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Simple French Food

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Richard Olney was born in Iowa and began his adult career as a painter before ending his days as a memoirist. But it was his many years in France — he moved there at age 24 and settled near a tiny Provençal town — and his career as a cookbook writer that sealed his reputation. 

Far less famous than Julia Child, who introduced traditional French home cooking to America in the early 1960s with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, Olney nevertheless made a name for himself in the early 1970s with his own books on ordinary French cookery. 

The title of his 1974 classic, Simple French Food, is both truthful and deceiving; the regional dishes Olney loved so much are simple only in their lack of pretension, not in the labor involved. Simple, for Olney, never meant quick or easy, just straightforward. 

"Simple is the password in cooking today," Olney writes in the preface (manifesto, really) to Simple French Food. "If food is not simple, it is not good. But, unless the supremely social acts of eating and drinking, of human communion at table . . . find their place as . . . essential threads in the larger fabric of simplicity, Simple Food as a concept can have no meaning beyond that of elementary nourishment for the anti-sensualist or ease of preparation for the lazy cook."

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Olney's devotion to eating seasonally and paying attention to paired regional wines seems commonplace to us now, but three decades ago it was revolutionary. The young chefs chopping up a storm in 1970s Berkeley adopted him as a father figure, and spread his unwitting gospel nationwide. 

Olney was also prescient in his lament for the passing of regional country cooking from the home to the restaurant. For what else do magazines such as Saveur and organizations such as Slow Food exist but to preserve culinary foodways that we might otherwise lose?

"Simplicity," writes Olney, "is a complex thing." Do not try to force his recipes into becoming 30-minute meals; pretend instead that you, too, live in a cottage on a hillside surrounded by olive trees with a kitchen full of terrines and a grape arbor to dine under and a nearby farmers' market and all the time you need. Then you'll be well on your way toward the Olney mindset.

p(bio). [caroline@culinate.com "Caroline Cummins"] is the managing editor of Culinate.


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