The last several weeks I have been hard at work on writing projects related to my new book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, which is coming out in May 2014. I’ve missed having the time to work on this blog and read more about Americans dining and cooking in Paris, but I’ve also enjoyed delving back into the history of sexuality, which has been my main focus for years.
The recent work has also given me the opportunity to think more seriously about the overlap between the histories of sex and food. All along I have been aware that sexuality is a running theme of the blog, which I had credited to my own long interest in the subject. The fact that many of the Americans who adored French food lived rule-breaking – even wild – sex lives has made the research that much more juicy.
On more recent reflection, however, I’ve realized that the overlap of my two research interests, food and sex, is more than a coincidence. Well duh, you might say. As anyone knows who has ever seen the famous dinner-love scene between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman in the movie Tom Jones, food and sex are well-matched pleasures. Historically, many of the Americans who traveled to France took it as a given that the country renowned for its sensuality offered exquisite opportunities both at table and in bed. The two pleasures of the flesh seemed to combine naturally.
In our own time, we continue to naturalize the connection between food and sex. This pairing explains the secret of Nigella Lawson’s success. Whether or not she is a good cook or has good recipes to offer, viewers believe in her gourmand cred because she so over-the-top sexual. This is a woman who knows her pleasures.
Considering the power of these cultural associations, I might have gotten complacent and accepted the food/sex link in my research as natural. Good thing that a recent trip to the “Surrealism and the Object” exhibition currently appearing at the Centre Pompidou, Paris’s biggest modern art museum, forced me to reconsider. The popular association between sex and food made the pairing a perfect subject for the Surrealists, who sought to de-naturalize the world in their artworks. Surrealism strived to make familiar objects unfamiliar, to force viewers to really look at ordinary and mundane objects, which often pass without notice.
Salvador Dalí described Surrealist sculpture in 1931 as “absolutely useless and created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way, with maximum tangible reality, ideas and fantasies of a delirious character.” In his 1933 “Retrospective Bust of a Woman,” on display at the Pompidou, Dalí paired a woman’s bust – in both senses of the word, this bust is really all about the woman’s desirable breasts – with a baguette and two ears of corn. The baguette is unmistakably phallic and French, the corn recalls for me eroticized images of Native American women as subjects to be conquered. In the original sculpture Dalí used a real baguette (which supposedly got eaten by Picasso’s dog). The piece on display at the Pompidou uses a model of a baguette, which adds to the unnatural effect. Here are sex and food combined in a manner that is neither natural nor appetizing. There are elements (the breasts, the baguette) that excite the appetites, but the conjunction is alien and cold.
Dalí was famous for throwing Surrealist dinner parties where the menus were intended to discombobulate. At a “Dizzy Dinner Party” he organized in Hollywood in 1941, live frogs were on the menu. How French, and yet how totally inedible. This was la cuisine française truly re-imagined. At a 1972 dinner party hosted by Madame Rothschild the menu included imbroglio de cadavres exquis (I don’t know what the dish consisted of, and I’m not sure I want to know). In 1973, Dalí even published a cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala, featuring pictures of his creations. Poulet à la Shroud of Turin anyone?
Other pieces in the Pompidou show expanded on the theme of sex/food à la unnatural. Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 “My Nursemaid” appeared in many of the advertisement’s for the show. Featuring a pair of white patent leather high heels bound together and served on a silver platter, with paper chop frills at the tip of each heel, the piece was both fetishistic and off-putting. The scuff-marks on the soles disrupt the fantasy-object appeal of the heels, while the barren whiteness of the shoes empties the platter of any appetizing quality.
Oppenheimer’s 1936 fur-lined teacup, also included in the show, likewise seemed to juxtapose food and female sexuality (the fur) in a deeply unnatural combination.
But by far the most disturbing piece in the show was a Cindy Sherman photograph from her 1992 “Sex Pictures” series. Never have I seen a picture involving both sex and food that is as un-sexy and un-appetizing as Sherman’s composition, combining a mask of an old man attached to a pregnant bust with oddly erect breasts, sitting a top a model of a vulva, fringed by untamed pubic hair, giving birth to a string of fat sausages.
There was a sign at the entrance to the exhibition warning that the show included images that might “hurt the public’s feelings, especially those of young children.” I took a hammy photo of the kids in front of the sign before we went in. Afterwards, I had to admit that the museum had a point. The kids survived, but they spent as little time in the Cindy Sherman room as possible. (And we all ran away from a room screening a Dalí film with lots of heavy breathing).
If the show was mostly made up of images designed to both de-naturalize and disturb, there was one lovely photograph by Man Ray that seemed intended only to achieve the first half of this equation. The picture does not involve food, but I thought I should include it here as a riposte to the hubbub created recently by American Apparel’s choice to use mannequins with pubic hair in its New York City shop windows. Although claimed as a feminist move by the chain (yeah, right), intended to break the taboo around pubic hair in today’s culture, from my more cynical perspective the mannequins were intended to attract attention by drawing on the powerful emotion of disgust that pubic hair seems to elicit in our pornie modern culture. Thus I particularly welcomed Man Ray’s photo of a mannequin-with-pubic-hair, which invites viewers to consider the objectification and sexualization of women, while at the same time embracing the beauty of the female form in its unshaven state. Maybe it was just impossible for Man Ray to take an ugly photo. Either way, I leave you with this delight.
Scads of American memoirists have rhapsodized about their wonderful meals in Paris’s restaurants, but Janet Flanner, who for decades wrote a fortnightly “Letter from Paris” column for The New Yorker under the pen name Gênet, preferred to recall the dinner parties.
It requires a certain longevity spent in a city before invitations to dinner begin pouring in. Flanner arrived in Paris in 1922, running away from her marriage in order to create a new life with her female lover, Solita Solano, in the Left Bank neighborhood of Saint-Germain. She had a voracious appetite for the aesthetic pleasures of France, including its food. Raised in Indianapolis, Flanner discovered that “eating in France was a new body experience.” Initially she took her meals at a favorite bistro on the rue Jacob around the corner from her apartment. Run by a Frenchman from the Jura region on the border with Switzerland, Le Quatrième République always served the same meal of pâté flavored with wild thyme, a hearty stew or escallops of veal, and salad with goat cheese, washed down by a carafe of Jura’s famed pelure d’oignon wine, colored a light pink like onion skin. However, by the fall of 1925, when Flanner began writing her column for The New Yorker, she had become a central enough figure in the expatriate Paris literary scene that dinner party opportunities arose frequently.
The first decades of the twentieth century in Paris were a golden age for dinner parties. Rather than aiming for domestic cozy affairs, hosts and hostesses conceived of their parties as great acts of theatre. “Dinner parties are still recited in Paris like legends,” Flanner gleefully related to her readers, giving the example of a fabulous feast thrown by the fashion designer Paul Poiret in 1911, a decade before her arrival in the city. Taking The Arabian Nights as his theme, Poiret set up a seventy-five foot table in his garden, where guests dressed in Orientalist designs (many by himself) dined on thousands of shrimps, three hundred lobsters, melon, goose livers, and nine hundred litres of champagne. The food was served by “black slaves” (the golden age of dinner parties was not a golden age of racial sensitivity or social awareness), while nearby “paler female slaves lay feigning sleep on an immense golden staircase erected beneath the trees.” To recreate the feeling of a traditional Arabic medina, Poiret hired rug merchants, beggars, and sweetmeat sellers to stroll among the crowd advertising their wares, while live parrots squawked from the bushes to which they were chained alongside monkeys and cockatoos. You can hear the regret in Flanner’s tone that she didn’t have the opportunity to share in this feast. (The reclining female slaves may have especially appealed; she was a great admirer of the female form.)
