Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Family Table

For months now, my little family has been together as a tiny unit.  Then, today I broke away to spend time with one of my oldest and dearest friends.  Jackie might best be described as my sister, in that I have known her so very long.  We have celebrated birthdays together longer than either of us were children, and Bill and and the girls and I now and again reverse-adopted her parents, Loni and Ray, as members of my own extended family.  

Gare Lyon is the shortest of trips from the apartment that Loni and Jackie had rented for their week of dining and walking and shopping and museum-ing.  As the visitor, rather than driving the car and making all the plans, as I do at home, I’m tagging along their adventures for a few days before whisking Jackie back down, at hundreds of miles per hour, to the Var and Nice and the funny little world we have cobbled together there.

I may have mentioned my lackluster entertaining skills in an earlier post.  If you know me, you might have had pretty good takeout served on our stoop.  If you know me very well, you may actually have had the rare opportunity to eat an actual meal cooked in my house, in the actual kitchen.  Our family certainly eats the requisite number of calories, and what we put on the table is awfully darn nutritious, but the detail work of great cooking is not exactly my forté.  Nobody has ever called me a bad cook, exactly (OK, except for the first few days at Bastide de la Loge when I seemed to burn just about everything I touched:  a carbon Midas) but the kitchen is really not where I live.   

So you know how in a family every child is seen as gifted with one particular set of attributes (she’s the pretty one, but she’s the smart one?)  Well, in this chosen sisterhood, it’s easy to know which one is the one who is amazing at cooking.   And this is not just because she is good relative to me.  Jackie has seriously earned her reputation as an incredible cook.  She pays attention.  She cares.  She doesn’t just know food, she loves the food, and loves her diners enough to make it really special.

I have had more remarkable meals with Jackie and her family than I can easily count, most of them have been jointly created by Jackie and Loni, often with help from the hands or often the gardens of Jackie’s (actual) sister Robin.  The happy bit about this is that since Jackie is one of the sisters I’ve chosen for myself, I don’t have to have deep-seated lie-on-the-analyst’s-sofa anxieties about this particular sibling rivalry.  Instead, I can savor and appreciate and enjoy and praise what I’m given with a much more open heart. 

So when I got off the train, starving, I was pretty sure I would get an enormous hug.  And then, that I would be well fed.  

Jackie has many more cousins than I can usually keep track of, but most of the ones I have met are on her mother’s side.  So I was particularly excited my first night in Paris to meet a new member of her family, a cousin from Ray and Uncle Eddie’s side of the family.  Judith is an American in Paris, displaced by choice and by love after meeting the love of her life, Frederick.  At least according to Frederick, their move to Paris twenty-four years ago was Judith’s idea, and she brilliantly chose to capitalize on her American roots by cooking the great American recipes in a French kitchen.  She and Frederick operate Thanksgiving, a store that caters to American ex-pats hungry for a taste of home, and Parisians who crave some authentic American tastes.  Nestle’s toll house morsels.  The really good kind of cheesecake. Pop-Tarts.  H & H bagels, (boiled, of course.)  Some of this food is just like the Marmite at the counter in my grocery store in Provence.  But the food she serves at the store is the real deal, the food we made famous:  three kinds of enormous pancakes, turkeys roasted for all of the days leading up to Thanksgiving (holiday, not store), the real kind of stuffing:  where the recipe never, ever, ever changes.

And, because I have reverse-adopted Jackie’s family for the week, even this inexplicably cooking-challenged child would be included in the warmth of Judith and Frederick’s table.  We were offered champagne as soon as we walked in the door, and then a steady stream of white wine throughout the evening.  Wine is just different here – not exactly like water, but nearly as elemental.  It is the liquid on which meals and social occasions and café life flows (although they mostly use café au lait before noon.)  If America runs (to work) on Dunkin Donuts,  France floats on its wine.

While we asked Frederick questions about their life story, Judith and Loni caught up on members of their family that Judith had not seen for her many years of supplying the people of Paris with everything down-home.  When we came to the table, Judith had made us a very French dish with Americana at its core:  a tart of green tomatoes, assembled and baked upside down. 

I am partly guessing here, partly going on the wisdom of Jackie and Loni here, so I hope to be forgiven if I get the techniques wrong. Judith had cut the tomatoes into big chunks, sautéed them and then packed them tightly into a pie pan with onions and peppers and olives.  Then she baked all of the vegetables in the oven.  On top of this went delicious puff pastry, a feuilleté, at the end of baking.  When she was ready to serve it to her hungry Americans, she flipped it over.  The French have the best word for this flourish: Voila. 

(I, who am particularly challenged to flip a pancake, could not have been more impressed with the directionality of the dish, much less its sweet-and-savory vegetable core.)  The bi-cultural tart came to our plates married to a little salad of mâche and microgreens topped with rounds of strong, creamy goat cheese.  It was a very happy little marriage.

Because this is France, and because these are Shermans, there is never just one special course, but always several.  While we talked some more about their family history, and Jackie and Loni and Judith did some serious recipe-swapping, Judith served us a perfectly-cooked fish dish, a special back cut of a cod, with oven-roasted tomato confit, courgettes, (a much better name than plain old “zucchini”) and onions that formed a colorful and perfectly seasoned sauce for the lucky cod. 

My favorite, however, was an amazing gratin of potatoes and leeks with tons of cheese.  I seemed to remember there being an interesting spice somewhere in the creamy sauce, but neither Loni nor Jacqueline could confirm this assumption, and I have to defer to the experts in important matters like this one.  If all potatoes could be treated with this kind of love and affection, they might forever and always give up their propensity to become either baked or fried.  I’ll just say it again:  Yummy.

But then, even on top of this enormous bounty, there is always room for dessert.  No, not Jell-o (I know you were hoping) but Judith’s renowned specialty: a creamy American cheese cake, based on her mother’s own recipe.  I may or may not have been sworn to secrecy on one or a dozen secret ingredients that may or may not be the source of the wonder of this dish.  It was the good kind of (real) cheesecake:  the silky New York kind, not the baked disaster way-too-hard dry kind that should by all rights be against international law.  That whole heavy-on-the-ricotta kind gives the good nation of Italy a bad name.  

Although the cheesecake didn’t need any bijoux at all, she served it with fresh berries and also strawberries pressed and sieved and stirred into a little jewel-colored sauce with kirsch.  I don’t really know what kirsch is, but perhaps more things should be cooked with this in the future.

As I am wont to do, when I really get going, I have focused here mostly on the food, but I hope not to have missed the central point.  A lot about France is distant and distinct.  Perfectly formed, specific and unique and not-to-be mistaken for anything else.  It is often proud and hard and closed in its beauty and its perfection, as opposed to the way that America is proud and strong and open.  When you gather around a table, pulled into the heart of a real French home, the hardness falls away and you are in the mushy warm heart of the baguette. 

The success of this meal could be mainly attributed to Judith’s masterful cooking or Frederick’s generous hand with the wine.  But the more crucial point was in the conversation, the threads of memory and extended family pulling back into relation with one another.  I loved meeting Judith and Frederick, but the real pleasure of the evening was watching this family that I know so well drawing another few lucky people into its large and warm embrace, and to see that warmth returned. 

At the end of the meal, we pulled out several cameras and everybody took turns being in the picture.  Of course one of the cameras malfunctioned (de rigeur at a family reunion) and of course one or more of us protested about being in the picture  (don’t we always.)  There was talk of more reunions, more dinners, more recipes, more time spent around the table.  

And of course, more of that good kind of cheesecake. 

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