Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner…Never Again
Madame P. is coming to dinner. A real American meal is on the menu and Madame P. has never been to America. This lifelong Marseille housewife is as pure a product of Provence as hot sun, a blaze of blue sky, and the insistent winds of the Mistral. Which is to say, by virtue of her inborn oneness with aioli and the Niçoise olive, she is a veritable terror with a steak tartare, a true enfant terrible with ratatouille. Yes, Madame P. is so accomplished a cook in the renown French school of lip-smacking, hip-sticking meals of gastronomic awesomeness, that I fear for the dinner party we have planned, my mother, sister and I, to welcome her into the family.
Soon her son, Bruno, will marry my sister, Candice, and it will be time to for us to head home to California after an amazing vacation year in France making fast friends with the country’s ancient traditions à table and ageless romance with eating. Yet tonight if we fail to wow Madame P. with our own culinary prowess, the evening may turn out to be another glaring reason why Americans, as Bruno once confessed his mother had said, seem to her as cultured as a Coney Island corn dog. Worse, any hopes Candice may have of being accepted, even respected, as a proper wife for Madame P.’s only pampered son actually might collapse. Bruno himself is no flunkie with a flambé, and Candice? Well, if she proves to promise a future of Ding Dongs, say, for dinner, it will be a situation as grave as if we were speaking of Madame P.’s famous cheese soufflés – which will go flat over her dead body.
Better our party be peppy, impressive and presented to perfection, we knew, and so invited Madame P. in a fever of nervous enthusiasm. The menu, we wanted to tell her but didn’t to maintain the surprise, would feature America’s finest culinary delights. It would be an authentic Fourth of July picnic (our inspired idea) with crispy fried chicken, corn on the cob, and all the sides that thrill Americans’ palates as passionately as baguettes and Brie bowl over the French. We kept mum on the details but the meal would be yummy, we assured her, and fun.
Madame P.’s face clouded with vague apprehension at the mention of a meal soup-to-nuts American. But tonight when we open the door of our sixth floor Paris apartment and she stands there wheezing, her smile is brave and bright.
“Bonsoir,” she says, after hoisting her heft and perhaps her dread up five flights of steep, spiral stairs. She has arrived under protection of a hulking 10-pound box of fancy beribboned chocolates, which she clenches to her chest; it is some minutes before she relaxes her grip to offer it. “I did not make these myself,” she apologizes. Her flush of shame reveals that for a woman renown around Marseille for hand-fashioning her own truffles (wouldn’t you know), a visit to the confiserie, or candy shop, is a major Madame P. faux pas.
“Merci,” I trill and take the box. In our itsy-bitsy toile-papered foyer we peck cheeks hello in the French fashion – two pecks per person, except if you’re family, in which case it’s three. We each double-peck Madame P. for tonight, alas, we are not – yet. Fingers, however, are crossed.
“Ah, bonsoir Madame!” welcomes Mom, flourishing the full extent of her French.
“Ah, good even-eeeng, Madame!” says our guest, arriving at the outermost boundary of her English.
The two have thus exhausted all possible talk between them for the evening, so are left to inspect one another with the cool, uncompromising eye Provincial housewives typically take to market to train on dead trout on ice. Madame P. appears by far the better buy. Beautifully dressed-to-dine in heels, hose, hat and a heart of gold that glitters at her throat, she briefly eyeballs the leggings and oversized “I © Paris” tee-shirt I wear; she glances at the distressed, shred-knee jeans in which Candice is spiffed. When relieved of her hat and coat, the body of Madame P. expels poufs of a delicious perfume. It smells expensively French.
“Come in and please, have a seat,” says Candice and Madame P. sweeps toward the sofa molting whiffs of her scent. With each step she emits a low frequency sound – swoosh-swoosh, swoosh-swoosh – that we guess is a slip of fine silk. Madame P. perches on alert at the edge of the sofa, and appears small behind the handbag she parks on her lap like a chic faux crocodile shield. Bulwark against what I can only suppose, though her apprehension, perhaps, is understandable. After all, we are American. Foreigners. People Madame P. probably never dreamed would be a party to Bruno’s defying the P. family tradition that from the dawn of time has decreed its sons and daughters marry those for whom a baguette at every meal is a birthright, a taste for crème brulée is in the blood. People, in short, precisely like the P.s themselves: French.
