Big, Bold and Blandings: The Dreamiest House of 1948

Last week I went in search of Mr. Blandings. More specifically I went in search of Mr. Blandings’ dream house. A challenging feat on both fronts since Mr. Blandings is a fictional character and his real life dream house no longer exists. This adventure of the seemingly impossible was all sparked by a little snippet of information about a clever marketing campaign produced by Hollywood in 1948. The movie company was promoting this film…

a romantic comedy starring one of the most beloved actors of the twentieth century. But before we get into the story of searching for a nonexistent man in modern day,  we must first travel back in time to the 1940’s,  an era when creativity flourished, outside of the box thinking was encouraged and unusual situations were captivating the country. The first half of the decade was spent in World War II. On the home front that meant conservation, frugality, victory gardens, rations, fundraisers and bond drives. It was a test in patience, positivity, confidence and emotional endurance as people lived day to day waiting to hear the fates of their loved ones away at war.  In those first five years of the 40’s people got used to making do, going without and utilizing every last bit of everything. Thankfully, in 1945 the war ended and Americans adjusted once again to a new normal as they recovered from years of uncertainty. By 1948, two and half years after World War II ended, America was ready for some fresh air and some new perspectives. A glance at that year’s pop culture highlights tells all about the country’s enthusiastic push for progress and for ideas that were new and stimulating and fun.  Post war, post trauma, post sacrifice, 1948 embraced some big ideas that were remarkably different, refreshingly new  and spectacularly exciting. Let’s look…

It was the year that Land Rover debuted, bucking tradition with their new all-terrain vehicles complete with a steering wheel that was located in an unusual spot – the middle of the front console. Tailfins showed up on Cadillacs, a nod towards sleek aviation design and a feeling that your car could take you anywhere. Monkeys were welcomed into NASA’s elite as they became astronauts bravely rocketing into space in order to test conditions so that men could make it there themselves a few years later. America’s affable laughable cartoon bird, Woody Woodpecker had a top 40 hit song on the radio, sharing the same spotlight with singing legends Doris Day, Perry Como and Ella Fitzgerald. Brand new air ferries started shuttling around the sky, transporting people and their cars from one city to the next. And most exciting of all, on the kitchen front at least, was a man named Blandings who built his dream house.  And then he built seventy three more.

While all of these interesting pop-culture tidbits of 1948 are worthy of their own individual blog feature, it is Mr. Blandings who is the topic of our post and our road trip through history today. He created a sensation that took up the last four years of the 1940’s, filling people’s heads with dreams of possibility on the home front. It all starts in 1946, when he was the subject of the runaway bestseller called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a fictional account of a real-life adventure  experienced by the author Eric Hodgins. In the book, Mr. Blandings embarks on the ultimate quest  – the American dream of the 20th century – buying a house for his wife and family.

To Mr. Blandings of 1946, a dream home meant extra closets, a private bath in each bedroom,  a game room for him, a sewing room for her and plenty of outdoor space for the kids. It meant everything that his cramped Upper East Side New York City apartment lacked – peace, security, space and a good dose of nature.  One day, when he just can’t stand the close city quarters a minute longer, he adventures out to the country to have a look around. One thing leads to another and a new domestic life comes into sight. In the book, it looks something like this, thanks to illustrator William Steig…

The Blandings choose the Connecticut countryside as their ideal homestead, and a historic house that was loved for both its shabby, need-of-repair appearance and its supposed storied place in American history. What develops as the family starts planning a move from NYC to Connecticut (just a train ride away!) involves a series of new house woes that they never expected including demolition and reconstruction.

Throughout the story, mishaps and unexpected scenarios test the metal of all that makes up Mr. Blandings, the man and the mission. At every corner, he and his wife are met with a new challenge. Nothing goes quite according to plan. There are time delays, contractor issues, escalating costs, tricky neighbors and all sorts of digging, drilling and hammering surprises.  An everyman story, a timeless tale, an homage to hope, optimism and the struggle to succeed, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House resonated strongly with the heads and hearts of the American public of the mid-20th century, many of whom were experiencing their own construction trials and tribulations  as the building industry boomed during the post-war years. The book was such a hit that two years after its debut, Hollywood made a movie out of it starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.

Just as entertaining as Eric Hodgin’s story, the movie was also an incredible success. Practically all of America fell in love (again!) with the Blandings and the predicaments they encountered. In addition to dealing with the baffling world of home construction, Mr. Blandings also frets over a relationship between his wife and a long-time family friend while simultaneously juggling a deadline for an advertising campaign at work. The trailer doesn’t really do the film much justice, but it does give you a glimpse of the humor that peppers both the book and the movie…

We never really get a good sense of the house the Blandings wind up building until the very end of the movie when the finished product is revealed. It turns out to be a beautiful colonial-style farmhouse set on a few dozen acres of rolling countryside…

The  real-life house that Eric Hodgin’s book was based on was built in Connecticut in the late 1930’s. The real-life house featured in the movie was built on pastoral studio-owned property in Malibu, CA in 1947. That makes two real-life houses built for the telling of one story. But by 1948, an astounding 73 more houses are added to that real-life list.  These houses are built in 60 different cities across the country thanks to a very clever and very generous marketing campaign put together to promote the film.  RKO Pictures and SRO Distribution Company teamed up with contractors, construction crews, designers, utility conglomerates and furniture companies all over the U.S. to build not one… not two… not three… but seventy three (73!) Blandings Dream Houses that were then raffled off in local contests. Not only was it epic promotion for the movie and the time period, but it was also an exciting opportunity for advertisers to showcase new products and cutting edge technology for the modern home.

General Electric was a big national sponsor advertising all their latest products including  wiring, appliances, air conditioning and even electric blankets. Many of their innovations greatly affected the kitchen and laundry areas, turning those rooms into two of the most technologically-advanced places in the entire house.

Imagine how exciting and inspiring this campaign must have been back in post-WWII  days when everyone was trying to get back on their feet and recreate their own semblance of home and shelter. The average house price in 1940 was about $3,000.00  (equivalent to $32,000.00 today) and the median household income was $956.00 a year (equivalent to about $17,000.00 today), not totally unaffordable by modern comparisons (the national median income today is $59,000 and the average U.S. home price is $230,000) but the Blandings dream houses in 1948 all came equipped with the most modern features, stylish interiors and the latest innovations which greatly extended their value.

For people who loved to cook, the idea of winning such a modern home would have been fantastically exciting, as the Blandings Dream Kitchen was one of the most modern and efficient rooms in the house.

