Desperately Seeking Edouard
A passion for de Pomiane

"I DEDICATE this book to Madame X., asking for ten minutes of her kind attention."

With that courtly invitation, I stepped into the world of Docteur Edouard de Pomiane. How could Madame refuse?

In the Introduction to their translation of French Cooking in Ten Minutes, Philip and Mary Hymans make two important points about de Pomiane: He was not a cook. He was not French.

M. le Docteur Edouard Pozerski de Pomiane was first a scientist, a physician and researcher at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. He came to his second career as a cooking writer and lecturer because he was trying to solve problems he faced at the hospital and the lab. A gastroenterologist who plumbed the secrets of the stomach, he wanted to discover what foods gave people tummy aches, and why. Simple Scientific Method dictated that he learn to cook.

His parents emigrated from Poland in 1863, frenchified their name, and became French citizens. He considered himself a proud Pole for his entire life, and published his scientific writing under his real name, Pozerski. Of the three of his twenty-two books that have been translated into English, one is The Jews of Poland: Recipes and Recollections, now out of print. Very sadly, little of his life work is available in any language.

My knowledge of the good doctor was limited to the two books that remain available in English translation: ...Ten Minutes (Farrar Strauss Giroux 1977) and Cooking With Pomiane, often called his masterpiece (Modern Library, 2001. Ruth Reichl, Editor).

The elegant introduction to Cooking With Pomiane is almost a love letter by Elizabeth David. This short essay alone is worth the price of the book. She loves him "because he takes the mystique out of the cookery process and still contrives to leave us with the magic" and because she knows of "no other cookery writer who has a greater mastery of the captivating phrase, the detail indelibly imprinted on our memory." She especially admires his revolutionary and scientific overturning of the classic French menu. An example? He tells us that we do not need both a fish course and a meat course every single night. That was inflammatory stuff, but he said it loud, he said it proud, and he ducked the quenelles flung at his head by the French Foodie Establishment.

The Icy Prose Goddess of English Food Writing gets a mite girlish and foolish about Edouard. She and I are captivated by the same phrase. When we are assembling our mise, or prepping parsley, does de Pomiane ask us to chop a half a cup, or the metric equivalent? Mais non!

He requests a measure of parsley the size of a bunch of violets.

Elizabeth David loves him, Ruth Reichl loves him, and I love him. Obviously this man is not only a lucky man, but a special man. A man worth a furtive Google.

The search yielded a laughable 971 entries, most of which were from booksellers flogging what is floggable: the two books in print. Why is he so elusive?

I wanted to visualize the Good Doctor. I hoped to see a smiling, dark-eyed charmer sporting a white Hussar moustache and a white lab coat. Image Search it is! What I got back were seven looks at the covers of three cookbooks, two of which I already own, and neither displaying the author. For purposes of comparison: five hundred snaps of Emeril, three-hundred-sixty of Charlie Trotter, and eighty-four of Escoffier.

Sigh. Very well, his face would be forever a mystery. I would love him for his mind alone. Like a lovelorn teenager I continued my pilgrimage toward page 971.

Clicking through the Web sites of obscure European second-hand bookshops gave me an idea of his oeuvre, and an impulse to check the balance of my checking account. But a Woman in Love wants to know more than what son Homme does for his day job. And she still doesn't even have a snapshot to frame and set on her desk, handy for gazing and mooning purposes.

A Woman in Love is very, very persistent. Once in an eon, Venus, Goddess of Love, takes pity, throws her a bonbon, and leads her into the archives of the Institut Pasteur.

Be still, my heart. There he is!

He is a kindly, white-haired charmer. He is wearing a lab coat and tie, and he sports a bushy white Hussar moustache.

Edouard Pozerski de Pomiane, 1875-1964. His curriculum vitae can be found there too, including his service as a medical officer on the grim fronts of World War I. There is a long list of his medical citations, including the title of his doctoral thesis: L'action favorisante du sac intestinal sur le pouvoir amylolytique du sac pancreatic et de la salive.

Of course he is married; it's too much to expect this paragon to be single. He and Mme. Pozerska are professional colleagues, too, and have published a paper together about immunity from the anticoagulant action of peptone.

Along my journey, rare book sites in places like Lille or Oslo yielded tantalizing bites from the menu of his written work. In transcribing clumsy translations of the titles, I noticed that de Pomiane's titles were often waggish. Perhaps French Cooking in Ten Minutes is a title written with a tongue firmly in cheek?

For example: Vingt Plats qui Donnent la Goutte. This is described as a piece of popular science writing about rich, gout-inducing food, with "vingt succulentes recettes." How I long to read those twenty succulent recipes!

