White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby is a fictional narrative about the life of August Escoffier, arguably the original French chef who took chefs from the level of peasant to bourgeoisie. The author admitted in her notes to taking liberties with certain elements of his life, but some she pulled directly from biographies, articles, and other such primary sources, as well as the ever-reliable Wikipedia. Of that, she said, “While delightful, many of these works were wildly contradictory and some were completely incorrect. Luckily, this is a work of fiction.” (I appreciate her honesty.)
Sandwiched between the French Revolution and World War I, Escoffier’s adult life was speckled with controversy and adultery, yet, if we take Kelby’s word for it, was rife with love with his wife Delphine. Despite spending many years away from her, sometimes for 7-year long stretches, the couple had a passionate love. Kelby made this very clear with her use of seductive language. Some of the interactions between characters were written about so deliciously, so sensually, that the reader is unsure if the characters ever actually made love, or if it was just the food they ravaged. It was poetic, romantic, and made the reader hungry.
The book was also a bit heartbreaking. August and Delphine’s estrangement, his nonexistent relationship with his children, and the hardships that he endured – war, suicide, death – were difficult to read about. But Kelby did the situations justice, never lingering on the pain, but rather on the rekindling of passion, or the development of the perfect recipe to honor the individual whom the recipe would be named after.
Hearts, both large and small, always hide from the sun and only show their true nature when broken. Is that not true?
This book was a true joy to read and gave me a better understanding of the passion behind cooking, despite the fact that I have been in the kitchen since early childhood. I can only hope to cook with as much feeling and awareness as Escoffier. But I suppose that, just like a poet’s words, can only come after much pain is endured and conquered.