Celebrating the Senses
The first time I went to a French wedding, I had no idea what I was in for. The ceremony was held in a church, and the reception dinner in a large country house surrounded by gardens and farmland.
“Oh, so this is your first French wedding?” a few bemused guests asked me.
It started with a glass of champagne outdoors. What could be more glorious than champagne, friendly people, and an expanse of French countryside?
Once we were seated inside, in a large, open room with weathered beams, we were served an amuse-bouche (pre-appetizer), followed by an entrée (appetizer), followed by quenelles (fish dumplings with Nantua sauce, a specialty of Lyon, the bride’s home city)—which I took to be the main course.
Topics of conversation at my table ranged from guests’ places of origin to travel destinations to the current political landscape. When things had settled down a bit, and I imagined we were waiting for the wedding cake, in came a huge tray of roasted duck, pommes sarladaises (potatoes cooked in duck fat), and fresh vegetables. By then, I was only picking at the cornucopia on my plate and slowing down on the delicious Burgundy from a nearby vineyard. (Was anyone noticing that I could scarcely eat another bite? How many more courses could there possibly be?)
Then came a lovely salad of crisp local greens, followed by cheeses from several regions—a blue cheese from Auvergne, sheep’s cheese from the Pyrenees, and the ever-creamy Saint Félicien from the Rhône Alpes—all punctuated by discussion and good cheer. At last came the pièce montée en choux (a wedding tower of little pastries) and more champagne, followed by coffee, followed in turn by a digestif or pousse-café (an after-dinner drink that “pushes” the coffee down). There is even such a thing as a pousse-pousse café (an after-after-dinner drink)—though I don’t believe we had one that evening. And for those who could still move, there was dancing throughout the night. Though not light on my feet that evening, I did dance, but I also learned, for future reference, that wedding dinners in France are to be approached gingerly.
French culinary pride is always evident in the range and quantity of offerings, but the real point is to spend hours … and hours … engaging in conversation with people you know and people you don’t know while enjoying an array of sensory delights. But this was only the tip of the iceberg in my discovery of the joy of sustained evenings. The earliest ending of any French wedding I have attended was 4 A.M., and no one over the age of ten seemed sleepy—time is subsumed by an abundance of pleasure.
Weddings are only one example of the many French celebrations focused on food. Every time I returned from an evening with friends in Paris, my French host family would ask, “What did you have to eat?” That was always the first question—which puzzled me. Not where we went, not what we saw, not what we talked about, but what we ate. At first, I would respond with something like “Oh, a quiche and some soup” and start to move on to another topic. But then they would want to know what kind of quiche and what kind of soup. At last, I had an epiphany: celebrations and gastronomy are inseparable in France. Whereas in the United States, we often go to dinner and then to a show, in France the dinner is the show. Marshall McLuhan famously declared that the medium is the message. In France, it occurred to me, the food is the message, or a big part of it—and the message is “Enjoy!”
Fast-forwarding several years, my husband and I, with daughters now in tow, went to my friend Josette’s for Christmas dinner. At the time, our children were all in elementary school, and we were joined by a neighbor family including three children around the ages of ours. With presents in our arms for Josette’s family, we arrived at the appointed hour of one-ish. to find family and neighbors all squeezed into the small apartment—there were seventeen of us, au total, counting grandmothers. The kitchen table, the dining table, and a folding table had all been pushed together and covered with festive tablecloths, and Josette’s mother, Francine, was just bringing out her famous œufs mimosa to put on the table (a bit like deviled eggs, but with hard-cooked egg yolk crumbled on top, making the dish look surprisingly like mimosa blossoms).
Francine is from Perpignan, speaks with a strong southern accent, and has the biggest heart one can imagine. Chauvinistic regionals claim that everyone from Perpignan is open and welcoming. I haven’t yet met enough residents of the city to confirm this stereotype, but it is certainly true of Francine. Jean-François, Josette’s charming, jovial brother, who is rotund, with a ruddy face and smiling eyes, opened the champagne without the usual loud pop, like a pro. He belongs to a wine club, and other than the professionals, he knows more about wine than anyone I know—and he finds secret good deals and suppliers at every turn. He is happy to explain the terroir and soil quality necessary for the champagne or wine in question, the percentage of each type of grape involved, and which years the climatic conditions were ideal for winemaking. While he doesn’t go so far as to describe the “hints of leather with a blackberry finish” you often see on California wine labels, he has an expert’s palate. That day, he had brought not only champagne, but also some delicious Côte de Nuits, a prized Burgundy, for the main course. I will not be able to reconstruct all the courses, but the pièce de résistance was roasted chevreuil.
