FOOD, LOVE, AND Madame Benoit
A LITTLE more than a year ago Louise Simard, producer of a CBC Frenchlanguage radio program called Femina, was in a quandary. Femina’s mail was light and Miss Simard felt that without adequate listener response she couldn’t really be sure how her programs were being received. Talking over this problem with another producer one day, she got this advice: “There’s only one sure way to make
listeners write letters. Take them by the stomach.” And that, says Miss Simard, was when she thought of asking Jehane Benoit to take over one of Femina’s three-a-week periods of fifteen minutes each. Now Femina’s mail has grown from a few hundred to about two thousand letters a month, most of them wholly or in part a response to Madame. Benoit, her recipes and advice on food and cooking, and her infinite variations on the theme that “a man is never more romantic than when he has had a good meal.”
The exponent of this warm creed is a plump dark fifty-one-year-old grandmother with a generous mouth and sparkling eyes and matronly bosom, who studied food chemistry at the Sorbonne, dietetics at the University of Lyons, fine cooking in the kitchens of Paris’ famous Cordon Bleu, is a practicing cook in her Montreal household and also is a well-paid adviser to seven large food and appliance companies. (Her yearly income is believed to run to five figures but she steadfastly refuses to confirm or deny speculation on the subject.) For the last seven years she has written a food column for the Canadian FYench-language magazine, La Revue Moderne, which this autumn will bring out a book called Cuisinons, a collection of recipes and menus from her columns under that name. A cookbook she wrote in French in the late Forties has sold eighty-five thousand copies in Quebec. In English, she writes occasionally for the magazine Marketing, giving advice to advertisers on how to approach the Canadien market, and will begin a column on basic cooking this month for Canadian Homes and Gardens. Madame's broadcasting experience goes back more than ten years. On her first show in Montreal she offered a lively mixture of recipes and woman-talk about men. More recently she appeared on a national television show called Living, now off the air, demonstrating such things as how to give French bread a lift with garlic or curry or chives butter, and how to spike chicken pies with sherry.
For two weeks each year since 1950 (“One week in French, one in English, then you bore neither,” she says) she has drawn three thousand women a day to a Montreal theatre taken over for her cooking school by Steinberg’s, a large grocery chain. And in Montreal this September 21 she will face what may be the largest live audience a cook ever has had. As part of a Swift Canadian centennial celebration, Mme. Benoit has been booked into the Montreal F’orum for a one-day cooking class that may draw as many as ten thousand people to see and hear this Montrealer to whom the words food, art, and love are, like the branches in the popular song, inseparably intertwined.
What they will see is a woman unlike any dietitian they ever saw before. She scorns such f ools
“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” With this old saw as her theme son«, Montreal’s Jehane Benoit has added TV stardom to a list of jobs that would stagger a stevedore. Yet she still has time to serve her husband breakfast in bed
of her trade as starched white smocks and bales of measuring spoons. (A friend who is also a home economist says, “Madame doesn’t exactly look down on the usual type of home economist but sometimes she thinks they are a pretty dull lot, and sometimes they are.”) Usually she wears a black dress, often with a low neckline, small earrings, and when she puts salt or a spice or herb into a recipe she shakes it into her hand, glances at it for size, then throws it in, while dietitians and home economists brought up in the gospel of strict measurements wince.
She talks as if everyone in the audience was a favorite young friend who had come in for dinner and was observing from a kitchen stool while the food was being prepared. “Any woman who approaches cooking with a feeling of boredom is one who has never really learned the fundamentals of cooking,” she says. “The art of cookery is to have fun. Try big things, and you’ll never be bored. And cooking is an art, just like painting or sculpture or dancing.” When she adds, “Of course, a woman in love cooks much, much better,” this is delivered with a smile which implies that since of course they are all in love, they understand one another, and her audiences chuckle and relax in an atmosphere of gossip about food and relatives and love and the needs of men.
I had lunch with her one day at her big home in Westmount, where she was born and brought up and where her parents lived with her until their deaths recently. I think what we ate that lunchtime came about in a way typical of her very personal approach to food. We had met a few days earlier in Toronto during television rehearsals. During one break in the several run-throughs between 1.30 p.m. and when the show was aired at 7.30 we were talking, naturally about food, and specifically about good ways of cooking lobster.
“You like them?” she asked.