“Bruno tells me it is completely fou, just crazy in the United States,” our guest says suddenly. “A Big Mac at any hour, day or night.” We hear from Bruno that Madame P. is completely fou herself for the fast-food fattener, though she’d sooner burn a Béarnaise than admit it, so my sister and I both smile, politely, and think of nothing to say. Suddenly, a high-pitched squeal pierces our pleasantries. Candice ejects from her chair like the cushion’s caught fire. “Oh, the chicken!” she cries as another shriek shatters our civility. These hisses and pops of frying-oil violently spattering sends her bolting for the stove with a face full of fright, and I feel the foreboding of a Fourth of July picnic gone bust: Should the chicken be blackened beyond recognition, it is clear Bruno’s bride-to-be and her kin of nincompoop cooks will appear no more appetizing in Madame P.’s eyes than the sorry old birds we let burn.
Meanwhile, our guest politely declines the Bud Light I offer by pointing to her stomach and explaining in mellifluous French something about something in her something. However, when I place a bowl of Cheez-Its on the table beside her, she raises her penciled brows with interest.
And why not? We are particularly proud of these, for little can Madame P. guess the hardship over which we triumphed to acquire a box of the sumptuous salty squares. Here in Paris they are practically as pricey as truffles; they are considered a commodity as rare. Together with Cap’n Crunch cereal, Sara Lee cheesecake and other all-American standards, they are stocked in a grocery of imported goods so hidden away, so little known, so…exclusive, its hours are By Appointment Only.
It was in calling for an appointment weeks earlier that I first knew our dinner party was in peril.
“You may reserve a visit 12 days from today,” said the grocery’s patron on the phone, busy and brisk. “And, please, no cancelations!” When appointment day at last arrived and the Métro ride to the unmarked store proved long, hot and complicated, it was all I could do to hold it together. There, in the cheerful, brightly-lit grocery they stood: sack after glo-orange sack of Fritos, stack after wonderful stack of Ho Hos. There were Ruffles and Ritz, Twinkies and Twix; Jujubes, Jello and Jolt. Perhaps like many Americans living in France and frankly up to their gullets with baguettes and Brie, I was homesick at heart for my own land’s snacks. I must have been showing the strain of month after month spent starved of even a single spoonful of Skippy to suck, for into my basket they went:
Oreos! Cocoa Puffs! Pringles!
The family-size sack of Chips Ahoy!?
You guessed it: Oh, boy!
The patron watched my every move with an expression of profound ennui that said what I to my shame could not: Beh oui, it said with a classic Gallic shrug, what else can we expect with these poor Americans, those who must, while in France, eat French? Yes, the flawless flans, the excellent fromage, the pommes frites always cooked to perfection – Ack! “Ring these up, too,” I told the patron, and slapped six snack-packs of kids’ pudding onto the counter. “Merci.”
But, unbelievably, Madame P. dismisses the faux orange bits I chose that day as soon as I swoop the dish into her personal space. “Non, merci,” she says and smiles. Seriously? I am hurt and perplexed but quickly remember: Our guest is French after all. Formed from crème fraiche, raised on paté, the palate of Madame P. is perhaps a bit…well, untrained to appreciate the special thrill of Cheez-Its. But I do and soon scarf the whole bowl with a burp.
“Excuse me,” I say.
“De rien,” it’s nothing, says Madame P.
Meanwhile, the dining table beckons with the most wonderful picnic fixings possible. The chicken is crispy, just right; the corn looks sweet – so fine. And the pickles? I can’t help but praise us for our pains. Perfect. We stampede to our places.
“Bon Appetit!” Candice toasts and raises her glass. Madame P. reaches for hers, hesitates, then seems to spin around herself a thick cocoon of confusion.
“Pas du vin?” No wine? she asks. Her voice is so velvet it is clear she doesn’t wish to be difficult.
Why, this is a picnic! we explain. In our family’s Fourth of July tradition we will instead enjoy cool glasses of puce-colored Kool Aid. In groovy green or appalling purple, it is this special treat that so fondly recalls our favorite outdoor outings. These are the family gatherings past of barbecued hot dogs plucked from the ashes where, accidentally, they dropped, and the fun Frisbee tosses – into river, treetop or bog. They are the good, good times of Auntie Ann attracting ants with her ribbon-winning coconutty ambrosia, and Grandma Ruth’s deviled eggs, ever a hit with Doby, our drooling bulldog. Like the lemon wedge that bobs happily in my water glass, my heart becomes buoyant with memories.