What is a chevreuil? I thought, not really wanting to know.
The creature we were about to eat was presented on a tray propped up on its front legs, as though in Cobra pose. Everyone clapped as the platter was carried in from the kitchen.
Hmm, I thought. The word began like cheval (horse), but the dish looked too small to be that. How do I finesse this? I don’t want to be the squeamish American.
Chevreuil turned out to be “deer” or “venison.” I thought back to the time a hunter friend brought some venison to my family long ago, and we found it perfectly palatable. Venison is considered a delicacy in France, and we Americans were apparently the only ones to find those front legs in the least troubling.
Jean-François carved the chevreuil and, with plates passed to him, served everyone as we gave our preferences: “Un tout petit peu, s’il te plaît” (just a little, please), for my part.
I’ve forgotten to mention that, during this time, the bright green partridge, the neighbors’ pet, was flying all around the room, much to the delight of the children, who tried to get it to perch on their fingers or land on the table next to them. As you can imagine, though, there was virtually no space on the table. The French keep their pieces of baguette next to their plates as they eat, and the partridge had figured this out quite easily, landing and pecking crumbs from time to time in the little space that was left.
Meanwhile, our daughters were trying to remember all the verses to “A Partridge in a Pear Tree,” and the seven children present had all joined in singing the verses in both French and English. The song turned out not to be easily translatable, however: In French, the final line is “Un moineau tout en haut du pommier” (A sparrow atop the apple tree). And our very favorite part, “five golden rings,” is “cinq gros poussins” (five fat baby chickens)—not quite the same vibe!
The children were allowed a tiny glass of wine mixed with water—to be held with “panda hands,” palms flat against the stem so they wouldn’t drop it. At one point, they got up to play games in the bedroom while the adults stretched a bit on the balcony—and still the meal continued, very slowly, throughout the afternoon and into the evening.
At around 8 P.M., out came the awaited bûche de Noël (Christmas log), this one from a local bakery. It is a magnificent creation of cake rolled into the shape of a log, containing as much chocolate as it can hold, as well as layers of cream filling. For the most elaborate versions, shaved chocolate is added for the “bark” as well as realistic-looking mushrooms made from meringue. Sumptuous.
The enjoyment continued with coffee and a digestif.
Between 11 P.M. and midnight, we thought we’d gather up the children, thank our hosts and friends, and be off—but no. Frédéric, the father of the three neighbor children and a prized Vietnamese-born chef, suddenly declared, “La soupe à l’oignon!”
Ah yes, something we hadn’t known: the Christmas dinner in this family must be topped off with an onion soup at midnight. So we continued, exchanging ideas and stories until, after helping to clean up as much as Francine would allow, we at last began the slow walk home to our apartment on the avenue des Gobelins.
I cannot recall how late we slept the next day, but fortunately, our calendar was clear. Celebration, cooking, friendship, laughter, and the delight of intergenerational company completed our first dream-worthy Christmas in Paris.
These grand celebrations are not isolated phenomena in France. They’re simply a macro example of micro events that happen every day—a dinner with friends, a lunch with colleagues, a coffee on a boulevard, a picnic in a park.
I was at first shocked to learn that Article R4228–19 of the French Code du travail (Labor Code) specifies that it is illegal to eat at one’s desk or “any premises designated for work.” After much public grousing during the pandemic, a temporary exception to the law was passed in the National Assembly, with an emphasis on “temporary.” Eating at work would never be permanently allowed, of course.
Why these draconian measures? Food in the workplace can be a bother—as you know if one of your colleagues has ever brought in stir-fry with fish sauce and left it sitting on the counter in the break room all afternoon. But more important, lunch is meant to provide a moment away from files, business meetings, building construction, and garbage collection. It is meant to be a break from it all, for all, a moment to enjoy—rather like a momentary vacation (which we Americans have a hard time taking). Going to a café, restaurant, brasserie, or bistro gets you out of the office, shop, or factory. And as the French say, ça vous change les idées (it gets your head in a different place). There may be a cafeteria in the workplace, but even then, it’s a respite that happens not at your desk or work station, but elsewhere. And even if people are in a hurry to return to work, there’s always time to fit in un petit café, an expressed black elixir that punctuates the meal, simultaneously signaling the end of this reprieve and the beginning of renewed energy for the afternoon.
