In a lifetime of reading, I’ve found that the best books often act as time machines transports to another place and time, willing to take you there whenever and wherever you open their pages. Samuel Chamberlain’s “Clementine in the Kitchen,” is a book that has been doing this time-travel magic for its readers for over 50 years. It’s the kind of book that anytime you read it, you are overcome with a warm feeling and, perhaps, a hint of jealously.
Chamberlain and his wife were writers for Gourmet Magazine; so, they certainly knew a good soufflé when they saw one. And when a cook from Burgundy named Clementine showed up on the steps of their rented French home, this American family knew that they had found someone special. Clementine came bearing a set of worn and battered notebooks, containing all sorts of secrets passed down from cook-to-cook. From these well-thumbed books, she creates a series of dishes that never fails to impress the Chamberlains and their dinner guests.
Chamberlain lovingly describes the sounds and smell of one of Clementine’s classics, L’estouffat Lamande’ the following way: “This symphonic dish used to gurgle gently in our oven from noon until seven, making a soft sound like the bubbling of a spring. When the casserole came to the table and the crust was broken for the first time, the aroma that escaped perfumed the house for hours.” Practically every page of this book contains a scene like this and you’ll be hard pressed to get through the whole thing without letting your mind wander, imagining the food on the plate, what it would smell like and how it would taste. (Such are the hardships of reading good books about food.)
Things get complicated when it becomes apparent that in Europe war is inevitable, the Chamberlains returned to the US, with Clementine in tow. They settled in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and introduced Clementine to the world of supermarkets, butchers who don’t do weird cuts of meat and pre-made mixes for cakes. The whole family is continually delighted with Clementine’s reactions to these culinary insults. However, she isn’t fazed by the American oddities, and continues to cook her way. None of the Chamberlains, (and, as the book progresses, their hard-to-impress Marblehead neighbors,) have any reason to complain. The food is just too good.
The second half of “Clementine,” is made up of highlights from her notebooks, a wonderful introduction to French cuisine. More recent editions of the book have Americanized the measurements and tried to remove the dishes that are best admired from afar, focusing on the French classics.
While it’s tried and true, here’s Clementine’s recipe for crepes:
Traditional French Crepes
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup of milk
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of flour
- 1 teaspoon oil
- pinch of salt
- Beat eggs, milk, then add flour, oil and salt. Beat well until batter is smooth. (Clementine uses a rotary beater, but allows readers to use an electric beater.) Let batter rest for 1 hour before using.
- Heat a 6-inch frying pan, grease it with a few drops of oil and a dot of butter. Pour in 2 to 2 ½ tablespoons of batter. Cook over moderate heat until the bottom is lightly browned and the top is dry. Turn and brown the other side. Add a little more butter and oil if needed.
- It is recommended that these crepes are best eaten with ham, Parmesan and béchamel sauce. (Clementine used to let the children have a few warm crepes for dessert on the nights they weren’t eating dinner with the grown-ups.)
The love that has been professed for this book seemingly knows no bounds. No less an authority than M.F.K. Fisher called the book, “a minor masterpiece… I wish the book to stay with us forever.” And it almost has. “Clementine,” was in print for 42 years, from 1943 to 1985 and then re-published in 2001 by the Modern Library as part of their collection of food books, chosen by Ruth Reichl.
This is the perfect time machine book, one that will whisk you away to rural France in the 1930s. This magic act makes “Clementine” the perfect book to read in the evening as the day is slowing down. The chapters are short, allowing you to savor the anecdotes and stretch out the reading over days and weeks, though you could probably plow through the 150 pages of stories pretty quickly if you were so inclined. But that is not the point of this book, or of Clementine’s cooking- things must happen in their own time. Nothing is worth rushing. Much like the recipes in this book, “Clementine is the Kitchen” is something to treasure.
All text by Luke Poling. All photos styled and photographed by Somerby Jones. Somerby Jones has been focused on photography since a young age and recently left full time employment to pursue that passion as a career. She loves the art of making things, especially anything in the kitchen, making food the perfect subject for much of her photography. To see her other work and ever evolving portfolio, please visit somerbyjones.com.
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