After you decide you want to be a writer, the problem becomes what to write about. Every subject seems to come with a prepackaged identity: the introspective memoirist, the philosophizing critic. And then there’s “food writing,” a term so broad, it’s practically identity-free (Wikipedia’s list of food writers mentions both the Greek scholar Athenaeus and Martha Stewart, two people who, I imagine, would have very little to discuss at a dinner party).
The one thing that does seem to unite “food writing” is the widely held belief that it is frivolous, somehow “less than.” A book I read recently described someone as “too good a writer to be a food writer,” and while I’d heard versions of that before, it gnawed at me all the same. It didn’t belong there, in this book I otherwise liked.
Alexandre Dumas was fighting the same attitude when he made his food-writing debut. Dumas had already established his identity in the literary world: The Count of Monte Cristo was only, you know, the most popular book in all of Europe. So he had his reputation on the line when he decided to write about food – and he knew it.
His food book, he argued, would be different, combining “both scientific knowledge and an element of wit,” and would “perhaps deserve to be read by men of serious character.” In other words, it wasn’t just for that cookbook-reading riffraff. The result is a strange little encyclopedia, written of two minds: half food worshiper, half food apologist. The one thing Dumas can say for sure is that he just really loves potatoes.
The unexpected star of the book, potatoes take up an entire section in From Absinthe to Zest, as “a most excellent vegetable.” He details their historical significance: During the French Revolution, the royal gardens were torn up to make way for them. He also makes grand claims about their health benefits: “The alacrity with which one observes children eating baked potatoes, and feeling all the better for them, proves that they suit all dispositions.” I’m not sure about that evidence—considering the alacrity with which I ate Twix bars at that age—but he seems convinced enough.
Dumas’ main gripe is that while the potato was embraced by the masses, “absurd prejudices prevented it from being duly appreciated for a long time” by the upper classes. “Many people thought it a dangerous foodstuff, or at least a coarse one.” Dumas took it upon himself to change prejudices toward the potato … and began changing prejudices toward food writing at the same time. Now it’s up to us to finish the job.
* * *
From Absinthe to Zest includes several of Dumas’ favorite recipes; pommes de terre à la provençal is so simple it would fit on the back of a postcard. “Put six soupspoons of oil in a casserole with the zest of the skin of half a lemon, parsley, garlic, and well-chopped spring onion, a little grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Then peel the potatoes and cook them with these seasonings. When the moment to serve arrives, sprinkle them with the juice of a lemon.”
This potato salad combines those same ingredients, but uses spring onions two ways—pickled, and in a vibrant pesto. Any small potato (red new potatoes, or fingerlings) would work here, but if you ask Dumas, “the best, without question, are the purplish ones, known in Paris by the name vitelottes.” While you might not notice the taste difference he did, it’s easy to see why he liked them: They transform the humble potato into the visual showstopper he hoped it would become.
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 large bunch spring onions (or ramps), greens and whites separated
2 1/2 pounds Peruvian purple potatoes (or fingerling potatoes), scrubbed and halved
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped parsley
Juice from 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a small bowl, combine vinegar, salt, sugar and 1/4 cup water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Thinly slice the whites of the green onions and submerge in vinegar mixture. Set aside.
2. Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with water until just submerged. Bring to a boil and cook 10 minutes, until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain potatoes and set aside.
3. Coarsely chop the onion greens and place in a food processor, along with pine nuts, parmesan and garlic. Pulse until a thick paste forms. While food processor is running, add olive oil in a slow stream until pesto is smooth.
4. Place potatoes in a large bowl and fold in pesto until potatoes are coated. Drain onion whites and add to bowl, along with parsley, lemon juice and nutmeg. Toss until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.