Fact and imagination waltz arm in arm through N.M. Kelby’s genre-bending novel White Truffles in Winter. Measure by measure, the personal history of the renowned, real-life chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) spins whimsically into fictive memories—intricate scenes of passion and taste. When the music finally stops, readers are left dizzied but alert to a tantalizing swirl of the senses.
The Escoffier of this story is a man torn between two loves: his wife, the poet Delphine Daffis, and his lover and longtime friend, the actress and international sensation Sarah Bernhardt. The novel is set in the last year of Escoffier’s life, in Monte Carlo, where he has retired and reunited with his wife after decades apart. Time has eroded his fame, fortune and health, and Delphine withers on her death bed. When an insolent Sabine arrives as their caretaker and cook, looking like a young Sarah (her father, who arranged the situation, is hoping to win Escoffier’s favor), memories are aroused in both Monsieur and Madame. Bottle by bottle, dish by dish, the story of their marriage surfaces: its perfect moments, its epic failures. And Delphine has a final wish: to be immortalized as her husband has immortalized so many others. After a lifetime of want, she would like to have the great Chef Escoffier create a dish in her honor.
Much of the book is spent reveling in the alchemy of flavor for which Escoffier was so known—the essences, the combinations, the transformational power of food as nourishment for body and soul. Cutting along the grain, not against, Kelby reveals her characters slowly, wrapping her readers in sensuous prose that, ultimately, seems as concerned with recreating the experience of a glorious meal as it does with narrative.
Foodies will no doubt enjoy the lush epicurean treatment as well as the historical elements of the novel, which explore the origins of today’s commercial kitchens and a host of culinary techniques. But ultimately this is a classic romance, the story of a transcontinental marriage doomed from the beginning, yet held together by the complexities of love.