You're only two pages in when Jean-Marie Gallois, the hero of Idwal Jones' 1945 novel High Bonnet: A Novel of Epicurean Adventures, is seduced away from a life at sea and into a life spent behind the stoves. Blame it on the peddler traversing the Toulon wharf with a basket of medlars on his head. “The wind came laden with the odor of them,” Jones writes, “and I thought of the medlar tree in my uncle's garden and fell a-longing.”
The next minute, young Jean-Marie is lustily eating medlars, a skill unto itself:
“You pinch off the bud, gouge down the seeds, then tear away the peel and pop the medlar into your mouth. The three lucent seeds drop out easily like bullets. And you wash the pulp down with a gulp of Muscatel that bears the Tuscan mark on a black label.”
By the time he has finished the fruit — and a restaurant meal that costs a month's wages — the ship has sailed, and Jean-Marie sets off on his real adventure, working in a three-star restaurant. The title of the first chapter couldn't be more clear in apportioning blame: “It Was the Medlars.”
Medlars have a long literary history but Idwal Jones, a Welsh-born writer who was also a Cordon Bleu Chef of the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles, isn't nearly as well known as D.H. Lawrence. Nor is High Bonnet, the title referring to the chef's toque that Jean-Marie covets, a hefty work of High Literature. It is a slim, charming novella about life behind kitchen doors, one packed with exquisite descriptions of food and their preparation, whether it's stock for velouté, ptarmigans in bread sauce or a simple mixed salad.
To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, who wrote one of the book's two introductions (series editor Ruth Reichl wrote the other) when the Modern Library reprinted High Bonnet in 2001: Anyone who's a friend of both M.F.K. Fisher and Eric von Stroheim sounds like one fascinating dude.
More Medlar Mania
Elina Shatkin is a staff writer at LA Weekly. Follow her at @elinashatkin or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.