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s most American kitchens looked something like this…

… a collection of precariously placed appliances and furniture of all styles that mingled with exposed heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing fixtures.  While these 1930’s kitchens were perfectly functional they weren’t necessarily set up for ideal ease, comfort or organization.  By the time the Blandings declared their dreams in the 1940’s, kitchens were becoming much more aesthetically pleasing and helpful. Built-in cabinets, long counter tops, hidden utilities, ventilation hoods, picturesque windows, bright colors and designated dining nooks made cooking more efficient, enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. You’ll notice that these 1940’s kitchens below also utilized corners, shelving and seating to maximize floor space.

When the movie first premiered in New York in March of 1948, ad campaigns began rolling out across the country announcing the Dream House Build-Up, so that by June when the Blandings were in theaters nationwide, the excitement and anticipation was at a fever pitch.

The Skokie. Illinois Dream House

Each of the cities that participated in the big build invited the local public in to view their custom version of a modern dream house.  What was especially intriguing about this promotional campaign is that not all of the houses built in each city were an exact replica of the Blandings dream house or its colonial style. Some cities chose to build houses that were more suited to their own local climate or aesthetic. The one built in Knoxville, TN was a one story rambler…

This one in Milwaukee was a smaller cape-style  cottage…

In Oregon, the dream house contained elements of brick and siding…

Read more about the Portland version of Mr. Blandings’ Dream House here.

Most of the Blandings promotional houses were built in suburbs  – the big city shadows where land, space and freedom offered opportunity for the American dream to grow and spread. From Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington; from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the Pacific Coast of California; from the top of Minnesota to the bottom of Texas fictional dreams were determining real-life destinies. Which brings us back to the modern day road trip that I embarked on last week.

This is the complete list of all the cities that participated. Is there one in your town?

Excited to see that Nashville was listed as one of the “Dream” cities, I went in search of Blandings in my own neck of the woods. This is what the Nashville dream house looked like in 1948…

Unlike the one built in Knoxville, the Nashville house was built in the exact same style as the one in the movie. Located in a very pretty section of town, noted for its gorgeous old growth landscaping and stately historic homes, I was excited to see what the Blandings dream house would look like now. Here is what I found…

Pretty! But not exactly the same house as the one pictured in the newspaper advertisement…

As it turns out the original Blandings house was torn down in the 1970’s. This new house occupying the spot now was built in 2016 and sold for $1.6 million. A little more expensive then 1940’s home prices:)  Although it’s not a historical design, it is fun to see that the roof line, dormer window and landscaping are quite similar and complimentary to the original Blandings style. Perhaps this house designer was a 1940’s fan himself!

As I was about to drive away, an old man came out from a garage across the street.  A much more modest house in size and scope, this old gentleman was shuffling down his driveway with the help of his cane, wearing a wool sweater, pajamas, bedroom slippers and a determined look.  I suspected that he was headed towards his mailbox. Immediately I thought of Blandings himself and I waved to him. But he didn’t wave back.  Obviously he wasn’t our hero of book and screen, but in that moment I imagined that this stooped over grey-haired guy, trembly and slow was once was a young man with a wife and two kids. I imagined that he used to live in a small apartment in a big city and that one day, he too got fed up and set out to build his own dream house – the sprawling brick ranch that he still lives in now.  Obviously he wasn’t Mr. Blandings. But then again… maybe he was.

Cheers to dreamers and to real-life houses that inspire books that then inspire movies that then inspire more dreamers and more houses! And cheers to Mr. Blandings, who is not real, but feels very much so.

If you are interested in reading the book that sparked this nationwide love affair seventy years ago, find it in the shop here. If you live in one of the dream cities that built a Blandings house please comment below and tell us all about your famous local icon. We’d love to hear more about it!

The Recommendeds: Six Different Versions of Home Built Around Six Dreamy Settings

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. – Maya Angelou

Home. It’s a wonderful word isn’t it? Hard to define, but wonderful to say, it means so many different things to so many different people. Even the dictionary doesn’t quite know how to accurately and clearly define it. Depending on the context, home can mean anything from a shelter to a territory, an instinct to a direction, a feeling to a destination.  Such powerful concepts wrapped up in one short little word.

Recently, I’ve encountered a slew of interesting books and movies centered around the symbolic meaning of home. How the need for it is universal, like Maya Angelou said, but also how the journey to find it is completely personal and unique. The selections listed here, focus not only on the literal kind of house made of actual walls and roof-lines and windows, but also the figurative kind.  The place or the space where you feel most comfortable. For some in this list,  that home is their workspace- a place to dwell daily with a like-minded tribe of people. For others, it is a grass-is-greener dream of a city far away. For one woman in particular,  home is not a house at all, but a garden yet to be built.  For another, home is not only an actual house but also a palpable feeling – a place to connect and collect all that soothes and comforts. And for two others, home is a placeholder, a time keeper, a catalog of memories waiting to be recalled.

From the city of Paris to the beaches of the Bahamas; from the inner workings of America’s best loved museum to an artistic collection of everyday items discovered in a humble house; from a Riviera retreat to an English garden…  these are the six shining examples of people and places that tie together a universal and compelling need to identify our own environments.

Let’s look…

1. Museum – Danny Danziger (2007)

 

If you ever wanted to know all the nitty-gritty details of what’s it like to run a major museum than this is the book for you. On average, New York City’s  Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomes about 19,000 people a day through its front doors and houses over 26,000 pieces in its collection. Told in interview style,  Museum is a behind the scenes look at what it takes to keep one of the world’s most iconic landmarks up and running, day by day, from the perspective of 50 of its employees.  Covering all aspects of the building, and a wide range of jobs from maintenance to security, cafe operations to curatorships, the executive board to the gift shop sales team, it doesn’t take long to understand what a massive undertaking is required to keep America’s most favorite museum running smoothly.

Like most enterprises, the heart, soul and success of a business lies in the employees that represent it. And the Met is no different. Some people in this book lucked into their museum job having little experience, while others spent many years studying to become experts in their field. Others worked their way up from volunteer positions to eventually become part of upper level management and some were still just as happy fulfilling the same position they started decades ago. One thing they all have in common though, is their awe and appreciation of their workplace. To them, the Met serves as a refuge. A place that requires  protection and support and endless amounts of attention. But not in that needy way that eventually grinds you down. To all these workers, the museum is majestic  – an irreplaceable gift of history.

Very aware of their own pivotal role inside the bustling metropolis that is the Met, what I loved most about this book was everyone’s sense of pride in their appointed tasks. The floor buffers hold just as much respect for their workplace as the director of the Museum. The information desk clerks are just as excited to chat about art as the tour guides. The cafe waitstaff is just as devoted to their kitchen counters as the collection curators are to their galleries.  Everyone loves the Museum and wants to see it shine.  Of course there are days when not everything goes right or runs in tip-top fashion and that gets discussed too.  The highs and lows that come with real-life don’t stop at the museum doors, but for the people who work there, trivialities and minutia don’t hold a candle to the sheer magnificence of the place. Tucked in-between all these fresh voices, with their fresh perspectives are a plethora of fun facts and interesting details about how a museum really operates from the ground up.  Sure, the Met is home to priceless pieces of art, but it is also home to thousands of workers who feel like they belong there too, just as much as the art.

