Thursday, February 4, 2010

Another Reason to Sing the Marseillaise

In 1978, American author M.F.K. Fisher published A Considerable Town, a memoir of her life and times (“a night, ten nights, many weeks or months”) in Marseille. This book followed her 1964 memoir about Aix-en-Provence, Map of Another Town. Both books focus mainly on the years during the 1950’s that she lived in Provence with her two young daughters, fully embracing the weird world that is France, and becoming one of the world’s most prolific and talented food writers.

The two books were published together in the mid-1980’s as Two Towns in Provence, a book that my mom found here on the shelf here at La Bastide when she was visiting, and suggested that I read. As I have been ravenously wolfing down a series of hardcover books I bought over Christmas when I was home, it has been sitting there on that same shelf where Mom left it, waiting for me. But I picked it up last night, knowing where we were headed.

I discovered that Fisher’s an incredible writer, able to evoke the specific feelings, tastes, and sensory experiences of both Aix and Marseille with incredible precision. Unlike those American writers who enjoy making a comedy of their own difficulties in adapting to France (say, me) Fisher throws herself and her girls right into the bouillabaisse.

So while she faces many of the same difficulties I am stumbling over, several decades later, she spins them forth so very differently. Her story of getting her kids vaccinated – by a super-sexy doctor, a sort of French McDreamy – puts my own quasi-hysterical blog entry on the same topic to utter shame. She is brave, hungry, curious, and thoughtful – an ideal literary companion for this American mom looking to shove herself and her own two girls out the door of our cozy palace and outside into the wider world.

Fisher comes across as a real uptown girl, but boy did she love Marseille. She argues against others who would call it dodgy, dangerous, and depraved, claiming instead that it is a vibrant world operating by its own code. Of France, but apart: her word for this is "insolete," which she claims is impossible to translate, but which Google tells me is "unusual."   She found Marseilles playful rather than debauched, and colorful rather than tawdry. Rather than bemoan the fact that American sailors call its central street “Can of Beer,” (La Canabière) she orders one up for herself. And drinks it straight from the can. Wherever Fisher goes, she finds a whole lot to love. Which makes me love her.

For anybody who loves Marseille is a friend of ours.  For some inexplicable reason, we never made it to Marseille before today, and I can’t for the life of me explain why not. In fact, we loved our visit so much that we spent most of the day comparing this port city (favorably) to our own: Brooklyn. We’ve all been homesick (again) since leaving our block in January, missing our friends, the bagels, and the constant friendly interactions with our neighbors; so calling a place “like Brooklyn” is truly high praise. Although Edith Wharton warned me months ago to avoid simple contrasts and comparisons when trying to understand la Belle France, I guess that today I failed.

Our day in Marseille began for a purely utilitarian reason. The short-term lease on our Renault had ended, and we needed to get another car to replace the awful grey Megane hairdryer we had driven so many months, and stalled so many times. We need this second car to tote around our guests and allow ourselves to go in different directions now and then, and so found online a super cheap long-term lease on a VW Golf. I even picked out a name for him: Rolf the Golf, imagining that he would be a nice gentleman companion for Liesel, and maybe even speak her language. We thought we might as well pick up the car somewhere new. Like Marseilles might be nice.

Just days ago, Bill had a sort of religious conversion experience involving travel preparation, and so we went into today’s trip with an actual plan. Before we picked up the car, we’d check out the Vieux Port, and take in a museum or two. So when we left the house, he had printed directions, a decent map, and a parking garage all picked out. He even a back-up plan of where to park, and a back-up for that back-up.  Wonder of wonders, he had gone online to check out the best restaurants, and we had remembered to ask former Marseille residents Dermot and Anna-Maria for their advice. 

This time, we wouldn’t just set the car for “Centre-Ville” and test our luck picking out another humdrum brasserie. Instead, we would try out the radical notion of knowing exactly where we were going.

And we would eat shellfish. Lots and lots and lots of shellfish. As you might imagine, if you've met him, the first destination on Bill’s itinerary was lunch. And lunch, if you’re headed to Marseille, pretty much must be Chez Toinou.

Before it gets absolutely packed with people, Chez Toinou looks like an unassuming place, except for the giant gleaming silver trophies displayed by the door. As you go in, you see exactly what you’re in for, since the restaurant is pretty much just a place where you can sit down to eat the fresh seafood being sold right outside. Across from the entrance is a row of their stalls displaying and selling fresh mussels, clams, oysters, lobster, whelks, shrimp, sea urchins, and little crawly blue crabs climbing all over one another in a wooden bin. The seafood is spread out over a giant bed of ice, separated into its types by fencerows of lemons, and labeled with its obscure, strange little fishy French names.

At Bill’s brand-new insistence on being on time, we arrived at Toinou just as it opened, despite the fact that today was just a regular old Wednesday, not even particularly in the middle of any season tourists would recognize. But he was right to get us there when he did, as the place filled up within twenty minutes, just as the friendly waiter set an enormous platter on the wire rack on the middle of our table. It included Abigail’s requested nine shrimp, and Bill and Grace’s godzillion oysters, whelks, clams, mussels, langoustines, and raw things I could not identify, plus an entire cooked and split lobster.

I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, by far, and the only thing that they cook and serve hot: their moules frites special, served with a beer (in a glass, not a can) and a cup of coffee. I spent the first part of the meal peeling shellfish for the kids and pushing whelks out of their little shells, so didn’t mind that my lunch arrived much later than did all the cold stuff.

The fries were fine, but the mussels were astonishing: well worth waiting for, and by far the best ones I have ever tasted. They were served in their own little black le cruset pot, fifty of them (I counted.) Every single one was opened up, and cooked to perfection (unlike the deeply regrettable bottled ones I served the other day at lunch, with spaghetti and cream. These mussels wouldn’t have recognized those others as even distant cousins.)  MFK is probably sad she is no longer with us, since that also means that she will never again eat mussels like these. 

