I blame Leite’s Culinaria for my wife’s Le Creuset obsession.
A year ago in this space, 19 cooks wrote affectionately of their favorite kitchen utensils. One of them was Clotilde Dusoulier, author of the Paris-based blog Chocolate & Zucchini, who described her love for a very special cook pot—her Le Creuset cocotte. Her enameled cast-iron amour.
My wife, Lane, and I know Le Creuset. We wouldn’t consider our batterie de cuisine complete without several of these titan pots in various sizes. But the Le Creuset Clotilde had in mind was nothing so plebian as what we keep stashed under our range. Hers was a vintage Le Creuset designed by Raymond Loewy himself—you know, the guy who designed the Greyhound bus. The guy who put the bull’s eye on Lucky Strike cigarettes. The guy who singlehandedly made industrial design sexy.
Loewy designed a line of Le Creuset cookware, known as Coquelle, in the late ’50s. But it was one pot in particular, the cocotte, that was the object of Dusoulier’s affection. With its sleek, cool, aerodynamically ovoid lines, it is truly the Maserati of braising vessels. If a bullet train could lay eggs, they would be Loewy’s cocottes. But what really hooked my wife was this: The Coquelle line came in colors. Nothing so garish as the primary tones you see today, mind you. No, these were pastels of the most ethereal hues. Grapefruit yellow. Saffron orange. Sky blue. Sunset red. Even an elusive mauve. (Now that’s a pot you don’t see every day.)
Chef by profession, designer in soul, my wife was smitten. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say she was overcome by an irresistible impulse to own not one, not a few, but an entire room full of Loewy-designed dishes. Upon reading about Dusoulier’s ode to a French pot, an idea had formed in Lane’s mind. You could almost hear the synapses chattering at warp speed. It was the vision of a new kitchen conceived entirely around Loewy’s creations. I don’t exaggerate. She saw white walls—immaculate white walls—lined with them. Le Creuset as décor.
There’s something you have to understand about Lane. Once her brain locks on a concept, there’s no stopping her. This is a woman who once spent a week researching the nuances of Mexican versus Tahitian vanilla beans before making a purchase. Soon, she was camped in front of the computer, mastering the bidding permutations of eBay in her quest to own darn near all of the world’s vintage Loewy Le Creuset.
One small problem: Lane’s kitchen design ambitions quickly outpaced the financing for the scheme. One particular Loewy pot—a lovely grapefruit cocotte that came with a separate gratin dish and a frying basket insert—had caught her eye, but she (thankfully) balked when the price closed in on $300. Still, she wouldn’t be denied. She turned to French eBay and discovered—eh, voila!—that vintage Le Creuset cocottes are as common there as croque monsieur. You couldn’t lure her away from her laptop. Soon she was using eBay’s translation feature to converse with Le Creuset owners in Paris.
Of course, getting the pots back to the States was another question. The price of shipping was, to say the least, prohibitive. Still, Lane was undeterred. We have an artist friend, Bob, who recently moved to a small village in southwestern France so he could roam vineyards and stare at windswept hills when seeking inspiration. Poor Bob. Soon the local postman was arriving regularly with parcels containing pots my wife had purchased. Pot after pot after pot. All in all, eight Loewy cocottes and two gratins.
Bob found a place for each of them. He had Le Creusets in every corner of his living room. Literally. Where some people might place a rubber plant, Bob had a Raymond Loewy pot. An extremely generous and patient friend, he even lugged some to the States on one of his trips home. But he couldn’t keep up.
There was only one thing for Lane and I to do: cash in our frequent flyer miles and become our own Le Creuset mules. We made a vacation of it, flying into Barcelona and then driving three hours to the French city of Perpignan, near where Bob lived at the foot of the Pyrenees. I may have initially rolled my eyes at Lane’s preoccupation with Le Creuset, but I was definitely game for a food tour of Spain and France. It would be our 20th-anniversary gift to ourselves, one year early.
I’ll skip the part about all the wine and cheese, the delectable jambon de montagne, the local mussels and fries, the tankards of beer, the Basque-style tapas, the apperitifs that seemed to start at 10 a.m. every day and continue into the wee hours. Our Le Creuset mission was a bacchanalia. I gained nine pounds in 11 days.
But we got our pots. We celebrated by making cassoulet. It took me three days to complete Paula Wolfert‘s version of the classic white bean, duck confit, and pork casserole emblematic of this particular region of France. Baking it in a vintage 3 1/2 liter Loewy cocotte seemed a fitting baptism. Even Bob’s French friends declared it sublime. The cassoulet, that is.
Then we loaded the pots into the trunk of our rental car for the trek back to Barcelona. At our small hotel room in the city’s medieval quarter, center of operations for our tapas and Gaudi forays, Lane was preparing for the flight home by stuffing duffle bags with the vintage pots wrapped in our clothing. I wasn’t so sure about this part of the plan. I would have preferred more—how should I put this?—professional packing. We ended up quarreling over the best way to proceed with our booty, just like Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I had to leave the room and get a cocktail. Lane finished packing alone.
Like a couple of drug runners, we lugged our considerably heavier bags to the airport the following morning with mixed feelings of dread and giddiness. Our pots were almost home. And our “silver” status with the credit card company entitled our luggage to a special weight dispensation at the check-in counter, Lane had made sure of that. Still, I felt every bit the smuggler—eyes glancing furtively at our bulging bags—as we stood in what seemed an interminable line of fellow ticket holders waiting to have our passports inspected. Would some glitch foil our plans at the last minute?
Our fears were misguided. Customs wasn’t an issue. What we didn’t figure on was just how rudely our precious cargo would be treated en route back to Washington, D.C. Tragically, the Bakelite handles on the rarest pot—yes, the elusive mauve—were no match for the airline baggage handlers. When we arrived home and opened our bags to find the breakage amid our socks and underwear, Lane and I looked on in stunned disbelief. Had we really traveled 8,000 miles for shattered handles?
I can’t print what Lane said. Let’s just say she was a bit more than perturbed. If we’d thought it through, we might have removed the Bakelite handles from the pots. But who knew they were so fragile? Still, she was unbowed and vowed to find another pot on eBay to scavenge for replacement handles.
Otherwise, our Raymond Loewy collection is safe and sound. We don’t cook out of them. We just look at them. The pots sit in one room, covering every horizontal surface on two tables—twin nests of pastel bullet eggs waiting to hatch. It’s our own Le Creuset museum. All we need now is that new kitchen.