Radio Cuisine, in two volumes, is a collection of the scripts of the radio shows about cooking and health that he broadcast weekly between 1933 and 1936. An example of de Pomiane's modernity: He had a cooking show seventy years ago!

And for contrast, Le Code de la Bonne Chere, 1948. "Seven hundred simple recipes published under the auspices of La Societe Scientifique d'Hygiene Alimentaire." Seven hundred healthy recipes! Again, the man was ahead of his time.

Cuisine Juive, Ghettos Moderne, 1929. Jewish Cooking, Modern Ghettos. The bookseller's list says it contains "numerous recipes." This is the previously mentioned La Cuisine Polonaise.

La Cuisine en six Lecons, ou l'initiation a la cuisine familiale (vers 1930). Cooking in Six Lessons, or Introduction to Family Cooking. His title attracted quite an outcry from the foodie press of its day. "Who the hell is this Smug Scientific Bastard to think that La Cuisine can be taught to the housewife in six lessons? Sacrebleu!" This is the title that became Cooking with Pomiane, I believe. Please click the eGullet link to Amazon right now. Buy it, please.

And, of course, French Cooking in Ten Minutes. But this one is much more than just a pretty book with a gamine smile.

Lunch in Ten Minutes

Paris, 1930. Monsieur le Docteur escorts me to his kitchen, a Florence flask in one hand and a bunch of violets in the other. He enters the room and puts a pan of water to boil on his state-of-the-art, spanking new, two-burner gas range. He hangs his lab coat on a hook by the door.

Put a pot of water to boil before you remove your coat; this is an example of de Pomiane's genius, and it is but one of his tactics in the greater strategy of hustling lunch in ten minutes. If he had never written anything else, it would be his One True Thing for me, and has become automatic. Don't need a pot of boiling water in the course of preparing dinner? So what. It's not a huge waste of money or natural resources. But think about it. It's amazing how often you need a pan of boiling water, if only to skin those tomatoes.

Tango wafts from his radio, his kitchen window is open, and his organdy curtains flutter outwards. Our host cooks with the windows open in order to disperse smoke quickly, and he washes down the kitchen walls once a week. Your kitchen doesn't have to be as sterile as his lab at the Institut Pasteur, but he wants it to be "a spotlessly clean laboratory that you will transform, I'm sure, into an artist's studio."

De Pomiane begins to cook lunch. Not a sandwiche au jambon and a carafe of Perrier, Madame, but a proper five-course French Lunch. Sample menus?

- Burgundy snails
- Quail a la crapaudine
- Asparagus salad
- Cheese
- Fruit

Or:

- Mussels with saffron
- Buttered spinach
- Tomato salad
- Omelet flambee
- Fruit

Perhaps you would prefer:

- Veloute soup with tarragon
- Chicken sauteed with mushrooms
- Green salad
- Cheese
- Cream Puff

Read the book. These meals can really, truly be prepared in ten minutes, if you follow La Methode de Pomiane. Some of it is dated, certainement: He could buy larks en cocotte from his local charcuterie (a plat principal in another menu) and we can't. He always had easy access to a good baguette. He didn't turn up his nose at the commercial soup bases of his day, or feel the need to prepare a dessert for every meal. But remember: this man had no serious refrigeration, no microwave, and no food processor.

He shall accomplish the cooking in about ten minutes, because he knows how busy I am, and he wants us to have time for an unhurried appreciation of his meal and a nice cozy chat. De Pomiane, in his own words, is "writing this book for secretaries, artists, lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers, scientists and anyone else who has only an hour for lunch or dinner, but still wants thirty minutes of peace to enjoy a cup of coffee."

His birthday is the twentieth of April, a date that will be marked carefully on my calendar, a new gastronomic holiday. I will cook a ten-minute dinner under his kindly gaze, a picture of which now graces the wall over my sink. Perhaps this one:

- Scampi a l'Americaine
- Filet Steaks Rossini
- Asparagus salad
- Cheese
- Fruit

And afterwards? Well, as mon cher Edouard described it:

"Fill your cup with hot coffee. Lean back in your armchair and put your feet up. Light a cigarette. Take a nice long puff, and then blow the smoke up to the ceiling. Enjoy the coffee's aroma, take a long sip. Close your eyes. Think about that second puff, that second sip -- you're rich!"

Yes. We are.

The book is French Cooking in Ten Minutes, or Adapting to the Rhythms of Modern Life. Give him your ten minutes; you will want to stay all afternoon.

Thursday, April 3, 2003