Steven Kaplan ’63
Steven Kaplan ’63 is the first to admit that his life has taken an unlikely path for a kid from Brooklyn. Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of European History at Cornell, is one of the world’s top authorities on French bread, twice knighted by the French government for enriching national culture. A history major at Princeton, he began focusing on the history of French bread during his graduate studies at Yale. His book The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700—1775 (1996), a study of the power and symbolism of bread in 18th-century France, won prizes honoring both history and culinary writing. Kaplan’s latest book, the first gourmet guide to the baguettes of Paris, Cherchez le Pain (Seek Out the Bread), was published this month. It focuses on the “pain de tradition” – the succulent baguettes made before World War II, which were heading toward extinction until Kaplan helped promote a national revival in the 1980s. He spoke to Beth Saulnier for PAW.
What’s so fascinating about French bread?
If someone told me to spend 30 years studying the history of crêpe Suzette or mille-feuille or mousse au chocolat, I’d laugh in his face. But bread was the ration of survival for the vast majority of people for hundreds of years. It was a major political issue, because no government could stand if it was unable to guarantee an adequate supply of good-quality bread at an accessible price. Bread also was the body of Christ in the Western tradition, so it was symbolically charged with an enormous weight. When you went to communion hundreds of years ago, you didn’t get a prefabricated wafer. You got a slice of bread.
What’s your latest book about?
It’s a guide to the best bakeries in Paris, four to six in each arrondissement. I tasted bread at about 600 shops – there are 1,283 in Paris – and eventually winnowed them down to 100. The bread, called the “bread of French tradition,” is made with a long first fermentation, without any additives or chemicals. It’s a return of old-fashioned techniques. It’s harder to make than a standard baguette – it takes about seven or eight hours.
What makes the best bread?
This may sound reductionist or maybe even arrogant, but it’s quite simple. It’s flour, water, salt, an agent of fermentation – and nothing else.
What are your tasting criteria?
Aspect – how it looks, three points; crust, three points; crumb, three points; mouth feel, one point; aroma, five points; and taste, five points. You have to ponder each one of the criteria very carefully and try to find the right words to translate the sensations. Sometimes I’ll compare a bread structure to the body of a movie actress – you can do that in France, where you don’t have to be politically correct. So I’ll talk about a crumb as succulent or sensuous as Sophie Marceau, or a crust that lacks virility. I try and find powerful images that will convey what I’m talking about.
You make eating a good baguette sound positively erotic.
You have to use all your senses when you taste bread. You begin the process with your eyes and fingers. You touch it. How does it feel? Is the skin soft, or is it pockmarked? Is it attractive? You flick it with your finger. Is it sonorous, or is it soft and rubbery? When you slice it open, you want to have an assault of wonderful odors – to be aroused, stimulated, engaged. You want these perfumes, these aromas, to surge. The best bread will have a kind of freshness, a tension between warm cereals and a fresh fall breeze.
How should it look and taste?
The crumb should be off-white, a very frank cream. There should be a real articulation of holes – a lot of big, little, and medium-sized ones – oftentimes bound together by fleshy archipelagoes of crumb. When you press them they have a certain springiness, a sensuality to the touch. For me, a really fine baguette will have a kind of rich, thick taste. It will have good mouth persistence, a body. I often will taste in the best baguettes a mixture of buttery and nutty notes.
You’ve called this book the biggest miscalculation of your life. Why?
It’s been horrendously time-consuming. Just getting the damn stuff in Paris, you spend half the day visiting 15 shops. Then you sit down to taste. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon. You’ve been up since 6. You’ve had nothing to eat. That’s the most dangerous moment for a taster, because you have to taste with sobriety. You can’t taste when you’re ravenously hungry.
As a historian of food, what do you recall about dining on campus?
I have very keen memories, because my financial-aid package made me a waiter in Commons. In those days, we had tables of 10 men each, in four grand neo-Gothic halls with huge vaulted ceilings. I would serve 40 guys per meal, and I got 10 cents per head, so I’d make four dollars for about an hour’s work. I’d serve mystery meat and other foods that were virtually inedible, and oftentimes hard to discern. The food was repugnant, and generally once a month there would be a huge food fight.