The American expatriates who flocked to Paris in the 1920s tried to follow the example of their reluctant hosts by orchestrating fabulous dinner parties of their own. According to Flanner, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald gave a “famous dinner party” on a houseboat anchored in the Seine that “was the only social American event that achieved a kind of historical importance almost as if it had been French.” I have not yet been able to discover more about the Scott party that Flanner had in mind, but the sources are full of accounts of a dinner party on the Seine hosted by expat golden couple Gerald and Sara Murphy, the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934).
Perhaps the Murphys were taking a page out of the playbook of Poiret, who according to Gertrude Stein had once hosted a fabulous party for Picasso on a Seine houseboat, where he presented Picasso’s muse Fernande with a wonderful spun-glass fantasie to wear on her hat, which she later gave to Alice B. Toklas.
The Murphys held their famous Seine party in June 1923 to celebrate the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s new ballet Les Noces (The Wedding) for which the couple had helped to paint the sets. Again, Picasso was invited, along with Stravinsky, Diaghilev – the founder of Ballet Russes, and many of the other artists involved in the production, as well as the writers Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, and Blaise Cendrars, and society figures like Winaretta de Polignac (Stravinsky’s patron, the heiress daughter of the inventor of the Singer sewing machine, and an open lesbian). Forgetting that the flower markets would be closed on Sunday, the day the dinner was held, Sara Murphy scooped up piles of toys from a Montparnasse bazaar to use as center pieces. During the party Picasso arranged the toys into an enormous sculpture. The guests partied till dawn, when Stravinsky performed a daring leap through a laurel wreath bearing the words “Les Noces -Hommages,” and then everybody went home.
No doubt a great deal of champagne was consumed at the party for Les Noces, as at all the Murphys’ dinner parties. A Paris dinner party was not complete without champagne. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Paris shortly before the outbreak of World War II, according to Flanner, they were served two magnums of champagne bearing the dates of their births. Flanner wasn’t there, but she still wrote with great appreciation about the party, where Egyptian quails were “presented heaped on silver salvers borne by four hundred costumed footmen so carefully liveried that even their white wigs had been made to order.”
At other parties to which Flanner was invited, she had an opportunity to share in the champagne. At the weekly Sunday night dinners hosted by Modern dance legend Isadora Duncan on the rue de la Pompe, guests seated on low divans “supped principally on champagne and strawberry tarts.” Isadora, Flanner wrote with both regret and respect, would spend her final thousand dollars buying champagne for friends without any regard for her next meal. Duncan’s mentor, the Illinois-born Folies-Bergère dancer Loie Fuller, was similarly generous. In the final years of her life, Flanner recalled, she gave “great confused dinners for gourmet friends at which she nibbled only fruit and cucumbers, for which she had an odd passion.” Edith Wharton, on the other hand, served excellent viands at her dinner tables, but “the wines for which she cared little” were selected by her butler and were “less choice.”
Having now spent five months residence in Paris, we were invited to our first true French dinner party last weekend. In all fairness, we have been invited over for dinner here before, but our hostess on those previous occasions is British – married to a Frenchman, but fundamentally an outsider like ourselves. She is an outsider, however, who has spent nine years living in France and consequently gave us a very important tip for our upcoming invitation: bring champagne.
We always bring decentish wine to friends’ houses when we’re invited over for dinner. During our first decade throwing dinner parties together, Tim and I lived in California, where bringing wine is de rigeur. But since our friends were always strapped for cash, like ourselves, the wine was rarely any good. Finally Tim, who has never been overly concerned about causing offense, began to instruct our friends that they had to bring something other than “two buck Chuck,” the cheap wine vinted by Charles Shaw which sold for $2.00 a bottle at Trader Joe’s in the early ’00s. When it’s our turn to be guests we abide by the same rule and buy something a little nicer than vin ordinaire. But not that much nicer, because neither of us have great palates for wine, so it’s hard to get excited about parting with the big dosh.
When you’re invited to a French family’s house for dinner, our English friend forewarned, you are expected to be generous and bring champagne and flowers, at least. They take their dinner invitations very seriously. Thus prepared we bought a nice bottle of champagne and a large lemon tart from the fancy bakery around the corner to take with us. The champagne seemed to be well received. After kisses all around (not just adults kissing other adults, and adults kissing children, also French children are expected to kiss other children), the adults drank the champagne and the kids drank champomy (sparkling fruit juice), while we snacked on grilled peppers, tapenade, and spinach squares.
Dinner was an ultra-traditional blanquette de veau (veal stew) made in a large enamel casserole with heaps of tarragon and leeks. After dinner came a cheese plate (Mont d’or, camembert, comté, chèvre, mimolette, and a hard cheese from Sardinia), salad, and finally the lemon tart and coffee. Would it offend North American readers if I disclosed that cigarettes were smoked at the table during appetizers and after dinner? Not by me, but by all the other adults – this is the one respect in which Tim exceeds me in acculturation.
Feeling sleepy, and thinking we should call it an early night and not impose ourselves any longer, I made our farewells only to discover that it was nearly midnight. By the Murphys’ standards, the night had barely begun. But in our quiet lives, this is surprisingly late to finish dinner. We stumbled home stuffed to the gills, or to use my favorite French idiom, gavé comme une oie (stuffed like a foie gras goose). Before we left, we promised to return the invitation, a little daunting given our small apartment. But I am sure that after a few glasses of champagne our guests will hardly notice.
Additional posts on the theme of dinner parties:
Once a week, I meet for coffee with Nathalie, a French friend who is hoping to improve her English, as I am hoping to improve my French, and we spend a couple of hours talking in a mix of both languages about whatever is happening in our lives. Unsurprisingly, in the course of conversation the subject of language itself often arises.
Last week as Nathalie, who is a teacher, was telling me about an assembly held at her school to memorialize Nelson Mandela, she commented that the event had been very good for countering the students’ clichés. What exactly, I asked, did she mean by this word? As I attempt to improve my French beyond the ability to order bread from the boulangère, I am particularly fascinated by the subtle differences in meaning between the way that certain French words are used in English and the way they’re used in French.
Take for example the word gauche. In American English, a person who is gauche lacks taste. This is a word that might be used to criticize someone with poor table manners. To be gauche connotes social awkwardness, a meaning strengthened, I think, by the very Frenchness of the word, and France’s cultural associations with good taste. In other words, it shows the speaker’s good taste to use a French word to criticize those with bad taste. However, in French gauche, which means left, does not carry connotations of tastelessness but only of clumsiness. To be gauche is to be maladroit, because – on a physical level – we live in a world built for right-handed people. I’ve been told that in British English, gauche conveys the same meaning that it does in French, and lacks the American sense of tastelessness. I would be curious to hear from any Anglophone readers in other parts of the world what the word means to you.
