In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.
– Julia Child
“It’s the big gray bird, Madame.” The waiter flaps his elbows to describe the word on the menu I have never before seen in my life. “On the farm.”
On the farm? Is it turkey? No. An especially large chicken? No. It’s not duck, goose, quail, squab, rooster, or hen of any size. I give my mother the now-what? look. She has graciously declined the waiter’s offer of “the fish that flies” and here we are, left with yet another embarrassing moment where we order four or five desserts for dinner, to share, with extra baguettes and don’t skimp on the butter. Or wine. Yes, here we are – in France. France! Land of cuisine known the world over for its incomparable…well, awesomeness. Funny how tonight there is nothing to eat.
We are dining – as opposed to eating, which is much less elegant – at a French country villa just outside Paris. To call the restaurant lovely would not do justice to the ostrich and other exotics featured on the menu. A true tempête roars outside, with lashing rain and chill and winds that blow us in seeking solace. The dining room is golden, gilded, gorgeous in candlelight, with a warming fire, sparkling crystal, and equally sparkly diners dressed to show classic French respect to the fish with wings.
We beg your pardon, we are so sorry, we’re so embarrassed to say: “I’ll have the chocolate soufflé and the cake with sweet cerises, please. And Madame,” I waft my hand in the direction of my mother, who, though brave, looks disenchanted that, once again, she’ll be going to bed on a big sugar high that disrupts her sleep with unpleasant imaginings, “Madame will have the gateaux á l’orange and the apricot tart…with ice cream. Merci.”
Americans. The waiter is too trained in perfunctory politeness to huff off, but my mom and I? We are well warmed up now, with shame. After all, should you travel to France you will eat very, very well, goes the lore. Impeccably prepared and exquisitely presented, French cooking from probably cave-days has been exalted as the highest of arts. There are five-star cheeses, phenomenal wines, and recipes fussed over by generations of professional chefs and home cooks alike, all of whom are obsessed with perfection.
Like Julia Child.
In 1948 when she landed in France with her husband, Paul, and a sky-hued Buick they christened “The Blue Flash,” it wasn’t long before the culinary legend was seriously swooning for the food. Meals like our disreputable dinner – two full-length baguettes followed by four desserts – were not what had her head over heels.
“Portugaises, sole meunière, salade verte, fromage blanc, café filtre. Ah me!” See? Here she is, reliving her first French lunch ever, which happened in a Rouen restaurant. My Life in France, Julia’s memoir of the years 1948 to 1954 when she lived in Paris and Marseille, celebrates this and “the things I have loved most in life: my husband Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating.” After this momentous event, “Paul and I floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air,” she writes. “Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.”
Then there is writer M.F.K. Fisher, another famous gourmande who came a generation earlier. Would she have approved of our pooh-poohing a proper entrée and main dish for dinner? Not even if we promised to give the big, gray bird a good home. She, too, flipped for French food. In her memoir of life in France, a 744-page homage to the joys of cuisine titled, The Art of Eating, she reveals herself absolutely mad about “eating and about what to eat and about people who eat.” Like Julia’s first French lunch, M.F.K.’s first French breakfast left her forever smitten:
“Paris is everything I dreamed,” she writes. “The hot chocolate and rich croissants were the most delicious things, there in bed with the Seine flowing past me and pigeons wheeling around the gray Palace mansards, that I had ever eaten.” And like Julia’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking intimates in its exuberant tone full of affection for French food, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher believed any ingredient at all that goes into a French recipe – butter to bacon to beans – should be flattered by the honor.
“‘Oh, the trout!’” she writes of a brasserie waitress she knew who once expressed the feelings of a fish featured on the menu. “‘Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul.’”
Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher had no fear of fish that fly, gave no pause at ostrich. They ate it all. There is Julia’s cherished Cervelles au Beurre Noir (lamb’s brains in brown butter sauce), a recipe featured in her famous cookbook. And there is M.F.K.’s prize Calf’s Head á la Tortue, a recipe whose instructions begin, “Bone, blanch and trim a calf’s head, cut it up into large scallops, keep the ears whole….” And then there is moi. To this lifelong vegetarian, brains of lambs and heads of calves? I’ll pass. This does not mean eating very, very well. My mother’s palate, happiest when treated to lots of fresh veggies and pasta, also cringes at things the two celebrity French foodies found delicious, whether M.F.K.’s budget-friendly Catsup Soup, or Julia’s special, zesty sauce whipped up from something you are supposed to extract yourself: bone marrow.
The two of us love to eat, however. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, between-meal treats and, especially, dessert. We are a mother-daughter marvel of food-love who would never, ever miss a meal. So how come when we venture out from the apartment in Paris, where my mom makes French-themed meals so yummy we both swoon over them, we bump into conundrums that result in the common refrain, I’m not going to eat it, are you going to eat it? Yes, eating as we please in French restaurants – whether fancy, folksy, informal or four-star – is fraught with predicament. Where’s your sense of adventure? Gustatorily gutsy friends have scolded us, that time they learned I refused the beef tongue done à la Monsieur Paul or Jean or Francois, or when at a party my mother went green when offered boudin noir, those sausages of pig’s blood. That’s okay. Our adventures à table are puzzling enough.
To wit: Another day here we are on the rue de Rivoli, squeezed together behind a tiny café table and perusing the luncheon menu, which holds mysteries. We are absolutely famished, we are fainting from starvation, for it has been a good two hours since our last meal, and the Louvre, from where we’ve just come, has yet to install the cafés, buffets and Starbucks that will, one day, make starvation like ours obsolete. The teeny table to our left is plied with plates of temptations I’m dying to devour right now: a heap of brilliantly green julienned green beans, a fragrant pile of golden fries. The teeny table to our right is edge-to-edge awash with thrills I don’t see on the menu: creamy, steamy, broiled potatoes dauphinoise; small petit pois bathed in butter, as perfect as pearls; baby salad greens so fresh and perky they look to have been kissed – passionately – by an especially sassy vinaigrette.
“Madame?” The waiter stands above me, pencil poised. On my illustrated carte I see no potatoes, no peas, no greens. “S’il vous plait.”
Impatient, the waiter is ready to bolt, so I am seized by a dizzying panic to perform. French menu options gyrate wildly before my eyes and it seems forever before something I recognize slows into focus: Omelet. Yes. Voilà. I’d love a lovely omelet. I’d love a lovely omelet packed with spinach and oozing some gooey French Emmental cheese.
“L’omelet, s’il vous plait, Monsieur,” I tell the waiting waiter. “Merci.” Besides famished my mother, too, is flummoxed. “What is there for lunch?” She does not say but rather mouths this, for even we know not to offend the server with our naiveté. The French onion soup for which she has traveled all the way to Paris is not offered, and none of the entrée options – salad of chicken gizzards? steak tartare made from horse? – tempt her like those piled-up potatoes dauphinoise might, if only she could find them on the carte.
“Oui? Madame?” The waiter wants to wait not a second longer. Hurried, Mom says something. Anything.
“The omelet!” As the day’s special she imagines it fat with fines herbes – buttery and luscious. “L’omelet, s’il vous plait,” she tells the impatient waiter and offers a shy smile in an exaggerated effort to please. “Merci, Monsieur.” I know the last thing she wants are eggs for lunch, since it was eggs for dinner last night – this in lieu of the monkfish she ordered by mistake and ached to release back into the river when it arrived at the table whole – with head, lips, and an upside eye that looked at her beseechingly: Please don’t eat me. But she will savor the eggs rather than starve and be grateful she’s eating at all. There’s got to be French onion soup somewhere in Paris, but where?
Well, at least the omelet will come with a mountain of fries and a side of that frisky-looking lettuce, yes?