2. Villa America – Liza Klaussmann (2016)

villa-america-liza-klaussmann

If there is one enviable couple that gets referenced most in the circle of friends that included Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,  John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker and many other icons of Paris’ golden age in the 1920’s and 30’s, it is Sara and Gerald Murphy.

Sara and Gerald Murphy

Mostly known for their stability within this eccentric group of writers and artists, Sara and Gerald were the enigmatic muses that inspired much of their friends work, including F. Scott’s main characters in Tender Is the Night.  Fun loving, family focused and inventive, Sara and Gerald’s relationship within their marriage was stuff of legend – so loyal, so strong, so well-connected it seemed as if nothing could or would tear them apart.

Villa America

Escaping the U.S. for Paris in the early 1920’s led them eventually to the French Riviera and a house they called Villa America.  There, the Murphy’s set out to create a carefree, whimsical paradise for their friends and family to enjoy year after year.  Villa America (the book) is a fictional account of the real-life circumstances wrapped around the Murphy’s idyllic, dream-like lifestyle. Weaving together stories of illuminating dinner parties, interesting friendships, and fanciful family outings,  a darker side to the Murphy’s and their circle of friends is also revealed. One that it is fraught with tragedy and misunderstandings, muddled moods and illicit intentions. Through it all, the house sits center stage, a witness to the people and events who come and go.

What is particularly fascinating about this book is Liza Klaussmann’s interpretation of characters and conversations surrounding  Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lots of known cliches and generalizations float around these two men – that F. Scott was dashing and amusing, a drinker and a romantic, and that Ernest was gregarious, rowdy and an ultra-masculine rough and tumbler. But in Liza’s book, you experience other sides of these two as well.  F. Scott, for all his charming ways is also difficult, overly dramatic, and high-maintenance. Ernest shows up as a ball of opposites –  egotistical but also compassionate, needy but reckless, dominating yet keenly aware of other people’s fragile vulnerabilities.

The environment is lush with details. F. Scott is trying to write his way through novels, gathering source material for his characters from the real friends around him. Like all the other men, he finds himself captivated by Sara, irrepressibly drawn to her emotional maturity and warmth – both appealing characteristics that seem lacking in his own wife.  Zelda, meanwhile,  spends her days romping around the Riviera trying to sort through her own desires. Signs of unusual behavior start to manifest. But no one yet realizes that this troubling behavior has much less to do with Zelda’s natural personality and much more with the start of her slow slide into mental collapse. Likewise, Gerald also escapes into the recesses of his mind, where he begins to question and explore feelings about his own sexuality that extend far beyond his loving marriage to Sara. On the verge of break-up themselves – Ernest, with his wandering eyes and Hadley with her general sense of unease in the glittering Riviera world – are awkwardly together trying to navigate the terrain of a not very well matched marriage.  Sara, sensing the unease of all of these situations silently swirling around her, tries to protect her friends and her family in the sheltered, safe space that she is determined to create at Villa America. But for all of Sara’s best efforts in trying to keep cruelty out of the compound, emotionally difficult situations sneak their way in raising questions about the true meaning of home, family and friendship.

3. Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down – Rosecrans Baldwin (2013)

paris-i-love-you-but-youre-bringing-me-down-rosecrans-baldwin

Staying on the topic of Paris but moving ahead a century, Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down is the memoir of a burnt-out New York City ad man who moves to France for a new job while simultaneously working on a new novel. Tired of the New York City grind, Rosecrans Baldwin is ready to find his paradise in Paris. He has a mood board already mandated for his life before he arrives… the wine, the food, the beautiful architecture, the beatnik lifestyle, the art, the cafes… all those lovely picturesque elements ready for the taking. But what he didn’t count on was what life would be like in reality as an American, not only living, but also working in France.

From day one, Rosecrans is a fish out of water. He finds that daily life in Paris is very different compared to daily life in New York City. When he takes a job at a French advertising agency, he discovers that the same could be said for office culture as well. The language is a problem (too fast), social interactions with his new co-workers are a problem (do you shake hands during first meetings or kiss on both cheeks?), lunch is a problem (never at your desk), even the fundamental pattern and processes of handling ad business is vastly different.  In New York, Rosecrans was used to working long pressure-filled hours, at a fast pace, developing ideas that had to consistently ring true and be brilliant. But when Rosecrans gets to Paris and his new workplace, he discovers many unusual circumstances.  People leave the office at 5:00pm whether their work is finished or not. Many of the office staff grab a glass of wine together after work before heading home.  Gift cards to local restaurants in the neighborhood are given to each employee to ensure that they take time for lunch. They work on one campaign at a time, for one client at a time. No one ever gets fired. No one is ever expected to come in early, skip lunch or stay late. It wasn’t like New York at all. No one lived at the office and just visited their home spaces. Rosecrans found himself navigating a strange, foreign land, both literally and figuratively.

The result of all these oddities and differences yields a hilarious look at real-life in Paris.  Most books written about Americans moving to France focus around their love affair with the city and a charming newly discovered lifestyle which they are eager to adapt quickly. Rosecrans’ book is the opposite. He voluntarily chose to move to Paris. But then, once he gets there, he constantly questions that choice as he moves through his daily “French dream.” He discovers that Paris is not quite the paradise he imagined. Fundamentally uncomfortable in a lifestyle he thought he would naturally love, Rosecrans paints a funny, bizarre and gritty picture of the everyday side of the city that often gets overlooked.  In his world, it was definitely not all views of the Eiffel Tower and beret clad artists. It was not all joie de vivre and buckets of baguettes and walks along the Seine. No, this was a different side of Paris altogether.

How does it all shake out for Rosecrans in the end? Does he stay in Paris, eventually embracing all the differences? Or, does he return back home to the New York, to the city he knows and learns to love again? You’ll have to read it to find out:)

4. Island Style – India Hicks (2015)

india-hicks-island-style

Being the daughter of famous 20th century British designer David Hicks and the goddaughter of Prince Charles might yield an intimidating presence. Especially when her natural born talent of interior decorating has made her a style expert in her own right. But nothing feels more down to earth when it comes to India Hicks and her beautifully bohemian decorating book simply titled Island Style. Here, she shares stories about how, over time,  she decorated her comfortable, casual Bahamian home, with a cacophony of elements meant to inspire more than impress.