Back to cliché, I could sense that Nathalie’s usage differed slightly from my own. I use the word most often to describe overused expressions or images. It’s a word that professors frequently scribble in the margins of student essays. It is cliché to “follow the path of least resistance” and rely on “tried and true” expressions, instead of trying to “think outside the box” and write something original. In French, however, a cliché refers most often to a stereotype – quite literally, as in a printing plate used to reproduce images, or figuratively, as in a stereotype of a national group, for example: the French all wear berets. It was in the latter sense that Nathalie used the word, to say that the memorial service for Mandela helped open her students’ eyes to the way they make judgments about others. To describe bad writing, on the other hand, she would use the word banalité.
I was reminded of our conversation when I attended a reading last night at the American Library in Paris by author Piu Eatwell from her new book They Eat Horses, Don’t They? on the subject of clichés about the French. Eatwell opened by reading a chapter on the most well-known stereotype of the Frenchman: the Onion Johnny.
If you are an American, or rather if you are not English, you might be scratching your head and asking who? That was the reaction of most of the Americans in the audience last night. Eatwell, who was born in Calcutta but grew up in the U.K. and has been living in France for the past decade, described the Onion Johnny as the familiar image of a Frenchman wearing a beret, striped shirt, and a garland of onions. The stereotype was only familiar to me because our dog-sitter in Canada, who is British, had dressed our dog as an Onion Johnny for Halloween and sent us the photos.
When I first saw the picture of Pepper, I understood the beret and striped shirt references, but was somewhat baffled by the onions. Eatwell’s talk last night cleared up my confusion. The passage she read explained that so-called “Onion Johnnies” were well-known figures in the U.K. during the first half of the twentieth century. They were Breton farmers who crossed the channel each fall with their onion crops and then traveled door-to-door by bicycle selling their stock.
Onion Johnnies declined in number during World War II, but apparently they still hold a special place in the British imagination. (And there is a museum dedicated to their memory in Brittany.) Eatwell used the story of the Onion Johnny to illustrate how silly “our” stereotypes of the French can be: the Bretons didn’t speak French but a Celtic dialect that they shared with Celts in the British Isles. Many Breton farmers considered the French to be offensive colonizers. The Johnnies’ distinctive striped shirts, designed to be worn by Breton mariners so they would be highly visible if swept overboard, had long symbolized outsider status (prisoners wore stripes) until Coco Chanel made the look cool in the 1920s. Far from stereotypical Frenchmen, the Breton Onion Johnnies were indeed antagonistic to the society they have come to personify in the British imagination.
It’s an amusing story, but it lost some of its punch from the fact that Eatwell’s audience didn’t share the stereotype she was attempting to burst. I can sympathize with her dilemma. I’ve had similar difficulties teaching American history to my Canadian students. For example, it’s hard to amaze them with the fact that Squanto probably spoke English when they’ve never heard of Squanto in the first place.
After the reading, as discussion turned to the nature of British and American stereotypes about France, I was struck by how many contemporary clichés center around consumption. French women always dress up; the French eat horse/snails/garlic/stinky cheese; the French don’t work hard but spend all their time in cafés smoking cigarettes.
These associations stand in sharp contrast to Anglo-American stereotypes about the French in previous centuries. As Linda Colley argues in her influential history Britons, British identity developed in the crucible of a long series of wars versus France. During the eighteenth-century, Anglo-American stereotypes of the French focused on the enemies’ supposed bloodthirstiness, their tyrannical Catholicism, and their deprivations from rural poverty. Later, after the French Revolution, Anglo-Americans often characterized the French as bloodthirsty “Jacobins” who threatened world order and morality with false promises of universal revolution. (This fear was the subject of my first book, The Reign of Terror in America.)
How did the stereotypical Frenchman transform from Robespierre to Onion Johnny, from cannibal to cook? Curiously, I suspect that the French Revolution played an important role in this change, by accelerating the development of a new restaurant culture in Paris. Restaurants had their antecedents before the French Revolution, but they became most associated with Paris in the decades that followed. At some point in the nineteenth century, following the defeat of Napoleon, when Anglo-American tourists returned to France, they began to see the country – and Paris in particular – as a place to consume fine meals and fashionable clothes, rather than the blood of kings and queens.
In fact, I wonder whether the cultivation of a new cliché about France as a nation of gourmands did not simply provide an alternative to the old cliché of bloodthirsty Frenchmen, but play an instrumental role in the erasure of that older image from popular memory. As stereotypes, gourmandise and cannibalism are almost “diametrically opposed,” to use a popular cliché. It gives one “food for thought.”
- French onion seller ‘Johnny Onions’ comes to Poole High Street for Christmas (bournemouthecho.co.uk)
- They Eat Horses, Don’t They? The Truth about the French by Piu Marie Eatwell – digested read (feeds.theguardian.com)
Outside every public school in Paris the French flag flies above the door and the lintel is engraved with the nation’s motto, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” The government of France is so committed to the idea of equality in its public school system that the socialist president François Hollande caused a stir in 2012 by proposing that the nation do away with homework, which favors the wealthy and middle-class over poor families.
At least France is committed to the principle of égalité in theory. My personal experience of the system tells a somewhat different story.
For months before our arrival in Paris, in August 2013, I worried about signing up the kids for school. This is not the first time I’ve moved the kids and have had to register them in a new country’s school system, but this is the first time that I have been unable to set the gears in motion before my arrival. A friend of mine, who is a seasoned veteran of spending years abroad in Paris with her children, told me that I should not even attempt to register the kids before our arrival, it would be impossible.
It turned out that registering the kids after our arrival wasn’t that easy either. Ever the eager American, I wanted to head straight to the school authorities when we arrived in early August, but they were closed – like many places in Paris – until the end of the month. Days before the rentrée (as Parisians call the beginning of the school year), we were finally able to make all the necessary visits to all the necessary offices and we had both kids registered for school and their lunches arranged.
If there was one thing that didn’t stress me out about the whole prospect of sending the kids to school in France it was the lunches. After all, I had read in The New York Times about the superiority of French school lunches, and I always believe everything I read in the Times. (The article’s author, Karen Le Billon, who has a book titled French Kids Eat Everything, discusses French school meals at greater length here.) In France, I read, children were served delicious meals cooked from scratch each morning, including meats, vegetables, fruits, and bread, and always ending with cheese.
When our family lived in the United States we opted out of public school lunch, packing our own instead. This seemed the only responsible choice given the school’s typical menu options of dino-chicken nuggets and french fries, french toast fingers and syrup, or “taco-in-a-bag”: open a snack-sized foil bag of Doritos, ladle in a spoonful of mystery-meat, eat from bag with spoon. (Check out this awesome website where American kids can upload photos of their disgusting school lunches.)
When we moved to Canada, our new city had no school lunch program so again we packed for the kids each day. But despite our shared love of cooking, my husband and I have never been the type of parents who get a crafty thrill from packing perfect lunches. We are not a family who collect cute Japanese tupperware and pack their kids creative bento boxes each day.
I love that scene from Bread and Jam for Frances when, after finally getting tired of bread and jam for lunch, Frances brings to school a “thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup, and a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread … celery, carrot sticks, and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery. And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and a spoon to eat it with.” I love the picture, but I don’t have the creativity or energy to pack the kids lobster-salad, soup, three sides, and two fruits at seven thirty a.m.
