Cookbook review: Inspiration from the barnyard and beyond

‘Jacques Pepin Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird’ by Jacques Pepin (Harvest, $30)

“Proust had his madeleine, I have chickens,” declares Jacques Pepin in his latest book.

Though long known for his talents in the kitchen, the nearly 87-year-old chef, author, and television star has more recently been recognized for his work at the easel. Chickens represent the intersection of those passions — on canvas, in the oven, and throughout his storied life. “Jacques Pepin Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Paintings, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird” (Harvest, $30) is filled with captivating reminisces involving the chicken and the egg, accompanied by the quirky and colorful paintings they’ve inspired, with titles such as King of the Coop, The Irate Mother Hen, and Tufted Cockerel.

Pepin grew up in the French countryside of Bresse, a region near Lyon he describes “as synonymous with the luscious chickens raised there as Bordeaux is with fine wine.” This is where his story begins. He tells how, at age seven, he helped friends capture a loose hen, pack their kill in wet mud, and roast it over an open fire. They then smashed the hardened block of clay with stones and feasted on the cooked meat within. He goes on to describe a considerably more refined rendition he’s made since, in which a stuffed, boned chicken is wrapped in bread dough instead of clay.

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Subsequent chapters follow his career beginning at 13 as a hotel kitchen apprentice, through various stints in Paris and New York, and travels around the world. He shares secrets for “the very best French toast” he learned as a breakfast chef (melted ice cream), Southern fried chicken based on the mass-market recipe he picked up working in the huge commissary of the Howard Johnson’s chain, and how his technique for roasting chicken differs from his long-time buddy Julia Child’s.

He devotes a chapter to his favorite tricks for cooking eggs, and another to “Beak-to-Pope’s-Nose Eating,” urging us to give chickens’ “bonus ingredients” (carcass, skin, feet, gizzards, blood) a try.

“Hungry people never waste any edible part of the bird,” he writes, " and neither do I.”

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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