After a short wait the waiter deposits our plates with a clattery racket. I can only stare and stare some more by the offering.
What in the world? I puzzle over how our omelets are made from eggs, yes, but also gobs of fat, black, glistening, slippery-looking blobs I dare not identify. The egg concoction lies bare-naked on the plate with not so much as a sprig of parsley. What of the julienned green beans? What of the pearls of buttery peas?
Well versed in Julia’s French Chef TV episode that brought such blobs to the awareness of American home chefs, my mother knows at once what is going on, on our plates.
“Well, I hate to tell you, but those are a great French delicacy: moules.”
I make a face: What? The diners to our left, to our right – Parisians now languid with satisfaction after their meal of all those marvels kept secret on the menu (where do you hide, oh fragrant golden fries!) see my pantomime and raise eyebrows in astonishment. Surely I am ravenous for the decadence that is an omelet plump with mussels! One monsieur who dined on crudities, the raw vegetable composition that on his plate almost made me cry with their beauty (such gorgeous sweet carrots!), is rapt while I rush not to ravish my lunch with the passion no doubt correct on this occasion. A madame who feasted on a lentil terrine too delicious-looking to describe, leans in with breathless anticipation. No doubt I will take a first bite and roll my eyes in private, soul-stirring mussel love! Alas, I do not. Instead, I pick and poke and prod; I excavate a few specks of egg. Like my mother I am oh-so-grateful that, again and again, the waiter without being asked refills our table’s baguette basket. What’s more, the butter pot is bottomless.
“I know in time you will come to find the food of France to your liking,” ventures the very kind madame at the tiny adjacent table. She is seated so close on the leather banquette that our hips share heat.
How Julia and M.F.K. would scoff at our culinary cluelessness. Why, Julia loved mussels, also known as “the poor man’s oyster.” She loved them à la marinère, à la Provençale, à la béarnaise, à la poulette; she loved them in salads, soups, pilafs and sauces. “One of the many things I love about French cooking,” she said, “was the way that basic themes could be made in a seemingly infinite number of variations.” Mussels with this, mussels with that; mussels with blood sausage! Why not? She said: “I wanted to try them all, and did.” If only we had a little of Julia’s what-the-hell attitude. If only we had the animelles of bull to leave the safety of our baguette-and-butter rut and explore more of what makes for magic at the French table!
In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia believed with all her heart that French cuisine was for every cook and every eater, no matter how squeamish. That’s why her cookbook, she hoped, was as plain-talking as a rump roast. She writes:
We have purposely omitted cobwebbed bottles, the patron in his white cap bustling among his sauces, anecdotes about charming little restaurants with gleaming napery, and so forth. Such romantic interludes, it seems to us, put French cooking into a never-never land instead of Here, where happily it is available to everybody.
To let Julia take our hands and guide us to her table, however, is a terrific risk. Because never-never do I wish to eat, whether baked, broiled, grilled or rôti, whatever is cooked from what I often see hanging on a hook in Paris markets: a beautiful creature of field or forest, with head, hooves and tail included. And never-never do I desire to dine on those poor, dignified things so often celebrated on French menus – specialties dragged from the sea, pried off rocks, scraped from piers, torn from shells, and displayed on ice. M.F.K. herself felt that indulging in such seafood could, if only in rare cases, lead to a flirtation with the dark side of French cooking. She writes in The Art of Eating: “I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by the devil.”
I have seen such possession. One memorable Christmas Eve, it came for my own sister, Candice.
I remember well the site, the sin, the salvation. I wasn’t going to eat it, but she was.