No, we are the sort of parents who put a sandwich in a ziplock, throw a couple of carrots in a tupperware, toss in a tangerine and a cookie or two, then cross our fingers that the kids eat something. It’s boring for them, it’s boring for us, but at least it’s not likely to give them diabetes.
And physical safety should always be a parent’s primary concern for her child. That’s why the pit of my stomach dropped when I received a letter from the Paris school authorities informing us of my son’s school placement.
Before we rented our apartment I had looked into the quality of the neighboring schools and, judging by the reports of previous tenants as well as test scores, they seemed fine. We were happy when our daughter, Maya, was placed in an elementary school around the corner, but two days before the rentrée we received a letter in the mail informing us that Eli, our son, had been placed in a collège (middle school) 2 kilometres away. As it turned out, neither of the two collèges around the corner from us had the specialized classe d’acceuil (welcome class) that children who are newcomers to France must attend if they enter the system at the middle school level.
I wasn’t worried about the school’s distance from our apartment. Eli could take public transportation (the tram that runs along the périphérique) to get there; I took a forty-five minute subway trip to school by myself each morning by the time I was his age, and I trusted him to do the same. What I worried about was the school’s reputation for being dangerous, for being, in fact, the most dangerous school in our economically mixed arrondissement with notoriously crappy schools. I didn’t get much sleep the evening his letter arrived.
The next day, bright and early, I dragged Elli to the rectorat, which is the main administrative office that handles collège and lycée (high school) placements. I had planned out all the arguments I was going to use to persuade the rectorat to change his enrolment to one of the bourgeois schools that the privileged children of highly-educated white visitors typically attend. After waiting three hours, I tried my arguments on the first functionary. I tried them on the second functionary. Then we crossed town and I tried them on the principle at Eli’s assigned school. She even agreed to call the principle of the bourgeois school where I was hoping Eli could transfer.
But there the buck-passing slammed into the stone wall of égalité. The other principle said non, the rectorat said non, France said non. My privileged social class would not allow my son to get around the system, he would be treated like any other child.
Except, I discovered once school started, the principle of égalité seemed to end at the school door. As it turned out, Eli’s school wasn’t dangerous at all. Perhaps it was even less dangerous than the bourgeois alternative (I heard from a Canadian mother whose children attend the supposedly excellent schools in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, where I wanted to send Eli, that her son got punched in the face on his first day). Eli’s school wasn’t dangerous, it was just deprived.
The wonderful teacher assigned to oversee his classe d’acceuil, comprised of 19 children from 18 different countries, unfortunately was absent as much as she was present. And in France there are no remplacements (substitutes) at the collège or lycée levels. At least, supposedly, until the teacher misses 15 days of school. But Eli’s teacher passed the 15-absences mark weeks ago and no sign of a remplacement has yet been seen.
The other kids, it turned out, were nice. Eli got along with them fine, despite the language gaps. They came from all over the world. They had moved to Paris from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Comoros, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Portugal, and Italy. They ranged in age from 11 to 16. Some of the kids were still learning the mechanics of writing letters and numbers. Others spoke solid French or were good at math (the Syrian girl was a math wiz).
They were a very diverse bunch, but what they all shared in common was a state of profound neglect by the system. Instead of being intensively tutored and brought up to speed so they could integrate into the school’s mainstream (classe ordinaire) and secure their futures in French society, they were left to languish alone for hour after hour, day after day, in the courtyard or permanence (study hall).
To accurately represent how awful this neglect is, I must explain the rigidity of the French educational system. The path of achievement is narrow and contains far more exit ramps than entry points. Years of testing from collège through université operate to weed students out. So if you cannot pass the brevet exam given at the end of 3ème (9th grade equivalent) you will be directed towards a technical education rather than an academic lycée. For Eli, who will be going back to North America in July, the teacher’s absence represents only a loss in the moment. For his classmates who hope to stay in France, her absence means possibly missing the opportunity to go to lycée, to earn the baccalaureate that will gain them admittance to university, and to enter professions that require university and post-university training.
Presumably, the privileged children attending public schools with 97% passage rates on the brevets do not face the same problem of spending months without instruction as the kids in Eli’s school, who have a 60% pass rate. (Those rates change from year to year, but I am citing real figures here).
But, on the bright side, the kids at Eli’s school are fed really well. For if égalité of education seems to fall short for the underprivileged immigrant children in Eli’s school, égalité of the stomach is on full display in the cantine.
As Paris parents know, the quality of public schools are in no way predictive of the quality of those schools’ cantines. One of the best schools in our arrondissement, where the sons of a French friend go, is renowned for having the worst cantine. Your kid will pass his brevet, but he’s going to come home hungry.
Eli, on the other hand, breaks up his hours of sitting around doing nothing in the courtyard with fantastic meals seemingly custom-designed to his tastes. I think his favorite may have been the lunch that commenced with a tomato-mozzarella salad, then proceeded to honey duck with frites, and ended with a piece of comté cheese (his favorite). He also loves their boeuf bourguignon, their rôti de porc, and their Thai curries. It’s actually become quite intimidating for me, knowing that by and large (although he doesn’t admit it) he probably prefers his school lunches to the meals I cook at home.
Here is a sample of the menu these past three days at Eli’s school. Each meal includes all five courses listed, students can choose between options in each category. Yesterday, for example, Eli chose the lamb meatballs but then felt a little regret that he hadn’t chosen the bourguignon, which he loves so much. Today I bet he’ll start with the endive salad, move on to the roast pork with apples, choose the mashed potatoes for his side, then have a yogurt, and fruit. If you want to check out more of Eli’s menus, you can look here.
Of course, menus cannot always predict the quality of what’s served. At Maya’s perfectly nice middle class school (where her teacher, although pregnant, has hardly missed a day of school), the food, if you believe her, is always wretched.
Each day when I ask Maya how lunch was, she begins “Well, not the best.” Following is her account, which I transcribed, of yesterday’s lunch: “Well, my lunch would have been good if it hadn’t been so pale and cold. It was supposed to be beef, but it was paler than wax fingers. It was served with peppers, so spicy you could barely eat them. You had to use lots of water to eat them because there was no milk. And then there was bread like always. And packaged cheddar cheese.”
More disgusting meals, in Maya’s own words, have included: ground-up fish with a weird-who-knows what vegetable mixed altogether covered in cheese-whiz with chopped up bitter carrots on top, bread, and a bitter apple as well; breaded fish where the bread crumbs were so soggy that they couldn’t count as a solid; a weird vegetable that may have been noodles and was slimy; cheesy mashed potatoes with a spicy spicy stew and a rock-solid crusted meat whose inside was very soft; wilted salad leaves with bad salad dressing on it; supposedly-pork hot dog without a skin and liquified tomatoes all on top; a good-looking fish with no taste (so I couldn’t call it gross) with sauce that looked buttery was actually lard, really really porky (and with fish, it just didn’t work); and a dessert that was supposed to be a nice vanilla cream, custard was curdled, the cream was bad, and the caramel was liquidy, and it also had weird balls in it, so it was really disgusting. The balls were not tapioca balls, they were solid and floating around in the liquid caramel.
Well at least it’s not taco-in-a-bag.
