August

A Respite

My reading this month included non-fiction, cookbooks, and audio books. To escape the ennui accompanying COVID-19, I listened to Provence 1970 Luke Barr’s account of a confluence of food writers in the south of France: James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Judith Jones and Richard Olney, the sometimes cantankerous painter and cookbook writer. Although by all accounts his meals were perfect, his approach to instruction was to provide general directions such as how to make a vinaigrette and then list various ingredients for a salad, so readers can make their own adjustments. I decided to take him on using his instructions for Porc Rôti au Fenouil or Roast Pork with Fennel as the main course for a family dinner in my garden. We began with a traditional French appetizer, french breakfast radishes from the garden served with butter, followed by the Porc Rôti au Fenouil served with sautéed potatoes, green beans with thyme and lemon, and, finally, dessert, peach pie.

The pie is an adaptation of one I learned while living in France with family friends, the Brenots who introduced me to good food at their summer home in Sotteville-sur-Mer and their apartment in the 12th arrondissement in Paris.

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Sotteville-Sur-Mer

My sighs, my grunts of pleasure, the closing of my eyes as I swooned over most meals amused them.   I ate everything they put in front of me: whole fish where I learned to use a spoon to get at the sweet flesh just below the eyeballs, wild hare with its innards made into a terrine, gamey yet fresh from the addition of tomatoes.  It took me twenty years to figure out Mme. Brenot’s crab soup and although mine is good, hers was perfection.

At that time, French husbands had one dish at which they excelled and probably the only one they ever cooked. For example, M. Brenot’s brother’s was a mousse of octopus including the ink. Not my favorite. But M. Brenot made an unforgettable tarte aux abricots. Finding good apricots in New Jersey is practically an impossibility. But Jersey peaches in August work.

My daughter and I have spent many a summer enjoying the sun and food of Aix-en-Provence, a second home. The meal transported us as food can often do and instead of COVID-19, the conversation drifted to good food and Lyon, the supposed gastronomic center of France. I had just finished Dirt another book about food and France where Bill Buford in his late 50’s apprentices at a Lyon restaurant.

The pandemic can be a time for regrets. One that haunts me is leaving Paris to finish my degree: my parents insisted. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the one place that is home. For me it was Paris. Everything fit: I was free. What if I hadn’t been a “good girl” and stayed? Would I have been a “good” French housewife instead? French women had only gotten the right to open a bank account in their own name, not their husbands, in 1965. I’m sure many households held on to that tradition for decades. I often railed at my mother for the measly allowance my father gave her: $100 a week for years and then, after I had left home, $200. She never complained. She felt safe after having grown up in an unpredictable alcoholic family. So perhaps I wouldn’t have been free in Paris. Although I have bragged to my husband that “I’ve been a good French housewife” whenever I’ve managed to use up everything in the refrigerator.

Later in the month, on my son’s porch in Barnegat Light, we enjoyed another bounty from my garden, all the cherries I had picked made into one pie. After which we took our traditional walk at dusk. “Can the French make a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy. Can they make a cherry pie charming Billy?”

IMG_8048 Barnegat Bay, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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Return to Paris Day 9

Tuesday April 9

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I been thinking of Jean Rhys.  She was a beke, that is, an Antillean creole descended from early European colonists in Dominica, like my relatives in Martinique before the African pot got stirred.  In her novel, Good Morning Midnight, the protagonist has returned to Paris after more than 15 years, a Paris she recognizes but doesn’t seems to fit. She’s older, she’s alone.  It resonates.

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From Good Morning Midnight, page 1

“I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner.  I have arranged my little life.”

I’m into my second week but can’t say that I’ve made much of an adjustment. Would it be enough to take every meal in the same place?

Paris has always been home for me.  The first place I could own, that fit me, that did away with shyness, with not belonging and trying to belong.  At the other home, I monitored my speech, my friends’ reactions, my family’s approval, disapproval.  Like my father, I didn’t want to be discovered.  In Paris, I only adhered to the, then, strict rules of tutoyer, hand shakes, meal time punctuality, and the language I used with “adults’ versus my friends, mostly students.  Don’t use the shortened “formid,” only use the correct, “formidable.”  And never use “fric,” the slang for police.  These requirements weren’t personally attached to me. 

In Paris, that first time, I talked to strange men on motorcycles while walking along a road in Sottteville sur Mer.  But it was daylight and there were passerby’s.  I was safe.  My French family didn’t agree: I understood their concern but wasn’t deterred.  I broke it off with a boyfriend after a week when I learned he was smuggling cigarettes.  I created my own group of friends from other newspaper sellers of The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times.  My last liaison took me to meet his friends, to his favourite cous cous restaurant, and to a studio belonging to an artist friend.  As we approached the elevator, the concierge made her presence known.  He explained that I was his fiancé.  The only way to make it past her.  Under the eaves on a small bed, we kissed, tumbled, and that was all.  He didn’t get his way but he didn’t drop me.  We spent my last day in Paris saying good-bye at the Select where we met almost every night.  And, il a plura, it rained.

Like Jean Rhys’ character, I’ve returned to a Paris that doesn’t quite fit.  Or I don’t fit.  And like her character, some of it is age but also the blinders of narcissism and youth are off.  As they were in Au Bout de Souffle where in the end, the lovers don’t recognize each other, a free spirited thief and a conventional American.

After Tuesday’s class at the Alliance, students clustered together complaining.  One student said she dreaded coming each morning.  I feel the same and have decided to quit at the end of this week.  I’ll have more time to explore Mayotte Capecia’s experience as a woman of color living between two cultures, Martinique and Paris.   Her characters, Isaures and Mayotte, both leave Martinique for Paris, hoping for a better life.  Did she get it?  Do colonized people of color get that better life?  My grandmother and her sisters lied and said they were from France because surely France was better than Saint Lucia.

A long day, a difficult day saved by an aperitif at Bistrot L’Estrapade located at the end of my street.  I thought only dinner was served  but when I passed by,  the owner was enjoying a cigar at one of the four outside tables.  I asked if I could have just a drink.  Yes, yes, he agreed but could only find vermouth rouge.

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Ca suffit as I look down the street towards the Pantheon.

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