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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 22 DECEMBER 2009 — Christmas always brings its share of books that might not otherwise see the light of day, with the occasional pleasant surprise. Elegant Entertaining: Seasonal Recipes from the American Ambassador’s Residence in Paris is an excellent combination of gorgeous photographs of both food and the ambassador’s residence. The text is by Dorothy Walker Stapleton, wife of the former American ambassador to France, while the recipes — menus for various meals grouped by season – are by Philippe Excoffier, the Executive Chef at the Embassy. The sumptuous photographs are the work of Francis Hammond. But, as with any cookbook, it is the recipes that are paramount, and Excoffier does not disappoint. And as a document about a historic building, the description, historical account and commentary are equally exceptional.

The recipes, as might be expected, vary from the super-sophisticated to the exquisitely simple, particularly with respect to desserts. But there are many recipes that call out, such as the Duo of Tomato and Goat Milk Cheese, Salad of Baby Shiso, and Basil Pesto, or an uncomplicated Cream of Pumpkin Soup, or Seared Scallops, Softened Belgian Endives, and Creamed Watercress. The photo on the dust jacket for Asparagus Charlotte and Avruga (Spanish herring roe) is particularly enticing and in fact is not as complicated a recipe as one might fear. According to the chef, none of these requires extensive preparation or cooking time, but we amateurs might need a bit more. The Apple Upside-Down Cake, Strawberry Pannacotta or Tarte Fine with Pippin Apples are also highly recommended. Additionally, part of the proceeds from sales are destined for FXB International, an organization whose "mission is to fight poverty and AIDS, and support the world’s orphans and vulnerable children by advocating for their needs and basic rights and providing direct support to families and communities that care for them".

Elegant Entertaining: Seasonal Recipes from the American Ambassador's Residence in Paris
By Dorothy Walker Stapleton and Philippe Excoffier
Photographs by Francis Hammond

Hardcover: 160 pages
Flammarion (October 2009)
Simultaneously published in French: A la table de l’ambassadeur, les recettes de la residence de l’ambassadeur américain à Paris
ISBN-10: 2080301160
ISBN-13: 978-2080301161


Elizabeth Lunday’s Secret Lives of Great Composers (she evidently does not like articles) carries the fetching subtitle: What Your Teachers Never Told You about the World’s Musical Masters. The cover of this paperback emulates thrillers of the 1940s and 50s, while much of what is related has long been known to just about everyone who takes serious music seriously. Mozart’s scatological correspondence caused difficulties for his admirers over a hundred years ago, but is of no importance today. Much the same can be said about Wagner’s dressing in the finest silks and satins, while it is difficult to account for the inclusion of Samuel Barber other than that he and GianCarlo Menotti lived together for many years. It is also difficult to be sympathetic to the work of an author who refers to the Boston Philharmonic and not Boston Symphony Orchestra. The style is light and breezy as are the comic book drawings by Mario Zucca, but it is difficult to visualize the intended audience for such a book despite its impressive bibliography, for it offers little but some mildly sensational anecdotes with almost no substance.

Secret Lives of Great Composers: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the World's Musical Masters
By Elizabeth Lunday

Paperback: 288 pages
Quirk Books (September 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1594744025
ISBN-13: 978-1594744020 


Alas, the monstrous Opening Night at La Scala is exemplary of all that a coffee table book should not be. To begin with, if you put it on legs it would itself be a substantial coffee table. It is impossible to hold, the translation into something resembling English is appalling for a book meant to retail for $195.00 [Ed. Note: Rizzoli has repriced this book at $50.00], and one must constantly refer to the back for information about the photographs, many of which are long familiar. Most of the first half of the book (from 1950 to the early 60s) is in black and white, with each opening night represented by a reduction of the poster requiring a magnifying glass to identify the participants. The only interesting point is how the art of stage décor has evolved in the almost 60 years under consideration — from the purely representational to the abstract that has become all too familiar today. Of course, La Scala being La Scala, even in recent years the occasional "realistic" settings have been tolerated. A preface by Stéphane Lissner (director of the company) and introduction by the ubiquitous Placido Domingo are nice pieces of puffery, but the utility of such a book is nil.

Opening Night at La Scala 
Written by Teatro Alla Scala Foundation
Preface by Stephane Lissner
Introduction by Placido Domingo

Hardcover: 240 pages 
Rizzoli (January 2009)
ISBN-10: 0847831671
ISBN-13: 978-0847831678

Joel Kasow is a senior editor and culture critic at He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996.

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