“If you are a bird, odds are that you are a chicken”: Jacques Pépin, Mimi's Café, and American Ideas About French Food
Before we begin: I’m still offering a 20% discount on paid subscriptions for the remaining “cucumber days” of late summer:
“When the gay world is no longer gathered together in London…the great men have gone out of town, work is left to feebler hands…In the dead of autumn, when the second and third rate hands are on, we sink from nonsense written with a purpose to nonsense written because the writer must write either nonsense or nothing.”
“If you are a bird, odds are that you are a chicken”: I’m in this month’s New York Review of Books with a look at Jacques Pépin’s latest cookbook, Art of the Chicken. I find it slightly difficult to think about Jacques Pépin; I want to dissolve thought into affect, and simply admire him, as a chicken clucks in radiant triumph over her egg. I think he is splendid. It can be similarly difficult to think very hard about chicken, a bird best-known for its ubiquity, uniformity, and ease of adaptability.1 Yet surely something we encounter nearly every day deserves careful attention. I think of Pépin as having an ideal relationship to attention: repetition and relaxation are united in him, the result is expertise, and his expertise leads him always to greater freedoms, greater playfulness, and greater ease. I hope he lives another 100 years.
Pépin spent several years managing the Howard Johnson’s commissary test-kitchen, and it led me into a digression into other midcentury American restaurant chains with a vested interest in Frenchness. This was (understandably) cut from the final piece, but I wanted to include here the brief digression on Mimi’s Café that appeared in an earlier draft:
The drawings are competent, cute rather than memorable, and tend to run together after a while. You could easily imagine seeing them hanging on the wall at a Mimi’s Café, now Mimi’s Bistro + Bakery, a homeopathically-French chain of fast-casual restaurants popular in Southern California and a few neighboring states, that is more like Howard Johnson’s than unlike it. The first Mimi’s opened down the road from Disneyland in Anaheim in 1978, the brainchild of former MGM Studios commissary head Arthur Sims, and was allegedly named after a French woman he met as a GI during a V-E Day party. The chain was bought out in 2004 by Bob Evans Farms, Inc. (of the Bob Evans restaurant chain, which is to “country dining” and the Rust Belt what Mimi’s is to “bistro dining” and the Sun Belt), then again in 2013 to Groupe Le Duff, which sounds like a bad American imitation of Frenchness but was founded by Louis Le Duff in Brest and is in fact an honest-to-God French conglomerate.
There’s something slightly unusual about French interpretations of Americanness, especially American cooking, and particularly when that interpretation is affectionate and sincere. The reverse is far more common. Possibly there are some Americans who move to France without receiving a book deal. If there are, I’ve never heard of them. But there is a timeworn cottage industry, with an honorable and ancient pedigree, of Anglophones taking a tiny flat in the Marais, or a crumbling villa in Aix in need of repair, shortly before releasing a charming little book called something like A Californian in Provence, or My Year in Toulouse, or Eat! An American’s Hunger in Paris.
“The chicken is to the Frenchman what the bald eagle is to the American”; he is younger and wiser than we, who forgot to choose a national bird we could eat. It is very lucky for us that Jacques Pépin lives and eats here, where we can more conveniently watch him.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]
“The technique and speed with which I debone a chicken has brought me a measure of fame,” Pépin writes in Art of the Chicken, which is truly beautiful.