When we come home at the end of the school year, I am sure the children will have learned a great deal. Their French will have improved, as how can it not. Last week Eli moved from the classe d’acceuil to the classe ordinaire, although he doesn’t speak much French, I think his math smarts and general school-skills (ability to fill out worksheets quickly) persuaded his teacher on one of her brief visits to the classroom to graduate him out of the welcome class. Just as important, Eli has learned a lot about making friends from different walks of life, and about the realities of inequality, which can be more invisible in the cushy Canadian city that we call home.
Maya, meanwhile, has learned how to play billes (marbles) a very popular game in her school. She has learned about the Merovingians and the Carolingians, whom she would never have learned about at home. And, from watching her classmates dig into the disgusting meals served in her school cantine, she has learned that French kids really do eat everything, and maybe one day she’ll even succumb to peer pressure and join them.
A few days ago, strolling goggle-eyed through the glitz and glam of Bon Marché, Paris’s ultra-upscale department store, I passed a menswear display named for the Paris Commune of 1871. The historical irony smacked me in the face so hard, I nearly got whiplash. To discover that the first worker-controlled state in world history was being used to advertise 350€ ($500) jackets and 50€ ($70) tee-shirts made me want to throw the towel in on this history gig. (Check out Commune de Paris‘ full line here.)
What was the Paris Commune? Its story begins in the summer of 1870, when the Second French Empire under the leadership of Napoleon III declared war on neighboring Prussia, whose increasing strength and ambition had been worrying France. And for good reason. Within a matter of weeks Prussia defeated France at the Battle of Sedan, capturing Napoleon III. Paris, however, did not surrender and in September 1870 the Prussians began to siege the city. A period of political chaos and hunger followed.
“Class distinctions of the stomach soon emerged,” in the words of marxist historian Donny Gluckstein. The restauranteurs of the Palais Royal bought the animals of the city zoo, including the elephants Castor and Pollux, to serve to their wealthy customers. Voisin’s restaurant served up an imaginative Christmas feast of kangaroo, antelope, and bear.
The ordinary people, meanwhile, could barely afford to buy the cats, dogs, and rats for sale in the city’s streets. Cats were sold at 6 francs each, rats at 1 franc, and dogs at 1.5 francs per pound.
The bakers even ran out of flour to make bread. The Musée Carnavelet, in Paris’s Marais district, displays a vitrine containing preserved pieces of “bread” baked during the siege, from a mixture of flour and sawdust.
Rumors circulated that speculators were hiding food from the people, and so it appeared when following the surrender of the city to the Prussians, in January 1871, game, fish, fresh meat, and fowl immediately reappeared on the shelves. Crowds of Parisians looted the markets in fury.
In March 1871, following an effort by the postwar rightist government to seize cannon emplacements on the top of Montmartre, the people of Paris rose up and took control of the city for themselves, instituting a new government based on the principles of mass active democracy and economic equality. “The (literal) bread and butter issue of solving food shortages” were led directly to the idea of the commune de Paris, according to Gluckstein. “If we had the Commune,” one Jacobin newspaper promised, “a cabbage would not cost 100 sous.”
For 72 days, from mid-March through the end of May, the commune governed the city, distributing free food and fuel to the poor, passing a moratorium on the collection of back rents, and reducing salaries for public servants, among other radical acts. The Commune of Paris was devoted to the dream of a world in which nobody lived in luxury while others starved.
The commune was crushed in the end of May by the overwhelming forces of the national government, headquartered in Versailles, in collaboration with the Prussians, who still controlled over half the perimeter of Paris. Parisians built barricades throughout the city to defend the streets, but the communards ended up isolated and without means of communicating with each other.
After the communards were defeated, the Versailles government embarked upon a program of mass executions by machine gun. Estimates of the total killed range up to 37,000, of whom one-fifth were women (who had played a prominent role in the commune).
To use the memory of these revolutionaries to advertise expensive clothing seems a sad betrayal to me. But I must confess that I have indulged in a little bit of communard-consuming myself. Although I’m not much of a clothes horse, I do like to eat, and so I was excited when a friend suggested we have dinner at Le Temps des Cerises in the Butte aux Cailles (an area of the 13th arrondissement). This restaurant is devoted to the memory of the commune, and is named after a popular song of the time. I believe that Le Temps des Cerises plays host to meetings of the Association des Amis de la Commune de Paris, and it operates as a cooperative.
Perhaps Le Temps des Cerises is slightly more faithful to the memory of the commune than Bon Marché’s clothing line. But I’m not sure that my consumption of a fairly pricey meal there constituted a great act of solidarity with the workers. I was very glad that rat was not on the menu the evening I dined there. The “class distinction of the stomach” was in full force as I enjoyed my appetizer of foie gras and dinner of salmon. I toasted the memory of the commune with a few glasses of wine, and felt thankful, to be a member of the bourgeoisie.
Thanksgiving food writing is full of recipes and histories of the dishes that we find on the American table, like roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But I would like to tackle the history of a once-popular dish that I suspect nobody ate last Thursday: the dinde truffêe. Since I’ll never have the chance to taste this luxurious fowl, writing about it will have to sate my appetite.
When I first encountered a recipe for “young turkey with truffles” in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, I was gobsmacked. “Pour 4 cups of whole truffles” into about a pound of melted lard, poach for 15 minutes, mix with another two pounds of lard, cool, then stuff the mixture into a turkey along with a little salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Let it sit out in a cool place for two days, then roast. 4 cups of truffles! The three pounds of lard would trouble my powers of digestion, but 4 cups of whole truffles would murder my pocket-book.
At first I thought this recipe, included in the chapter “Little-Known French Dishes,” was exemplary of the almost- satirical celebration of sensual excess and indulgence that runs throughout Toklas’s cookbook. But as I continued researching, I discovered that Toklas, in her own way, was faithfully reproducing a true French classic. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, often regarded as the father of gastronomy (at least from a Francocentric perspective), rhapsodizes about truffled turkey in The Physiology of Taste (1825). “The highest gastronomic circles,” Brillat-Savarin informs readers, consider dinde truffée the ideal second course.
A lawyer by trade, the practical Brillat-Savarin calculated the expense of this meal at 20 francs. Translating historical currencies into modern values is almost impossible, but here’s my best effort. According to one source, the value of a franc in 1830 could be converted to roughly 2.26 euros in 2006, or roughly 3.00 dollars. Adding a little for inflation, that put the price of a truffle-stuffed turkey at around $65.00 in today’s dollars. According to Brillat-Savarin, its price put dinde truffée out of reach for the “mechanic” or the “artist.” However a professional, like himself, could afford to serve the dish to valued guests.
Just to be clear: no matter how much I treasure your company, you have no chance of eating dinde truffée at my table. My professional salary won’t support it.
Perhaps, my husband hypothesized, before American farmers bred turkeys to resemble the Michelin tire man, they were less costly to stuff with truffles. Turkeys, of course, are a new world species. Native groups domesticated turkeys before the European invasion, and the Spanish brought turkeys back to Europe soon after colonization. Brillat-Savarin calls turkey “the most glorious presents made by the new world to the old.” At first, judging from the Dutch artist Salomon Van Ruysdael’s “Nature Morte au Dindon” (1661), hanging in the Louvre, the turkeys farmed in Europe resembled their wild American cousin more closely than they did today’s giants.
