UNE CONVERSATION A QUATRE PLATS
(A Conversation in Four Courses)
--dedicated to my father, who said yes
Last night, my father and I had dinner with La Chef and her friends Patrizia and Andre. Patrizia is American, and Andre is French. They met as undergraduates in the United States some twenty years ago, married, and have made their life together in Paris. They have known La Chef for many years and share a common circle of friends.
My father and I arrived early to help with the cooking, and La Chef had even printed out copies for us of the recipes for the evening's meal. We drank a Cote de Bordeaux as we cooked and changed to a dry champagne after Patrizia and Andre arrived.
L'ENTREE (The First Course)
La Chef and I had begun negotiating the evening's menu days before, and since it is fall, I wanted our choices to include seasonal chestnuts and rabbit. We went back and forth on the chestnuts: souffle or soup? soup or souffle? A chestnut souffle is, by definition, a dessert, so with other ideas in mind for that course, we opted for a chestnut veloute (cream soup) with a surprise ingredient. As we ate the soup, a lovely light brown, served in small yellow bowls, La Chef quizzed the dinner guests. Could they identify the secret ingredient? My father finally guessed that it was chocolate, and La Chef pulled out a small round container of Valrhona Xocopili, the French take on Mexican chocolate, which La Chef is quick to clarify comes from Aztec culinary traditions.
Patrizia points out that, had we been eating our chocolate soup in Aztec times, only the men at the table would have been allowed to enjoy it. Chocolate was a food reserved for men, usually the priestly class, in Aztec culture. My father adds that Aztec women were prized, too. As sacrificial beings. Patrizia mentions having read, in fact, about anthropological discoveries of the remains of monkeys and humans in Aztec middens. The conversation turns accordingly toward canibalism in modern times, something about which I've learned from my sister. She's written a book about Malaysia this year and included a piece on canibalistic practices in Borneo. The British officially outlawed canibalism there in the 1930s, but it continues anyway, despite the interdiction.
LE PLAT (The Main Course)
The main course is lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes), a lovely, braised rabbit cooked slowly in a cast-iron cocotte with red wine and butter and seasoned with shallots, a little garlic, a bouquet garni, and lardons (small chunks of bacon). La Chef has been all over town on the search for this rabbit. At this time of year, rabbit is common on French dinner tables when guests are invited, and the Sunday market butchers are mostly sold out by the time she gets there at noon. Finally, at the big Bastille market, she finds what she's looking for--even bigger and meatier than she'd dared hope for--and returns home in triumph.
When the rabbit is almost done, we add big, plump prunes and a handful of raisins and let them soften in the ample pan juices for a few minutes. La Chef then makes a simple sauce by reducing the liquid until it is thickened. She serves the rabbit in a clay tagine, which her daughter brought back from Morocco for her one year. I brush clean a heap of dark black trumpetlike mushrooms, soft and damp to the touch, called trompettes de la mort (trumpets of death). Along with a puree de pommes de terre, the trompettes will be our side dish. With this course, we drink a lovely Russian River red, brought from California by one of La Chef's students.
Conversation drifts toward politics, and I ask Patrizia if, through her marriage, she has become a French citizen and has voted in French elections. She confirms yes on both counts, and I bring up the recent referendum in France on the European Union constitution, which sharply divided the French electorate. Drafted behind closed doors and mailed to voters to interpret on their own, the eighty-page constitution left the majority of French voters feeling isolated from the political process and angry at their political leaders. The constitution was voted down in France; Patrizia and Andre were split. She voted for, he against. La Chef not only voted yes, she also campaigned for the referendum, standing on a street corner one Saturday afternoon handing out literature to passersby.
Her campaign was short lived, however. When a passing man took one of the tracts and began to quiz her on Article 5, Subsection 13, she froze. La Chef is an urbane intellectual, but even she had not fully digested the giant constitutional tome. Unable to respond to the man's challenge, she gave up her campaigning on the spot. Andre says the constitution was excellent bedtime reading. It put him to sleep every night for a week. In the meantime, the constitution is "under reflection," and eventually, a new draft will come to a public vote.
LE DESSERT (Dessert)
After the cheese course--luscious, ripe Vacherin--Patrizia slices each of us a piece of the almond-fig tart that La Chef and my father have made. After pulling it out of the oven, they placed fresh raspberries among the figs and sprinkled chopped Sicilian pistachios over the top. During dessert, my father mentions that I've been teasing him about his bad French, and Andre asks for examples.
One of my favorites is, "Les toits, c'est moi!" ("I am the roofs!"), a mispronunciation of Louis XIV's famous "L'etat, c'est moi!" ("I am the state!"). Another is, "cheminee sur la chaussee," which, in my father's mind, refers to going somewhere on foot, but which to my ears sounds like a reference to a fireplace or chimney ("cheminee") on the sidewalk ("la chaussee"). Andre corrects me. He says my father's errors are poetically nineteenth-century in nature. "Cheminer," which sounds just like "cheminee," is actually an old-fashioned verb that refers to making one's way or to taking a leisurely stroll, so he's not surprised that the woman to whom my father addressed this phrase understood what he meant. And, to a French ear, Andre says, "les toits" ("roofs") would never be associated linguistically with "c'est moi" ("it is I"). Rather, a French person would hear "les tois" as a pluralization of the informal "toi," or "you." This turns my father's rendition of the royal proclamation into something much more profound than staking a claim to the roofs of France. "Les toits, c'est moi!" would mean that the king subsumes the people; all the yous (the people) are his. My father swells with pride, and I'm reminded of the complexities of language, of the many layers of linguistic knowledge that accrete over time for true mastery.
LE THE (Tea)
French meals usually end with coffee, but since it's late, after eleven, La Chef instead serves us an infusion de tilleul (a tea made from the slender, dried leaves of the lime tree). It's a very mild yellowish green tea, barely coloring the small glasses into which La Chef pours it. Andre tells us that French tilleul is threatened by the Chinese domination of the tilleul market; La Chef confirms that it is French tilleul we're drinking tonight.
For my help in class, La Chef has teased me about preparing a certificate of achievement for my efforts. I've told her that what I'd really like is to make a short film of her, using the new digital camera from my father. She has agreed to the idea, and after tea is served, announces that now is the moment to make the film. I've brought my camera, but knowing that Andre is knowledgeable about movie making, I'm nervous. So, I cloister myself in the small bathroom off La Chef's kitchen to make sure I've got everything under control.
I hear robust laughter behind me as I scurry from the room, but once I reemerge, La Chef sits up straight, ready to be interviewed, and the guests sit quietly so we can make our film. La Chef is a natural, talking easily about her work and the culinary principles she aims to share with her students. The film seems to make itself, and I promise to send a copy to La Chef when I get home. We finish our tea on other topics--film making is nothing special in this group. At midnight, my father points to his watch. The Metro stops running at twelve-thirty, so it's time to say our good-byes. Walking to the station, I feel contented, with the meal, with the conversation, with my film, and with the possibility of new friendships that I have found in this beautiful city.