Joie de vivre is the keystone of the French cuisine

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Waiting in line to buy apples from Evelyne Nochet’s family orchard Le Nouveau Verger at the Mouton-Duvernet Friday market today, my husband turned a big happy grin towards me and I felt the truth of M. Thérèse Bonney’s epigraph in French Cooking for American Kitchens (1929): “joie de vivre is the keynote of the French cuisine.”

I love the frontispiece for this recipe book published in the closing days of the Golden Age of American expatriates in Paris. Is that Marianne, the bare-breasted spirit of French Revolution, holding aloft an enormous platter of poisson? She and two helpers – another bare-breasted nymph lifting a grill with a porcelet steaming atop, and a coverall-clad beauty carrying a crate of wine – perch atop a vache Charolais draped in a garland of onions and being led to slaughter by two children wearing toques, the girl at the rear bearing an enormous fork. I feel joyful when I look at this picture, drawn by Edouard Bernard, which originated as a menu illustration for the restaurant Dagorno located near the abattoirs de la Villette, the old wholesale meat market of Paris.

The pleasure that les femmes Dagorno take in their lovely French comestibles reflects our own feelings as we shopped for our evening meal on this fête day. Halloween is not celebrated in France, but the following day, November 1st, is La fête de la Toussaint or All Saints’. Judging from the crowds at the market this morning, many of our Parisian neighbours are planning to commemorate this fall holiday with large family meals. We are merrily going with the flow.

In Catalonia, Toussaint used to be celebrated with chestnuts and sweet wine. Luckily, my favorite vegetable-seller at marché Mouton Duvernet had chestnuts from the Périgord available today. I love the flavor of chestnuts. At home, most of the chestnuts for sale are imported from China and their quality can be variable, but the Périgord chestnuts are renowned for their sweetness. My marchand also had aromatic baskets of trompettes de la mortes, or trumpets of the dead, dark gray mushrooms that call to mind the image of buried bodies trumpeting up from the grave. What could be more suitable for Toussaint and La Fête des Morts (feast of the dead) which follows on November 2? Both the chestnuts and mushrooms, I thought, would be wonderful cooked alongside one of the game birds on display at our local butcher. (We are at the beginning of the French hunting season and our butcher is making the most of it). Once again, at home I have very little access to game and what I can get is expensive. At Boucherie Chevy, I bought a faisan, or pheasant, for 9€. I would have bought two, but there was only one left in the case, so I picked up a little chicken as well to make sure we had enough food for four. Lastly, we popped into Dominique Saibron, our neighborhood gourmet pâtisserie, and picked up a chestnut tarte for dessert.

Trompettes de la mortes, pommes, marrons

pheasant at Boucherie Chevy

Dominique Saibron chestnut tart

The combination of joie de vivre (joy of life) and commemoration of la morte during the Toussaint holiday seems very French to me. Just like how the Dagorno menu, with its merry procession to the abattoir, celebrates the bloody butchers’ market as alive with pleasure. Again I am reminded of the scene in Henry James’s The American when the French friends of a fatally wounded character gather around his deathbed and feast on the finest cuisine that can be prepared by the Parisian chef they have brought along. Henry James’s American hero is revolted by this display, but I have reason to feel otherwise.

My husband has been struggling under the emotional blow of a terrible death in his family this past spring. His older brother died unexpectedly in May. Wretchedly, this death followed two more terrible premature deaths in recent years, those of my husband’s sister and his nephew. It’s really too much to bear. Just last weekend we visited his sister’s old house in Provence (still owned by her widower and her surviving son). We spent a few quiet days in the cavernous house, and I know my husband felt the echoes of previous boisterous holidays, when everyone was still alive and the courtyard echoed with competitive shouts from the ping-pong table and loud splashing from the pool. Last weekend the leaves were just beginning to fall from the enormous plane tree in the courtyard, and my daughter – an enthusiastic forager – picked the last of the summer tomatoes from the vegetable garden. We spent the final day of our visit in almost total quiet. I was under the weather and the kids had little energy, so we three lay outside under the fall sun reading books. My husband, who had to work, spent the day inside by himself. How could he not feel haunted?

There is no escape from being haunted this year by memories of his older brother whose death was so recent. Especially here in Paris where so much of our life revolves around visits to the markets and the pleasures of the plate. My husband and his brother bonded over their shared love of cooking good food. It was a common inheritance from their mother, an accomplished home cook who also died very prematurely. (I know, it’s too much.) Every wonderful cheese we buy, every adventure at the market, every discovery of a new boulangerie or experience with a new ingredient is haunted by the impossibility of sharing that pleasure with my husband’s brother. And so if we couldn’t combine our remembrance of la morte with our joie de vivre we would really be shit out of luck.

When, waiting on line for Evelyne Nochet’s delicious apples, my greedy-eyed husband turned a smile of sheer delight on me everything felt perfect for a moment. I had almost cancelled our plans for this year away when I heard the news about my brother-in-law. It just seemed like the wrong time to leave the security and comfort of home. But moments like today’s make me so glad that I did not.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

3 thoughts

  1. I am sad for your family’s loss. What a moving reminder to be thankful for what we have, while we have it, including loved ones and (not least) all the pleasures in life.

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