By the nineteenth century, however, French turkeys seem to have developed a growing resemblance to today’s gobblers. Claude Monet’s charming “Les Dindes au Château de Rottenbourg, Montgeron” (1876), hanging at the Musée d’Orsay, shows a meadow full of plump white hens, with a tom fanning his tail standing sentinel at back. The scale can be hard to assess, but I would hazard that you could squeeze a lot of truffles into one of those birds.
Today, French turkeys have no reason to blush before their American cousins. I snapped a picture of a 12-kilo (26 pound) monster at a butcher on Thanksgiving day. And I saw one the other day that looked even larger!
If smaller turkeys cannot explain the relative affordability of dinde truffée to past generations, shifts in the cost of truffles offer a more likely explanation. According to Brillat-Savarin, after being en vogue during the Roman Empire, truffles entered a long period of quiescence in European cuisine. They were not rediscovered until the eighteenth century, and before the Revolution they remained an extremely pricey rare commodity. Brillat-Savarin claims that as late as 1780, only nobles and kept women could afford to eat dinde truffée.
After the Revolution, a period during which gastronomy in Paris flourished, truffle prices appear to have become far more reasonable. in 1801, Beauvilliers, a popular restaurant at the Palais Royal, offered half a chicken with truffles for 4 francs. And according to British visitor Francis Blagdon, by that date turkey stuffed with truffles was a common dish to be served at refined dinner parties.
By the time Brillat-Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste in 1825, he believed that the truffle stood at its apogee in French culture. However, the knobby little fungus only continued to grow in popularity over the following decades. By 1929, the American food writer and passionate Francophile Thérèse Bonney claimed that the French regarded truffled turkey as almost a national right, and “with a million pounds of truffles annually, a Frenchman can afford to think that!” (Bonney also pointed out that the true truffled turkey had not only its cavity stuffed, but truffles slipped under its skin as well.)
Did the dish ever catch on in the United States? The very first French cookbook published in America, Louis Eustache Ude’s The French Cook (Philadelphia, 1822), included a recipe for dinde truffée that Toklas would appreciate. You begin by taking two or three pounds of truffles (I love the margin for error) and peeling them. Dice the smallest truffles and combine them with shaved bacon fat. Next add to the mix the large truffles which have been left whole, together with salt, spices, pepper, and cayenne, then stuff the turkey. Let the bird sit for a couple days “to obtain a fine flavour of the truffles,” then finally roast it wrapped in bacon and covered with paper.
Few recipes direct you to peel truffles today. Truffle peelings are so valuable they may constitute an ingredient in a dish. The French website marmiton has a recipe for dinde farcie aux truffes that calls for a petite boîte de pelures de truffe, or a little box of truffle shavings. Truffle peelings can be bought online from numerous outfitters, at the reasonable price of 15€ for 12.5 grams.
But how much would it cost to cook a dinde truffée today the old-fashioned way? In the mid-20th century the price of truffles sky-rocketed. Presently, the most highly-valued white Italian truffe d’albas are selling for 5300€ a kilo at our local high-end butcher (or for American readers, that’s about $3200/lb.) Needless to say, I didn’t buy the one on display below. But the incredibly kind butchers allowed me to take a whiff from the jar. Pure heaven, the sense memory filled my nostrils for hours afterward.
So exactly how much would it cost to make a classic dinde truffée today? Working from Ude’s recipe, taking the middle-figure of 2.5 pounds of truffles, I would estimate well over $8,000. Of course, turkeys feed many people. Perhaps the price would seem more bearable if divided by ten or even twelve. One portion of true truffled turkey might cost as little as $800.
I thought about launching a kickstarter campaign to fund this dish for Thanksgiving. And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Simple folk that we are, we made do with the stuffing appropriate to mechanics and artists, in Brillat-Savarin’s judgment: sausage and chestnuts. And we were thankful for it.
Related posts see:
Amanda Moniz on the history of 8 classic Thanksgiving foods
Sheila Moeschen on historic sexy Thanksgiving ads
Elaine Sciolino on Thanksgiving in Paris and the anecdote of the American couple who bought a foie-gras stuffed turkey by mistake
In French there is an expression, sabrer le champagne, which means to open a bottle of champagne with a sabre. Before last night, I had never seen this trick performed in person.
Sabrer le champagne is easily enough translated into English, but English possesses no equivalent expression to describe this wondrous spectacle, except the ultra-technical term sabrage. The French phrase has more of a joyful ring, especially given its homophonous similarity to the expression sabler le champagne, which means to celebrate by drinking champagne.
Why uncork a champagne bottle with a sabre? There is only one reason that I know: for the rapture of it.
“The chef wishes to welcome you to the restaurant by sabering a bottle of champagne,” the maître d’ at Spring informed us Saturday night – or something to that effect. It’s hard to remember the exact words through the happy haze that envelops my recollection of the evening. (The champagne bears some blame.)
We looked over at the open kitchen and there stood Daniel Rose, dressed in black, with a sabre à champagne in his hand. (Yes, there is a specialized tool for this technique, although apparently any blade will work.) I watched as Rose drew back the tasselled blade, then in a swift stroke running parallel to the bottle (pointed away from the dining room) he knocked the lip, with cork inside, clear off the neck.
I laughed in delight. I felt enchanted, exhilarated, elated and transported: in a word, rapturous.
Recently I blogged about the Lost Generation writer Kay Boyle’s “rapture for cooking” – the intense sensual pleasure that this bohemian woman took in the kitchen. Boyle paired her passion for love affairs with a hunger for fine food, proving that the whisk and the pan need not be the tools of domestic oppression. She was a woman of liberated appetites.
But pathbreaker that Boyle was, she followed by more than a generation the first American woman food writer to recount the raptures of the appetite. Elizabeth Robins Pennell was born to a privileged family in Philadelphia in 1855 and schooled in a Catholic convent. Discontented with the expectations for women of her generation and social type, Pennell used the pen to author her escape. She published her first book, a biography of the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1884, then married her illustrator, Joseph Pennell, and moved with him to Europe. The couple traveled throughout the continent by bicycle, and lived for decades in London, where they held a weekly salon attended by Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and George Bernard Shaw. As Joseph made a name for himself as an illustrator, Elizabeth began writing a food column for the Pall Mall Gazette.
In 1896, Pennell published a volume of her columns under the title The Feasts of Autolycus: The Diary of a Greedy Woman. Twenty-five years before Kay Boyle moved to France, and forty years before M. F. K. Fisher published Serve it Forth, Pennell penned the original defense of female gluttony. “Today women, as a rule, think all too little of the joys of eating” Pennell remarked in the opening chapter of Feasts. It was time, she insisted, for women to discover “the rapture that lies dormant in food.”
Pennell found this rapture in all sorts of surprising places. “Rapture is in the sardine,” she wrote (le rosbif would agree). In mushrooms she found a “rapture too deep for words.” She felt a “rapture tenfold greater” than the ordinary in sipping soup at the Paris restaurant Voisin’s (famous for holding a feast of zoo animals during the siege of 1870). The Spanish evoked “rapture” from the tomato; the Hungarians created rapture from chicken with paprika. And “to England,” Pennell opined, “belongs the glorious discovery that the dinner that ends with a savoury ends with rapture that passeth human understanding.”
Most of us don’t have Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s facility for finding rapture on the plate. I rarely find it in anything I’ve prepared. Either I’m too self-critical or not good enough a cook. I am more likely to experience it in meals prepared by le rosbif. There’s something about being cooked for by someone who really cares about your pleasure, which is one reason I tend to prefer home cooking to restaurant meals. Most restaurants, of course, are driven primarily by the need for profit, and the food reflects that economy.
