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From Paris to Provence: Where Food is Life

CapRadio Reads scores again.

Last Saturday, Capital Public Radio’s own book club pulled out the stops for its members.  We were invited to C. G. Di Arie Winery in Amador County to discuss June’s selection, From Paris to Provence: Childhood Memories of Food & France, by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington.  Besides the usual book-launch appurtenances, for the price of a single Hamilton each, we got:

  • Wine tasting (we came home with the “Buy Six/Get Eight” special);
  • Terrific hors d’oeuvres;
  • Warm, relaxed and insightful questioning by CPR’s Donna Apidone; and
  • Relief!  (We hid inside, among the cool fermentation vats; outside, it was 110 degrees.)

The story of the book is the glory of the book itself.  Mmes. Brennan and Remington are Bay-area denizens 10 years apart in age who, after meeting working together professionally, discovered to their delight that they had much more in common that love of words and images.  In their childhoods, they had spent every summer (Ethel) or every other summer (Sara) as American children in France, driving, tramping, and diving into the countryside, subject only to the laws of nature, normal sibling annoyance, and reasonable adult supervision:

The common thread is our memories of food an place, whether gently unwrapping sugar cubes from papers and dipping them into our parents’ coffee at the café, or diving into the warm Mediterranean sea from the rocky calanques near Marseille to get an ice cream from the boat vendor.  Paris to Provence is the story of two young girls discovering the beauty and wonder of how food, landscape, and travel are inseparable from our memories and experiences.  The raw and unpretentious connection the French seemingly have to food, place, and each other is now part of our adult lives.

from_paris_to_provenceThrough the senses of their shared prose and Sara’s images, the journey is sumptuous and satisfying.  We see a world of endless discovery and gratification from the point of view of tourists with the boundless honesty and appetites that only citizens of tender years and under a meter in height possess.  The girls have organized their experiences into a pleasing mélange of travelogue and recipes, revealed by their sensuous, unrestricted memories of people, place, and palate.

The adventure begins with the logistics of the Paris-Provence (and other, exurban points) “road trip” and the glorious staples of Le Menu Routier—the truckers’ menu.  Though no less humble in fundamentals than our own roadside fare, this ain’t your machine-enhanced burger, fries, and push-up popsicle at Little America, mon amie.

From there, it’s on to—

  • Les Marchés—the markets, an institution in French life for centuries, the importance of which we’re just getting around to rediscovering and hanging labels on, like “farm to fork;” “seasonal;” “sustainable,” yada-yada-yada—as though, once again, we invented it.  Fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, and piglets come into view at adult waist level.  Ethel tells of their failed attempt one summer to interest their hosts in buying and eating fresh corn, which they disdain, except from cans.  I read this and flashed first on my memory of late Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, announcing massive federal subsidies for corn and soybean production in the early 70s, through to Michael Pollen’s recent indictments of maïs and all its byproducts, which has turned us into “corn chips with legs.” .  (A more modern, grudging concession: some households stock corn flakes, mostly to placate homesick American children—which they’ve managed to fashion into roses de sables, a chocolate treat that could eclipse Rice Krispy Treats.)
  • Street Food, which means snacks and treats enjoyed incident to outdoor recreation, since the French don’t eat and run and count it as a meal.  In lieu of hot dogs, there are hand-made, sweet and savory crepes with endless variations on fillings and grilled, spicy lamb sausages.  Donuts?  Mais non—beignets, hot out of the oil.  Beach fare: Pan bagnat, an elegant, Nicoise-style tuna sandwich.  Roasted chestnuts and hot pralines, composed of candied peanuts.  Pistachio ice cream served in tandem cones, rarely seen outside the country, that allow the owner to combine other flavors and enjoy their melded goodness by biting off the tip.
  • Cafés and Bistros, the cultural center of gravity in even the smallest villages, into which locals and strangers conjoin to sample light meals and humanity, at rest or passing by.  Ethel and Sara recall everything from savory salads, with poached eggs and tender potatoes, to le Croque Madam—our familiar grilled cheese sandwich, but with better bread and boiled ham, béchamel sauce, and a fried egg crowning the Gruyére instead of Velveeta.
  • Afternoon Snacks (Goûter), that point in the afternoon when it becomes necessary to refuel the children to keep them outside and at play, since dinner is still hours away, at 8 or 9 PM.  They describe endless variety, from tomato and olive oil sandwiches to every variation on chocolate, nuts, and light pastry, up to a fresh baguette laden with chocolate bars and butter.  Fresh cheeses, yogurts, blends, and—certainementmadeleines.  (My spouse lived with the Madames of the Sacred Heart briefly at their convent school in Menlo Park.  She remembers the word and the approximate time of day, but neither the selection nor the sumptuousness.)
  • Meals with Family and Friends, the embedded custom of shared time and cuisine, summarized by Ethel as follows:

Anyone who has ever been to France and had the pleasure of being invited to someone’s home for a meal, lunch or dinner, knows well how long this epic process can take, unless it’s in the middle of a workday, in which case just budget for 2 ½ hours.

In either case, languid, late-evening extravaganzas, stretching over conversation, aperitifs, and courses starting with snails in garlic sauce or grilled sardines; peaking with freshly-prepared daube or cassoulet—basically, their version of stew, which includes boeuf bourguinon and coq au vin—or roast pork loin, with gnocci; and culminating in desserts like îles flottantes, clouds of meringue served in bowls of crème anglais.  Ethel adds:

And yes, as the name implies, it really does float and can be nudged from one side of the dish to the other  Testing the credulity of the name cannot be considered playing with your food.

In their own marriages, both Ethel and Sara have joined forces with Ethel’s mother, Georgeanne—whose Foreword sets this stage, and surpasses charming—to bestow these marvelous, cultural immersion experiences on their third generation.  Of her daughters in blood and in spirit, she says:

[T]hey remind us to reflect upon what food means to children and families, and how important it is to share that time together when memories and enduring values are formed.

After their presentations, I asked Ethel if she thought her childhood experiences abroad had informed her adult and family values, beyond food.  She didn’t hesitate.  Despite all our culture’s pressures to the contrary, she said, she always sees and appreciates the need to provide the time and circumstances in which an enduring experience can occur.

In our house, we did the same thing.  (I learned it from my parents.  They and my seven brothers and sisters and I sat down most every night.  How they retained a shred of sanity, let alone resisted drowning us all like kittens, I’ll never understand.)  We protected and promoted an evening meal, nightly for at least an hour together, over prepared and shared food.  Nothing was off limits in conversation, except incivility.  As with Georgeanne, Ethel, and Sara, we believe the results speak for themselves.

Now that our culture has processed and eaten itself into obesity, hypertension, and poor health, perhaps we should look at policies that promote good food, shared and appreciated—say, affordable local and and sustainable food; a living wage; family leave; generous vacations—as family-friendly, if only to give those without the means to cross an ocean a chance to build on the same foundation.

2 comments

  1. Elizabeth Varadan

    This was a lovely post. It made me want so much to go to France. I love Paris, and have read about Provence but never been there. And it made me so hungry, too! Food prepared the way you describe in the book sounds so appealing, and the sociable aspect of it as well. That book is on my “must read” list.

    1. E.G. Fabricant

      Thanks, Mitty–I had the same experience reading it; the prose and images are that evocative!

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