and rendered light. All the fat needed at the beginning of the cooking process is removed before the end. It takes time—slow cooking, dunging of casseroles, frequent use of strainers and cheesecloths—until every heavy panicle has been spirited away. After five or six hours of such pampering, the sauce is but a suggestion. There is really almost nothing there but a taste. To arrive at what is hoped will be little more than a volatile perfume, twenty quarts of sauce may be reduced to a quart and a half. This lavish concentration is the triumph of the theory that less is more, and it applies to almost everything that is good in life."
Barry let Dumaine tell the secret of orchestrating a memorable gastronomic experience, with a technique that still inspires today:
“You know, the better something is the less of it you should serve,” he once said. “When you go to a party or a reception at someone's house, you are handed a glass once you are inside the door. Why? Make the crowd wait ten or fifteen minutes. Everybody will be thinking, ‘What are they going to give us?’ The suspense grows. You shouldn't cut the pleasure of your guests by showing your opulence.
“Just before people become restless, you serve them something special—a very old Sherry or Port or Château d'Yquem—in a very pretty glass. Just half a glass. Everybody will be respectful. What a marvel. They will sip slowly because they will be afraid they won't get any more. Then you give them a second tear's worth. The service should inspire respect. You don't quench your thirst on a marc 1880 or Hospices de Beaune. You must have the art of caressing on your tongue. That is when gastronomy is beautiful.”
I went off to collect more Dumaine information and came up with another beauty from a 1955 New Yorker piece, “Tempest in the Kitchen”, by Barry's fellow Gourmet contributor and New Yorker writer, Joseph Wechsberg who was allowed 10 pages to Barry’s 3 so went more in depth on the Dumaine story. Another great find (and I will write more about him soon).
Here we come to the reason for Sic transit Gloria mundi. Although I found a lot about Dumaine and Wechsburg, Barry, for all her decades of work, had nothing to search for. It was as if she barely existed. Even I have pages and pages of results on a search on Google and I certainly didn’t write for Gourmet for 40 years. I was shocked that such a fine writer with such a superb body of work could just dissolve into the Ethernet without a trace. It wasn’t as if she died in 1847, she died in May 2013 and wrote at least until 2010.
There are a few books –– some Gourmet compilations like Gourmet; Paris a table, a diminutive book on zucchini, ADORABLE ZUCCHINI as well as a few Gourmet articles on their website, but, not much considering she was a writer for Gourmet, The Herald Tribune and others.
It made me incredibly sad to think how short our collective cultural memories can be.
I know I have tried to open a few rusty doors to forgotten treasures at Lostpastremembered but most subjects are long gone or obscure and it makes sense that few would know about them. For some reason her slim profile really bothered me. I thought I would share her writing, celebrate her life a bit for you and make that potato as a reward (I’ve already made if for myself a few times in 2 weeks, it’s that good)
The Food Arts' piece retold a tale of Barry’s destiny to become a writer of places, people and flavors:
“Once upon a time, Ta Tip, a Chinese fortune-teller in Bangkok, told Naomi Barry what her life’s work would be. “You show others the way to a place”, Ta Tip told Barry. Barry later said. “If experience leads to expertise, then I am an expert eater…. My career generously enabled me to eat in top restaurants all over the world. It was inevitable that I became critical.”
The Press Club piece said her Quai d'Orsay Paris apartment, “… overlooked the Seine and a bright neon sign announcing “Bateaux Mouches”, was filled with original and valuable art, first editions of great books in French and English and ephemera appropriate to one who had left Westchester County, New York, in the 1950s for a rich life in Paris…. Considered the doyenne of Gourmet correspondents, she savored life and liked to describe herself and her friends as "great broads" — charming, sassy, intelligent women of un certain age.” She was 95 when she died.
Marilyn McDevitt Rubin of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, interviewed her in 2003 and discovered how Gourmet “got wind” of Barry in France:
"I came to write the essays by accident," she said.
“It seems that an editor in Gourmet's New York office had got wind of four bakeries, opposite one another at the same corner, in a small town outside Paris. All were selling madeleines, scalloped shell-shaped cakes, eaten like a cookie.
Nadar’s portrait of Alexander Dumas
“Barry went on to write a series of profiles that included among them, Colette, a writer who understood what men wanted; Victor Hugo, who each morning after a good breakfast wrote a hundred lines of verse or 20 pages of prose; Alexandre Dumas, whose "Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine"(there's an English selection from it –– Dumas on Food: (Selections from Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine by Alexandre Dumas père)) published in 1873 contained 600,000 words and two illustrations; George Sand, a writer who took great pride in the proper management of her French household; Jane Austen, who did insightful portraits of woman and all that occupied them; and Henry James, who wrote, "It might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can be reasonably expected of it." Barry researched each article by reading through her subjects' collective works and concentrating on their culinary insights.”
