Relish by Ruth Cowen

Carolyn Fanelli

Relish will appeal to Victorian history buffs, dedicated foodies, and those who love compelling biographies of the once-famous, now-obscure.


Publisher: Phoenix
Subtitle: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef
Author: Ruth Cowen
Price: $16.95
Length: 342
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0753821966
US publication date: 2008-04

Move over, Jamie Oliver, with your socially-conscious school lunch programs and locally-sourced veg. Wolfgang Puck, your cross-promotional prowess has met its match. Emeril, take note: a different chef’s spice blend might "BAM!" yours right off the shelves.

You may have started a form-fitting sweater trend, Nigella; you may be married to a fashion designer, Giada De Laurentiis, but another culinary fashionista could give you a run for your money. And it’s true, Rachel Ray, someone else in the kitchen can inspire the same attention-grabbing combination of slavish admiration and irrational disdain.

Chef Alexis Soyer has worked to alleviate famine and improve the nutrition of soldiers in war zones and poor families living in urban squalor. He has published best-selling cookbooks, opened an ambitious restaurant, invented ground-breaking stoves, and marketed fast-selling spice blends. Known for his eye-catching garments "ágrave; la zoug-zoug" (cut on the bias) and flashy red beret, Soyer’s numerous admirers are matched only by the legions repelled by his renegade style and ceaseless showmanship, with the attendant praise and criticism only adding to his fame.

Good thing for all of you that Soyer died 150 years ago.

Ruth Cowen’s biography Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef is her first book, and, after being published in the UK in 2006, won two awards from The Guild of Food Writers -- Food Book of the Year and Best First Book. Soyer is a fascinating character, and Relish, now available in the US, follows him from his birth to a humble French family in 1810 until his death in London in 1858.

Cowen’s writing belies her obvious affection for Soyer, warts and all. She admires her subject’s verve and innovativeness, while rolling her eyes in friendly exasperation when he overlooks patenting valuable inventions, fritters money away, plays the buffoon to attract attention, and unabashedly grovels for high-profile testimonials of his culinary prowess.

Relish will appeal to Victorian history buffs, dedicated foodies, and those who love compelling biographies of the once-famous, now-obscure. The history-minded will appreciate Cowen’s close attention to cultural landmarks -- the first World’s Fair, the inauguration of Queen Victoria, excerpts from the satire-rich Punch -- and the links between Soyer and other Victorian-era stalwarts, such as Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale, and William Thackeray. Foodies will drool over the sumptuous accounts of gourmet meals, and likely wish, as did I, that there were more to savor. Like this, Cowen’s description of the opening salvo of a banquet for a visiting Egyptian commander:

The meal began, according to custom, with a selection of exquisite soups... They included consommés such as Potage ágrave; la Victoria, a delicate veal broth garnished with blanched cockscombs; Potage à la Colbert, a vegetable soup flavored by glazed Jerusalem artichokes laboriously cut into pea-sized balls; and Potage ágrave; la Comte de Paris, a sherry-colored, intensely flavored meat soup filled with macaroni ribbons and delicate chicken quenelles.

Soyer's flair for the dramatic shone through during the subsequent "main service" and dessert course, which featured, respectively, Chapons ágrave; la Nelson (truffle- and mushroom-stuffed capons glued onto pastry croustades shaped like a ship’s prow, set upon "waves" of mashed potatoes) and Gácirc;teau Britannique ágrave; l'Admiral (a man-of-war-shaped cake flying British and Egyptian flags and filled with iced peach mousse).

A Victorian scholar might want additional contextual detail, a foodie might crave more of Soyer’s menus, the average reader might wish Cowen was a bit less thorough in her research. Skip and skim if you must. Soyer is a character of grand proportions, and although Cowen’s occasionally-staid writing might not be as effusive and grandiose as the man himself, her book is engaging throughout. By the end, you, like the author, will wonder just how this celebrity chef ever fell off the pages of history.


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