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Naomi Barry's remembrances of essays past

Sunday, April 20, 2003

I used to watch for her byline every month in Gourmet magazine. I can still see it in my mind's eye -- Naomi Barry, centered at the top of the page under a bold headline. In the 1970s and '80s, these essays from Paris were what I wanted most to read.

When the opportunity came, certainly I wanted to meet her. The offer of an introduction was from a Pittsburgh friend with French connections. In Paris, she had invited Barry to visit, and Barry had turned up.

This wasn't Barry's first trip here, as I was to learn in the course of an interview to which she had agreed.

On a Sunday morning at our mutual friend's sunny Point Breeze dining room, we sat over coffee and got acquainted.

I felt it necessary to begin by discussing the tensions that now exist between Americans and the French. Born in New York, Barry has lived in Paris most of her adult life.

Perhaps because her commitment to both cultures made her wish it were so, Barry said of the tensions, "Definitely, they will pass. There has been an exchange of insults, that's all. Friends forgive."

As her writings have made Barry an authority to me, I take what she says to heart. For Gourmet magazine, she had done a series of literary pieces that were a source of great pleasure. I asked about these.

"I came to write the essays by accident," she said.

It seems that an editor in Gourmet's New York office had got wind of four bakeries, opposite one another at the same corner, in a small town outside Paris. All were selling madeleines, scalloped shell-shaped cakes, eaten like a cookie.

Barry went to Auteuil (in Proust's novels called Combray and now officially called Illiers-Combray) to check this out but found the quality of the little cakes less than met her standards. So, instead of just madeleines -- of which one, dunked in a cup of tea had inspired Marcel Proust to write his 3,000-page "Remembrance of Things Past" -- she concentrated on the author, who had been born in the town. The response from readers was immediate and positive.

Barry went on to write a series of profiles that included among them, Colette, a writer who understood what men wanted; Victor Hugo, who each morning after a good breakfast wrote a hundred lines of verse or 20 pages of prose; Alexandre Dumas, whose "Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine" published in 1873 contained 600,000 words and two illustrations; George Sand, a writer who took great pride in the proper management of her French household; Jane Austen, who did insightful portraits of woman and all that occupied them; and Henry James, who wrote, "It might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can be reasonably expected of it." Barry researched each article by reading through her subjects' collective works and concentrating on their culinary insights.

"I went further afield than just muffins," she said.

When you finish reading a Barry essay, you know the subject.

"You are an intellectual," I told her.

"I am not," she snapped.

Several years ago her interest shifted away from articles to writing a full-length biography of Natale Rusconi, director of the Hotel Cipriani in Venice. In Barry's opinion Rusconi is "the world's greatest hotelier since Cesar Ritz."

Ritz, who gave us the word "ritzy," created, in partnership with Chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, the most luxurious hotels of the last century and a half.

Of Rusconi, Barry writes in her completed introduction: "What can one say against his policy of carefully calculated over-spending when it resulted in a record that has successfully thumbed its nose at the rules. Under Rusconi's direction, the Gritti Palace was the Number One hotel of Venice. Under Rusconi, the Grand became Number One of Rome even though it was blocks away from the action on the Via Veneto. When he left the Grand for the Cipriani, it was predicted he could never pull the clientele from a prime location off the Grand Canal over to an island on the Lagoon. By Rusconi's third season, the Cipriani ranked as Venice's Number One hotel."

Also it is one of the few hotels anywhere with a world-class restaurant. I ate a memorable lunch there once with cookbook author Marcella Hazan.

As with Ritz, Rusconi's beginnings were humble. His family owned a third-class hotel in Milan. When he saw how it was operated, it is conceivable that at an early age he began to form ideas of how he would manage a hotel, given the opportunity. Many of the most successful hoteliers and restaurateurs are from the second generation.

In possession of a doctoral degree but with no job waiting, Rusconi went off to London and apprenticed at the Savoy Hotel. England did not hold the charm of Italy. Returning to Venice, he joined the staff of the Gritti Palace. On an Italian association of hoteliers trip to the United States, he met Pittsburgher Connie Titzel, who had specialized in Italian studies at Smith College and was helping coordinate details of the visit. Their friendship flourished and the couple fell in love, married and now live in Venice.

Connie Titzel Rusconi is a good friend of Barry's and another reason for the writer's fix on Pittsburgh. Never denying the attachment, Barry makes it clear that there are many cities that she loves.

"I have been lucky. I've traveled around the world several times always, as I like to think of it, on a dinner plate and, mostly, relying on my luck."

Encouraged to do so, she relates her experiences in Japan, where she had gone to do a story on traditional inns and the meals served in them.

"Everything was a mess, and I was spending huge sums of money in Tokyo and not getting any closer to what I needed," she said. "All my contacts had failed me. One day, in tears, I called a Japanese woman I had met by chance in the airport. 'This is what we'll do,' she said, and she gave me directions and names and numbers that put me on track and resulted in just the article I needed to write."

Good careers are to be made writing about food, and Barry's stories put me in mind of how many women I've met who have made their living this way. Their careers often start with a mother who is a good cook.

"My mother was the worst cook I ever knew," said Barry. "At dinnertime, I would run away from home to my grandmother's just to escape the evening meal. I taught myself how to cook by reading books."

However she did it, her readers are grateful that she's still at it.

"I have just finished a little book about zucchini," she says. "It's to be published by Brick Tower Press. Let me share a recipe."

The full recipe for this "amuse-gueule" (appetizer) will be in the 96-page paperback "Adorable Zucchini," to be released in June:

Slice fresh 6-inch-long zucchini into thin coins. Arrange on a serving plate. Cover with hard-cooked egg mashed with mayonnaise, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Sprinkle with crisp crumbled bacon. Serve.

Marilyn McDevitt Rubin can be reached at mrubin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1749.

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