“Then next week I will do lobster for you.” She would do them, she said, à la Bretonne (for recipe, see box at right). She described it the way she talks food with everyone, relating it to a local culture, and travel, and people, closing her eyes and making a rapturous face to show how wonderful this way was. And she told me how she first had eaten it this way, one evening when she and her husband went to the Brittany beaches as the lobster fishermen were coming in with their catch. They ate lobster with the fishermen on the beach, without knives or forks and with folded newspaper serving as plates.
And so à la Bretonne was the way we had our lobster in Montreal with Madame’s husband and a friend. But first there was a savory of two layers of pasta made green by fresh spinach cooked right into it, the layers filled with chicken and tomato and cheese and baked in the oven. Dessert was a wonderful torte—a thin rich European cake filled with fruit or nuts—and cold fruit from an iced bowl, followed by café espresso. The lobster recipe when she wrote it out for me later was as above, with a touch of her own sometimes swerving English: “Split a live lobster in two,” it began. “If you are squirmish, get the butcher to do it. . . ”
That’s the way she likes to talk about cooking— the feeling first, the details second. But like any artist, she knows the basics are necessary before
any cook can soar, and to the tens of thousands of cooks she has instructed in nearly thirty years of running cooking classes large and small, her first advice is always on basics. “First,” she tells them, “you have to know how to cook a roast well. You do not sear it, for that shrinks the meat and does not keep the juices in, as many believe. A paste of one part mustard and two parts butter does the job much better, the mustard sealing the pores through which the juices escape. Don’t baste it, either. Don’t cook it in water, don’t cover it, and cook it bone side down and fat side up.
“Then you have to know how to make a good soup or bouillon; then to cook vegetables properly— which means don’t cook them too much. You have to know what kind of cookery should be applied to what you buy, and by reading and experimenting and listening to good cooks get your own sense of judgment regarding flavoring and combining foods. You should also pay a lot of attention then to the arrangement of the food on a plate—make it look as beautiful as possible. But when you have all this, use your imagination. A woman should cook the way she puts on a dress—pulling it this way or that to flatter her own personality, using a bit of color here or a bit of daring there until it is her.”
She is herself a very good example of this kind of individuality. Anyone watching rehearsals of her television appearances on Living last winter couldn’t help contrasting her with the girls often present as models for the fashion parts of the program. They were thin so they could wear the clothes of the moment and they soberly sipped cups of black coffee to help stay that thin. Although off-camera some of them had individuality, when the camera swung their way the hard training of the model schools molded and regimented the cool prettiness of their expressions. When their part of the show was over, here was Mme. Benoit, frankly plump and happy. One program I watched in rehearsal had picnics as its theme. The cast had been filmed while on a picnic, for which Madame had prepared the food. This included stuffed eggs wrapped individually and put back in egg boxes to keep them from mashing together, chicken fried and the pieces wrapped individually for the same reason and port jelly made with Canadian port wine, pectin and sugar. The potato salad had been made with French dressing instead of mayonnaise to keep it from becoming soggy. Another attractive and fluffy salad was a new one on me— pearlseed salad. For this, Madame told me later, you boil for ten minutes one package of tiny round pearl macaroni in two quarts of water. Drain and rinse under cold water. When well drained add % cup sour cream (commercial type), 14 cup minced shallots (green and white), 1 tablespoon dill seeds or 3 tablespoons fresh minced dills, 1 teaspoon salt, teaspoon black pepper, cup finely minced fresh celery leaves. Mix well. Taste for seasoning and throw in more if you feel like it. Serve either cold or at house temperature.
