In 1979, when Nora Pouillon opened her now-legendary Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle, one of her earliest investors, The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, offered a piece of advice: “Don’t mention anything about being healthy and natural. That sounds so unappetizing. That sounds like hippie food.”
Pouillon wisely ignored this counsel. She didn’t just mention that her cooking was “healthy and natural,” she explains in her brisk memoir “My Organic Life” — she made it the raison d’etre of the restaurant, putting herself at the vanguard of a nascent food revolution. Along with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Pouillon was one of the first American chefs to build relationships with organic farmers, insist on seasonal, local produce and list the provenance of ingredients on the menu.
Restaurant Nora and its farm-to-table message caught on in a big way in the food world, of course. The restaurant also quickly became a coveted dining spot among politicians. Jimmy Carter was the first president to eat at Nora’s, but he wouldn’t be the last. The restaurant was a favorite of the Clintons; the Obamas have dined there, as has Nancy Reagan. “Neither of the Bush presidents ever set foot in Nora’s, but Laura Bush came, along with her two daughters,” Pouillon announces proudly. “Good food, it seems, is also bipartisan.”
“My Organic Life” offers a deeper look at the woman behind the restaurant. If Pouillon hasn’t cooked up a tale as tasty as her wild mushroom soup, she has produced an intermittently absorbing account of an unusual life.
She was born in 1943 in Austria, where her childhood was a European pastoral of fresh strawberries “picked like little gems” and cherries so succulent that she and her sisters consumed them naked to avoid staining their clothes. She ate sourdough bread made from grain scythed from local farms and corn mush topped with pats of freshly churned butter. These experiences, recounted with intense nostalgia, made a profound impression on Pouillon. “There, in fields on steep mountain slopes, with a chalet-style log house, I discovered how food is grown and how it tastes just pulled from the soil or warmed by the sun,” Pouillon writes. Her passion for natural foods was planted young but took decades to blossom.
The story of those desultory decades occupies the first half the book. Pouillon writes with sometimes startling candor about everything from childhood bouts with intestinal worms (the cure: garlic toast) to her parents’ unhappy marriage and her adolescent addiction to amphetamines. At 18, she fell in love with a smooth-talking, married Frenchman 17 years her senior who eventually divorced his wife and married her. The couple emigrated to the United States and had two sons in quick succession. The marriage soon deteriorated. He had an affair with the au pair; she had an affair with a contractor.
Then she discovered feminism. Restless and frustrated in her role as homemaker, she noticed that “more and more women — like so many of my professional friends — were finding interesting work, using their minds, doing jobs that made them feel challenged and fulfilled, being sexually free. I wanted — and deserved — something different, something new for myself, too.”
The second half of the memoir is devoted to that something different, something new. In a word, food. Pouillon started cooking professionally, left her husband and, in her mid-30s, opened Restaurant Nora. Pouillon does not do things by half measures: She also turned the day-to-day care of her sons over to their father, seeing them on weekends. It’s a decision she explains with characteristic dispatch: “Giving up time with my children was a brutal choice, and one that I had plenty of moments to regret in the years to come, but one that, ultimately, I knew then — and now — was right.”
Pouillon isn’t a natural storyteller (the book is co-written by Laura Fraser) and the narrative jolts from event to event, some fascinating, some less so. Nora’s became the nation’s first certified organic restaurant, and her accounts of tracking down organic salt and installing a biodegradable carpet are amusing, illustrating her single-minded commitment to the cause. Other episodes, such as the evolution of her business relationship with the Fresh Fields grocery chain, are less engrossing. The narrative lacks both the easy charm of Julia Child’s buoyant “My Life in France” and the wit of Jeremiah Tower’s gossipy “California Dish.” Nor does Pouillon dwell much on the pleasures of food after those dreamy Tyrolean reminiscences. She also doesn’t include recipes. You will hear more about the antibiotics in beef than about Pouillon’s favorite way of preparing it. But although you won’t be particularly hungry when you finish the book, you will have a vivid sense of a frank and determined woman who has helped change the way we eat.
Nora Pouillon will be at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, 31 South Summit Ave., Gaithersburg, Md., at 12:15 p.m. May 16.