But from the moment that sword struck bottle at Spring, the care that the restaurant took in our pleasure as guests made our meal there a delight. Just to be up front, I should mention that Spring invited me to make a reservation after I blogged about an event where I heard Daniel Rose speak on the state of French food. But we came as ordinary guests, paying for our meal like all the other diners, who seemed to be treated just as solicitously as we were. This was by far the most expensive meal we’ve yet eaten in Paris, and we can’t afford many more like it. That said, the meal was absolutely worth every penny; in fact, considering the quality of the ingredients, and the ratio of staff to diners, it’s hard for me even to imagine how the restaurant can turn a profit. But enough about these practicalities, what matters is the rapture on the plate.
Our meal lasted for three hours during which I never noticed the time passing. I didn’t take notes or pictures, which I don’t feel sorry about in the least because I spent every moment of our meal taking pleasure in the moment rather than thinking about my experience. (Unusual for me: I typically have a hard time shutting down the superego, even during intensely sensual experiences like massages, concerts, etc.)
There were, by my best recollection, six courses. We began – following the champagne – with hors d’oeuvres, three small tastes to wake the appetite. We had oysters with a seaweed granita and little scissors of seaweed on top (wonderfully sweet and salty, could have eaten a plate of these), a fried morsel of tête de veau (veal’s head) with a creamy tartar-like sauce gribiche (powerful umami, decadent and rich), and a small plate of marinated mushrooms with horseradish shaved on top (I love all things pickled, these were bright and tart). The hors d’oeuvres, in other words, stimulated all the tastebuds we would be using during the meal.
Next came a dish of seared scallops with tiny slivers of apple and jambon de boeuf, a cured beef from Galicia similar in style to Spanish ham. A point of disagreement: this was le rosbif’s favorite dish, and my least favorite. Our disagreement can be explained by le rosbif‘s greater sweet tooth – he’s English after all. Le rosbif – who typically does not like scallops – found the dish wonderfully fresh, tender, and toothsome; for me, the sauce was too sweet. Well not so sweet that I didn’t eat it all up. Just if I had to rank the dishes in order, this to me was the least interesting.
My favorite dish was the one that followed: seared bar with a creamy choucroute (Alsatian-style sauerkraut) made of radish flecked with tiny morsels of lardons and szechuan pepper, I think. Choucroute is a very common fast food at the Paris markets. A lot of boucheries prepare enormous pots of the dish – heaps of sauerkraut studded with sausages and various inexpensive cuts of pork, like hocks – which they sell alongside their pâtés en croûtes (meat pies) and other prepared dishes. As I mentioned above, I love pickled dishes, so the smell of choucroute always beckons me. But I am not so keen on sausages. I only just discovered that there is an alternative choucroute de la mer, prepared with fish, kind of like an Alsatian paella. Now I worry that having had Spring’s interpretation, the others will be ruined for me.
Following the fish came duck three ways: a magret (breast), cut from a foie gras duck, served with a red wine sauce; a sizzling dish of seared foie gras and mushrooms; and a kromeski, which is a Polish croquette, in this case made with duck and more foie gras inside. Oh, foie gras. How much do I love foie gras. I am devoting this year to eating foie gras. I order it all the time, often on salads (that makes it virtuous!). I eat it cold on toast with salt. Unfortunately, I couldn’t try the sauce that accompanied the duck breast, because I have a red wine intolerance that has made too many evenings at nice restaurants end badly for me. But luckily I had foie gras to slather across the meat instead.
As for the kromeski – I found it very exciting since I had just learned about this dish from Elizabeth Robins Pennell. She ends her chapter on spring chicken with the advice to “braise your chicken, fricassee it, make it into mince, croquettes, krameskies; eat it cold; convert it into galantine; bury it in aspic; do what you will with it, so long as you do it well, it can bring you happiness and peace.” Daniel Rose seems to have taken the same approach with duck, and it served him well. At some place in this parade of dishes, I forget exactly where, came a salad of parsley and radicchio. The parsley were in big leaves, full of peppery flavor. There was also a braised endive with the duck breast. I love bitter lettuces, so these leaves made me very happy. If anything, they could have been even more bitter for my taste.
After our duck we opted for a cheese course. Because, really, when you’re in a state of rapture, why stop short? There was a plate of thinly sliced 36-month comté with tiny crystals in each smooth mouthful. This was the only moment in the meal when I felt bad for leaving the kids at home. My son looooooves comté. I thought about sneaking a slice into my purse, but they all got eaten before I had the chance. There was also a beautiful blue fourme d’ambert. I had bought a slice of this cheese earlier in the week at fromagrie Beillevaire, but I never grow tired of it. This cheese, apparently, dates back to the Roman times, so I count on being able to enjoy it for the rest of my short years. We also had a runny cheese and a hard cheese, I forget which, maybe a tomme du berger?
Last but not least, after the cheese came the dessert course. A slim rectangle of a creamy chocolate pâtisserie, a pear sorbet with bits of crystallized ginger, an olive oil-white chocolate ganache, and a couple pieces of torched persimmon. Preferring my desserts on the tart side, I liked the pear sorbet best of all. The chocolate was wonderful, and went very well with the pear. (This is a traditional French combination. I don’t know how it works, but it does.) The ganache was too sweet and oily for me, but le rosbif happily devoured my portion. As for persimmons, I just don’t really get them. They looked nice. They tasted nice. But I wouldn’t cross the street to eat them again. A coneful of that pear & ginger sorbet on the other hand…
We ended with coffee. At least I ended with coffee, le rosbif ended with brandy. The coffee was very piquant – I don’t take milk or sugar in my espresso – zing! It came with a little coffee-cream puff, so I had a touch of sweetness. Then I noticed that the clock was striking 12:00. The kitchen was packing up and I thought we should clear out and let those good people go home to bed – or if they’re anything like most chefs, go out drinking and eating at some after-hours venue.
Back in September, when I heard Daniel Rose give his talk at the American Library, I was struck by his account of the thought that he put into a single dish of mackerel with smoked tomatoes that was intended to capture the changing of the seasons during the week in which it was served. He drew on logic, philosophy, and history to design a dish whose effect was straightforward and sensuous. He produced rapture on the plate without requiring his guests to be conscious of his wit.
Our meal on Saturday night achieved the same effect. Each dish surprised me – there is no menu at Spring, the kitchen serves the same set menu to each guest, taking allergies and aversions into consideration. But I never had to think about what I was eating, as one is encouraged to do by restaurants using pyrotechnical molecular gastronomy. Only afterwards, in talking over the meal and writing up this account, have I thought about the underlying design behind our menu: the previewing of the tastes in the hors d’oeuvres; the slight twists on traditional pairings (scallops and a hammy beef; radish in the fish choucroute; ginger with pear and apple); the way in which the apples, pears, persimmons, radish, and mushrooms, captured the best of late November’s market; the use of pickling and the caloric richness showing faithfulness to the cool grey season (I am willing to bet that meals at Spring during its eponymous month are lighter and brighter).
A final thought: is Spring a French restaurant? Even if the English name and American chef suggest otherwise, the attention to terroir and the use of traditional French ingredients like foie gras certainly make it seem so. I know Rose has married a French woman, and France seems to be where his heart lies. But most of all, to commence a meal by sabrant le champagne makes a very loud declaration of the joie de vivre, or rapture in appetite, that marks the keystone of la cuisine française.
Jimmie the Barman, who poured the drinks at many of the best-known Lost Generation drinking holes including the Dingo, the Falstaff, and the Trois et As, once observed that it was “remarkable that the leaders and organizers of Montparnasse were largely women.”
Poets like Mina Loy, artists like Nina Hamnett, writers like Djuna Barnes, editors like Sylvia Beach, socialites like Nancy Cunard, muses like Kiki, and party girls like Flossie Martin, crowded the café terraces of Montparnasse in the 1920s. In previous generations, working-class girls and working girls had flocked to the city’s nightlife. But after World War I, as never before, bohemian women declared their independence from traditional social conventions by downing drinks, smoking cigarettes, romancing lovers, and making art in public view.
They also enjoyed taking meals in public, at the city’s many inexpensive restaurants. Elsewhere I’ve written about the voracious appetites that Gwen Le Gallienne, Yvette Ledoux, and Caridad de Laberdesque, displayed during multi-course meals at Chez Rosalie, run by a former model of Modigliani, and Salto’s, an Italian restaurant known for its massive portions. Eating at restaurants symbolized the liberated woman’s freedom from the prison of the kitchen. They exchanged pots and pans, the instruments of repression, for the pen and paintbrush.
(The blog kitchen flânerie discusses feminism, cooking, and the 1975 film “Semiotics of the Kitchen” here).
But for other bohemian women, the kitchen, far from a prison, could be a place for taking pleasure. These women felt, in Kay Boyle’s words, a “rapture for cooking,” which they indulged with the same greediness that they took lovers.
In 1968, Boyle, a modernist writer best known for her short stories, edited and reprinted Being Geniuses Together, her friend Robert McAlmon’s memoir of 1920s Paris, which she intermixed with alternating chapters recalling her own experiences of the era. True to the stories told about him, McAlmon, of “my generation doesn’t eat supper!” fame, expresses a preference in his chapters for taking his calories in liquid form. “I did not eat, but drank armagnac,” McAlmon recollects of a St. Patrick’s Day party that James Joyce organized at the Trianon. It was a striking choice considering that the Trianon offered a luxurious menu far grander than the simple fare typical at brasseries like Rosalie or Salto’s. Boyle had the chance to appreciate the Trianon’s food on another evening, when she joined McAlmon and the Joyces for dinner there. Memories of this meal must have added to her sorrow a decade later, when she shared a final meal with the Joyces at a health food restaurant in Zurich. There, “cold oatmeal was moulded into the shape or pork chops, and then sprinkled with bread crumbs and fried, and beefsteaks were fashioned out of some other substance, and tinted red.” How sad that poor Joyce’s health problems had reduced his pleasures. How equally sad that McAlmon’s devotion to the bottle prevented him from ever enjoying the Trianon to begin with.
The only obstacle that ever stood between Boyle and the pleasures of the palate was money. During the 20s, she had none. Which is where cooking came in.
Boyle, who grew up in Ohio and Pennsylvania, married Richard Brault, a French engineering student, in 1922 when she was twenty, and moved with him to France. The couple barely scraped by on Richard’s salary during their early years, as Kay worked at her first novels. Living in Le Havre, in a tiny apartment where the primitive kitchen had a single gas ring, Boyle learned from her French neighbors how to make the most of her meager circumstances. They showed her how to salt a barrel of fresh green beans that would keep all winter, and how to pack away summer butter. On the weekends, she and Richard would spend hours picking blue-shelled mussels from the shore to save the cost of a dinner or two. Steamed open with “butter and parsley and chopped onion and no more than a single glass of white wine” the mussels made a tasty, if sometimes stomach-cramping, meal. The couple also frequently collected live crabs for dinner, including araignée de mer, or spider crabs. Perhaps Boyle served these with fresh mayonnaise, which she had learned how to make from her sister-in-law soon after arriving in France, “by beating oil with a fork into the yolks of eggs cracked into a deep, narrow bowl.” Later, she and Richard moved out of the city and she began to raise vegetables and sell them at market.
Unfortunately, Boyle’s life on the chill, damp, coast of France was not all idyllic. The rough living took a toll on her health, and after a couple years she developed a chest infection that wouldn’t clear up. Sick and miserable for herself, Boyle accepted an invitation from some literary correspondents to convalesce in their house in the South of France. Once there, she embarked on a passionate affair with the poet Ernest Walsh. In short time, Walsh had died from tuberculosis, leaving Boyle alone and pregnant. Forced to return to her husband, she found reprieve from her miserable circumstances in the pleasures of the kitchen. Together with her friend Germain Garrigou, Boyle experienced a “rapture for cooking which we rejoiced in as though performing the rites of a religion.” She came to see pots and pans not as tools of repression but as objects of beauty, and developed an “obsession” with “the gleam of copper utensils.”
Cooking could not take the place of all other pleasures, however. No longer in love with her husband, Boyle jumped at a chance to move with the baby to Paris in spring 1928. Although, by Robert McAlmon’s thinking, Boyle had arrived too late for Montparnasse, she had the time of her life. She entered into a whirlwind of affairs with the men of Montparnasse including John Glassco, a lover of Robert McAlmon’s, and Raymond Duncan, the very creepy brother of modern dancer Isadora Duncan. So wildly did Boyle chase after pleasure during this interlude that when she became pregnant she claimed to have no idea who the father was. (She procured an abortion with the financial help of wealthy, eccentric, sun-worshipper Harry Crosby, a friend, but apparently not the father.) After compressing years of experience into a matter of months, Boyle finally fled Paris (and Duncan in particular) in December 1928. Soon after she entered into a relationship with the painter Lawrence Vail, who would become her third husband, and she settled back into a slightly more conventional domesticity.
Strikingly, even in the midst of Boyle’s season of sexual abandon, she never lost sight of the pleasures of the kitchen. For Boyle, the rapture of cooking symbolized a realization of her sensual identity, not its sublimation. The two passions amplified each other. When her friend the poet Archie Craig brought her one afternoon to Gertrude Stein’s salon, Boyle recalled, “Alice Toklas and I immediately started to talk of cooking, and to exchange recipes.” Toklas told Boyle about her quest to track the development of gazpacho recipes in Spanish cooking, “far more important to her than cathedrals, museums, and the paintings of El Greco, or the drama of the bull ring.” I would like to imagine that Boyle told Toklas about the recipe for squab she’d learned in Le Havre, which called for drowning the birds, one by one, in a glass of water. Decades later, Toklas advised a similar technique for smothering pigeons in her famous cookbook, although Toklas softened the death by giving the birds eau de vie beforehand.
Although Boyle enjoyed her visit with Toklas, she heard afterwards that Gertrude Stein had asked Archie Craig not to bring her around again. Stein had dismissed Boyle as “incurably middle-class.” One wonders if Boyle’s enthusiasm for the kitchen may have sealed her doom. If so, this appears to be a judgment (one among many) that Stein got terribly wrong. Boyle’s love of cooking didn’t indicate her inability to free herself from bourgeois sensibility, but her hunger for every pleasure of the body. M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child would have understood.