When the film of this picnic was being shown, members of the cast kept up a running and hungry commentary. Again the contrast between Madame and the models was striking, and she noticed it in her own way. When the screen showed her stocky figure moving around arranging the food she suddently burst out merrily, “One thing I don’t like about picnics is bending
Mine. Benoit’s own recipe for Lobster à la Bretonne
While touring France, Mine. Benoit and her husband visited the Brittany beaches where they shared a lobster dinner prepared on the sands by fishermen. Here she tells how you can prepare the dish in your own kitchen :
“Split a live lobster lengthwise. If you shrink from the job, have the fishmonger do it for you. Squeeze a clove of garlic onto the lobster halves. Now prepare the pan. For myself, I like to use an old copper pan because it shows up the beauty of the lobster. Put in liberal chunks of unsalted butter, then add cognac—follow your fancy with the brandy but don’t drown the lobster. To this add a sprinkle of rosemary. Place the lobster halves in the pan and put the pan in a 400 degree oven and cook for fifteen minutes. If you broil keep the pan four inches from the heat. Or, if you’re a barbecue fan, wrap the lobster in aluminum foil and place it over red coals for twenty minutes. When cooked, baste the meat with the fragrant sauce. Then serve and eat immediately. If you’re serving this for a party and you wish to give the plate a glamorous look, place a bowl of wild rice between the lobster halves on the plate. Flavor the rice with saffron, chives and port and, of course, lots of butter, f or extra flavor — and this is a favorite trick of mine — serve as a vegetable with the grilled lobster one pound of thinly sliced rawr mushrooms, pouring over them when ready to serve two cups of onions fried golden brown. The secret is to pour the red hot onions over the mushrooms. Add salt and pepper to taste. A dash or so of brandy never hurts!”
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to put things on the picnic cloth. I won’t tell you why ...” she said—and then did anyway, with laughter: "It’s because I’m too fat!”
By its very nature—promising something, and then performing with temporary equipment in a crowded set —cooking on television abounds in crises. The jelly doesn’t jell, the props department stove doesn’t work or no water comes out of the tap. But Elaine Grand, who worked with Mme. Benoit as Living’s MC, carrot-caddy, egg-passer and pot-holder, says, "There was never a bad crisis with Madame, because she reacts so quickly and with such wonderful presence of mind.” Pete Whittall, Living’s do-it-yourself expert and a hard man to throw in his own right, recalls, however, what he thinks must have been her worst moment on television. About a minute before one show was to go on the air Madame, in the set a few feet from Whittall’s, swung open a refrigerator door to check the food she’d use on the program. The refrigerator had been wheeled in on a dolly by the prop department and hadn’t been secured properly. The whole thing crashed to the floor. Food rolled and slithered everywhere. "Jiminy Cricket!” said Madame mildly. Whittall recalls, "She just picked up the food she needed from all the stuff rolling around on the floor, and then we were on the air. I don’t think anybody outside of the studio knew the difference, but all through that program she was wading around in a slough of salmon almost up to her ankles.
Desmond Smith, the CBC producer who directed her in Living, mentioned incidents such as this when discussing what constitutes the ideal television personality. "Mainly,” he said, "the person most effective is just plainly a rich human being. That’s Mme. Benoit.” Smith’s feelings are seconded strongly by Louise Simard, who directs Mme. Benoit in the radio program Femina. Before she became a producer, Miss Simard was secretary to the general manager of the CBC for many years, and from the massive critical mail received at that level formed her own opinion of what a good radio program must be—"one done with truth and generosity, which leaves the listener with something to think about, and Mme. Benoit is good at that.”
Centre for all of her activities now is the big house in Westmount where she was born Jehane Patenaude. There the groundwork was laid for the volatile love of good cooking, which, when added to intelligence, training, and womanly warmth, made her the success she is today. The family’s interest in food went back a long way. Her grandfather used to drive twenty miles by sleigh in the country to get bread that he considered superior to the local product. Her father was a onetime bank manager who had left that job to conduct his own successful business— courses in English for which he wrote books and made recordings; and he also had an abiding interest in good food. At the family table all through childhood, with her parents and two brothers and one sister, each meal was discussed thoroughly—the cut of meat, how it had been cooked, ideas for future treatment of the same cut. At the end of each evening meal, her father would ask what was planned for breakfast.
Jehane left home first at eighteen for a trip to France to study food and cooking. When she returned, she opened
cooking classes in a house on Mountain Street. In the late Thirties she leased a big house on Sherbrooke Street, lived in some rooms, rented others, and on one floor opened her own restaurant, the Salad Bar. Here, salad ingredients were laid out for each person’s own choice, served with French bread, homemade soup, dessert, cheese, and coffee. The restaurant drew ten customers the day it opened, and a thousand a day six months later, served by a staff of twelve. When a fire in a dressmaking shop below ruined the rooms Madame had decorated for her restaurant, she decided that the pressure of her other work—-cooking schools, writing recipe books, and acting as a consultant to a growing list of food and appliance companies—was enough.
