1970s Archive

A Kitchen was His Laboratory

Originally Published March 1970
Elizabeth David's charming and liberating books on French and Italian country cooking in the 1950s revealed a world of real food uninhabited by the high priests of haute cuisine. It is no wonder that she admired the eminently sensible Édouard de Pomiane, a master at explaining the science of cooking, who dared to challenge the classical French canon.

Art demands an impeccable technique; science a little understanding." Today the mention of art in connection with cookery is taken for pretension. Science and cookery make a combination even more suspect. Because he was a scientist by profession, making no claims to being an artist, Docteur Édouard de Pomiane's observation was a statement of belief, made in all humility. Vainglory is totally missing from de Pomiane's work. He knew that the attainment of impeccable technique meant a lifetime—in de Pomiane's case an exceptionally long one—of experiment and discipline. Out of it all he appears to have extracted, and given, an uncommon amount of pleasure.

Docteur Édouard de Pomiane's real name was Édouard Pozerski. He was of purely Polish origin, the son of ÉmigrÉs who had fled Poland and settled in Paris after the revolution of 1863. Born and brought up in Montmartre, he was educated at the École Polonaise and subsequently at the LycÉe Condorcet. (The École Polonaise was described by Henri Babinski, another celebrated Franco-Polish cookery writer, as an establishment of ferocious austerity. Babinski was the real name of Ali-Bab, author of that immense and remarkable volume Gastronomie Pratique.) De Pomiane chose for his career the study of biology, specializing in food chemistry and dietetics. Before long he had invented a new science called gastrotechnology, which he defined simply as the scientific explanation of accepted principles of cookery. For a half century—interrupted only by his war service from 1914 to 1918—de Pomiane also made cookery and cookery writing his hobby and second profession. After his retirement from the Institut Pasteur, where he lectured for some 50 years, he devoted himself entirely to his cookery studies. He was 89 when he died, in January 1964.

De Pomiane's output was immense—some dozen cookery books, countless scores of articles, broadcasts, lectures. In France his books were best-sellers; among French cookery writers his place is one very much apart.

Many before him had attempted to explain cookery in scientific terms and had succeeded only in turning both science and cookery into the deadliest of bores. De Pomiane was the first writer to propound such happenings as the fusion of egg yolks and olive oil in a mayonnaise, the sizzling of a potato chip when plunged into fat for deep-frying, in language so straightforward, so graphic, that even the least scientifically minded could grasp the principles instead of simply learning the rules. In cooking, the possibility of muffing a dish is always with us. Nobody can eliminate that. What de Pomiane did by explaining the cause was to banish the fear of failure.

Adored by his public and his pupils, feared by the phony, derided by the reactionary, de Pomiane's irreverent attitude to established tradition, his independence of mind backed up by scientific training, earned him the reputation of being something of a Candide, a provocative rebel disturbing the grave conclaves of French gastronomes, questioning the holy rites of the "white-vestured officiating priests" of classical French cookery. It was understandable that not all his colleagues appreciated de Pomiane's particular brand of irony:

"As to fish, everyone agrees that it must be served between the soup and the meat. The sacred position of the fish before the meat course implies one must eat fish and meat. Now such a meal, as any dietician will tell you, is far too rich in nitrogenous substances, since fish has just as much assimilable albumen as meat, and contains a great deal more phosphorus."

Good for Dr. de Pomiane. Too bad for us that so few of his readers—or listeners—paid attention to his liberating words.

It does, on any count, seem extraordinary that 30 years after de Pomiane's heyday, the dispiriting progress from soup to fish, from fish to meat, and on, remorselessly on, to salad, cheese, a piece of pastry, a crème caramel or an ice cream, still constitutes the standard menu throughout the entire French-influenced world of hotels and catering establishments.

Reading some of de Pomiane's neat little menus (from 365 Menus, 365 Recettes), it is so easy to see how little effort is required to transform the dull, overcharged, stereotyped meal into one with a fresh emphasis and a better balance:

Tomates à la crème
Côtelettes de porc
Purée de farine de marrons
Salade de mâche à la betterave

An unambitious enough menu—and what a delicious surprise it would be to encounter such a meal at any one of those country town Hôtels des Voyageurs, du Commerce, du Lion d'Or, to which my own business affairs in France now take me. In these establishments, where one stays because there is no choice, the food is of a mediocrity, a predictability redeemed for me only by the good bread, the fresh eggs in the omelets, the still relatively civilized presentation, which in Paris is becoming rare—the soup brought to the table in a tureen, the hors d'oeuvre on the familiar, plain little white dishes, the salad in a simple glass bowl. If it all tasted as beguiling as it looks, every dish would be a feast. Two courses out of the whole menu would be more than enough.

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