Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lasagne Party

There are many reasons to have a lasagne party.  You might owe somebody some lasagne, for instance, because they gave you such nice grilled sausages and lamb at a picnic a few weeks ago, before you really even moved to town.  Or maybe you had been to someone else’s house and had mistakenly been a party to the maiming of their rabbit, just before they served you an unbelievable spread of homemade paté and sweet quince wine.  Or maybe you have new neighbors, and you figure if they’re going to be listening to your not-very-quiet family yell at one another all year long, you might as well get to know each other first.  Maybe you’ve scoped out the local citizenry, and discovered a few people you’d really most like to get to know.

If all of these reasons are true simultaneously, then you might, as I did, end up cooking dinner in a foreign land for sixteen people (eight of whom are under the age of ten.)  To do so, I did my very best impression of a capable Franco-American housewife (and no, not the kind that heats up that brand of gravy and pours it on her Rice-a-Roni.) 

Back home while Bill and I were working full time, all of our best social events involved a restaurant or pot-luck or else found us entirely reliant on the goodness of a friend who did have the wherewithal to get a party off the ground.  I am nearly 40 years old and have never cooked and served a real holiday meal in my own house.  There are sacrifices that mere mortals must make when they work full time and raise kids at the same time.  Unless you are one of a very few superhumans who don’t ever yell at their kids and crochet their own Christmas gifts and also run a successful company, you really can’t do everything well.  So it’s all about choosing wisely what to suck at.  Before this year, I had just decided to sacrifice my credibility as any kind of serious hostess or cook, and instead aim to be the kind of jolly guest who gets invited back to people’s houses anyway.

But this year I don’t have to split myself.  Whole days go by when there is really only one thing that must get done, and thus I can do it with all my heart.  Just weeks ago, when Abigail turned eight, I became the sort of person who bakes and frosts a birthday cake from scratch.  Now I was to become the kind of person who sets the table in advance, who makes the recipes she learned in her mother’s kitchen way back when, who has exotic aperitifs on hand, who serves several courses at two different tables, who puts out a course including goat, sheep, and super-stinky cow’s milk cheeses, and then who remembers to make and pour the coffee at the end of the meal.   Old Launa might have been able to manage some of those tasks individually, but had literally never had the luxury of six hours when the kids were at school and she was at home in which to plan and execute such an endeavor.

So I really had to work up both confidence and energy to get myself up to speed on just the typical behaviors required of a regular old American hostess.  But there was an additional degree of difficulty with this particular high dive I chose for myself: entertaining in French.  This meant not just learning how to give a dinner party, but also figuring out what exactly makes French people happiest at a dinner party.  Our guests were all parents of young kids themselves, completely devoid of pretense or snooty attitude, so I wasn’t concerned about impressing.  I was, however, eager to make them feel as at home in our house as they had all made us feel in theirs. 

The menu cornerstones were easy to devise: lasagne is one of only two things I make reliably and well for crowds, and it is still too warm for stew.  Grace wanted apple pie.  I’m not much of a cook, but I certainly know how to make lasagne and pie without a recipe, having made them since I was a kid in the kitchen with Mom and Gaela.  (For the record:  Gaela’s apple pie is way better than mine, although Mom’s rhubarb custard might just have us both beat.) 

The rest of the meal would be pulled together from all the little French touches I’ve gleaned from watching my friend James cook and from eating here for a month and a half.  To buy the ingredients, set the table, make the food, and worry assiduously about whether I would be able to pull it all off took most of the day.  I first threw all kinds of cheese, tomatoes, vegetables and butter into the shopping cart, but really it was full mostly of alcohol.  I wasn’t sure what my guests would want to drink, and decided it might just therefore be best to have a lot of each.  There would be three different colors of wine to serve of course, but also drinks before dinner.  For that I would need to have on hand pastis, rosé, white wine, crème de cassis, and a few more obscure things like fig wine.  I didn't buy beer, as I would have back home, as was pretty sure I would be the only one to choose a Stella as a starter beverage.  She and her tiny little buddies just sort of stake out the back of the fridge no matter what, so I was covered if someone said, "I'll have what you're having," however that sounds in French. 

To figure out just what is meant by “aperitif,” I consulted my favorite fake book, Joie de Vivre:  Simple French Style for Everyday Living.  This book, a gift from Bill’s colleagues on his departure, was written by Robert Arbor, the chef of the Le Gamin chain of restaurants in New York. His tone is pretty much insufferable, but the book is full of direct and practical information and great simple recipes.  He generously decided to take all the mystery out of the daily routine of French people – and I’ve found by following it that he’s actually telling the truth. Now when I’m puzzled by what exactly I should be doing, eating, or thinking about as I visit the market, drink my coffee, or gaze off into space, he is my go-to-guy.