# # #
Here we are sharing an intimate table for two at Le Grand Colbert, a classic Paris brasserie near the Palais Royale. The stylish zinc bar and black-and-white floor frame a glittering space made holiday festive: white twinkly lights are festooned all around; gilded holiday trees bedazzle every nook. Candy and I are giddy with excitement. Together in Paris for Christmas! We are starving, of course, and eager to celebrate the season with a spectacular dining experience. The evening’s specialty is fruits de mer, a towering, four-tiered silver tray of crushed ice upon which are nestled every possible “fruit” from the sea. There are creatures that suction to rocks or crawl on sand bottoms; there are those that locomote with many, many legs. Some have shells steamed open a tease, or brandish antenna like the feelers of beetle or whiskers of kitten. Along with écrevisses, or crayfish, there are mussels and snails, clams and small crabs; there are skinny shrimp, husky prawns and, of course, the pretty periwinkle sea snail. Each sea-fruit’s delicacy is hidden within its shell. No fork, no knife, no spoon is provided, for it is only by pin – painstakingly maneuvered with the patience of a saint – that one extracts and savors the meal that is fruits de mer.
“I’ll have that,” says my sister. She is ecstatic over the prospect of getting her pin into such a treat. I, less enthused, order a mishmash of sides: soup, salad, soufflé of cheese, and hey, why not also the cheese plate meant for two or three?
“Merci, Monsieur.” Flirty, Candy informs the waiter of our order and in sisterly joie de vivre we clink our fat glasses of Bordeaux. Sante!
At festive tables around us, many, many diners painstakingly work pins before their own towering silver trays of sea-fruits. Most appear intent on the task, transfixed even. It’s almost as if they are influenced by the same voodoo that bewitched M.F.K. in her day.
“That first night, as I think back on it, was amazing,” she writes of a Dijon meal she once encountered that may well have been fruits de mer, given its intoxicating effects. “Everything that was brought to the table was so new, so wonderfully cooked, that what might have been with sated palates a gluttonous orgy was, for our fresh ignorance, a constant refreshment.” In France for her honeymoon, M.F.K. and her bridegroom Al then return to their lodgings:
After dinner, [w]hen we finally went home to unlock the little door for the first time and go up the zigzag stairs to our own room, we wove a bit perhaps. But we felt as if we had seen the far shores of another world. We were drunk with the land breeze that blew from it, and the sure knowledge that it lay waiting for us.
Some strange land breeze from some far shore certainly swoops in for my sister, because 90 minutes into our meal, I have made quick work of my soup, salad, soufflé and the entire platter-for-two of cheese. Our basket of sliced baguette, refilled twice, is empty due to my doing alone, and the waiter knows I’ll take for dessert my favorite thing in the world: profiteroles. Still, I am waiting for my sister to finish her fruits de mer. She has one entire tier yet to go.
“Don’t talk to me,” she says, and pins out a microscopic bit of crustacean. She savors what can’t be more than a snail trail and sighs, swoons, chews, if you can believe. I cannot. Some magical je ne sais quoi in her crustaceans has put Candy in a trance that recalls Julia’s words.
“Paris is heavenly,” TV’s French Chef said, invoking celestial levels of happiness. “Everything about it satisfies everything in me.”
After the next pinhead’s worth of sea creature, Candy closes her eyes and communes privately with some crayfish innards. After a pause she’s back, poised to pin the next miniscule mouthful taken from something that has eight pairs of legs and two antennae.
“I can’t believe you don’t want to try this,” she says. “It tastes like the sea, the sun, the salt-spray in the air that smells like…like…you know.” What? Whatever scent salt spray is, I’m not sure it’s worth this dinner that takes Candy two hours to eat, totals 94 calories, and costs practically the price of those fabulous boots we saw this morning at Printemps – which I’d rather have. But going by Candy’s ecstatic enjoyment of her meal, it looks like fruits de mer have some sort of psychedelic powers that cause eaters like my sister to trip the seafood fantastic. When she’s finally finished, will she go only, wow?
Perhaps this and the other classic French dishes I find frightful – pieds de porc or couilles de mouton – have a weird way of casting a spell on unwary eaters so that, after they actually order the pig’s feet or sheep testicles, they feel reborn?