Decades ago, a whim led her to the Bahamas, a place she never imagined that she would eventually call home. One thing led to another, years passed years, and India found herself still there. In these pages, she shares the journey that led ultimately to her island house, a sanctuary of memories she shares with her long-time partner, their five children and a menagerie of animals. India intimately discusses at length the art of decorating with sentiment versus cents and the importance of letting your interiors evolve in style as you evolve in life.  If something catches your eye or calls to your heart, take it home, she advises, there will be a place for it somewhere, always.

Thoughtful decorating, India illustrates, comes from storytelling. From gathering and displaying items that are important to you. This leads to personality-filled rooms and fresh perspectives. They become meaningful, nuanced, comfortable, appealing because  the backstory was brought in, in the form of a tale you naturally wanted to tell.  That’s when the magic happens… easily… effortlessly… style and colors and shapes and patterns combine in interesting ways that begin to inspire, remind, emote and invoke a feeling of home.

Mixed in between interior images of her house and collections, she writes beautifully about what it is like to live on an island in the Bahamas, well beyond the honeymoon phase. A period that in her experience lasted about two weeks, before  practicality and reality set-in as far as setting up a real life with real kids, and real pets in a real house.

Island life isn’t for everyone. The point of this book wasn’t to seduce readers with a show-off lifestyle and a get-here-as-fast-as-you-can attitude. The point was to simply demonstrate the impact of personal touch and taste upon a space.  The world is noisy but our interiors don’t have to be. Home is no place for a set of trends established by other people, living other lives in other places. Home is you not them. It speaks for us and of us when we don’t want to speak ourselves. India’s book reminds us of that.

5. 306 Hollywood (2018)

For over 60 years, Annette Ontell lived in this cute, white house at 306 Hollywood Avenue. There, she amassed all the ordinary tidbits that was required of daily life in New Jersey throughout six decades. When she passed away, her grandchildren, brother and sister filmmakers Elan and Jonathon Bogarin felt the weight of her spirit still very much present in all the stuff she left behind. So they set out to tell her story.

Color-coded collections of Annette’s things.

Through a style of art known as knolling, they organize and catalog her collection of ordinary household objects into groupings, to better understand what these objects meant to her life and ultimately what her life meant to them. Combining home movie footage, audio interviews and dynamic cinematography, Annette comes to life before our eyes.

Annette

We get genuine insight into Annette’s passions, pursuits, and philosophies. We fall in love with her affable personality.  We understand how the story of one seemingly ordinary woman actually turns out to be quite extraordinary.  We understand how a home becomes a heart, beating with life and necessity.  A true treasure trove for any vintage lover, this documentary is a colorful, nostalgic and sentimental look at the value of everyday objects, and their purpose over time. Get a glimpse of the magic that is 306 Hollywood by watching the trailer here…

6. Dare to Be Wild (2015)

Based on the true story of Mary Reynolds, the youngest woman ever to compete in the esteemed Chelsea Flower Show, Dare to Be Wild is the cinematic story of the journey that led her from dreamer to doer. From the start of her budding career (no pun intended!) Mary’s clients and employers want her to design gardenscapes within an acceptable box of sameness. But Mary has other ideas, wild ones, that don’t confine nature or ideas into typical proven displays that can be replicated over and over again.  Mary is keen on harnessing a feeling of home and harmony in her garden designs –  a certain sense of wonder and enchantment that she has felt her whole life whenever she steps out into the natural world.

But the Chelsea Flower Show is no easy quest. Paperwork, rules, formalities and finances tie her down at every turn. Her competitors are an intimidating array of past award winners, esteemed gardeners and British royalty. For every step forward, she winds up taking two steps back. Her journey is not easy on so many fronts, you begin to wonder if her plot of ground at the Flower Show is ever going to grow into the vision inside her head. But through all the uncertainty Mary stays true to the sounds that call her home… the wind rustling in the trees, the birds bright with song, the soothing noise of tall grass sweeping against stone.

Beautifully filmed and truly inspiring from the first five minutes, Dare to be Wild is a wonderful example of how the notion of home doesn’t have to be defined by typical, sedentary structures. Home is a feeling as much as it is a place.

Hope these selections have you thinking about your definitions of home and how’d you best describe it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you wind up reading or watching any of these books or movies, let us know. We’d love to keep these discussion going throughout the year.

Cheers to the word home and to all the places we call our own!

Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.

Dinner Time Stories: An Extraordinary Evening with Le Petit Chef

An evening of Dinner Time Stories with La Petit Chef

It’s not every day that you receive an invitation to dine with the world’s smallest chef. But that is exactly what happened on Sunday night. This one-of-a-kind dinner took place at The Standard, a private cigar bar and restaurant located in a historic townhouse in downtown Nashville.

A foreigner to the country, the world’s smallest chef lives in France, but he’s just recently embarked on a world-wide tour of sorts that will take him to Stockholm, Cairo, the United Arab Emirates and all around the United States in 2018. Lucky for us, his first stop in America was right here in Nashville at one of the prettiest restaurants in town.

The Standard is an elegant splash of old-world glamour that naturally evokes daydreams of long-ago decades and previous merrymaking.  Although it’s only recently become a restaurant and cigar bar (in the early 2000’s) it is definitely not hard to imagine that this building has lived a flamboyant and glamorous lifestyle throughout its existence.

Built in 1843, it is a gorgeous example of antebellum Italianate architecture, the last of its kind on this city block that once held dozens of similar buildings all in a row.  With its exposed brick walls, moody lighting, leather furniture, big fireplaces and cozy nooks your imagination doesn’t have to run far to conjure up swanky scotch parties and charming tuxedo-types romancing dates and drinks throughout the past 175 years.

Scenes from the Standard

Originally a family home, then a bed and breakfast in the 1980’s, and now most recently a night-time restaurant and a private club, it is safe to say that this building has seen its fair share of special occasion dinners. This past Sunday evening was no exception.

Tucked into a private dining room with two long tables, white cloths and curious leather bound books placed at each setting,  dinner guests were invited to indulge in a bit of whimsy for a two hour stretch on a cold January night.

Photo courtesy of dinnertimestoriesusa.com

Our mysterious host, the little chef, was nowhere to be found at this point, but as the lights dimmed and the maitre d’ welcomed us, he magically appeared…

Bonjour! Meet the little chef with the BIG personality!

from inside the books placed before us!  As it turns out, the world’s smallest chef is no bigger than your pinkie finger. Mini in size, but mighty in personality, we quickly learned that Le Petit Chef is a BIG fan of a certain famous explorer…

Marco Polo (1254-1324), the famous Venetian explorer who traveled across Europe and Asia and published his experiences in a book called The Description of the World.

Marco Polo. By nature, the two have very much in common – they are both intrepid travelers, free spirits, and excellent storytellers. This very special dinner, hosted and prepared by the little guy himself, turned out to be a culmination of bold travel experiences inspired by his idol, Marco and his famous 14th-century explorations that changed the world.