With the aperitif drinks we would have salty little snacks, like thyme-flavored pepper crusted sausages, and little bitty cornichons.   Following Chef Arbor, I also scrubbed off some very pretty pink radishes, put out a bowl of soft butter and another bowl of salt, and watched my guests rub the first in the second then dip them in the third.  

If I had been back at home, this would have been when my potlucky guests and I would have wallowed around in various cheeses (OK, not exactly literally wallowing, but I am awfully fond of cheese.)  But in France, no cheese for hors d’oeuvres: the cheese deserves its own stop on the culinary highway.

While we sat and drank and ate little treats, the kids ran around and screamed their heads off. They fought with plastic Star-Wars light sabers, played tag in and around the garden, and had to be separated and forced to apologize now and again when things got a little too physical.  French and American grownups may do a lot of things slightly differently, but kids are kids are kids.

Americans invented fast food, dining and dashing, whole cookbooks for just microwaves, as well as the pre-theater and Early Bird specials.  But France tends to take its time generally, and moves even more slowly if there is a table involved.  We sat outside and drank and ate little treats for nearly two hours as the day turned to full-on night and the lasagne was baking.  After awhile I fed the kids some takeout pizza (why waste good lasagne on kids who aren’t going to eat it anyway?) at the big solid kitchen table, then went in to get everything ready for our grown-up dinner in the Moroccan-themed dining room. 

I then faced my first hostessing dilemma.  With the lasagne now cooling on the table, and our French guests smoking and enjoying themselves on the terrace, and my own limited command of French, I couldn’t quite figure out the right moment or sequence of words that might indicate to my guests that dinner was served.  I would wait for one cigarette to burn down and be snuffed out, and suddenly there was another lit at the other end of the table. The French men drank glass after glass of pastis, a milky-looking awful tasting sort of anise-flavored poison.  The women (and Bill) drank kir – white wine colored ruby with crème de cassis.   Nobody looked even remotely eager to move on to eating anything but buttery salted radishes and little rounds of wild boar sausage.

When the rules between cultures are dramatically different, you can make some fair-sized social faux-pas without having anybody hold it against you too awfully.  Here, I couldn’t quite figure out the proper unfolding of time.  Being the sort of person who rushes through too many things anyway, I couldn’t quite get the rhythm of an evening unfolding in my (borrowed) house on someone else’s (only-partially- adopted) cultural timetable.

After a few false starts, we all gathered around the table.  I provided the tiniest bit of structure of the seating by asking the women to choose the orange napkins and the men to choose the aubergine.  This meant that I ended up with women at both heads of the table, probably wrong in both America and France.  Tant pis number two for the night. 

Serving and eating dinner turned out to be the easiest part of all – just a big old pan of lasagne and a multicolored salad with lots of little Provençal herbs mixed in.  Here in France, they cook all the beets before they sell them to you, making the salad part even simpler.  Thus I assumed that our only challenge would be to keep the wine glasses full all night long.

But then I hit cultural faux-pas number three.  While I was rushing around getting the kids’ plates cleaned up and Bill was serving squares of melty-cheese and pasta goodness, I neglected to sit down at the table and give the proper “Bon Appetit,” which is French for, “Gentlemen, Start your Eating Engines.”  Our guests sat, just sort of looking at their food longingly.  Soon Bill figured out that something needed to take place, and tried the “Bon Appetit” himself.  But without Launa at the table, the magic words were useless.  Until my butt was in the seat, no eating could be done. 

Where are the damn Cliff’s notes to this stuff, folks?

Added to my high dive of hostessing, with a double somersault for making stuff I knew French people would like, I added the twist of ESL:  entertaining in a second language.  So I was juggling plate and cups and remembering to put out the olives while also trying to follow a conversation that zoomed in high speed French between familiar subjects (the rambunctiousness of four-year-old-boys; the difficulty of finding a good contractor; our kids’ crazy teachers; sibling rivalry and what to do about it) and totally new and complicated conversational territory, including a lengthy discussion of criminal cases in which the Mistral wind had been accepted as extenuating circumstances.

Over dinner, I offered my little opinions and jokes when I could – and earned at least three unforced laughs by my count.  I could hold forth most effectively when both the subject and the language were in my areas of strength, so I did my most impressive communicating with the children, using the imperative (“Ne fait pas ça avec le sabre du lumiere!”) or asking them questions (like “would you like plus de lasagne, mes petits?” and “veux-toi du salade?”)  When the adults got on that familiar topic of rambunctious four-year-old-boys, I could effectively reassure the mothers in attendance that yes, most teachers misunderstand four-year-old-boys; (not so back at my school!) and yes they will grow up into perfectly lovely little boys, and no, their kids probably wouldn’t get kicked out of nursery school.

