Tout de Sweet: The Sweet Life In Paris by David Lebovitz [book review]
I went into this review with more than a little bias in favor of David Lebovitz. A former Chez Panisse pastry chef turned cookbook author, he's responsible for my favorite dessert cookbook of all time, Room for Dessert. (The book is, tragically, out of print, and used copies run about $50 a pop online.) But that book, and most of Lebovitz's others, are recipe collections — a wildly different animal than the book that's on the table now. The most recent addition to the Lebovitz oeuvre is an essay collection called The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City (buy on Amazon), and here the focus isn't on Lebovitz's skills at tempering chocolate or concocting ice cream flavors — it's about whether or not the man can tell a story.
If you're a reader of his wildly popular blog, you already know that the answer is yes: wry, dry, curious, self-deprecating but all-knowing — Lebovitz might be a top-notch pastry chef, but his true métier is telling us, in the most interesting way imaginable, about how his day is going. An expat living in Paris, he takes particular joy in giving vicarious guided tours of the absurdities (and, okay, the delights) of Paris's draconian social fabric.
Divided into short, vaguely thematic chapters, the book covers everything from Lebovitz's various culinary internships (the fish market, the chocolate store) to emphatic ruminations on the trials of getting a French apartment painter to hurry up and finish the job. It's tempting to compare Lebovitz's essays to those of the other gay American named David making a living writing humorously about his adversarial experiences with les Francais, but it's a false allure. Lebovitz's breed of funny is less blustery, less precisely calculated than the kind Sedaris trafficks in — but perhaps even more importantly, Lebovitz is food-obsessed. Each chapter in The Sweet Life in Paris is, in some way, about buying, preparing, or eating food, and each is punctuated by a somewhat topically-relevant (and always delicious-sounding) recipe.
Haven't I heard that somewhere before?
Many of the recipes that dot The Sweet Life in Paris can be found on Lebovitz's blog. And, as it happens, so do many of the storylines. The book as a whole is a sifting and reworking of much of Lebovitz's online content from mid-2007 through mid-2008 — the time when his bank couldn't give him change is in there, and so is the sound advice not to flush meringue down the toilet. The chapter "What They Say Versus What They Mean" is a straight-up reprint of the blog post of the same name.
The thing is, the book is done so well that you don't care that it's a little bit of déjà vu. Maybe it's the pleasant heft in your hand, the nice feel of the rough-edged paper — or maybe it's the deft reworkings of piecemeal blog posts into smooth (if occasionally nonlinear) episodic chapters — or it could just be that Lebovitz is charming as hell. Whatever it is, hearing these stories told over again was, more than anything else, a pleasure.
The common language of food
As a genre, American-dispatches-from-abroad have an unpleasant tendency to lump all the residents of the author's adopted city together into a mass of quaint habits and impenetrable customs. But it's to Lebovitz's credit that in The Sweet Life, dismissive trans-cultural gloss barely peeks through. The characters that populate these tales — friends, neighbors, shopkeepers, even the middle-aged receptionist at his dermatologist's office, sunbathing topless by the Seine — are real people, not glib cliches.
The absurdism of French etiquette stands up on its own, topic-wise, but if we're going to live through someone else's trial by fire, Lebovitz is an ideal candidate. It's never quite clear whether he's a sunny pessimist or a cynical optimist, but it doesn't really matter. More often than not the common language with which Lebovitz connects with this or that surly Parisian is that of food. (More often than more often than not, it's the particular dialect of Lebovitz's dulce de leche brownies — when he finally gives us the recipe, they contain the serving suggestion "distribute freely.")
If Parisians — and their stalwart commitment to neighborhood hazing, impenetrable return policies, and street-side urination — are the story here, then the story behind the story is what everyone was eating at the time. And, again to Lebovitz's credit, he pulls it off without being twee. (Though I'll put twenty bucks down saying that a review of this book will inevitably refer to each mini-essay chapter as "a bite-sized macaron of Parisian delight," or something equally cloying.)
From patisseries to boucheries, open-air markets to the neon wasteland of the Franprix supermarket chain, Lebovitz tells us in no uncertain terms that the whole point of fighting these hilarious, quotidian battles is to get to the delicious stuff that lies on the other side.