Told through the use of 3D projection mapping, Le Petit Chef cooks and adventures right before your eyes pulling you into his engaging world of storytelling and food presentation in the most fanciful of ways. Over six courses, he takes dinner guests to a myriad of exotic lands, near and far, with stops in places like India, Asia, the Himalayas (and more!) all the while preparing signature dishes from each culture.  His adventures were so big in scale, he had to literally jump out of the book and walk around on the table in order to showcase the whole journey…

To give you a little perspective, that’s my wine glass in the top left corner and Le Petit Chef in the right-hand corner walking around on the tablecloth.

I realize this is a difficult situation to wrap your head around – a little guy walking and talking around your plate  while you are also eating – so we’ll share this video so that you get a better idea of how it all works…

Each course was presented in its own dynamic and interesting way. The first course for example, (Ratatouille  Terrine with Tomato Jam accompanied by a Roasted Green Slip Mussel with Garlic and Lemon) arrived in a mini suitcase just as the little chef was sailing across the ocean in search of the start of his trip.

As the story continued and the travel destinations became more exotic, the table landscape changed in a multitude of different ways…

Here we are in China!

In an instant, patterns and colors transformed into new shades and shapes…

while real food filled our bellies and visual artistry fueled a feast for our eyes. Magic met us at every turn.

Grilled Shrimp with Chili, Sriracha and Sesame, on the left and a dessert demonstration by Le Petite Chef on the right.

By the time the cloudy mountaintops of the Himalayas were presented, and real-life fog flooded our plates, in both food form and story form, we all, everyone at the two long tables, had completely fallen in love with the little chef.  When the last crumbs of dessert were whisked away and the little chef bid us good night, we knew we had experienced an incredible event. We had spent a glorious time with a new friend who not only fed ourselves but also fed our souls.

It’s the goal of the little chef to see as much of America as possible, which is good news for you. He might be heading your way next! Keep up with his city stops here… and if he’s in your neck of the woods, go and find him. Dine with him. Fall in love with him. And enjoy the enchantment he brings. It will be an unforgettable night full of magical storytelling.  And if there is anything more than we need in this crazy world right now, it is more moments like this in our lives.  Passion, excitement, and entertainment meet at the table of Le Petit Chef.  As Marco Polo once said, “You’ll hear it for yourselves, and it will surely fill you with wonder.”

Look for Le Petit Chef’s tour schedule here.

If you live in the Nashville area, book your Dinner Time Story night at the Standard here.

And if you haven’t already visited, all you Nashvillians, stop by the Standard for a cocktail or two. You won’t regret it!

Cheers to Le Petit Chef for a most marvelous night and to Marco Polo for continuing to inspire centuries of travelers the world around.

The Snow Day and The Simmering Stove: Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

There is something magical that happens when your cooking and your reading and your weather all line up together. It’s 14 degrees today (for the high!) and it’s snowing big, fat flakes in every direction (for the second time this week!). With pure delight, I write this because it has been a very long time coming. Winter weather in the South is never usually this charismatic, so for an eternal snow lover like myself, these past few days have been absolutely fantastic.

I’m eighty pages into Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, where it is also winter. Ruth is writing about the freezing temperatures and the snowy landscape in upstate New York and how the seductive aromas of long-simmering onions and butter and chicken and wine have the ability to both warm the stomach and the spirit.

From Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, published in 2015

Today, its Ruth’s birthday, so we thought it would be fun to make one (or two) of her recipes to compliment both the winter landscape we are reading about and the winter landscape we are actually experiencing. If you are unfamiliar with Ruth Reichl,  she has been around the food scene since the 1970’s as a writer, chef, food critic, host and magazine editor in all realms of media from print to television to radio.

Ruth Reichl

I first heard of her when I was a teenager, riding up the West Side Highway with my dad and my sister. At that point, in the early 1990’s, Ruth was the food critic for the New York Times. Her restaurant reviews would air on the morning commute segment of the local classical music station favorited by my dad as he battled his way through New York City traffic. The spot, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, contained her latest restaurant review and was, to put it politely, very honest. More often than not, she disliked a restaurant or the food or the service and she wasn’t afraid to say so. She’d sign off every review saying “I’m Ruth Reichl” and my sister and I used to mimic her voice in the car.

Growing up in New York, where most endeavors get scrutinized on a daily basis, I was used to reading about reviews and hearing criticisms on a variety of subjects when it came to the creative arts and emerging trends. But the way Ruth talked about food and service and presentation was elevated to a whole new level of description. Her words were candid but also sophisticated and humorous when it came to observation.  Each review was a brave, opinionated tale of her own experience that flew through the air seemingly without care as to whom it might affect at the restaurant of concern or what impression it might make of herself. The three us, my dad, my sister and I  thought she was pretty audacious. We used her name as our own descriptive tool when it came to trying out restaurants in the city…”Well it’s no Ruth Reichl…” and all of us made special note to remember the names of the restaurants she lauded because certainly, they didn’t come around often.

Fast forward a decade and a half later, I spotted Tender at the Bone, a memoir she had published in the late 1990’s, for sale at an outdoor book stall in Philadelphia.  I bought it,  took it home and immediately called my sister. “I’m Ruth Reichl”  she said and we both laughed over memories of driving with our dad on the West Side Highway. And then I actually read the book, which was marvelous and to my surprise, very vulnerable and humbling. There was no restaurant critic in her voice in these pages. It was all heart and humanity when it came to discussing family, food and growing up. And there were recipes – good ones, homey ones that everyone enjoyed – brownies, deviled eggs, pot roast, fruit tarts etc.  I loved it so much, I immediately read her other two books which followed – Comfort Me With Apples and Sapphires and Garlic. Those books covered her young adult years in food, job and relationship explorations and then those famous years as a restaurant critic when her job was no easy slice of pie.  These stories slashed through all my pre-conceived notions of who I thought Ruth was when I was a teenager and she was sponsored by a champagne company. And most importantly her books were my first introduction into reading food memoirs… not so much for the recipes but for the stories behind them.

For a long while, lots of things coming out of my kitchen stemmed from Ruth either in the form of recipes from her books or ones from her magazine, Gourmet, where she held down the fort as editor-in-chief.  The food she featured always contained simple elegant ingredients that looked pretty on a plate and satisfied all the senses in a most appealing way. Even though I’ve never met her, Ruth has been a reliable companion in my kitchen, which brings us back to this post featuring her birthday celebration on today’s cold winter’s day. I selected these two recipes because, like the lively lady herself, they are full of depth and require some care and attention in a fun and fulfilling way. Also, they make the kitchen smell like heaven.

Chicken Fricassee and Show-Off Salad

The vintage recipe, Show-Off Salad (aptly named because you prepare the whole thing at table in front of your fellow diners) is from Tender at the Bone and the classic yet modern day recipe Chicken Fricassee is from her latest cookbook My Kitchen Year.

Both recipes are a great representation of my memories of Ruth – they might seem a little fussy at first but at their core, they are just real, simple and basic dishes that have universal appeal. Hope you enjoy them just as much!

SHOW-OFF SALAD – Serves 4

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup cubed stale French bread

1 egg, organic, farm-raised

1 small head of romaine lettuce

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire

1/2 teaspoon salt

pepper to taste

1/2 of a large lemon

4 anchovy fillets, cut into quarters

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese or more if desired

Make the croutons. Crush one clove of garlic and add it to two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium size pan over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and saute until the bread is crisp and golden on all sides. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.

Set a small pot of water to boil on the stove. Once the water is boiling, coddle the egg by dropping the entire egg (in its shell) into the water and boiling it for 1 minute. Remove the egg from the water and set aside.

When you coddle an egg for a salad dressing like this you are heating it  (but not cooking it) really fast just below the boiling point, so it’s important to use a trusted organic farm egg as opposed to generic grocery store eggs for salmonella reasons.  Uncooked eggs are dangerous carriers of bacteria, so make sure your eggs are from clean, natural and reputable sources. Otherwise skip the egg part altogether.

Wash and dry the lettuce and then tear into bite-sized pieces.

This next step can be done in your kitchen – or in front of guests, it doesn’t matter either way. If you prepare it in front of guests, put all the salad components on a tray and carry it out to the table to make.

Ruth Reichl’s Show-off Salad

Peel the remaining clove of a garlic, cut it in half and crush one half in the bottom of a big salad bowl. Add lettuce leaves and remaining olive oil. Toss thoroughly until each leaf is coated. Add the Worcestershire,  and then the salt and pepper to taste. Break the egg over the lettuce and toss until leaves glisten. Stick a fork into the lemon half and squeeze the juice over the salad. Toss the leaves until the dressing begins to look creamy. Then toss in the anchovies and mix again. Adjust the seasonings (salt, pepper, lemon juice) if need be before adding the cheese and croutons.

Now that the salad is ready, consider serving it on individual salad plates rather than next to the Chicken Fricassee which is saucy and is more suited for the crunchy bread as far as plate companions go. In addition to a dinner side, this salad also makes a lovely meal just on its own too.

CHICKEN FRICASSEE – Serves 4

(A small note: I varied this recipe a little bit just because of what we had on hand as far as ingredients in the Vintage Kitchen. Find our modifications in italics)

1 whole organic, free-range chicken, cut into 10 pieces or 1 package organic, free-range skinless boneless chicken cutlets 

1 medium carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1 cup white wine

1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered

salt

pepper

5 tablespoons butter or 1 tablespoon butter + 4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups chicken broth

fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 lemon

Shower the chicken with salt and pepper. If using a cut-up whole chicken: Melt two tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a large casserole over medium-high heat. Place the chicken skin-side down and brown for five minutes on each side. Remove to a plate. (If using boneless skinless chicken cutlets… melt one tablespoon butter and two tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate.)

If you choose the skinless boneless cutlet version, this is what your chicken will look like after the quick saute.

In the same pan where you cooked the chicken, add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until vegetables are fragrant and soft- about 10 minutes – stirring occasionally.

Add two tablespoons of flour and cook, stirring continuously until all the fat has been absorbed. Add the white wine and stir until the liquid has thickened slightly. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the broth. Add a few sprigs of parsley, salt and pepper and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Partially cover and cook for about 30 minutes – 45 minutes until chicken yields when you pierce it with a fork.

In a separate pan, melt two tablespoons of butter (or two tablespoons of olive oil) and saute the mushrooms. Salt to taste and set aside.

When the chicken is ready, remove the lid and remove the chicken to a separate plate. Discard the herbs. Let the sauce mixture simmer for few more minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and cream together. Slowly add a small amount (about 1/2 cup) of the hot liquid to the eggs and cream and whisk quickly to temper it. Stir the egg mixture into the pan mixture, stirring constantly for about a minute. Add the mushrooms and the chicken. Add the juice of the lemon. Add one tablespoon of butter (or one tablespoon of olive oil).

Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

Remove from heat and serve in a large bowl for the table or plate individually. Pool extra sauce around the chicken. Garnish with fresh parsley sprigs. We served this with warm crunchy French bread, the show-off salad and chilled  Pinot Grigio.

In My Country Year, Ruth said this recipe reminded her of when she was living on an island (Ile d’Oleron) off the coast of France in the 1960’s. This recipe will forever now remind us of the back-to-back snow days that finally arrived after many years of anticipation. Cheers to good memories, good cookbooks, and long acquaintances. Happy birthday Ruth Reichl!

Reading While Eating: Nine Favorite Books from 2017

Paris, family, food writing and strong women. Complicated relationships, historical drama, and artistic personalities. That’s the scope of what we loved best in the reading department in 2017.  This past year, we explored an old city with new eyes thanks to David, Janice, Julia and Jessie. We soul searched with India and Diane, cooked with Clementine and Norah, climbed the symbolic lime tree and walked through the literal golden house.

Every year, we keep track of what we read and watch so that we can share our best-of list here on the blog in the hopes that you’ll discover something new yourself. They aren’t all necessarily new books or movies that came out this year, but they all are things that were newly introduced to us within the past 12 months and they follow a common theme of history in some form or another. The oldest one in this batch dates to the 1940’s (Clementine in the Kitchen) but remains as fresh and engaging as this morning’s breakfast.  The youngest in the batch was published just three months ago (The Golden House) but reads like an old-fashioned classic.

Let’s look…

1. Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell (1959)

If you have ever wondered what the everyday inner workings of a mid-century suburban American house were like then you will love Mrs. Bridge. Told in brief vignettes, it is the story of India Bridge… wife… mother… mid-westerner… who is wanting and watching for something more, anything more, extraordinary to happen to her static, routine life.  In-between family meals, housecleaning, entertaining and her own thinly executed attempts to make life interesting, India shares her thoughts on all the details that make up her society prescribed and approved life.  No moment goes unnoticed from how she sets her table, wears her gloves, communicates with her friends, chooses her clothing and handles her family. It is an intimate look into the mind of a woman processing the boundaries of a life selected for her but necessarily by her. We loved it because it is peppered with familiar 1940s/50’s decorating trends and brand references that we come in contact with a lot in the Vintage Kitchen and because India is an interesting character – conforming whole-heartedly to her boxed-in life while questioning a large lot of it.