Twice Bill and I landed on a topic of conversation that created firestorms of controversy among our French guests:  grammar and pastis.  First I asked, as innocently as possible, about the intricacies of determining whether to use “tu” or “vous” when meaning “you” as opposed to “y’all.”  According to one guest, you use the formal “vous” at work, both up and down the chain of command.  According to another, you “vous-voir” your mother-in-law no matter how much you think she really loves you, just to show your respect and deference.  One member of our party asserted that he is above or below no man, and therefore he can “tu-toir” everyone he meets.   I wondered briefly how his mother-in-law feels about this.

(Interesting fun fact:  while using the web to search for the proper spelling of the words “vous-voir” and “tu-toir” – I still don’t think that I have them right – I stumbled over an enormous group of about 25 different blogs, each focused on their “unique family journey” taking off for the South of France for no particularly good reason for a year or several.  Hmmm.  Wherever I go, there someone else already went.) 

Then there was near-shouting on the topic of the correct ingredients for making homemade pastis (which is illegal.)  Apparently politeness and aperitifs get French blood boiling in the same way that real estate and the endless discussions of public and private schools get New Yorkers really worked up.

The cheese course was served, during which I had what I think might have been my final faux-pas of the night: cheese courses require a separate knife at each place, like the extra salad fork at an American party.  Kids got out of control, then corralled again with yet another movie.  Grownups took their smoking breaks out on the terrace, adding yet more scads of open and happy talking time to the evening.  By and large I managed to follow the thread of the conversation at the most general level, until I got too tired and my brain got way too full.  At that point in the evening, we had poured many, many bottles of wine into our happy guests, so it is entirely possible that they also were making a little less sense than usual. 

By the time I served the pie and got some espresso on the stove in an enormous pot, I had worked out an important announcement for my guests:  “C’est ne pas un tart tatin,” I told them imperiously.  “C’est American Pie.”  I don’t know why it was so important for me to assert the American-ness of my dessert, to distinguish it from the loveliness that is Tart Tatin.  I had done so well in keeping them all happy, in (mostly) sitting down when I was supposed to, and (by and large) keeping everyone’s wine glass full and (even) keeping my cool when the kids poured nearly an entire giant-size bottle of Orangina soda on the chairs and the kitchen floor.  (My flip flops were sticking before they flipped or flopped for the rest of the night.)  I think just I wanted them to know that this wasn’t a bad Tart Tatin, but a really great American pie.  I could accept that they might have wondered about the hostessing skills of this new American in town, but not about my pie baking.  While I certainly flubbed some aspects of my entertaining, the pie simply wasn’t one of them.  

By the end of the night, all the kids were in various states of breakdown, exhaustion, and or flat out asleep on the sofas and the floor of the living room.  Nearly every napkin, plate, glass, bowl and platter in the house was dirty, with a mixture of tomato sauce, red wine, beet juice, vinegar, incredibly smelly streaks of melted Epoisse cheese, and little bits of honeyed apple.  There were bits of pie crust and crumbled pretzels on the floor, and a big sticky orange-smelling mess on the floor of the kitchen.  Nearly every glass in the house was glazed with just the tiniest bit of residue of pastis or kir or Cinqueterre or espresso, but there were no partially-full glasses; apparently in France, it’s all good till the last drop, no matter how many drops were poured. We put away the food that we hadn’t eaten or mangled, got a full load of dishes in the machine then crashed into bed.

We all slept in until after 9:30, then it took us most of Mercredi Libre to clean up.  Without somewhere else we had to be, we could take our time, brew some coffee, share the washing and drying and putting away, nibble on leftover bread and cheese, and get the wine stains out of those placemats with salt. Usually after a big party, I have to spend at least part of the next day worrying that maybe I said the wrong thing after one too many glasses of wine. Since I’m now in France, I hardly speak at all, so I didn’t have to worry no that score. Even with all those dishes to do, we enjoyed being together, and we both felt awfully proud.  

Our new neighbor, an incredible sweetheart, had told me that my French was really just fine, and that it had been a “bonne fête”:  a great party.  We had been reassured that yes, with this group, we were among friends, and therefore “tu” was the only way to go.  I had laughed with a new friend about the American habit of smiling all the time, and he told me that among friends, one can’t help but smile – with a big grin on his face.  We had gotten our fill of incredible stories, new perspectives, tales of the Mistral and Mountains and Mothers-in-Law.  Nothing like a good lasagne party.  


  1. Great to hear from you. I'm glad to have found your blog as well. You'll find ours is partly about France, partly about everything else we like. That's the best kind, right?

  2. Whatever you do, don't get up to use the bathroom during the meal! C'est interdit! :)

  3. Sorry not to have responded to this sooner; I've gotten a little behind. The infinitives are tutoyer and vouvoyer. Happy conjugating! xoxo