Julia thought so. “What fun! What a revelation!” she said of the enchantment French “cookery” put on her. M.F.K. did, too, having often, like my sister, “sucked a hundred strange dead creatures from their shells.” There must be something mystical to it, because people here? People here in France “eat almost anything,” as Julia once said. And they particularly party over foods that are, in her words, “not trendy, souped-up fantasies. Just something very good to eat.” Meals, in short, that can leave me as mystified as I am right now at how my sister floats through dinner stoned on sea snail.
At last she sucks out the guts of her final écrivisse. “Enough!” She throws down her pin and falls back into her chair, exhausted. She eyes the empty baguette basket, the decimated cheese plate, the assiette of soufflé licked clean of even the last globule of butter – my dinner, in short – and wakes from the trance of otherworld spun from the fruits de mer.
“Was that good?” I search my spent sister’s face for a sign she is sated by the sea, the salt, the spray that…what was it? Before she can answer the waiter whisks away plates and mentions the profiteroles are on their way. “Thank God!” Candy laughs. “I’m so hungry I could eat the place down.”
# # #
Hate it, as my mother suffered through her mussel omelet. Or love it, as my sister adored her fruits de mer. Or you can stay away altogether, like I do when it comes to the food stalls’ creatures of field or forest I feel so sorry for. To be a food lover in France is to take your chances. Julia and M.F.K. surely would beg to differ, knocking back whatever they foraged from French markets, and cooking up concoctions they would eat in a heartbeat.
So imagine my delight when the same wizardry that had Julia swooning for her first French sole meunière and M.F.K. zigzagging in happiness after her initial French “gluttonous orgy” finally wove its wand over me.
Here I am at Châlet des Iles, the 1880 Swiss chalet-now-restaurant found on a little lake island in the Bois de Boulogne. The chalet was Napoleon III’s gift to the Empress Eugénie before it became a favorite haunt of Proust and Zola. And, despite the exciting provenance of the place, I am searching high and low for something very good to eat. We are lunching al fresco, my parents and I, and it is my birthday. Peacocks stroll the lushly landscaped grounds; swans swim to and fro on the sun-shimmery lake; migrating Canadian geese squawk in the aquamarine sky above. All in all, it’s a gorgeous scene that makes the day feel especially, well, special. In Paris for my birthday! The menu is French. Very. Julia-food is the only offering, with plenty of M.F.K.-style options.
“I’m sorry, darling.” Dad sees from the menu’s course upon course – appetizers to post-coffee cordials – that no vegetarian option will be served at Châlet des Iles in this lifetime. He, however, is ecstatic over the prospect of a decadent caneton rôti (roast duckling) that I worry might be snatched from the very lake beside which we dine. Mom is okay with the prawn soufflé as long as the prawns’ heads are cut off.
“Oh, it’s fine. I can always find something on the menu.” I am in high spirits – it’s my birthday! And to celebrate with my cherished parents here in Paris means it won’t matter, really, what I order for lunch. It’s going to be wonderful no matter what. Unless it isn’t. The menu seems to feature only gourmet barnyard horrors, all proudly – if grimly – described in exquisite calligraphy. There are no sides of risotto or rice or pretty red potatoes, no little plate of something not formerly furred or feathered or loved by a mother.
“Madame?” The waiter hovers, sans pencil. He is prepared to remember our order to the chef who, I can only imagine, is of the Julia school. Likely like her trained at Le Cordon Bleu, I fear he’ll begin today’s meal prep with the beheading of Dad’s duck. I despair over my ordering options. Somehow a meal of bread and butter seems un-birthday-like. “S’il vous plait.”
