The likelihood of acquiring a copy of the French cookbook Gastronomie Pratique by visiting a local bookseller is very low since this classic was first published in 1907 and has been out-of-print since 1950. A while ago, I had never heard of it; today I own three copies.

I bumped into Gastronomie Pratique quite by accident. It was at the home of Chef Frédéric Médigue, in the franc-comtois village of Amondans. Once again I had come to the Château d’Amondans for a short visit with the chef and his family, and to work a stage in the kitchen of this Michelin-starred restaurant. On the Sunday following my arrival, the Chef invited me home for a simple meal of fromage au croute.

Supper behind us, Frédéric opened the bottle of marc de provence I brought as a gift, along with several homemade eau de vies from his friends and relatives. After a taste of each, we left the kitchen and settled onto a large leather sofa in the living room, the marc within easy reach. Pascale, the chef’s wife, brought out a number of rare, old books — birthday gifts she had given to Frédéric. Most were about food. A large, yellow-bound volume printed in 1928 caught my attention. Frédéric said it was the book he turned to when his cooking needed inspiration. It was a fifth-edition of Gastronomie Pratique written by Henri Babinski, an engineer who wrote under the pen name Ali-Bab. Frédéric spoke about the author as I sipped marc and quickly browsed the book’s thousand-plus pages. Then we turned our attention to a satellite telecast of an old George Clooney vampire comedy. By the time I left for my lodgings, the bottle of marc was two-thirds drained and books were far from my consciousness.

I didn’t think much about that yellow-covered cookbook until half a year later when, once again, I was in Amondans on a Sunday night, dining with Frédéric and Pascale. This time the meal was raclette. After dinner and a juice glass or two of Davidoff cognac, I asked for another look at the book by Ali-Bab. This time, I made a more leisurely excursion through its pages. Later, walking back to my room, the notion of owning my own copy crept into my thoughts.

A few weeks later, I ran a search on bookfinder.com. It surprised me to find a couple of dozen copies listed. These ranged from a 1907 first edition to an eighth printed in 1950. Prices began at $105 and ran to over $500. But there was something a bit odd. The first edition was only 314 pages long whereas its successors were described as 1281 pages in length. Being the thrifty individual I am, I purchased a seventh edition from 1939 for $105.

The book’s arrival proved both exciting and disappointing. Instead of the sturdy volume bound in yellow cloth that I expected, I beheld a fragile book bound in paper with the edges of the cover badly chipped. On the plus side, the text was nicely printed.

A while later, I remembered that my original web search also listed an English translation. Printed in 1974, it bore the title Encyclopedia of Practical Gastronomy. I returned to bookfinder.com to locate a copy. Strangely, it was 471 pages long, far shorter than the original French version I now owned. But a copy was offered at only $8. It was hard to resist my second copy of Ali-Bab. When it arrived and I compared it with the original, I found whole sections absent. Even worse, literally translated instructions were combined with ingredient lists adapted to the average American kitchen of the mid-1970s. The result was that ingredients often failed to match the directions. I set this copy aside in favor of the French original.

Along about then, in an effort to learn more about Henri Babinski, I tried a Google search. The results were rather sparse. One link interested me. It was to amazon.fr. What was a seller of new books doing with a listing for a book from 1907? To my surprise and delight, I learned the original publisher had just issued a facsimile copy of the fifth edition from 1928. But there seemed to be a catch. The cover of the facsimile had the statement: Une bible gourmande en 5000 recettes. 5000 recipes? I hadn’t counted each recipe in my seventh edition of Ali-Bab, but they appeared to average just a bit over one per page! Still, with a listed length of 1281 pages, and being more curious than daunted, I ordered my third copy of Ali-Bab.

When the book arrived, it appeared to be a hardbound photocopy of the original text. I randomly checked its pages in the facsimile against my seventh edition and found no differences. Thus, the original was relegated to the top of the bookshelf and the facsimile became my working copy.

Although the main title of Gastronomie Pratique hasn’t changed over time, the subtitle has. In 1907, it was Études culinaires, or “Culinary Studies.” Later editions, besides being four times larger, were subtitled: Traitement de l’obésité des gourmands, or “The Treatment of Obesity in Gourmands.” The new subtitle coincided with the inclusion of a nine-page “medical” article of the same title at the end of the book and an opening 41-page essay on the history of eating.

All the articles and most of the recipes in Gastronomie Pratique are heavily footnoted — something not seen in most cookbooks — something that gives it a more technical appearance than other cookbooks.

Before the recipes, or Formules culinaires, begin on page 199, separate articles deal with such subjects as the history of meal service; general methods of cooking; general definitions of cooking stocks, meat extracts, essences, fumets, and mixtures; general definitions of sauces; classifications of soups; detailed listings of the mushrooms of France, including all their botanical names; a discussion of wine and its regions of production; how to organize a meal for friends; and 24 pages of suggested menus serving 4 to 6 guests for lunch and 8 to 12 for dinner. Once past these preliminaries, the real fun begins.