However, since you are alive, you could go to the Toinou website to get the recipe yourself, particularly if you are one of the four readers of this blog who is fluent in French, but here it is for the rest of us, run through Google Translate:

INGREDIENTS for four servings

2.5 kg Mussels in season (5.5 pounds)

4 shallots

25cl dry white wine (1 cup)

1 sprig of thyme

1 bay leaf

4 pinches of salt

Freshly ground white pepper


1. Scrape and trim the mussels and wash in several changes of water. Eliminate those that remain open.

2. Place the mussels in a pan with a dash of olive oil, the minced shallots and the white wine, the herbs and salt and pepper. Let them cook on high heat, stirring during cooking. As soon as the mussels are open, stop the fire. If you prolong the cooking, they will reduce in volume and become dry, which is exactly what happened when Launa cooked mussels on Sunday. Don't let this happen to you.

3. Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon. Arrange them in a hot dish, then sprinkle them with the cooking liquid and shallots. Serve immediately. People will likely applaud.

While Bill and I were finishing up the little pichet of absolutely gorgeous white wine, and after the girls had had their fill of eating sea creatures, they got tired of sitting in the sun with us, and went out to take another long look at the little blue crabs. By now my fifty mussels were long gone, we had spent over an hour eating, the line was out the door, and even Bill – shellfish eater extraordinaire – was sated, with a small Alp of spent shells piled on his plate.

This was when guilt and dread set in, if only for a few minutes, as we pondered how bad this meal would be for us if the Buddhists or the Kosher laws are right, and it really is not just potentially courting food poisoning, but also morally wrong, to eat so many raw, unclean, sentient beings at one sitting. Even if they are really fresh.

We paid the check and stepped out past all those people who wanted our table. The girls were still hovering around the box of crabs, but now seemed to be talking to the smiling woman behind the counter.

Yes, smiling. Like the waiter. Marseilles really is a world apart. When I arrived, the woman told me, in glowing, grandmotherly-like tones of pride and admiration, that Grace’s French was impressive. She tipped an imaginary hat, as French people sometimes do to indicate their congratulations on a job well done, and said, “Felicitations! Un chapeau!” (“my hat is off to you.”) She then recounted all the facts that Grace had accurately managed to convey to her during their conversation, and asserted that she had a strong mastery of her verb tenses.

I credited M. Lienhard, of course, but I was way more bowled over than he was by this lavish, well-deserved praise. After five and a half months in residence here in France, a real-live French stranger actually and honestly commended one of our children. On her language skills, no less! Chapeaux all around, as far as I am concerned.

The rest of the day was equally delightful. We walked up to the mossy, cascading fountains outside the Palais du Longchamp. It was sunny and well over fifty degrees outside, so after we took a tour through the dead animals of the Museum of Natural History, we soaked up sun on our backs while the girls ran around with their coats off at a playground at the very top of the city. (Again, with actual smiling children. Who spoke with them and invited them to play. I’m not sure what accounted for the difference between their experience here and their more typical experiences on playgrounds, but it may have something to do with ethnicity. While it’s difficult for me to say for sure, it seemed to me that the most friendly and outgoing little girls they played with were Algerian, zipping back and forth between our little girls, and their mothers, who dressed in long dresses and headscarves.)

What else, aside from the great big Beaux Arts era park, and the friendly, multi-ethnic mix of people, so reminded us of Brooklyn? Well, just about everything, Wharton be damned: 

Row upon row of dusty, sad-looking stores that were open, and significantly dustier and sadder ones that were boarded shut.  A woman, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, with a baby across her lap, unabashedly picking her nose. Stores selling athletic shoes and Adidas sweatshirts, exactly like the ones on Fulton Street. An old queen, wearing blue eye make-up, dainty high heeled boots and a fur jacket. Blocks of twentieth-century apartment buildings with laundry hanging out the windows (crucial difference: these housing projects were generally pinky-orange, like every other building in Provence.) A carousel, which Abigail shared with other children and parents who seemed actually glad to be together on it. A drunk guy on the subway giving us unasked-for advice. A sushi restaurant, lots of Vietnamese places, and a real-live Irish bar. 

Just as Fisher wrote, it was France, but not like any of the other places we’ve been in France.

We drove out of the city, past more tall, awful-looking apartment buildings, and long rows of multicolored graffiti. Soon the chaos of Marseille gave way to the four peaceful colors of Provence: grey road, orange earth, green trees, and blue sky. We followed Bill’s excellent directions to the airport, then to the shiny, tidy Europcar office.

And there we were, out of Marseilles, and back to a corporate version of France that might as well have been any old usual airport car rental. The man at the counter answered us with impeccable English, despite our fitful attempts to continue to speaking to him in French. He was efficient, and polite, but nothing like friendly or joyful or insolite.

And as it turns out, we did not in fact rent an actual VW golf, named Rolf, as the website had led us to believe, but rather one of a class of cars. So the one we ended up with? You guessed it: another grey Renault Megane estate wagon almost exactly, to the last nicely detailed detail, like the hairdryer we just dropped off in Nice. I think I'm going to call him Maurice.

Maurice is the bad news.

But the good news? Well, it depends on how you feel about Marseille.  With this lease, we have to return the car to Marseilles every 30 days, and pick up a new, clean one. This will mean a fair number of euros in wasted petrol, plus a few hours in the car each time we travel. But then again, Toinou is open every single day of the week.

Fisher writes at the start of A Considerable Town that after she made her first visit to Marseille, in late 1929, she afterwards "returned even oftener than seems reasonable."

And now, just like Fisher, I'm glad I have a regular reason to do the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment