Ali-Bab & Pomiane: Two Polish Cooks Who Caused a Stir in French Cuisine
Henryk Babiński and Édouard de Pomiane, born Edward Pożerski, were renowned culinary writers and gourmets of Polish origin. At the beginning of the 20th century, they caused quite a stir in the French cuisine scene.
Henryk Babiński was known as the Brillat-Savarin of the 20th century, while the twenty-year-younger Édouard de Pomiane, born Edward Pożerski, was considered ‘the best culinary writer’ of his time. Both of them were born into poor emigrant families in Paris where they were brought up, lived, achieved professional success, and eventually died. Neither of them ever forgot about their Polish roots. As a matter of fact, it was quite the opposite: both of them were brought up in the spirit of patriotism, spoke perfect Polish, worked in Polish diaspora organisations and advocated for the restoration of Polish independence. Moreover, they did not neglect to use Polish inspirations in the kitchen.
Ali-Bab – a geologist and a gourmet
Henryk Babiński (1855-1931) is most well-known as the author of a monumental gastronomic book that is still in use today. The book, the legendary Gastronomie Pratique (written under the pen name Ali-Bab), first published in 1907 was a whopping 1200 pages long and included thousands of recipes.
Henryk and his brother Józef’s (a renowned neurologist) parents emigrated to the City of Light after the failed Greater Poland uprising of 1848. They ensured their children received a patriotic upbringing at the Polish School at Batignolles and secure jobs – Henryk finished studies at École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris, the mining school in Paris. Following in his father’s footsteps, the young Babiński worked for many years in South America in extreme conditions. It could be that his poor diet and its blandness aroused his passion for food and cuisine after his return to Europe.
He returned from America as a mature man and moved in with his brother, also a bachelor. Henryk was Józef’s protégé (he was his private secretary and accountant), he tested his exquisite dishes on him before serving them to their friends from the Paris’ élite intellectuelle.
After years of culinary experiments, he published Gastronomie Pratique. The book became famous and news about it reached all the way to Poland. In 1913, it was reviewed in Ilustrowany Kuryer Codzienny (editor’s translation: Illustrated Daily Courier). The reviewer didn’t even have a clue that the book’s author was a Pole. Several decades later, Babiński’s book was praised by the legendary Julia Child herself (in the 1970s, Gastronomie was translated into English).
Nowadays, Gastronomie Pratique is somewhat démodé, however, a century ago it was an extremely innovative. The book included a substantial introduction on the condition of gastronomy at the time and the history of cooking throughout the ages. An erudite and a refined gourmet, Babiński flaunted his vast knowledge of the French cuisine bourgeoise (with its frequently complex, multi-stage and expensive recipes) as well as other national cuisines.
He found the Polish cuisine to be tasty and nourishing, albeit requiring a strong digestive system – this is what Ali-Bab thought about the heavy Polish soups based on meat stocks and thickened with sour cream (‘a complete dish, not a starter’). He introduced the French to soups based on żur (fermented rye soup), pickled beet borscht or pickle brine. He wrote about soups made with fruit, barley, almond, crayfish soups and czernina (duck blood soup). Babiński was also a connoisseur of Polish venison. He included his own recipes for some Polish dishes in Gastronomie: barley soup made with veal and poulard with pearl barley, red borscht with meat consommé, blood soup, kołduny (stuffed dumplings), pączki and Polish cakes.
Here’s a recipe for cold soup with sorrel and young beet greens:
As opposed to the other recipes in which I include measurements, I will not provide ratios here, since the addition of various ingredients in this soup depend entirely on taste. Sauté young sorrel leaves and beet greens in a saucepan with butter. Add sour cream, boiled crayfish, slices of small pickling cucumbers (which need to be salted beforehand), hard-boiled eggs cut into quarters, dill and chopped tarragon, as well as pickled cucumber brine or red borscht leaven. Season and put on ice. Serve cold.
His contemplations on the state of culinary arts, despite their casual tone, held a certain pessimism and uncertainty about the fate of gastronomy, which according to the author, was in a decadent crisis. He deemed modern methods of breeding, production techniques and industrial preserving of food as a threat to taste and quality, even though he understood that a bigger availability of food could translate into the reduction of hunger.
Pomiane – a culinary celebrity
Edward Pożerski (1875-1964), twenty years younger than Ali-Bab, was a scientist by training and a gastronomist by passion, as well as an author of many cook books. Contrary to Babiński, who put gourmet cuisine on a pedestal, he was a pioneer of fast cooking. His La Cuisine en Dix Minutes ou L’adaptation au Rythme Moderne (French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life) was included on the The Observer’s 2010 list of the top fifty cookbooks ever written.
Pomiane’s parents emigrated to France after the failed January Uprising (1863-1864). Just like Babiński, he graduated from the Polish School at Batignolles and, having received his baccalauréat, he enrolled in a mathematics programme, however, he later transferred to study medicine. After his studies, he found his way into academia – he focussed his research on digestive juices, and after World War I, he supervised a physiology laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. He became absorbed by the chemistry of food and nutrition. In the 1920s, under the alias Pomiane (he didn’t use his real name out of fear of being ostracised in the scientific community), he published his first book about cooking: Bien Manger pour Bien Vivre: Essai de Gastronomie Théorique (editor’s translation: Eating Well for Living Well: Testing Theoretical Gastronomy). The foreword was written by his mentor and friend, Babiński.
Pożerski presented the chemical processes which take place during cooking, as well as cooking itself, as a simple and joyful procedure. The book was written for domestic cooks. Pożerski believed that cooking can be learned in six easy steps, as long as they understood six basic chemical and physical principles of food processing (boiling, frying, baking and grilling, stewing, condensing and emulsifying). He gathered the rules in La Cuisine en Six Leçons ou L’initiation à La Cuisine Familiale (editor’s translation: Cooking in Six Lessons or an Introduction to Family Cooking), It was published in Polish before World War II. His work on popularising cooking received much acclaim from L'Académie Française which awarded him with a prize for his efforts.
Docteur de Pomiane, as he was known, was a culinary celebrity, famous for the first ever culinary radio broadcast in the world which aired on Radio-Paris. It was a huge success. He told humorous culinary and dietary stories, he revealed the links between science and cuisine and presented simple recipes for amateur cooks. The transcripts of the broadcasts were gathered in the 1930s and published in two volumes entitled Radio Cuisine. At the height of his career, Pomiane opened the first culinary university in Paris, where he also lectured. Even though he was enthusiastic about fast and simple cuisine (and this was precisely why he was criticised by other chefs), he emphasised that meals should be enjoyed. It is said he liked to drink coffee and smoke while eating. He believed alcohol was a medicine when consumed in moderation.
Pomiane considered himself a Pole and he smuggled Polish culinary traditions into his work for French readers (recipes for soups, pierogis or rabbit with beets, which was one of his favourites). He dedicated an entire booklet to Polish cuisine: La Cuisine Polonaise: Vue des Bords de la Seine (editor’s translation: Polish Cuisine: A View from the Banks of the Seine).
His home, in which he cultivated Polish cuisine, was full of national relics. He spoke Polish fluently and even published academic papers in Polish. He joined the Towarzystwo Polskie Literacko-Artystyczne (editor’s translation: Polish Literary-artistic Society) when it was created in 1910. He visited Poland many times. In 1927, Pomiane was a delegate of the French Polish diaspora during the ceremony of transferring Julisz Słowacki’s body to the Wawel Castle where he gave a speech which was published in the Polish press. After the outbreak of World War II, he was a member of the Centralny Komitet Obywatelski (editor’s translation: Central Civic Committee) and was later part of the Polish resistance movement in France. He published a series of books on the principles of nutrition during food shortages and, after his retirement, he continued his radio broadcasts and kept on publishing books. His legacy remains relevant today – some of his books continue to be republished (some are available in English).
Elizabeth David, a renowned British cook book author described Pomiane’s style as ‘the best culinary writing’. And despite the widespread belief, the name of a popular Polish dish, the Pozharsky cutlet is not related to the moustachioed gastronome.
Originally written in Polish, Jul 2017, translated by AP, 17 Aug 2017