I read Ann Mah's "Mastering the Art of French Eating" on the heels of The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France and Coquilles, Calva and Crème: Exploring France's Culinary Heritage: A Love Affair wtih Real French Food; I spent three weeks touring France last fall, so was a bit nostalgic for the various flavors I encountered from south to north as I made my way from Toulouse through the Perigord Noir, the Loire Valley, Normandy and finally Paris. Mah's husband, a diplomat, lands a plum assignment to Paris: three years together to explore the city and its many boulangeries, cafes, and markets. An aspiring food writer, Ann is thrilled with the possibilities. They find an apartment and unpack the many boxes that have lived for years in storage (due to her husband's assignments, they have moved around frequently). But the unthinkable happens: her husband is called away to Iraq on a one-year unaccompanied tour, leaving Ann to navigate an unfamiliar language and city.
During her year on her own, she traces the origin of various French specialties by heading straight for the source: AAAAA andouillette in Troyes, crepes in Brittany, cassoulet in Toulouse, pistou in Provence, boeuf Bourguignon in Burgundy. Beautifully written and with touches of humor, each chapter concludes with the star recipe that it focuses on. And yes, you'll find healthy sprinklings of wisdom from Julia throughout. There are fascinating cultural tidbits (and lots of dashes of local customs and lore) that serve to spice up the individual stories and portraits of individual regions. And much like a long-simmered cassoulet, all of these elements form a delicious whole.