Jacques Pépin, who will turn 80 on Dec. 18, exudes an air of perennial youth. Having worked his way up the rungs of rigorous Paris kitchens before coming to New York, he became the youngest in a circle of influential cooks (including Julia Child, Pierre Franey, James Beard and Craig Claiborne) who helped ignite a new enthusiasm in the United States for food and dining. In this essay, taken from a piece Mr. Pépin wrote for a birthday celebration in October, he looks back to his earliest years.
There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories.
But these memories of food are very powerful. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.” Lin Yutang, a Chinese philosopher, tells us that “Patriotism is the love of the dishes of our childhood.” Yes, the dishes of our childhood stay with us forever.
My earliest memories of food go back to the time of the Second World War. My mother took me to a farm for the summer school vacation when I was 6 years old with the knowledge that I would be lodged and fed there. I cried after she left and felt sad, but the fermière took me to the barn to milk the cow. That warm, foamy glass of milk is my first true memory of food and shaped the rest of my life.
I also remember as a young child helping my mother in our family restaurant, washing bottles for the wine and peeling potatoes. I began my formal culinary apprenticeship in 1949 at age 13 in the kitchens of the Grand Hôtel de l’Europe in my hometown, Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon.
Going back as far as my memory can take me, I see a kitchen in my vision of my mother, my aunts, my cousins, and I visualize a specific dish for each of them.
For my mother, what comes to mind first are the small fingerling potatoes, fresh out of the garden, with skin that would slide off when rubbed by your fingers. These potatoes were simply sautéed in butter to a crisp exterior and served with an escarole salad dressed with mustard, vinegar and peanut oil scented with garlic.
I recall that in my Aunt Hélène’s chicken in cream sauce with morels, she actually used dried gyromitras, the false morels with intense flavor that are designated as poisonous in most books on mycology. These never did any harm to us. Remembering my Aunt Aimée brings to mind a shoulder veal roast made in a cast-iron pot. Browned in butter and flavored with onion, it created incredibly flavored natural juices that I have never been able to duplicate.
Remembering my cousin Merret reminds me of her amazing chicken liver flan served with a tomato concassé, olives and mushrooms. I can envision my cousin Christiane with her incredible fresh white cheese (fromage blanc), covered with the thickest, unctuous cream and flavored with chives and garlic, and I see my niece Nathalie serving her boudin noir, or black pudding, with buttered sautéed apples and fresh mashed potatoes.