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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-08-08
- Reviewer: Staff
Delphine Daffis is dying, and she wants her husband, French chef August Escoffier (famous for his restaurants, the Savoy and the Ritz), to create a dish named after her, as he has done for his lover, Sara Bernhardt, and countless others, even Queen Victoria. He had always refused, saying “one should never attempt to define the sublime” but Delphine didn’t believe him for a minute. Kelby (Whale Season) uses these historical figures to tell her story, set as WWII looms, and Escoffier has returned to his long estranged wife in Monte Carlo to write his memoir, The Complete Escoffier: A Memory in Meals. Delphine hires Sabine, a local beauty stricken with polio as kitchen help to persuade her husband to create a dish named for her. Without one, Delphine fears the world won’t know that the great chef loved her. Escoffier shows Sabine his cooking techniques, but he cannot settle on a dish that does his wife justice. Instead he’s consumed with regret over his life in Paris and London, which kept him far away from Delphine, his great love, who would not leave Monte Carlo. Kelby captures the sensory pleasures of food and the complex role it plays in the lives of her characters—seductive, repulsive, comforting. Careful research enhances but does not overtake the narrative. Readers in search of an evocative and sensual read will be well satisfied. (Nov.)
A feast for foodies
Fact and imagination waltz arm in arm through N.M. Kelby’s genre-bending novel White Truffles in Winter. Measure by measure, the personal history of the renowned, real-life chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) spins whimsically into fictive memories—intricate scenes of passion and taste. When the music finally stops, readers are left dizzied but alert to a tantalizing swirl of the senses.
The Escoffier of this story is a man torn between two loves: his wife, the poet Delphine Daffis, and his lover and longtime friend, the actress and international sensation Sarah Bernhardt. The novel is set in the last year of Escoffier’s life, in Monte Carlo, where he has retired and reunited with his wife after decades apart. Time has eroded his fame, fortune and health, and Delphine withers on her death bed. When an insolent Sabine arrives as their caretaker and cook, looking like a young Sarah (her father, who arranged the situation, is hoping to win Escoffier’s favor), memories are aroused in both Monsieur and Madame. Bottle by bottle, dish by dish, the story of their marriage surfaces: its perfect moments, its epic failures. And Delphine has a final wish: to be immortalized as her husband has immortalized so many others. After a lifetime of want, she would like to have the great Chef Escoffier create a dish in her honor.
Much of the book is spent reveling in the alchemy of flavor for which Escoffier was so known—the essences, the combinations, the transformational power of food as nourishment for body and soul. Cutting along the grain, not against, Kelby reveals her characters slowly, wrapping her readers in sensuous prose that, ultimately, seems as concerned with recreating the experience of a glorious meal as it does with narrative.
Foodies will no doubt enjoy the lush epicurean treatment as well as the historical elements of the novel, which explore the origins of today’s commercial kitchens and a host of culinary techniques. But ultimately this is a classic romance, the story of a transcontinental marriage doomed from the beginning, yet held together by the complexities of love.