My new book, THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT: CRAIG CLAIBORNE AND THE AMERICAN FOOD RENAISSANCE, will be out in early May, and so this seems like a good time to wake up my long-sleeping blog. I’ll be posting several times a week now.
I’m already at work on what I’m pretty sure will be that book’s successor, Craig Claiborne’s Greatest Hits. Since Craig published about twenty books and literally thousands of recipes, deciding on a hundred or so greatest hits is something of a challenge. Ultimately it has to come down to my own choices, my own favorites. I’m now cooking my way through them—finding errors sometimes in the originals, realizing that I have access to ingredients now that Craig didn’t thirty or forty years ago, and sometimes seeing that classic perfection is just that.
One of the great classics of the once-great Paris restaurant Maxim’s is a mussel soup called Billi Bi, which has the particular distinction of having no mussels in it. Nevertheless, as Craig wrote in the original New York Times Cook Book, it “may well by the most elegant and delicious soup ever created. It may be served hot or cold. This is the recipe of Pierre Franey, one of this nation’s greatest chefs.” Until 1960 Pierre was the chef of Le Pavillon, the best French restaurant in the United States, and thereafter was Craig’s professional partner for twenty-eight years.
The main idea is to create an intense mussel-flavored broth. For four people, Pierre steamed two pounds of mussels with shallots, onions, parsley, pepper, a little cayenne, a little butter, half a bay leaf, a smidgen of thyme, and a cup of white wine. He also added salt, but you need to go easy there, because mussels usually have quite a bit of their own. I would suggest that you use a pretty good wine, because it is a significant contributor to the flavor.
In 1961, when The New York Times Cook Book was published, mussels were amazingly cheap, but they were also unbelievably onerous to clean—they came with scraggy, shaggy beards attached, and the beards were often clogged with sand and various little sea critters. “Certain restaurants,” Craig wrote, “place them in the electric machine that is used for removing potato skins, but such equipment is rare, of course, in the private home.” Rare, Craig?
He recommended going at the shells with a plastic mesh scrubbing ball and then soaking them in fresh water for at least an hour so that they would expel whatever sand remained inside. Mussels these days—one of the few examples of virtuous aquaculture—nearly always come beardless and sand-free.
Shallots were nearly impossible to find, even in New York. Most home cooks, in fact, didn’t know the difference between shallots and scallions, and they probably made do with the latter.
So you steam the mussels and then strain the broth through cheesecloth. You bring the broth to a boil and combine it with two cups of cream. Pierre, with his classical training and no fear of cholesterol, then thickened it with a lightly beaten egg yolk—and sometimes went even further, stirring in two tablespoons of hollandaise. Billi Bi was not a soup for the faint (or sclerotic) of heart. Craig said you could serve it hot or cold, but I think hot is much better.
(With the strained-out mussels you can make a nice salad the next day with a simple vinaigrette, or, because mussels reheat quite satisfactorily, a delicious pasta—spaghetti or linguine—with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and a little tomato.)
The thing that you’ve got to be sure of when you make your Billi Bi is the intensity of the broth. Once upon a dreadful time, not long ago, with seven people coming for dinner, I doubled the recipe, and, having had perfect success previously with Pierre’s proportions, I just went ahead and poured in a quart of cream. Big mistake. What I got tasted like straight cream with only the faintest hint of mussels.
My solution was to unshell all the already cooked mussels and simmer them for half an hour in a small amount of water, which gave me a very intense broth—just enough to bring the soup up to precisely right. Partly because I was serving steak with sauce Béarnaise for the next course, I decided to forego the thickening with egg yolks, and I don’t think that hurt the billi bi at all. It was plenty rich.
Speaking of rich. The leading legend of the origin of Billi Bi, completely unverifiable, is that it was named by Louis Barthe, the chef at Maxim’s (the Maxim's, in Paris) in the early 1900s, for his spectacularly wealthy regular customer, the American tin-plating magnate William B. (Billy B.) Leeds Sr., who spent a lot of time in Paris in the first decade of the century and died there in 1908. His son, William B. Leeds Jr., was married to the exiled Princess Xenia of Russia and spent most of his time in Paris in 1922 and 1923. So the soup’s eponym could have been either of them.
But: Waverly Root, in his Paris Dining Guide of 1969, wrote of Maxim’s Billi Bi that he “ran into blank incomprehension there when [he] tried to delve into the origin of a specialty in which the house takes particular pride.” Root nevertheless asserted that “actually it was invented at Maxim’s,” and went on to say—without citing any authority whatever—that it was “named for an American bon vivant, William B. Beebe, whose friends called him Billy B.”
But but but: In Chez Maxim’s: Secrets and Recipes from the World’s Most Famous Restaurant, Presented by the Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec, published in 1962, that estimable noblewoman wrote that
It was Louis Barthe, the former chef at Maxim’s, who told me the story behind the Potage Billy By. In 1925, he was working in the kitchen at Ciro’s, a restaurant in Deauville known for a special mussels dish with a particularly succulent juice. One day a very good customer, Mr. William Brand, decided to invite some American friends to Ciro’s. Mussels are generally eaten with the fingers in France, using one double shell as tongs to scoop the meat out of the others. As Mr. Brand wanted to spare his friends this delicate operation, he requested that the juice be served without the mussels. It was such a success that during the days that followed each of his guests returned separately and ordered the “Potage Billy Brand.” For the sake of discretion, it was placed to the menu as Potage Billy B., and thus was born the Potage Billy By which has since become a classic of the French culinary tradition.
So who the hell knows.