Like I was saying, with Francis as my guide, I suddenly gained entry to the “real” France.
My early months in France spent only speaking French with other Americans, Japanese and German friends were paying off now… but they were nothing compared to the cultural and linguistic immersion Francis offered. He proudly introduced me to his entire extended family. One meal at a time.
You’d think he’d have gotten discouraged when my linguistic shortcomings led to one of my more infamous compliments. His city grandmother had prepared an elaborate Sunday lunch for the entire family and we were all gathered together at the table. She was beaming. Her family was all together, her meal was tremendous: she was in her element. Her face was particularly animated with delight as she showed off the gift the cosmetic brand Ives Roches had sent her for her loyal patronage: pinned to her sophisticated silk scarf was a fabulous blue Egyptian scarab broach. In my most charming voice, I said “What a gorgeous ROACH!”
The smile fell instantly from her once beaming face and her posture turned to stone. Francis, his sister and her boyfriend exploded with laughter. Others stifled mirth. Grandpa chuckled mischievously enjoying my mistake, and reassured his wife in a sweet voice and a wicked turn of phrase that brought the entire table to tears in laughter, along the lines of “Don’t worry dear, Just because the roach is blue is no reason for you to be too.”
I had no clue what had happened because I thought I’d complimented grandma on her “beetle”… little did I know I’d accidentally said “cockroach”. I sat there quite uncomfortably. Later, after we left, Francis explained to me that in French I’d said, “blatte” which, is the short version of cockroach, instead of “scarabée” which means beetle (and of course in hindsight it seems like I was really trying to over achieve by dredging up a different word altogether when in English we call the Egyptian beetle a scarab too). Anyhow, I’d set grandpa up for the perfect punch line because in French there is a colloquial expression for being depressed, kind of like our “to have the blues”, which is “avoir le cafard” or, literally “to have a cockroach” –so grandpa had said to his saddened wife “Oh, C’est rien. Tu n’as pas le cafard!” Francis’ eyes crinkled up around the edges and his laughter once again squeezed tears out of his loving sparkly eyes.
My cheeks burned with embarrassment. My body felt stiff from my bruised pride. But, he put his arm around me and nuzzled up against my neck. He wasn’t laughing at me. He wanted to laugh with me. He encouraged me to laugh, saying “Come on it was an ugly cheep piece of costume jewelry. You just accidentally said what everyone was thinking.” I knew he was only trying to be kind to me. Looking into his jovial eyes, I relaxed. He won. I couldn’t help laughing too.
I still cringe thinking of it now.
Somehow Francis took it in stride. He took me to meet an aunt and uncle who’d just returned from Spain. They lavished us with treats from their souvenir stash of culinary treasures like thin slices of Serrano Jamon, a cured ham similar to Prosciutto that is sliced directly off the leg in chiffon-like slices that practically melted in my mouth in a delectable umami-saltiness. It was accompanied by the most fabulous waxy green olives with a mild briny flavor and homely matte skin. Glissening Marcona almonds. Little balloon glasses of a caramelly aperitif called Banyuls that they’d bought at the winery where they’d stayed in French Catalonia. As we sat in their garden under an umbrella-like shade tree, they enchanted me with tales of the blue Mediterranean, the rugged rocky coast and gnarled olive trees.
One of my favorite encounters was with the cousins who lived in the family home in the village with his country grandmother and great aunt. There were three separate apartments in the house, one for each lady and another for the cousins. These cousins were about ten years older than Francis and I. Technically, it was Francis’ father’s cousin and her husband… but they were about ten years younger than Francis’ father… so Francis had adopted them as his. They had two young daughters and a passion for gastronomy.
Their lifestyle was something I’d never encountered before. They were as natural and forthright as any industrial worker but they enjoyed the sophistication of bourgeois finery. There was no pretense with them, no snobbery. They loved eating the finest foods and the loved sharing them just as much. As I look back on my life now, I know that I have them largely to thank for my culinary education. But I didn’t visit them for the food. I visited them for the atmosphere. They were warm and friendly. They were passionate about everything. The husband was passionate about food. He was passionate about wine. And he was passionate about his wife. He was always looking for a chance to caress her voluptuous breasts or run his hand over her full bottom. She was equally passionate about playing “hard to get” and smacked his hands ruthlessly with playful upbraidings. They fought just as passionately, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to have heated exchanges which were never unsettling because I knew that moments later he would be kissing the nape of her neck and soliciting “make up sex” and I’d see her face soften as their troubles melted like lemon drops as she was back to fending him off with whips of her kitchen towel. She’d continue to scold him in a high pitched angry tone for letting his hands roam all over her when he was supposed to be cooking… but I could see she was loving every minute of it.
Every time we visited it was the same. Francis calls this the “latin” life. He says they have “savoir vivre”, which means that they know how to live. They enjoy the simple things. Passionately.
Every time we visited he had had a new culinary revelation. He was as zealous about sharing his epiphanies with us as a born-again Christian. And I was an eager student. There was always something sumptuous we had to eat, something sinfully delicious we needed to drink. They would transform their home into a fine dining establishment… You should have seen their collection of dishes and glasses! With their daughters, the four of them would recreate the kinds of decadent multi-course meals they enjoyed in France’s finest Michelin star restaurants.
And the best part was that they were always ready for another pair of hands in the kitchen. They put me to work, and taught me as we went.
I didn’t just learn recipes and techniques for cooking that month. I learned the important role that food plays in French culture. It’s more than a sensual pleasure, it is part of the fabric of society. Sharing food, enjoying food together, spending time around the table together… that is a big part of what it means to be French.