Always a Busman’s Holiday
One of those earliest clients—FryCadbury—is still with her, after twenty years. Today she has six other clients as well, all of them food and appliances manufacturers. For these companies she tests and creates recipes, writes cookbooks, gives advice on packaging and advertising, and sometimes trains salesmen in what knowledge of food they need to sell their products.
A representative of one of her clients, asked what were Mme. Benoit’s strong points as a food consultant, replied, "Flailand knowledge. She knows more about food and cooking than anyone we’ve ever met.” Madame herself says, "One tenth of my life is devoted to studying food history.” When she travels, it’s always a busman’s holiday. On a trip two years ago she found in a museum some five-hundred-year-old manuscripts of the Medicis in which banquets of the time were described in detail. She spent days making notes. Often she is able to trace the origin of a dish back several hundred years. Who else would know that le pandowdy aux pommes came first from France to Quebec and then was introduced to the United States to wind up in a song with shoo-fly pie? In her view, the relation of foods to religion (meatless days for Roman Catholics, dairyless days for Jews) has also a philosophic dimension. "Notice the Jewish food,” she says, "often fiery and passionate. Notice the food of Catholic countries, the pageantry of their religion reflected in the ceremony and glamour of the way their food is served. The Protestant, a colder religion, has colder food.” When food, history, geography and religion are tied up neatly with a broad wink and the statement that, "Love and good cooking are much the same thing,” it is not hard to see why so many women find in her cooking classes a depth they never before had imagined.
“Good cooking is a lot like love,” says Madame, and women flock to her classes
An example of how she makes her wide knowledge pay off came at the end of a recent conference with representatives of a company about to start a big campaign in frozen foods in Quebec. They wanted her advice on a long list of matters including what foods were used in Quebec that weren’t common in predominantly English provinces, what Quebeckers ate for breakfast, the likely popularity of food freezers versus refrigerators with large frozen-food compartments. When Madame named the fee she would require as consultant to this campaign, they were startled. "Don’t you think that’s pretty high?” one man asked. She said, "In the last hour, gentlemen, you have
asked me thirty-four questions. I have counted them. I answered them all. I didn’t have to say, 'Wait until I look that up in a book,’ or, 'I’ll call you about that on Wednesday.’ I know my business and I ask a fee which corresponds with my ability.” She got it.
Her second husband, Bernard Benoit, is a handsome, slim and affable man who was discharged a major after five years of overseas service with the Canadian Army in World War II. He now is eastern representative for Rheem Appliances and Heating Equipment, a large sales and distributing organization, and must also be one of the few men in the Western world who receives his breakfast in bed from such a cook. Madame habitually rises at seven to prepare his favorites—broiled lamb kidneys, broiled sausages, broiled ham with poached or boiled eggs, broiled mushroom and tomatoes, beans and bacon and green tea. Their home life has an extraordinary feeling of love and understanding, and they try always to be together in the evenings. For instance, Madame conducts (without pay) a course called Cooking With A Flair once a week at the Montreal YWCA, mainly for good cooks who want to know more. For some time she conducted an evening class there, also without pay, for young brides and career girls, but finally her dislike of leaving her husband any evening won out. Although she plans the course, now it is conducted by others.
Food Must Be Natural
M. Benoit’s offices are on the third floor of their house. Their home apartment is on the second floor, and Mme. Benoit’s offices and those of her assistant, Trina Vienberg, a home economist, and her secretary are on the main floor. The financial arrangement, with two large incomes coming into the home, is as simple as that in many another home with two breadwinners. Madame's income is not used except for occasional personal purchases and they are saving together toward eventual retirement— "to travel and live happily and even more together,” she says. She thinks that perhaps she will have to put off until she retires what she feels will be her most ambitious writing job—a book in English under the title The Cuisine of French Canada.
The other resident of their house is a handyman named Toupin. One day a few years ago, hired to do some painting, he told Madame he was very lonely and had no place really to call home. She said, "We have a room in the basement. If you wish to fix it up for yourself and work around here a little, then you will not be lonely and you will have a home.” Toupin has been there ever since. He paints, makes beds when Madame is too busy, does dishes, tends the garden, and is never too "squirmish” to split a live lobster when the occasion arises.