For those of us who try to write and are frustrated when things aren't going well, it was heartening to read even a great master’s well-crafted plans can hit bumps. Barry was in Japan doing a story on traditional inns and their meals:
"Everything was a mess, and I was spending huge sums of money in Tokyo and not getting any closer to what I needed," she said. "All my contacts had failed me. One day, in tears, I called a Japanese woman I had met by chance in the airport. 'This is what we'll do,' she said, and she gave me directions and names and numbers that put me on track and resulted in just the article I needed to write.”
It was a great article that I remember. I visited Ryokans based on her article and thought every suggestion was spot on perfect.
Gourmet editor, Ruth Reichl –– one of my favorite food writers, captured Barry this way in Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet:
“As the good times came back to the metropolis [Paris], Gourmet sent off the first of what would be an unbroken line of full-time correspondents to chronicle the life of the city for its eager readers.
“That first resident correspondent was Naomi Barry, who may be the most underappreciated restaurant writer of all time. Reading fifty-year-old restaurant reviews would not normally be much fun; it takes a writer of extraordinary abilities to make you care about meals you will never be able to eat. But with each review Barry offers up such a rich slice of life that you feel you are sitting at the next table eavesdropping on your neighbors chatting with the chef. Her reviews are like little time machines that not only allow you to taste the food she is eating, but somehow transport you back to a city that no longer exists.”
How did this great food writer begin? The Rubin interview revealed:
"My mother was the worst cook I ever knew," said Barry. "At dinnertime, I would run away from home to my grandmother's just to escape the evening meal. I taught myself how to cook by reading books."
I love cooking from books, using both recipes and descriptions. In the case of Dumaine’s eggs, it was a recipe with a bit of history. I read , “This recipe was created in 1898 in a restaurant in Paris near the main theaters of the city, and very famous in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The chef decided to name the recipe name of a protagonist of a vaudeville success this year, Fire Toupinel 'of Alexandre Bisson.” It seems the original is just potatoes mashed with butter and cream and a bit of nutmeg, then the poached egg and Mornay sauce. It can also be made with spinach (there’s a hysterical French video from the 50s on making Eggs Toupinel HERE using ham and baking the egg with no Mornay). Dumaine kicked it up a notch when he added the ham and truffles to the mashed potatoes.
A recipe by Wolfgang Puck (in Modern French Cooking For The American Kitchen) did the same with ham and truffles but added mushrooms and had a neat trick of whipped cream in the Mornay. I skipped the mushrooms and tried the whipped cream –– nailed it.
I read on the Pink Pillbox that Eggs Toupinel were a favorite of Jackie Kennedy. They are easy to make and delicious. You can easily make most everything in advance and put it together at the last minute. They are truly great comfort food, perfect for holiday brunches. Give a toast to Dumaine and wonderful Naomi Berry, long may they live in our memory.
Eggs Toupinel for 4
4 small baking potatoes –– don't use giant russets
1 T olive oil
bed of rock salt (optional)
4 T truffle butter from D'Artagnan
2 T cream
chopped truffle or truffle oil to taste (D'Artagnan has both)
s&p to taste (remember the cheeses are salty)
1-2 slices ham depending on size, julienned
1 c Mornay sauce
1 T grated Gruyere cheese
Preheat oven to 400º. Cut through the skin 1/3 down from the top potatoes but leave the two pieces together and cook for 30 or 40 minutes (or more depending on the size of your potato) on a bed of salt or in an oiled dish.
When cooked, remove the top and scoop out the pulp, reserving the shell.
Rice or thoroughly mash the potato, combine it with the 2 T butter, cream, truffle or truffle oil, s&p and nutmeg. Add the ham. Refill the shells leaving an indentation in the center for the poached egg to sit in–– you can over fill as long as you feel it's stable.
Poach your eggs about 3-4 minutes in simmering water. Remove with slotted spoon and place each egg on potatoes or reserve till ready to use.
Put the Mornay Sauce on top of the egg (although it's not a bad idea to spoon a little under the egg and then more on top) and dot with 2 T butter and the grated cheese. Broil, keeping close eye on it… it burns easily.
Spoon the remaining Mornay sauce on the plate, if you would like. Set the potato on that and serve.
2 T butter
½ shallot, diced
1 c milk
pinch of salt, pepper and nutmeg
Heat the milk and simmer while you melt the butter with the shallot and clove. Add the flour to the butter and stir over low heat till all bubbly. Do not let it brown. Pour the hot milk slowly into the flour mixture, stirring all the while over a medium heat till all the milk is used and the sauce is thickened. Strain the sauce.
1 c béchamel
1 T demi-glace (optional)
1 egg yolk
½ c grated Parmesan
½ c grated Gruyere
2 T whipped cream
Add the demi-glace to the béchamel and reduce a little. Add some of the hot milk to the yolk and blend. Put it back in the pan and warm, do no let it boil. Remove from the heat and add the Parmesan and Gruyere and stir till smooth, putting back on the heat if necessary but only a little.
Just as you are ready to use the Mornay, add the whipped cream and spoon over the eggs