The first recipe under potages and soupes is indicative of those that follow. There is an introductory paragraph followed by a listing of the quantity the recipe serves. Ingredients, both dry and most liquid, are given precisely in grams or fractions of grams. Footnotes explain the source and purpose of ingredients, how to ready an ingredient for use, an ingredient’s scientific name, or cautions, such as “La pureté de l’eau employée a une très grande importance…,” or “The purity of the water used in cooking is very important….”

Babinski's instructions provide much more detail than other cookbooks of the period, more like what one expects in a cookbook today. His instructions, too, are footnoted to elucidate their meaning. At the end of most recipes, Babinski offers numerous substitutions and variations. (Maybe it’s from the possible combinations created by all the variations that the publisher of the facsimile came up with 5000 recipes?)

The third recipe in the section is of another format — call it a minimalist approach — one or two descriptive paragraphs with no discussion of quantities. These recipes were probably intended for more experienced readers.

As I began to prepare the recipes from Gastronomie Pratique, I was mindful that Babinski worked in a much different kitchen than is common today. Refrigeration then was a box with block ice — electric refrigerators weren’t invented until 1913. His stove used coal, coal oil, kerosene, or wood; heat was regulated by a damper; the oven had no thermostat. Where we use a food processor or blender, Babinski used a mortar and pestle or a food mill. Purity of the water and cleanliness of the ingredients were issues in Babinski’s time more than now. Meat wasn’t sold in plastic-wrapped packages. Fish was generally not available as fillets. A dozen eggs contained a variety of sizes. Flour routinely contained small stones and bugs. Despite such differences between then and now, most of the recipes I tested worked just as Babinski prescribed.

Babinski seemed to have a wider assortment of ingredients to work with than is common today. Lobster eggs were used to color dishes. Truffles were used with abandon. There are a number of recipes for brains. I assume that many of the wild game birds he describes were available at his local Paris butcher, but some recipes seem based on game he hunted fresh. Likewise, some recipes call for specific kinds of fish from specific streams. Other ingredients are common to France but generally unavailable elsewhere, e.g., sheep raised on salt marshes. And I’ve yet to find a butcher that can supply me with a quarter kilo of cock kidneys! Occasionally, Babinski calls for ingredients that no longer exist, like sirop de capillaire, a medicinal syrup made from the maidenhead fern. With a little research, suitable substitutions can be found for almost everything he specifies. Despite needing to make certain substitutions, most of the recipes I tested worked just as Babinski prescribed.

Babinski refers to ordinary ingredients in non-specific ways — an onion is an onion. On the other hand, he is sometimes also very specific: he differentiates between bon cognac, good quality brandy from anywhere in the Cognac region of France, and fine champagne, brandy made with grapes from the fine champagne sub-region. Some terms he uses are simply out-of-date. For example, most recipes containing mushrooms call for champignons de couche, an archaic term for champignons de Paris or common button mushrooms.

Babinski also, at times, uses techniques or practices that are no longer part of today’s cookery. He sometimes calls for bread or rice to thicken soups. Sauces may start with a roux and finish with egg yolks and cream. Some items are cooked for what seem to be inordinately long times — one pork and cabbage dish cooks for seven hours over low heat. Despite using some techniques not common in today’s kitchens, most of the recipes I tested worked just as Babinski prescribed.

Although the majority of recipes in Gastronomie Pratique originate from Babinski’s native France, a significant number come from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Prior to publishing the first edition at the age of 52, Babinski spent a significant portion of his life as an engineer outside of France.

Along with the standard sections expected in a general book of cookery, Babinski includes a few subjects that today seem unexpected — when was the last time you saw a recipe for pig’s ear? The book’s recipes are offered in nineteen sections.