Mme. Benoit does all the household’s cooking herself, even to making the bread. "I go into the kitchen like any housewife, with the same problems,” she says. "That way I know what a woman’s problems are, and what they are thinking.” If there is one fact above others that stands out in her kitchen, it is her insistence, wherever possible, on foods that have natural flavor— whole-wheat flour, unrefined sugar and rock salt. The latter, because of its grey and lumpy appearance, is not sold on the retail market. Madame got the
hundred-pound bag that is her present supply by a heart-rending story, told to a salt company, that she needed rock salt for her water-softener.
Madame is never happier than when she can combine love of food and love of husband. M. Benoit is a good shot and Mme. Benoit is a good cook, and that combination, undoubtedly one of the most important of what sometimes are called the eternal verities, never works better than in the bird-hunting season. Ducks will be flying south soon now, and M. Benoit will he shooting some of them, and later will be eating
what Madame calls Canard Rôti de Québec (Roasted Duck Quebec Way). For this, she peels and cuts in quarters three medium-sized apples and rolls them until well coated in the following mixture: 34 teaspoon salt, 34 teaspoon each of freshly ground black pepper, ground cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, dry mustard. Then she stuffs the cleaned duck with the spiced apples and places all in a casserole with one cup of apple cider or light wine, 1 medium-size onion thickly sliced, and two thin slices of salted pork, placed on the duck breast. This she sprinkles with salt, pepper and
34 teaspoon of sage. She cooks it uncovered in a 450° oven 45 minutes, basting three or four times during the cooking. Madame says that this cooking period should be long enough for the usual type of wild duck, but if the bird is not sufficiently tender after that time, she covers the casserole, lowers the heat to 375 and lets it cook another 15 to 25 minutes or until tender.
A side dish Madame likes to serve with duck is Pilaf à l'Orge (Barley Pilaff). This has a wonderfully nutlike flavor and is made this way: Melt 2 table-
spoons of butter in a large frying pan,
add 2 medium-size onions, minced, and 34 lb. fresh mushrooms thinly sliced. Stir together quickly over high heat for 2 to 4 minutes or until the onions are lightly browned and the mushrooms have softened. Then remove them from the frying pan, and into the pan put 2 more tablespoons of butter. When melted, add TJ4 cups of barley. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until the barley takes a light brown color and has a delightful roasting nut aroma. Add the onions and the mushrooms to the roasted barley, place the mixture in a casserole dish, add 4 cups of consomme, 34 teaspoon salt, cover, and bake 50 minutes in a 350° oven.
If the game brought home is pheasant, here is the drill for Faisan à la Normande (Pheasant Normandy):
Clean a pheasant and cut in 4 portions. Roll in flour and brown in 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. In the bottom of an earthenware casserole make a 2-inch-thick layer of peeled and thinly sliced apples. Over the apples pour 3 tablespoons of melted sweet butter. Place the pieces of browned pheasant on this bed of apples, then surround and completely cover the pheasant with more sliced and peeled apples. Pour on top another three tablespoons of melted butter. Cover and bake 134 hours in a 375° oven. Remove the pheasant from the casserole and add to the apples 34 CUP rich cream and 3 tablespoons brandy. Stir to mix well, season to taste and serve each piece of pheasant on a bed of this fragrant apple sauce.
A Child Can’t Fight Back
Cooking is so much a part of Madame’s life that she is constantly finding reminders of it in the things about her. Among a panel of six prints by the Mexican painters Rivera and Siqueiros on the wall of her office is a picture of a child. For Madame, this is a reminder of her granddaughter, Susan Macdonald. Susan, in turn, puts her in mind of food because Madame insists on preparing the child’s meals. She thinks that canned food is all right in an emergency but that to feed a baby entirely from cans takes unfair advantage of the child’s inability to fight back. And so she makes Susan’s meals and puts them in the freezer where they are picked up at intervals by Susan’s mother.
One day a few weeks a , Madame felt she made her point that a discriminating palate exists even in a child. That day she served Susan her favorite food, lamb stew, from a can: "I didn’t let her see the can,” Madame says. "I served it in her favorite plate. I told her beforehand what she would be eating, and she was glad because she likes lamb stew when 1 make it. She took one mouthful and then gave me the queerest kind of a look, as if she didn’t know whether to hurt my feelings or not. Then she pushed it away! 'Pas bon, Grandmama!’ she said, and wouldn’t eat it. And she had decided right. Nothing excuses bad food.” ★