The buoyancy begins and ends with me, however, for when Madame P. is served a plate she appears– can it be? – bewildered. She studies her dish and there it is: the curiosity. A corncob wonderfully golden offers itself before her, a fried chicken thigh’s glistening skin beckons nothing less than come hither. Instead of diving in like of course one would at such a tempting mealtime tableau, like we do, Madame P. pats the table, left; she pats the table, right. She pats and pats, now faster.
“Pas du couteau? Pas de la fourchette?” No knife, no fork? she asks. Indeed, there is no knife. There is no fork. And Madame P. has never been to America.
In this moment of culinary crisis I imagine that all Madame P. has to guide her is her past – a lifetime of meals that make sense. Her mother’s comfort coq au vin, where the wine-tendered meat always and predictably fell onto…the fork. Her friends’ familiar poule feuillete, with its savory bits of peppered poultry always and forever speared from beneath its puff pastry…with the fork. From the first hens rôti of her girlhood to the poule au pot she perfected as a bride, every chicken dish of the Marseille housewife’s lifetime has been, I imagine, friendly and non-threatening.
And now this.
Seeking a cue from us, Madame P. at last looks up. And then she appears to understand. Everything.
“Go ahead, pick it up with your fingers, it’s a picnic!” urges Candice, already one corncob down; its carcass lies ravaged on her plate and butter streaks grease her chin. Mom, meanwhile, sucks a drumstick to the bone in amplified slurps of pleasure. “Yes, yes, with your fingers, like this,” she says, and makes a picking-up gesture. She smiles and reveals the bits of corn stuck to both incisors. Meanwhile, I pack-in a hot biscuit in an ecstatic mouthful of gluttony. Oh, so happy, so happy are we with a meal that is Home Sweet Home! I forget for the moment that corn in France is never eaten on the cob (except by hogs) and chicken, a French religion, is not considered a trifle to pick-up like some cheap jeune fille on the street. Our dinner display of finger-licking abandon has to strike Madame P. as a bizarre practice that explains my coming to the table in leggings: Americans are weird.
“Madame P., please eat!” we entreat, all lips now glistening with butter grease, all fingers well sticky with chicken. Our guest instead smiles the kindest of all possible smiles and clicks open her crocodile bag. She fishes for a vial of pills, points to her heart and mentions in melodious French the doctor Somebody’s orders to something-something. But she can’t fool me. I see in her friendly face the discussion she’s having with who I suspect is the Master French Chef of heaven. Have mercy upon this chicken for they know not what they do! Her prayer no doubt implores. It may be fricasseed or creamed, if not stewed, baked or rôti, but chicken in every known instance on earth should be eaten with knife and fork.
And as we Americans dig in to the picnic with gusto and jokes and two, no three helpings of chicken and biscuits and corn, Madame P. smiles and smiles – too shy, too sick, too shocked or simply too lost to get more down than a few big slugs of Kool-Aid…which she loves.
Candice shoots me a look of woe that says we’ll have to return the ring, cancel the caterer and forget the fairytale dress with 10-foot train.
In 1533 the Italian aristocrat Catherine de Medici brought the first table fork to France upon her marriage to the future King Henry II. It was a move that forever changed – forever civilized – the country’s dining habits. Could we, Candice’s family, be seen by Madame P. as people of the pre-Catherine de Medici era? We with our “I © Paris” tourist tee-shirts, we with our Cheez-Its addiction? One thing is certain. Our party to woo and win her trust that Bruno is not embarking on a married life of boxed Happy Meals has come off like Uncle Sandy’s signature smoked sticky-ribs: plump with picnic promise, but, after forever over-sticking to the grill, in the end gone to the dogs. There will be no rented rhinestone tiara for me, the ex-, now-depressed maid of honor. I reach for yet another buttered biscuit. Why not.
Just then, Madame P. perks up! “Excusez-moi,” she says and rises. She dashes to the foyer and returns. “Et voila, les chocolates!” Her eyes dance as she bears the candy to the table. In a flash the box is unwrapped, and in a frenzy of unfurling foil, Madame P. – with our help, of course – plows through two full rows of chocolate chews and creams. She is grateful, it seems, that tonight she will not have to go to bed hungry.
And I get my rhinestone tiara.
After a romantic honeymoon on the Côte d’Azur, the newlyweds plan to make their home in the Napa Valley. But there is no need to mail congratulations right away. The happy couple will be delayed due to the wedding gift Madame P. insists they accept – no, really, she insists: For Candice three weeks of cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu.