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November 15, 2013

Mastering the Art of French Eating

I'm sorry to whine, but it's been a lonnnng two weeks. I left work two Friday nights ago with my desk {relatively} cleared off and the misguided idea that the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving would be a little less busy than October had been, only to discover on Monday morning that the temp we brought in to help out for three months during a colleague's maternity leave had decided to leave. Without notice. Without even telling us. {Special note to any other job newbie who thinks that making such a grand gesture will get them noticed ... You're right, it will. Everyone will be talking about you. :)}

So it was especially nice to spend a little part of the last two weeks in France. {The part I spent on the bus going to work and coming home, but still.} I was reading, and greatly enjoying, Ann Mah's book Mastering the Art of French Eating:  Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris. I have mixed feelings about most contemporary memoirs, even foodie ones, but this was a good one!

The author is an American of Chinese heritage, in her thirties, a first-time novelist and journalist, married to Calvin, a diplomat whose career takes them, every few years, to a new assignment in a new city.  They are both enamored with France, and thrilled when Calvin gets a coveted assignment in Paris.  A few months after they arrive, though, he is called away to a temporary hardship post in Iraq, meaning that Ann must spend nine months in Paris without him. She's honest about her feelings:  loneliness, rootlessness, homesickness, even a little bitterness about her husband's ambitions and how they affect her opportunities -- all understandable, and thankfully not dwelt on.  Because she also remembers that she is living in Paris, and for a limited time.

She decides to write about some authentic, regional, iconic French dishes, and the places they come from: steak frites in Paris, andouillette (a uniquely scented sausage) in Troyes, crepes in Brittany, salade lyonnaise in Lyon, cassoulet in Toulouse, Castelnaudary, and  Carcassone, choucroute in Alsace, boeuf bourguignon in Burgundy, and aligot {whipped potatoes oozing with cheese} in Aveyron.  {There's a recipe for each one.} She meets people devoted to preserving traditional French foods and ways of cooking them; she spends time with farmers and shepherds, food artisans and chefs; she cooks {when she's allowed to} in French farmhouses; and shares interesting bits of French history and food history.

I liked this one:

The greatest evolution in Lyonnais cuisine occurred during the first half of the twentieth century, with the advent of the Meres Lyonnaises. 'They were often quite fat, with very strong personalities," said Christian. "And they really, really, really knew how to cook."
      The kitchen skills of the meres had their roots in the grand bourgeois homes scattered throughout Lyon. As servants and cooks for these wealthy families, these women used the region's fine ingredients to create meals that were simple yet perfect. After World War I, however, the French economy crashed, the bourgeoisie closed or sold their mansions, and many of the women found themselves unemployed.  With their work experience limited to the kitchen, they turned to restaurants and bouchons, staffing establishments that served a few dishes cooked exquisitely. The advent of automobile travel brought customers from far and wide, and eventually word of Lyon's exceptional cuisine spread throughout France... Some women -- liked the famed Mere Brazier -- even saw their restaurants earn Michelin stars.
      Today, although there are few of the original meres left in the kitchen, their influence endures. I discovered evidence of this cuisine de femmes at on Lyonnais restaurant, La Voute chez Lea, even though a man, Philippe Rabatel, currently owns it.
       Rabatel has the kind eyes of someone who loves to feed people and a heavy frame possibly made heavier from the cream-laced and butter-rich dishes he prepares. In 1980 he bought Chez Lea from Madame Lea, taking over the kitchen that she first established in 1942. 'She was the last mere to open up a restaurant in Lyon,' he told me. 'I spent six months with her, learning all her recipes.' Even after her retirement, Madame Lea lived in an apartment above the restaurant until her death several years later.
      Many of Madame Lea's recipes still appear on the restaurant's menu, including her salade lyonnaise. I asked Rabatel if he knew its origins.
       'Who knows?' He shrugged. 'It could have been the washerwomen who invented it.' In the days before refrigeration or washing machines, he said laundresses carried loads of soiled clothes to the river's edge, along with picnics of bacon, hard-boiled eggs, and bread. Perhaps, Rabatel, suggested, they gathered wild dandelion leaves along the way and tossed everything together into a big salad at the lunch hour. ...
      Madame Lea's version, as interpreted by Rabatel, arrived in large glass bowl with sides cloudy from vinaigrette. Inside, a pile of curly frisee leaves tumbled with slivers of lardons, garlic-rubbed croutons, and a soft-boiled egg gently broken so that its yolk trickled into the receptive crags of lettuce and bread, the whole just overdressed a la francais. I took a bite, and the tang of vinaigrette hit my palate, followed by the flush of bacon and something else deep and sumptuous. Smoked herring? As I ate, I thought of Madame Lea, and tried to imagine her as a young kitchen maid. At age sixteen she was sent into service at a bourgeois home, Rabatel told me, working for the same family for eight years. Was her hand evident in the vinaigrette, with its audacious hint of smoked herring? Had she boiled her eggs this way, with the yolk at that creamy point between soft and hard?
      Even as I ate, I considered something else Rabatel had said:  'No one ever invents a recipe. All the best chefs get their greatest recipes from their grandmother's kitchen.' So, then, was this Madame Lea's grandmother's salad?  Even with a recipe, a dish can never be recreated exactly. It will always be filtered through the hands of the cook, her memory of taste, the ingredients available, the weather, and a hundred other factors. ...
Something I was happy to think about on my way to and from the office, and a very good book -- and writer -- to spend time with.

I did get home early enough last night to pick up the three books that came in at the library -- a long-awaited mystery, a retelling of Jane Austen by a writer I like, and another new book about French food. My desk is a mess, but it's Friday, all my deadlines have been met, and I'm promising myself a lot of reading this weekend. :)


Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

Oh, I'm so pleased to hear you enjoyed this. I'm first in line for it at the library and can't wait for it to come in. Books that help you escape during the commuting hours are definitely the key to sanity during stressful times!

Lisa said...

How awful to have someone quit like that, and leave you stranded with so much work! I hope that you have a lovely relaxed reading weekend - you deserve it!

JoAnn said...

I'd been wondering whether to add this my wish list, but you've just convinced me… sounds excellent!!

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