I recently discovered this little piece on "Becoming a Gourmande in Aix-en-Provence" which I wrote a few years ago (it was hidden deep in folders inside folders on my computer). It's about how my year in France changed my whole concept of food, and I thought it would be fitting to post now, a month before The Ruby Notebook comes out (the book's set in Aix and full of yummy food and fresh-air markets...) Hope you enjoy it!
Until age twenty, my diet consisted of hamburgers, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, chicken fingers, pizza— come to think of it, anything you’d see on a kids’ menu. Fries were my vegetable (I was so picky I didn’t even like ketchup), Coke my beverage of choice. I thought spinach grew in little rectangular green cubes and that all soup came from a Campbell’s can. I had never sautéed anything (unless you count fried bologna), and certainly not garlic; in fact, I probably couldn’t pick garlic out of a lineup. That was my sorry state when I left Maryland to spend a year in Provence.
Annie, my French maman
My exchange program assigned me to Annie and Alain, a middle-aged couple in Aix-en-Provence who hosted students because now that their boys were grown, Annie needed someone to appreciate her five course meals. That first dinner with her, I was confronted with endives (whose very existence I was entirely unaware of), stinky cheese, duck paté, and cous-cous (another first) topped with ratatouille—a whole intimidating mound of tomatoes and eggplant and peppers and unfamiliar spices. After loosening up my taste buds with red wine (from a bottle they refilled daily at the wine shop for the price of a can of Coke), I dug in. And, as the infamous Sam of the green eggs and ham discovered he liked that delicacy, I discovered I liked—no, loved—Annie’s sumptuous dishes.
Sometimes, between classes, I ran into Annie amidst a chaos of colors in the plaza’s market, as she filled her woven bag with fresh courgettes and aubergines. Finally, I understood the pleasures of vegetables. I discovered what tomatoes were supposed to taste like—firm and sweet and juicy. As Thelma (or was it Louise?) said after her tete-a-tete with Brad Pitt, now I understood what all the fuss was about! After school, as I wove through narrow medieval streets, past boulangeries and pâtisseries housed in ancient stone buildings, my mouth started watering in anticipation of dinner.
Once home, I perched on a stool in Annie’s compact kitchen (everything in the apartment was typically European in size-- a tiny table with tiny stools, a tiny washing machine stacked efficiently over a tiny drier, which she forwent to hang the laundry on the tiny balcony.) While golden evening light spilled across the room, I watched her cook, and little by little, became immersed in a savory world of olive oil and garlic and cream and butter and rosemary and thyme… Every evening offered a new realization, like, Hey! Salad dressing isn’t born in a bottle! You can make it yourself with olive oil and dijon and salt and pepper and lemon.
Food was, undeniably, central to life in Aix-en-Provence. When I bumbled through French small talk, asking new acquaintances about their hobbies and interests, many, if not most of them answered, unapologetically, “Moi, je suis gourmand.” They would follow up with, “How do you say gourmand in English?” This was a tough one. My dictionary said “glutton,” but that was obviously missing the mark. “A person who likes food” was the best I could come up with-- a translation as bland as the mashed potatoes of my childhood. “But you have no single word for it?” they asked, appalled.
Dinners began with an anis or mint aperitif on the tiny balcony and lasted hours. Conversation was always animated, involving political rants, family tales, outrageous jokes (Alain was quite a comedien). Conversation stretched on and on, lingering over the wine, while I’d have another slice of stinky cheese, tear off another hunk of bread, cut another sliver of tarte au citron (and another and another.) And that was for regular old weekday dinners.
Alain (my French pere) and my (real) mom having aperatifs
Weekends and holidays were even more spectacular. For Easter Sunday, some eccentric friends of Annie and Alain invited us to their artistically renovated farmhouse by a vineyard. The meal lasted all day, from our arrival when the sun had only been up a couple hours, into the wee hours just before dawn the next day. The piece de résistance was a whole lamb, basted generously in butter and herbes de Provence and turned on a spit in the old stone fireplace. Between courses, we took walks along the vineyard and drank wine and aperitifs (or were they digestifs? Were we aiding digestion of what we’d just ate or preparing our digestive tract for another round?)
Toward the end of my year in Provence, the harsh realization sunk in that I would never eat so well again in my whole life, not even if some day in the distant future, I could afford five star Frenchy restaurants. So one afternoon, I took my little notebook, (Euro-style, graphed, not lined) and asked Annie for her recipes, which at that point existed only in her head. My notes are a mix of English and French, using either the metric system or vague measurements like “a yogurt container of oil.” (We ate tiny yogurts that were so rich, I’ve never been able to stomach low-fat Dannon since). Baking times were, “Oh, je ne sais pas, maybe three quarters of an hour, or an hour, just watch it and you’ll know.”
When I said au revoir to Annie at the end of the school year, we hugged tearfully, and she sent me off with a huge bag of herbes de Provence, wishing me well. Back in Maryland, I pored over the recipes, trying to figure out how to convert one of those yogurt containers to cups, and how many degrees Farenheight equaled 205 degrees Celsius. Calculator in hand, through trial and error, I more or less figured it out. Ratatouille and cous-cous became a weekly staple. Tarte aux pommes became my easy dessert of choice for potlucks. And I grew brave enough to play with the recipes. When I was out of apples, I used raspberries, and voila, tarte aux framboises. The courgettes in Safeway looked limp and peaked? No problem, throw in some summer squash instead.
Even quick, simple lunches underwent a paradigm shift—instead of bagels and cream cheese, I had a baguette topped with gruyere, olive oil, herbes de Provence, and tomato slices, and sometimes even a glass of wine. As I ate, I could almost see Annie and Alain lifting their glasses in a toast and laughing whole-heartedly with what can only be described as pure joie de vivre.
Seventeen years later, I still have the small, graphed sheets with the jumble of French and English, now thoroughly stained with oil and chocolate and butter and batter and berries. I cherish those little bits of paper. With every recipe I make, I remember sitting in that tiny kitchen as Annie cooked and my mouth watered in blissful anticipation.
Coming September 16-- just a little over a month away!
Thanks for reading!
Laura P.S. Sometime soon I'll post a few of Annie's recipes!