2. The Woman I Wanted To Be – Diane Von Furstenberg (2015)

Diane Von Furstenberg invented the wrap dress in the 1970’s which launched her into iconic status in the fashion industry because it is the dress, the only dress, that looks flattering on any and every female body shape regardless of height, weight, age or ethnicity. But before Diane became famous in the American fashion industry she was an everywoman, born in Belgium with artistic interests and a desire to build an authentic life. She didn’t know what she wanted to do or how to go about doing it, so she followed intuition, using her natural abilities and talents, likes and dislikes as a guide to figure out her skillset and herself.   She didn’t always get things right but every experience, good or bad led to fine-tuning and deeper understanding.

Diane (center) in 1976 in wearing her famous wrap dress.

The Woman I Wanted To Be spans seven decades of her life but pays particular attention to the years she struggled to define herself – the years before she designed the famous dress and the years after she designed the famous dress. She talks about how lifestyle choices and personal circumstances led to the actual physical creation of her famous piece of clothing, she talks about launching an American business as a foreign woman, she talks about the emptiness she felt as a creative artist following the success of the dress and she talks about being true to herself in an industry that prefers cookie-cutter beauty and constant re-invention.

3. A Paris Year – Janice Macleod (2017)

Newly arrived… A Paris Year

You can never have too much Paris or too much Janice. In her second book about the beautiful city, writer and painter Janice MacLeod takes us on a daily artistic tour of everything that makes Paris perfect from the food to the culture to the climate. Not unlike Diane Von Furstenberg, Janice followed her own inklings of intuition by leaving her unfulfilling corporate life in California and moving to Paris solely based on the hunch that she just might love it. That was the subject of her first book Paris Letters, which details how she made the big move step-by-step. The follow-up, A Paris Year shows us in pictures and words how rewarding that big move proved to be.  In June,  we wrote an in-depth post about the book, including pictures and artwork from the book.  If you are new to the blog, catch up on that post here.

4. A Taste of Paris – David Downie (2017)

Author David Downie wrote a whole entire book about the history of food in France. We featured his phenomenal work here.

We were on a real Paris kick this past year and were lucky enough to be able to review two books about the great city. After reading A Taste of Paris, we were completely blown away by its scope of content and enormous subject matter – the history of food in Paris. Such a noble undertaking! David Downie has an incredible ability to boil this big subject down into an interesting and engaging timeline that will keep you captivated from beginning to end.  Covering the cuisine, the culture and the characters that have contributed to the French food scene since the very beginning, reading this book felt like taking a master history class peppered with fascinating foodie fun facts.  Last September, we discussed our favorite parts of the book. If you missed that post, catch up here.

5. The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (2017)

We aren’t quite finished with this book yet – but we loved it so much we included it here because it is a marvelous treat for any fiction lover. Centering around a New York City neighborhood and the arrival of a mysterious foreign family – Nero Golden and his three grown sons – The Golden House begins with the neighbors’ speculation on all aspects of the newcomers’ lives.  Salman’s writing style is in incredible, particularly the way in which he describes his characters…

“He dressed expensively but there was a loud, animal quality to him which made one think of the Beast of folktale, uneasy in human finery.”

Some critics have compared the character of Nero Golden to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby as a misunderstood modern day man attempting to reinvent himself in a new environment. We’ll come back to this thought once we finish, but in the meantime, if you have a few days off and want to dive into a meaty read, beautifully told and full of layered storylines and fresh characters than this is the book for you. You’ll be enthralled from the first page, we promise!

6. Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange – Amanda Smyth (2009)

In part due to its gorgeous title and exotic tropical setting (the Caribbean island of Tobago), Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange is the fictional story of Celia and her entanglement with three men each of whom dramatically alter the course of her life. Poetic, lyrical and lush in detail, Amanda Smyth blends together seductive elements of nature writing with romantic storytelling for a perfect mid-winter read that will make you feel like you’ve visited the Caribbean without ever leaving home. Similiar to Love In The Time of Cholera, it is packed full of symbolism and romantic themes, so if you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’ll enjoy Amanda Smyth as well.

7. Clementine In The Kitchen – Samuel Chamberlain (1943)

First published in 1943 under the pen name Phineas Beck, Clementine in the Kitchen tells the true story of the Chamberlain family’s French cook, Clementine, whom the family first meets while living in a small village just outside of Paris. When the Chamberlain’s get transferred to Massachusetts, Clementine is invited to move with them – a big decision for the petite woman who has never left her birthplace. Clementine is a natural in the kitchen in France and the family cannot help but rave about her cuisine to everyone they know. In America though, she is a fish out of water, not understanding the language or the shopping style of her new country. Ingredients are different, convenience foods are popular and daily outdoor market shopping is replaced with weekly trips to that strange place called the indoor supermarket.

How does Clementine cope with all this change? We don’t want to spoil it for you, so you have to read it to find out.  But what we can say is that this book is funny and charming and filled with recipes. The surprise ending, cinematic storyline and ever engaging character of Clementine makes it seem like a perfect candidate for movie adaptation and it offers the added benefit of learning some of the basics of French cooking.  All around an engaging and highly original read that we thoroughly enjoyed. Later this year, we will be featuring a few recipes from this book, so stay tuned.

8. Bon Appetit – Jessie Hartland (2012)

Joie de vivre is a term often associated with the French culture that defines their eternal zest and enthusiasm for life. If ever a book captured that phrase, it would be this one, Bon Appetit by Jessie Hartland. At first glance, you’ll think this is a kids book meant just for the enjoyment of little ones. But don’t be fooled. It is wonderfully inspiring and whimsical for adults as well. Detailing the entire life story of Julia Child in just 45 pages of colorful illustrations and clever text, Jessie Hartland has managed to capture the enigmatic and infectious personality of America’s best-loved cook. You’ll read the whole thing in a jiffy but its infectious positivity will stick with you forever.

9. At Home With Kate – Eileen Considine-Meara (2007)

Norah Considine was Katharine Hepburn’s cook, friend and all around helper for 30 years. At Home with Kate shares, the intimate details of day-to-day life in Kate’s household as Norah prepared meals and planned parties in both her NYC residence and the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut during the last three decades of Kate’s life. Written by Norah’s daughter, Eileen, who first met Kate when she was a teenager helping her mom serve meals during Kate’s dinner parties,  At Home with Kate is an entertaining conglomeration of memoir, biographical sketch and thoughtful retrospection on three women who shared an extraordinary experience.

Norah with her celebrity crush – Robert Wagner, taken in the kitchen of Kate’s Manhattan townhouse. Photo from At Home with Kate by Eileen Considine-Meara.

