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An Interview with Alexandra Leaf: What is Culinary History?

by Judy Hausman

On the sunniest Sunday in April, a group gathers in Longfellow Hall at Harvard University for the benefit of the Schlesinger Library, which houses the world's finest collection of historic cookbooks. The panel of scholars is speaking on the theme "Follow the Food and Find the People: How Food Captures Culture." They have come to culinary history from a variety of fields - black studies, medieval history, journalism - and represent the forefront of an increasingly respected field. They have discovered how cuisine holds the traces of a people's history, how the disappearance of traditional crops and dishes foreshadows the future of entire ways of life, and how food is a symbol of the way people interpret the world.

Alexander Leaf is an emerging star in this field. She is detective, cook, linguist, scholar: all valuable skills to trace the travels, mythology and preparation of what the world eats. As with many culinary historians, her interest in the field evolved from a constellation of other interests and skills. Her book, The Impressionists' Table: Recipes and Gastronomy of 19th-Century France, for which Jacques Pepin selected the wine, was published by Rizzoli in 1994. It pairs authentic 19th century recipes and menus with historical photographs and reproductions of Impressionist paintings. For example, Claude Monet's "La Grenouilliere," the fabled floating dining establishment frequented and painted by the Impressionists and their circle, is accompanied by a luncheon menu and recipes, which include fritures de Seine, adapted from an 1857 cookbook and tarte aux mirabelles, from an 1867 livre de cuisine. De Maupassant enjoyed such fish fries and Dumas enjoyed the little yellow plums in the tart, Leaf informs us. Along with these intriguing references and evocative dishes, the book includes a scholarly introduction to "the close and significant connection between dining...and the Impressionist movement," researched thoroughly in the Bibliotheque Senders at the Institut Agronomique in Paris.

I met Alexandra Leaf through a series of lectures, entitled "From Marcus Apicius to Julia Child: An Introduction to Culinary History," that she delivered at the New School in Manhattan. For this interview, we met in her understated Greenwich Village apartment. As we sat at her kitchen table, graced with a vase of white iris and overlooking the city streets, she told me the story of how she became a culinary historian.

The Interview

Judy: How did you become involved in writing about food?

Alexandra: I had three formative influences on my work: food at home, internationalism and an interest in France. My father was a film maker; I remember him making an omelette in his special omelette pan. My mother became education director for a large health food co-op, Coopportunity, in Santa Monica. Also, both my parents were influenced by the Counter Culture in the sixties and seventies and became almost tyrannical about nutrition. My grandmother and mother were Spanish-speaking and I studied French from the time I was in elementary school. I was really raised in an international family. When I was at Hunter College here in New York, I had a roommate who studied with a lot of international students. A Parisian friend of hers invited me to visit in Paris. This time was a turning point for me; it opened everything and I fell in love with France. Later, I began graduate work in Comparative Literature at NYU [New York University], instead of French or English as a Second Language, on the suggestion of a mentor. I continued studying French and Spanish, especially Latin American literature and French drama.

Judy: How did your studies lead to The Impressionists' Table?

Alexandra: I was interested in the food images of the Impressionists, but I didn't know quite what that was. I had done a little chapter on different depictions of "Dejeuner sur L'Herbe," which I showed to professor and then to a publisher. At the same time, I was teaching, finishing my program and writing my thesis but I still thought that there might be an idea there. Finally nothing worked out with the first publisher; the link between the images and the food wasn't clear - they didn't know what the book would be and neither did I. But I stayed in contact with an editor I liked very much. One day, I ran into her on the street; she was working for Rizzoli by then. When I told her I had written a bit more, she wanted to take a look at the project.

Judy: Did Rizzoli bring Jacques Pepin into the project?

Alexandra: No! People suggested I try to get some big name associated with it. I thought interesting wine would be another draw for the book. When I was putting together the wine lists, I saw Jacques Pepin's face all over the papers as the Dean of Special Studies at the French Culinary Institute. I thought, "Well, food writing must beSpecial Studies!" So I wrote Pepin myself and asked him to check and supplement the wine selections.

Judy: How did you go about doing the rest of the research?

Alexandra: I wanted recipes that were actually in use at the time of the Impressionists, to give the reader a feel for what the 19th century was like. I had a go-ahead from Rizzoli on the project but we wrestled for about a year about the lengthily introduction and the recipes. You have Julia Child, I said, if you want recipes; that's not the book I'm writing! In the end, how much do you care just about a recipe? Readers want to learn something! So I decided just to go to Paris to do the research I knew I would have to do anyway. In Paris, I lived in three different apartments - the second was in view of the Eglise St. Eustache at les Halles! Finally I looked for contemporary versions of 19th century recipes, converted them from kilos etc. and my editor and I tested them.

Judy: So it was the idea of the book that turned you into a food historian, not the other way around.

Alexandra: That's right. I'm more fascinated by history than I had ever realized. I didn't take a lot of history courses. I studied art history, language, and literature and theater. Now I want to audit a course in Europea history! Culinary history has really brought together all my humanities interests. Of course, I've also watched the food and cookbook market growing; it's an exciting time to be writing about food.

Judy: What's your take on the future of the field?

Alexandra: Ten years ago I was already making the distinction between a cookbook and a food book. But still today, many of the books are published by university presses and are not so accessible. I think the interest will trickle down, so to speak, and we'll see more popular writing. I think the field will be increasingly legitimized. NYU is opening a degree program; Boston University already has. Organizations, like the Culinary Historians of Boston and New York, will support that.

Judy: How do you see your own writing and professional future?

Alexandra: I'm working on a new project now which includes a cookie recipe from Maida Heatter. I'd like to do a biography some day, maybe of a chef. There's a nice opportunity for imagination rooted in history when you're re-creating, for example, an encounter in someone's life. I'm also going to teach a course about food and writing through Continuing Education at NYU and continue to offer the culinary history lectures at the New School.

Judy: Do you still cook the foods you researched and wrote about? As you acknowledge in your "Note about the Recipes," a picnic which includes soup, fish and rabbit really "reflects a style of eating that belongs more to the past than to the present."

Alexandra: I don't avoid butter and cream but I'm really a schizophrenic cook: macrobiotic one night; roast chicken the next. I do bake an occasional baba au rhum or madeleines for friends.

In her "Notes...," Leaf suggests that the time of the Impressionists "has certain parallels [to our time] in the culinary domain....we are passionate about food and delight in its preparation..." Her adapted recipes for cherry flan, roast quail and croque monsieur certainly call up a romantic period we pine to recreate. We look forward to Leaf's continued passion for food and the growth of culinary history.

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