The American writer James Salter, in a piece entitled “Michelin Man” collected in the volume Eat Memory: Great Writers at the Table, traces his first connection with French food to the New York World’s Fair in 1939, which featured a restaurant at the French pavilion that everyone talked about but where few managed to get a reservation.
His first memorable experiences of actually eating French food came in the mid-1950s, when, after having served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, he was stationed with the USAF in Europe and visited Paris and the south of France on several occasions. It was a period when, to judge from Salter’s account, novelty was thought to be required to lure the tourist: in Paris there was Androuët, where everything was made from cheese, and “someplace where the waitresses were dressed as serving wenches and you ate Rabelaisian fare”. And they assumed that homard à l’armoricaine (Breton lobster) was simply a French misspelling. (Actually there is a homard à l’américaine, with quite similar ingredients; Elizabeth David insists indeed that this is a southern, languedocien dish with nothing to do with Brittany and attributes the notion of there having been a spelling mistake somewhere along the line to French pride. Pride, surely not?)
Once you have exposed yourself to French cooking and French life, Salter writes, “there is a long and happy aftermath … it puts you a notch up”. “Of course there is also Italy and all that,” he adds generously. There is indeed, and perhaps if you wish to avoid dying suddenly at the table, or, more ignominiously, on the lavatory, you may choose to indulge more frequently in Italian than in French food, more sardine alla griglia and less oeufs pochés à la crème et au gratin. Still, Mr Salter may well have put away a few plates of tripes à la mode de Caen in his day and he is still knocking around aged eighty-seven.
Anyway, here is the recipe he contributes to the book (originally to the New York Times Magazine).
1 package dried figs. Turkish or Greek seem best
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups Scotch whiskey
Boil the figs for about 20 minutes in about a quart of water in which the sugar has been dissolved. Allow to cool until tepid. Drain half the water or a bit more and add the Scotch. Allow to steep a good while in a covered bowl before serving.
The amount of sugar being used seems horrific to me, I must say, but, maybe suck it and see is the best policy. Patriotism also leads me to suggest that this could only be even more delicious if Irish whisky were used rather than the Scottish imitation.