For all the glamour, independence and mystery surrounding the Old Hollywood film star, Eileen shows us that Katharine Hepburn, in real-life, was a thrifty homebody with a taste for simple foods and quiet dinner parties. We loved that it contained a handful of Kate’s recipes along with the memories too. It was interesting to see that the dishes Kate enjoyed most reflected her unfussy philosophy towards food – meatloaf, brownies, stew, rum cake, steak and a variety of soups.  And it was interesting to learn that it wasn’t all about cooking for Norah – her responsibilities ran the gamut as far as tasks required of her (errands, gardening, cleaning and on-loan cook for some of Kate’s friends, as well) all while Norah was raising five kids of her own and working a minimum of 10 hours a day at Kate’s. In October, we featured Kate’s famous lace cookies, the recipe most often requested by house guests and always kept in constant supply in Kate’s kitchen. Find that recipe here.

Each of the books we listed above have nourished us in one way or another whether it be through imagination, introspection or edibles. Hope our reading while eating selections prove to be equally engaging for you as well. If you have discovered some new favorite books from last year too, please share them with us in the comments section below. We are always on the lookout for something fun to read.

In the meantime, cheers to cozy winter days and culinary creativity!

The City of Lighters and Other Paris Fun Facts

Everyone knows that French food is one of the most well-crafted and esteemed cuisines in the world, but not many people know why or how it came to be. In David Downie’s new book, A Taste of Paris, he dives into the history behind the food with a researcher’s wild abandon for discovery and a humourist’s eye for fun.

Last time we were reading about the City of Light here on the blog, we were exploring it through the paintings and photographs of writer Janice MacLeod in her book, A Paris Year.

Janice and her Paris Year!

This time around, we are deep in the archive vaults of Parisian history alongside author David Downie as he takes us on an epicurean tour of the food that made France famous. Magically, in just 280 pages, David manages to condense centuries worth of feasting into a tidy timeline that begins in 53 B.C. and ends in present day.

“What is thrilling at least to me,” David declares in the starter portion of the book, “is to speculate on how in modified and sometimes-hard-to-recognize forms many foods and food-related habits have survived the ravages of time, the invasions and massacres and floods and fires, the plagues and changes in religion or political and economic systems, and live on in Paris today.”

It is with that keen interest that David dissects how, when, where and why the French have cooked, created, dined and dallied their way to the top of the menu board. Along the way, we learn about colorful characters like…

Queen Caterina de Medici – wife of King Henry II (1519-1589)

Queen Caterina, wife of King Henri II who chewed tobacco leaves to relieve her headaches which started French women’s universal love affair with nicotine.

We also learn about the histories behind an assortment of interesting neighborhoods, buildings, and restaurants that all contributed to the food scene both ancient and modern…

Clockwise from top left: Le Marais historic district, Palace de Versailles, Hotel de Cluny dating to the 1300’s, Verjus restaurant

…and we learn fun facts galore on a myriad of kitchen topics like these…

  1. Butter knives were invented so that people couldn’t pick their teeth at table.
  2. During the Middle Ages, long before the invention of plates,  bread was baked in cutting board shapes and used to hold piles of food for individual eaters. Once the food on top of the bread was consumed, the bread was given to peasants or animals to eat.
  3. Artichokes are considered an aphrodisiac, especially in Italy.
  4. One in three French people smoke (hence the city of lighters!)
  5. In-home cooking spaces in most French houses didn’t exist until the late 18th century.
  6. Below is one of President Obama’s favorite restaurants near the Eiffel Tower…
La Fontaine De Mars

Paris is a city continuously simmering in centuries of tradition. A delightfully unique aspect of David’s book is that he shifts back and forth between present day and the past, so you absorb plenty of history along the way but you also directly understand the correlation between what’s changed and what hasn’t.

While you don’t need to be a European history scholar or a devout foodie in order to tuck into this culinary aspect of the city, it helps if you have a special interest in old world events and a basic understanding of the fine-tuned culture of the Parisian lifestyle because David presents so much interesting, thoughtful information.  You’ll want to marinate in his chapters for a bit instead of rushing through them in one quick read. I was lucky enough to receive this advance copy of the book several months ago. One of the fun aspects of reading it over the summer was keeping Pinterest close-by so that I could look up the people and places of Paris while I was learning about them through David’s eyes.

With a wonderfully engaging voice and an ability to colorfully (and often times humorously) describe a building or a banquet, David treks you around town with insight and intimation. One of my favorite lines in the book came forty pages in when he writes about the 3rd-century Roman bath complex at Cluny as “a charming jumble that looks like a mouthful of broken molars repaired with elaborate fretwork crowns.” Admittedly, I had no idea what the Cluny bath house looked like, but thanks to David’s description I could get a pretty good impression of it.

Other intriguing sections in the book included the eating habits of Versailles’ residents, the symbolic imagery found in The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry,  and the gregarious life surrounding French food writer, Maurice Edmond Sailland a.k.a Curnonsky (1872-1956).

A snippet from the Taste panel of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry created in 1500.

But not everything is champagne and caviar and easily expressed. Amidst all of these fascinating history lessons, David also dives into his own food experience which began in Paris in the 1970’s. With his modern eyes, he retraces his food steps taken four decades ago to see how, and if, the landscape he once personally adored still holds up to the memories he stored. He also talks about the future of French food among the booming explosion of other newly exalted food scenes in other cities. Can Paris hold up to the competition?

Described best as  part guidebook, part history class and part personal memoir, A Taste of Paris pushes you to make notes, take notes, look for more, explore more… which brought me to quickly wish for two things that the book did not have – detailed maps of the areas where David traveled and an index for quick reference.  Then I discovered, as I finished the last page that David does offer both maps and an index of sorts. He and his wife offer walking tours of Paris through his website where they take you on all sorts of off-the-beaten-path adventures. That’s ten times better than a paper map and a list of page numbers! You get the guy (and the guide) in person, all to your yourself!

While we often don’t even think about the fact that millions of people have experienced both good and terrible situations treading upon the very ground we also walk upon so nonchalantly every single day,  David reminds us that the veins of history are deeply wound up in the practices and procedures of our modern lives. That flaky croissant, that steaming cup of hot chocolate, that celebratory pop of champagne were all born a long time ago yet they continue to intrinsically impact us as we move towards the future. In detailing the anatomy of a cuisine, David dissected a city whose culture has influenced a collective conscious of eaters around the world and that is pretty remarkable.

Whether you get the chance to meet up with David in Paris and peruse the food scene together or you simply read about his city in your city, A Taste of Paris is as satisfying as falling in love with a new museum exhibit. It will broaden your point of view, make you think, ask questions, ponder your own country’s evolution of food practices and ultimately make you appreciate how far we have come, as a civilization, from the days of heaping breadboards and kitchen-less houses.

Cheers to David for peeling back the layers of French food culture in such an interesting way!

Find A Taste of Paris available here. Learn more about David and his other Paris based books here. And if you find yourself in the City of Light(ers) take David’s tour and watch the book unfold before your eyes.