And as if the pride in French gastronomy were not sufficiently pronounced on earth, it has now conquered outer space as well. While American astronauts’ meals have typically included peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, and applesauce, the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet hoped for better cuisine on his 2021 flight on the SpaceX rocket. Alain Ducasse, arguably the most celebrated French chef today, was approached about making some space-ready meals, which he happily agreed to do for all the astronauts on that mission. During their orbits, they enjoyed beef bourguignon, potato cakes with wild mushrooms, and almond tarts with caramelized pears. But some adjustments had to be made. There is a no-tolerance alcohol policy in space, which presented quite a challenge for the beef bourguignon, which is always made with red wine—but Ducasse found a solution: He prepared the slow-cooked beef and vegetables with wine, but then extracted the alcohol through a spinning evaporator that kept the flavor intact. A nuclear magnetic resonance instrument was then used to confirm the absence of alcohol in the dish. The sauce also had to be made a little thicker than usual to keep the droplets from floating away in zero gravity.
Despite Ducasse’s team’s great success in producing mouthwatering meals for the astronauts, the attempt to make croissants that would hold up in outer space failed disastrously. You can be transported to the heavens with pleasure, but to consume some French delicacies, it would seem, you have to keep your feet firmly on the ground.
THE JOY OF COOKING
Eating French food and cooking it are of course two different matters, and my first official experiment in cooking was calamitous. When I returned to France during graduate school, I was living in an apartment by myself in a big city for the first time. I needed only a very small space, somewhere to “squat” while I did a year’s worth of research at the National Library and finished writing my dissertation. On the rue de Caumartin, which was then a prime red-light district, I found a tiny studio with a thin divider allegedly forming a kitchen and a bedroom. The makeshift kitchen consisted of a burner; a mini refrigerator; a small, weathered table; and two metal chairs. The “bedroom” had two twin beds smashed against each wall, with enough room between them to allow only the thinnest person to pass. The room was dark with one small window about waist high. But I was in Paris on my own!
One of my first outings was to an outdoor market to get ingredients for the first fully French meal I would cook. I knew how to make tostadas compuestas and green chile stew with Hatch peppers from my native New Mexico, but now I was going to be a real French cook! Coming from the desert, I was particularly looking forward to cooking fish, which was a frugal but still very French choice.
The fish in the market were displayed whole on piles of ice. I chose a shiny grey bream, which the fishmonger carefully wrapped in white butcher paper. Then I tucked the package into my newly purchased filet (string bag), wended my way among the friendly sex workers who had begun to recognize me as a neighbor, and climbed the narrow, winding stairway to my third-floor digs. When I unwrapped the fish in my apartment and saw its eyes staring up at me, it seemed to be asking why I had taken its life away. I burst into tears.
So began my first attempt at cooking an authentic French meal. Many years and several cooking courses later, my favorite dish to make is the French classic saumon à l’oseille (salmon with sorrel sauce), no eyes included. However, that initial encounter made me more aware of the fish-person connection and nudged me in the direction of vegetarianism.
For many French people, vegetarian simply means you don’t eat beef. The confusion probably originates in the word viande, which means “meat” but often stands in for “beef,” as in viande hachée (ground beef). Several of my American vegetarian students have encountered host families who have said, in essence, “Oh, you don’t eat meat? No problem—we’ll prepare chicken!” Although in recent years, finding families to host vegetarians has become much easier; when faced with a vegan, a French host will commonly respond, incredulous, “But you don’t even eat eggs and cheese?”—both staples in the French diet. “What do you eat?”
While vegetarian and vegan restaurants have sprouted up throughout France, there remains some resistance to the trend. In response to the campaign “Save the Planet—Eat Vegan” from a few years ago, a counter-slogan emerged: “Save the Farmer—Eat a Vegan.” But vegan foodies in France have pushed back in style with gourmet offerings. Le Potager de Charlotte (Charlotte’s Vegetable Garden) in Paris serves asparagus risotto with pine nuts, chestnut soy yogurt with candied pecans, and cashew cream with goji berries. And this kind of fare can be found not only in Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, but also in smaller towns like Arras (at Mezzaluna, which specializes in organic Mediterranean dishes). Les Petites Graines in Saint Étienne serves lentil cakes with butternut mousse, and rosemary-infused figs and oranges for dessert. Le Resto du Village in rural Normandy takes pride in its mushroom and chestnut “steak” on a bed of garlicky spinach and in its calvados (an apple brandy) and caramel apples with almond cream for dessert. Even confirmed carnivores may find resistance futile in this inventively delicious cuisine.
