Susan Hermann Loomis is the author of five previous books, including Farmhouse Cookbook and The Great American Seafood Cookbook. She’s most recently the author of In a French Kitchen, and joins Signature to explain how food is part and parcel to the identity and lineage of French families.
Food and cooking are ever-present subjects in both French conversation and life. There are so many reasons for this, but a major one has to do with simple identification. Each French person has a past linked to a region where climate, geography, and traditions (referred to collectively as “terroir”) dictate what is served for every meal. And each French person’s life is peopled with a mother or, more often a grandmother, who used exclusively regional ingredients to prepare meals.
I live in Normandy, where my Norman friends have an opinion and an attachment to everything from the apple variety they prefer, to the way they serve Camembert, to the best way to prepare mussels harvested along the Norman coastline.
Friends from the Dordogne, in southwest France, are less devoted to apples, but get them on the subject of foie gras, garlic, or goose fat and opinions fly. If you happen to be with Alsatians, they’ll have words to say about choucroute, that mix of pork sausages that sits high on a mound of sauerkraut. And when you find yourself in Provence, the conversation is sure to turn to the merits of aioli and salt cod, tomatoes, and tiny artichokes.
Terroir and regional chauvinism are what anchor the French. A Frenchman born in the region of Gascony may have made his life in Paris, but when you ask him where he is from, Gascony is what he says. When he sits down at the table, his culinary references aren’t what he’s eaten in Paris, but the food on his childhood table.
My goal for In a French Kitchen was to discover how the French cook puts a beautiful meal on the table twice a day, every day. As I interviewed cooks, I discovered their secrets for success, and along the way heard stories about how he or she learned, and where each recipe came from. I learned again that few recipes in the French repertoire come without a story, and the story always involves the region where the French cook grew up, and the person who first made or served the dish.
Take one of my favorite stories in the book. Edith, who is now like a sister to me, hated Belgian endive when she was young. She spent much time on her grandmother’s farm and in winter, Belgian endives harvested from the garden were often on the menu. Usually they were braised very simply, in water with perhaps a bay leaf and a sprig or two of thyme. Salt was used sparingly, so the dish was what the French might call “fade” or boring. Not only that, but braised Belgian endive can result in a texture that is far from appealing to a child. So, Edith would not eat them. Her grandmother insisted she eat them. Edith refused. This battle of wills went on for three days, and finally Edith succumbed and ate the endives. “They were awful,” she remembers. “But somehow now I love them, and I have the best memories of my grandmother, who was a hard-headed, brave, strong woman.”
Another story I think of often is one Eloise told me about her favorite cake, Gateau Cocotte, made by her Tante Jacqueline. “Gateau Cocotte is legendary in our family,” Eloise said. Why? Because Jacqueline always made it for her nieces and nephews and, when grand nieces and nephews came along, for them too. It’s a wonderful cake studded with apples and, sometimes, walnuts, very simple to make, impossible not to love. But the legend and much of its special goodness is in the family link. When Eloise makes the cake, she’s evoking the memory of her Aunt Jacqueline, and of her grandmother, Jacqueline’s mother.
There are so many stories in In a French Kitchen that it is almost impossible to pick favorites. But I have another one that comes from a dear friend, Nathalie. She grew up on a farm in Brittany, and her eyes mist when she talks about recipes that her mother made for the family. One of Nathalie’s favorites, and one she makes often for her family, is Hachis Parmentier. “I take leftover pot au feu, make mashed potatoes, layer them, and put the whole thing in the oven,” Nathalie says. “My mother taught me just how to do it, and I do it the way she does.” Hachis Parmentier is the simplest of dishes, and a terrific way to use leftover meat. But what makes Nathalie’s special are the tricks her mother used – add some chicken and a little pork to the pot au feu – and the memories that flood into the dish each time Nathalie makes it.
Food in France isn’t just physical sustenance, but moral and spiritual sustenance too. Each recipe has a story, each story is linked to a person, and through food, the French keep their family lineage alive.
My friend who grew up in Gascony but has lived his adult life in Paris sits, mentally, at table on the family vineyard each time he opens a bottle of his brother’s wine, or makes a simple salad studded with garlic and seasoned with his luscious vinaigrette; Edith makes endives so often in winter you’d think they were candy instead of a pleasantly bitter vegetable, and each time she does she evokes the memory of her grandmother Juliette, and talks about her memories of the farm; Eloise makes Gateau Cocotte and offers the same comfort to her three children that she got from her Aunt Jacqueline, who accompanied the cake each time with a memory from her own childhood; Nathalie makes her parents farm come alive through a simple dish of Hachis Parmentier.
Everyone has memories linked to food, and people who come to mind when we taste a certain dish. But as in so many things, the French have fashioned nostalgia, memory, and cuisine into a true fine art.