“Well.” I stall for time. But then, a bold, rogue idea arrives! It must be some birthday bravura. “S’il vous plait, Monsieur.” I struggle to use my best French accent so as not to offend the server who, surely, is descended in some cosmic way from the waitress M.F.K. once encountered in an old mill-turned-restaurant in Burgundy. After Ms. Fisher placed her order for a bottle of 1929 Chablis, she recalls of the server: “For a second her whole face blazed with joy and then subsided into a trained mask. I knew that I had chosen well, had somehow satisfied her in a secret and incomprehensible way.”
I so wish, secretly and incomprehensibly, to please this waiter, although I know I won’t. My abject rejection of the menu that top to bottom is a compendium of elite eats the French are typically cuckoo for – escargots to frogs’ legs au poivre – is an affront famous eaters like Julia and M.F.K. would never have dared. God love her: M.F.K. once with courage did try to express her preferences to Monsieur Paul, he of the glad trout. It did not go well. She writes:
‘Perhaps a leaf or two of salad after the fish,’ I suggested. [The server] almost snapped at me. ‘Of course, of course! And naturally our hors d’oeuvres to commence.’ She started away.
‘No!’ I called, feeling that I must assert myself now or be forever lost. ‘No!’
She turned back and spoke to me very gently. ‘But Madame has never tasted our hors d’oeuvres. I am sure that Madame will be pleased. They are our specialty, made by Monsieur Paul himself. I am sure,’ and she looked reproachfully at me, her mouth tender and sad, ‘I am sure Madame would be very much pleased.’
I smiled weakly at her, and she left. A little cloud of hurt gentleness seemed to hang in the air where she last stood.
Hell! I loathed hors d’oeuvres!
Of course M.F.K. eats the hors d’oeuvres Monsieur Paul prepares. And she is not just pleased, but very.
So I brave it: “Would it be possible for the chef to make something vegetarian for me?” I don’t really believe the waiter’s face will ignite in a blaze of joy, but the last thing I expect is his response. He does not snicker; he does not sneer; he reproaches me not. He doesn’t even sigh in sadness that I am missing out on a gourmet decapitated duck or the big gray bird on the farm now grilled, baked or rôti. “Oui, Madame,” he says and bows off.
Lunch is served among the peacocks in full parade display; they stroll past our table with their fabulous tail feathers fanned in a brilliance of aqua, gold and green. Then, it actually happens. I may be late to the celebration, but here I am. Dear Julia, dear M.F.K. May I please – at last – take a seat at the table?
Dad gets the duckling he finds sumptuous, Mom her headless prawn soufflé, and I? I am served a vegetarian version of gastronomic rhapsody.
“Voila.” The waiter presents my plate with a formal flourish and beams. “The chef’s best.” He winks in the way of French flirts who are particularly proud and pleased with themselves. Flounced by edible Nasturtiums in brilliant sunrise colors, my lunch looks so beautiful, so luscious, so filled with veggie-rich little dishes that I am breathless before the spectacle. Baked fennel fragrant with vermouth; mushrooms in puff pastry coddled by a tarragon-infused crème fraîche. Balsamic-roasted veggies. Even herbed lentils with a sprinkle of Dijon citronette. There are two or three petits pâté à la sage – mini cakes of fresh sage – and a creamy cauliflower something that looks absolutely, as Julia might say, “Marvelous.” The chef’s best, made especially for me. It is a birthday gift that becomes more dazzling at dessert, when I am served a coupe of Champagne and a slice of celebration cheesecake topped by a sparkler that comes to the table lit like the Eiffel Tower.
“Happy birthday!” my parents toast. Nobody sings happy birthday to you – not at Châlet des Iles, not in this lifetime – but beyond our table, beneath a fanfare of hanging flowers, and behind a small ivy hedge that cordons off the kitchen, I glimpse a tall fellow in a toque: the chef. Is he looking in my direction? Why, yes! He is looking in my direction – more or less. I want to blow him a kiss that will cross the distance between us, but…no. Instead, I simply admit, in awe and admiration, that French cooking has come for me, even me, and I am not just pleased but very.