•  Potages et Soupes. Like Escoffier in Le Guide Culinaire, Babinski divides soups into many different specific categories. In all there are 74 recipes plus variations.
•  Garnitures pour potages. Seven recipes for garnishes accessorize the soups.
•  Œufs. There are 22 egg recipes. These are not breakfast dishes but are meant to be served during a midday or evening meal. Interestingly, Babinski specifies how large — 70 grams — eggs should be for omelets but not for cakes!
•  Batraciens. Crustacés et Mollusques. Babinski calls for frogs, lobsters, shrimp, crayfish, oysters, mussels, sea urchins, and snails in 44 recipes. Many of these creatures also appear as garnishes in other recipes throughout the book. Interestingly, Babinski only suggests crabs as an alternative to mussels in two dishes; otherwise, he seems to ignore these creatures altogether.
•  Poissons. These 137 recipes start with a few combinations of various fishes, but quickly become single-species preparations. Most of the common fish of France are represented. For most, suitable substitutions can be found in other parts of the world.
•  Issues d’animaux de boucherie et porc. There are 62 recipes for the preparation of stomachs, tongues, heads, brains, kidneys, and ears of various cloven-hoof animals including beef, veal, sheep, and pigs. Also included are two sausage recipes.
•  Viandes d’animaux de boucherie et de porc. Once the offal is out of the way, Babinski dedicates 129 recipes to the remainder of the same animals as the previous section.
•  Volaille et animaux de basse-cour. Poultry and other farmyard animals is how Babinski describes this section of 94 recipes for preparing chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, and rabbits, including their livers.
•  Gibier. There are 82 recipes for game from the sky and land: pheasants, partridges, grouse, buntings, hare, deer, and boars.
•  Pâtes. Légumes secs. Légumes verts. Literally, “pasta, dried vegetables, green vegetables,” this 183-recipe section is the largest, and there are many more vegetables presented than green ones.
•  Champignons. There are 22 recipes for dishes that feature cèpes, chanterelles, morels, truffles, and the ever-present button mushroom.
•  Salades. The 33 salad recipes range from the now-ubiquitous green salad to those more aptly described as cold vegetable dishes.
•  Fromages. Surprisingly, there are only two recipes in the book that feature cheese as their main ingredient. Cheese soufflés are addressed in the egg section.
•  Entremets sucrés. Pâtisserie. Besides desserts, these 170 recipes also include cookies and cakes.
•  Compotes. Confitures et marmalades. Gelées. Pâtes et Sirops de fruits. One of the many surprises in Gastronomie Pratique is its 95 recipes for preserved fruit, jams, marmalades, jellies, fruit candies, and fruit syrups.
•  Glaces. Fromages et Biscuits glacés. Mousses et Bombes glacées. Parfaits. Soufflées et Puddings glacés. These 17 recipes comprise the first of two frozen desserts sections.
•  Sorbets. Punchs glacés. Granités. Marquises. Spooms. The second part of the frozen desserts sections include these 9 recipes.
•  Le Café, le Thé, les Liqueurs. This eight-page section is actually three separate essays on the subject of coffee, tea, and liquors. There is even the mathematical formula for determining size of a cylinder required to prepare a certain number cups of coffee! (Always the engineer.)
•  Quelques boissons. Literally “a few drinks,” this section has 48 recipes for various alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages common in Babinski’s day. Many appear to be of foreign origin rather than French.
The book has no table of contents but a list, in the back, offers the basic recipes in the order of presentation. The index lists all recipes and all the variations in alphabetical order. (Maybe when the facsimile was published, the determination of 5000 recipes was derived by counting the 45 pages of index entries?)

My deeper analysis of the book began as I looked through its pages for a cross section of dishes to sample. I skipped recipes similar to those already published on this web site. I also passed on recipes calling for too many hard-to-find ingredients. I did include recipes that, on the surface, appeared too difficult to prepare or incomplete in their instructions. This left me with 85 recipes to test for possible inclusion here. My goal was to cull from these about 25 unique, successful preparations.

Every recipe I tried from Gastronomie Pratique was doable. Some required a second or third try to work out precise ingredient quantities, cooking times, or cooking temperatures. In the end, about ten percent proved too boring to warrant further attention. One recipe, the biscuit de Savoie, required five attempts to finalize the instructions. Most of the recipes eliminated from the list of 85 were scratched because there was already one or more tested recipes that used the same main ingredient or the same principal technique, such as stewing. I anticipate preparing most of the purged recipes sometime in future.

The first eight editions of Gastronomie Pratique sold about 35,000 copies over almost half a century. Hopefully, the creation of the facsimile version will once again bring this magnificent book to the attention of cooks everywhere. It is certainly a worthwhile addition to the library of all French-reading cooks, and a good excuse for all other cooks to learn how to read French.



© 2003 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.
The likelihood of acquiring a copy of the French cookbook Gastronomie Pratique by visiting a local bookseller is very low since this classic was first published in 1907 and has been out-of-print since 1950. A while ago, I had never heard of it; today I own three copies.

I bumped into Gastronomie Pratique quite by accident. It was at the home of Chef Frédéric Médigue, in the franc-comtois village of Amondans. Once again I had come to the Château d’Amondans for a short visit with the chef and his family, and to work a stage in the kitchen of this Michelin-starred restaurant. On the Sunday following my arrival, the Chef invited me home for a simple meal of fromage au croute.

chicken consommé thickened with cream, butter, egg yolk, and semolina
split pea soup
breaded and fried mussels
trout in butter
salmon souffle
fillet of sole poached in white wine
veal tongue with raisin and almond sauce
veal liver patties
skewered beef rolls
pork stew
veal stew with garlic
sausages with white wine sauce
sautéd chicken
roast chicken
baked macaroni and cheese
fresh fava beans cooked in butter
chard cooked in stock
carrots braised in Madeira
sautéd mushrooms with cheese
green bean and tomato salad
chocolate cake
candied oranges
sponge cake
strawberry jam
apple syrup
hot toddy