In Indiana, food is food; in Paris, it is an art form.
Was there a child in Paris who longed to trade her croissants for corn cobs, her Boeuf Bourguignon for beef jerky, her chic Coco Chanel inspired wardrobe for fluffy, gathered skirts sewn in Home Ec? If so, I was ready to trade lives with her.
I always thought that there had been some bizarre mistake in my life script. In my hometown, the place of my birth, I felt like a stranger. Even though I had lots of friends and enjoyed high school ( as editor of the high-school year book, I managed to have snapshots of me on almost every other page,) I knew in my heart of hearts that Indiana was not the real me. Corn on the cob and basketball games were and still are the crops that keep my agrarian hometown buzzing.
But basketball made me yawn--although I will admit that basketball players could be somewhat more invigorating, not to mention cute. (Sometimes it is difficult to get away from your past, no matter how hard you try. I am now married to a physicist whose two great passions are --you guessed it --- gardening and basketball.)
When I was a child, I found cooking fascinating. My mother, however, did not share this interest. A steak, baked potato and canned vegetables constituted a lovely dinner in her book. Thinking I could inspire her to become my own personal M.F.K. Fisher, a collaborator in the art and romance of cooking, I naively hatched a plan. I worked in secret until I proudly presented her with a hard-won Girl Scouts cooking badge. I had hoped she would laud my accomplishment, brandish a spatula at the sky, and solemnly vow to foster my nascent talents in the delightful arts of the kitchen. My efforts were in vain. I didn’t understand then that my mother swam in far different waters. Segue to The Classic Fifties Cocktail Party and she was in her element. Bartenders dispensing classic drinks such as Manhattans, Gimlets and the ever popular Martinis were stationed in every nook and cranny.
The appetizers, (cheese balls, the signature dip of packaged French onion soup mixed with sour cream), paled in comparison to the cocktails and the beautiful evening gowns. Think Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. The characters in Dashiell Hammett’s hit movie were chic, debonair, witty and underfed.
As an adult, I once wanted to have a Nick and Nora theme party, so I watched a plethora of videos featuring Myrna Lowell and William Powell. The Martinis flowed, the conversations sparkled, the evening gowns were glamorous and the food was nonexistent. Every time a meal was to be served, the police arrived and it was off to catch the bad guy. They took their Martinis with them --to heck with the food!
By the time I was grown, I was hungry for more. When I taught myself to cook using Julia Child as my model, I thought “Thank God, I’m not in Kansas anymore!” or any other Twinkie capitol of America. The adventures of my life have always been matched with culinary explorations, and I have come to know that a most enjoyable means of learning about the culture of a country is by eating its food.
Not once on my recent trip to France was I offered any Tuna Noodle Casserole. Cassoulet was on the menu. Tuna was featured in Salad Nicoise, but happily no Tuna Noodle Casserole was listed on any menu. That’s good because I hate Tuna Noodle Casserole, making me a traitor to the Midwest where I was raised. I dislike casseroles in general --I never understood the appeal of having your entire meal in one bowl -- didn't this take you back to babyhood and that horrible goop you were forced to endure?
There is an aesthetic, an innate love and knowledge of food and wine in France that was noticeably absent from the food stalls of The Indiana State Fair. In Indiana, food is food; in Paris, it is an art form. Food and wine supersede almost every other part of a Frenchman’s life.
David and I took a cooking class in Paris. Martha, our excellent teacher, (who had once been a lawyer) had state-of-the-art cooking equipment. Her bookshelves revealed she was a voracious reader. Two walls filled with cookbooks showed that cooking was not a passing fancy.
She told charming stories of learning to cook in her grandmother’s kitchen. The way she lovingly described this rite of passage made it sound like a religious experience.
Later, I was told by a custom tour guide in Avignon that his grandfather started a wine collection for him when he was born, adding a bottle on every major holiday. It was magnificent by the time he turned forty.
In contrast, the single remembrance I have of my grandmother is when for my sixth birthday she gave me a gift of candy cigarettes!
Some of us must travel far to find where we belong. My all too brief time in France, peppered by encounters with people eager and passionate to share le bonnes choses de la vie, may have just been a visit, but it had all the comfort, welcome and familiarity of a delicious homecoming.