The love of food has permeated almost every aspect of French culture, including its language—sometimes with dangerous results. President Emmanuel Macron, confident in his ability to speak fluent English, had these words for Australia’s then–prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at the beginning of a formal speech in Sydney: “Thank you and your delicious wife for your warm welcome and the perfect organization of this trip.” Needless to say, that exquisite gaffe became front-page material for the international English-speaking press. Ah, those Frenchmen…! But, for the French, délicieux is a catchall word, meaning “wonderful,” “terrific,” “cool,” and “awesome,” but evoking the sensuality associated with savoring scrumptious delicacies. I recently overheard two middle-aged Frenchmen discussing their looks, with one of them proudly declaring, “Je suis délicieusement vintage” (I am deliciously vintage). Somehow, I couldn’t imagine that sentence being spoken by an American man, but I was intrigued by the framing of one’s advanced age as a sensually enticing state.
A host of French idiomatic expressions are based on food:
Avoir la pêche (to have the peach) means “to be full of energy.”
Occupe-toi de tes oignons (literally, take care of your onions) means “Mind your own business.”
Raconter des salades (literally, to tell salads) translates as “to spin yarns.”
Mettre de l’eau dans son vin (to put water in one’s wine) means “to tone it down” or “to compromise.”
En faire tout un fromage/plat (to make a whole cheese/dish out of it) means “to make a big deal of it.”
Mettre du beurre dans les épinards (to put butter on the spinach) means “to earn some extra money.”
C’est la fin des haricots (that’s the last of the beans) means “That’s the end of the line.”
The word savoureux (tasty) functions in much the same way as délicieux. A sign in a bookstore wished all of us de savoureuses lectures (tasty readings) for the summer. In a book review, I recently read about a roman délectable (a delectable novel)—so good you could eat it. In that same vein, alléchant (tantalizing, enticing), often used to describe books, plays, and television series, comes from the verb lécher (to lick), suggesting that many sensations can be more fully interpreted through the pleasures of taste. It is obvious from these expressions that, whether explicitly or implicitly, very rarely is cooking or food completely absent from the mind of a French speaker.
A few years after my disastrous first French cooking experiment, my friend Mary and I invited our graduate professor to dinner. With his bluest of eyes and in his angelic voice—no, neither of us was trying to get with him; as everyone knew, he was gay, another loss for straight women—he had made the French Renaissance come alive for both of us as he read Joachim du Bellay poems for the class. An accomplished gourmet cook, our prof had prepared a chef-worthy meal for his seminar the year before, with a luscious cold avocado soup and … I don’t remember what else, but it was all stupendous.
The day of our dinner arrived and, with Julia Child and the Troisgros brothers advising me via their cookbooks, I was ready. Mary would make the appetizers and the dessert, and I would prepare the main course, a salmon soufflé, which had turned out beautifully the week before when I tested it—I was not taking any risks. The evening began with olives, perfect little canapés with caramelized onions and goat cheese prepared by Mary, and a Sancerre wine we had scrupulously chosen with what little wine savvy we possessed.
I preheated the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and, at the appointed time, inserted the soufflé dish into it, turning the temperature down slightly as instructed. Forty minutes later—the timing was perfect—I went into the kitchen to retrieve my prize. But when I took the soufflé out of the oven, although it was warm, it was also as flat and as wet as it had been when I put it in.
“Oh, no problem,” our patient guest said. “Just cook it a bit longer.”
Fifteen minutes passed … with the same result.
What could I have done wrong? I thought. I’m certain I beat the egg whites into soft peaks and folded them in.
Back to the oven the soufflé went, for another ten minutes.
Finally, our professor blurted out, “Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Let’s just eat it!”
As I took out the soufflé for the last time, and we began to eat the gluey substance—which my professor and Mary both claimed to be delicious in spite of its texture—it at last dawned on me: I had left the lid on the dish the whole time! Something about oxygen and egg whites …
French cooking would forever remain slightly out of my reach.
There are many unspoken rules regarding dining and invitations in France. Unfortunately, I had to learn them one at a time, each lesson embarrassing in its own way. The first thing I remember learning is that eight o’clock (the most common French dinnertime) does not mean eight o’clock. In fact, if you ring your host’s doorbell at precisely 8 P.M., he will probably take a minute to answer the door, and when he does, he will likely have a towel hastily tied around his waist, with water dripping all over the parquet floor. In short, eight o’clock means 8:15 at the earliest, the quart d’heure parisien (the Parisian fifteen minutes of delay)—which is even longer in the South of France. I’ve been told that the quart d’heure toulousian (the quarter hour of delay in Toulouse) is half an hour.
After experiencing a dripping host, the next time I was invited to dinner by someone, I arrived fashionably “on time,” between 8:15 and 8:30, with a bottle of Bordeaux.
That should do it, I figured.
Copyright © 2023 by Cathy Yandell