A Late-Summer Tart from a Misunderstood Master of French Cooking

One day in March of 1968, the cooking teacher Madeleine Kamman was leafing through the Times when she came upon a recipe that she considered rubbish. It was for what the paper’s then food editor, Craig Claiborne, referred to as “snails provençale on toast,” or snails cooked briskly in a brew of tomato, garlic, shallot, butter, salt, and pepper and spooned over bread. Nonsense, Kamman thought. “Merci, merci, for advocating snails,” her politely brutal missive to Claiborne began. “I have been an American for only eight years and still remember vividly and fondly the small sessions in my French home. We prepared them by the thousands, from scratch, and then there was a feast with Chablis.” Kamman, who had moved to a Philadelphia suburb from her native France eight years prior, went on to critique Claiborne’s recipe, and recommended a superior preparation, from the French province of Languedoc—snails in a puree of braised lettuce kissed with hollandaise sauce and served on a loaf of ficelle.

Claiborne was so struck by Kamman’s impassioned letter that he decided to pay her a visit at her home, where the kitchen walls were lined with copper saucepans made by her grandfather. He wrote a story about her, which ran in the Times that May, under the headline “The Enthusiasm of Snail Addict Helps Turn a Meal into a Feast,” and set the stage for Kamman’s remarkable career. Her first cookbook, “The Making of a Cook,” was published three years later. An energetic woman with blue eyes and a thick French accent, she went on to run cooking schools and restaurants, and to star in a TV program, “Madeleine Cooks,” which aired on public television from 1986 to 1991.

But Kamman remained a cult figure until her death, in 2018, at the age of eighty-seven. What attention she did receive often focussed less on her cooking than on her habit of criticizing darlings of the food establishment. In France, Kamman had studied at Le Cordon Bleu and at L’École des Trois Gourmandes, the school co-founded by Julia Child, and she and Child were social acquaintances. But in the classes Kamman taught in the States she allegedly forbade students from watching Child’s show “The French Chef” and ordered them to destroy their copies of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Another of her targets was the Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse. “Women lack the instincts for great cooking,” Bocuse said, in 1975. In response, Kamman turned a framed photo of Bocuse in her restaurant upside down. The press often fixated on these conflicts. Kamman was called “abrasive,” “arrogant,” “difficult,” and plenty of other labels that we now recognize as sexist dog whistles. But it is Kamman’s career, more than any of her “feisty” commentary, that offers the sharpest rebuke to Bocuse’s oafish assertion.

Born Madeleine Marguerite Pin, in 1930, outside of Paris, Kamman was the only child of a working-class couple. She spent much of her youth watching the women in her family cook, including her aunt, Claire Robert, who owned a two-Michelin-star restaurant in the province of Touraine. She moved to Paris after the war, where she studied languages at the Sorbonne before gaining a culinary education. But in 1960 she married an American, Alan Kamman, a civil engineer, and moved to the United States, first to Alan’s home state of Pennsylvania and, later, to the Boston area. To stave off loneliness in her adoptive home, she cooked—and she treated home cooking as an art form, even if the society around her did not honor it as such. Over time, her cooking adapted to her American surroundings. She could take blueberries, a fruit that seemed ubiquitous in America, and whip them into a crème bavaroise that reminded her of her French home. She could look at a dish like succotash, with corn and lima beans, and give it a French lilt by adding chicken stock, a dash of sugar, and heavy cream.

Kamman’s opus, “When French Women Cook,” was published in 1976. The book, a mix of memoir and recipe writing, was “in its own way a feminist manifesto,” she wrote. Kamman wasn’t just asking Americans to respect French cooking; others, including Julia Child, had already accomplished that. She was asking Americans to respect the cooking of French women, a more complicated fight. She dedicated the book “to the millions of women who have spent millenia in kitchens creating unrecognized masterpieces.” (In a characteristically sly gesture, she mentioned Bocuse’s grandmother and mother specifically.) In the book, Kamman profiled eight women who had influenced her work in the kitchen, among them her great-grandmother, Marie-Charlotte, with whom she had travelled to markets on weekends; her aunt Claire, the restaurateur; and Loetitia, a gifted home cook from Brittany. Life had handed each of these women hardships. They had lost children to wars, been widowed, endured heartbreaks. Those struggles forged their creative output. Kamman saw the recipes of these women as proof of their strength and skill: Marie-Charlotte’s lemon cruller, Claire’s eel pâté, Loetitia’s fig tart.

Kamman labels her recipes according to their difficulty level—“easy,” “medium-difficult,” “tricky.” The fig tart falls into the first category. Coming together in about two hours, the tart is ideal, Kamman writes, for the final months of summer and the start of fall. She pares off the stems of two dozen light-skinned fresh figs, then cross-hatches their bottoms so that their seeds peek out. Then she bakes them in a brew of cider and honey until they soften. The fruit sits in a pastry shell on a thick bed of heavy cream, whipped with sugar and a jolt of dark rum. The dessert is a thing of quiet elegance, a salve for sticky summer afternoons. Kamman attaches no expository headnote to this preparation, no illuminating anecdote that explains the tart’s significance to readers. Like so many other dishes in the book, this one speaks for itself, as a small portal into a woman’s creative soul.

Many of the book’s recipes had never previously been written down at all, Kamman wrote in her opening pages. In that sense, “When French Women Cook” was also an act of recovery. “Where are you, my France, where women cooked, where the stars in cooking did not go to men anxious for publicity but to women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience,” Kamman wrote. “Where are you?” She did all she could to retrieve that place on her own terms.

Tarte aux Figues Fraîches (Fig Tart)

Adapted with permission from “When French Women Cook,” copyright © 1976 by Madeleine M. Kamman. Foreword copyright © 2002 by Shirley Corriher. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House.

Servings: 6

Cost: Expensive

Execution: Easy

Total preparation time: 2 hours

Best season: August through October

Ingredients

  • 24 fresh figs, of a light-skinned variety
  • 1 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 cup cider
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • Ordinary Short Pastry (recipe follows)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 Tbsp. dark rum
  • 1 Tbsp. granulated sugar

Directions

1. Remove the stems of the figs and cut a tiny cross in their root end. Grease a fireproof baking dish with the butter. Put the figs in the baking dish. Mix the cider and honey and pour into the dish. Bake in a preheated 375​​-degree oven until the fruit is soft (it will vary with the breed). Baste with the cooking juices once or twice while baking. Cool.

2. Roll out the pastry into a sheet ⅛-inch thick. Fit into a pastry ring 8 to 9 inches in diameter. Cut and shape the edge properly, fit with a foil, and fill with dried beans. Prebake 12 to 15 minutes in a preheated 425​​-degree oven. Remove the beans, turn the oven off, and let the pastry dry. Remove from the oven after 5 minutes and cool on a rack.

3. Whip the cream with the dark rum and the sugar (you may use more sugar if you please) until stiff. Fill the pastry shell with the cream.

4. Arrange the figs on the cream and brush over them with any glaze left in the baking dish. Serve at room temperature.

Ordinary Short Pastry

Adapted with permission from “When French Women Cook,” copyright © 1976 by Madeleine M. Kamman. Foreword copyright © 2002 by Shirley Corriher. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House.

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups sifted flour
  • 3 to 4 ½ Tbsp. chilled water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 9 Tbsp. butter, chilled

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