I wanted to fix what was wrong, here, in this – this place, this time I remembered so well. When I loved. Where I loved. And yet how ironic as here was where everything started unraveling on the first night of the Bécasse.
The drive into the setting sun from Agen made me wish we hadn’t missed our earlier train. But we had. It was my fault, but how could I leave Paris without visiting Rue Daguerre and picking up a perfect brie, rosy pears, a few chestnuts?
After the hunt: woodcock and hunting dog.
We pulled into the Auberge and barely missed hitting the stone wall. The millhouse still sat undisturbed by time, hell, it was time itself. Flanked by the millpond and the rushing river, the river Gélise coursed through it, cleansing and cooling the fires inside.
Once inside it seemed important not to disturb the shadows and gentle aura by flicking a switch and turning on a light. That would be too easy. I wanted to remember, I had to be careful. With the last little bit of sun on the kitchen, I found a white plate for the bruised tomatoes from the Paris market. The girolle mushrooms looked small and insufficient, but they had survived better than the poor tomatoes; all they needed was heat and a little butter. There was plenty of time for that in the morning. I was already relishing coming down in the morning and hearing the whoosh of the burners.
In the shadows of the kitchen, the baguette might be a knotted tree, the baker’s slashes on the crust that birthed the ears and eyes of the bread. My husband drew the knife from the block and pressed its teeth against the curved length. I gently took it away and slid the saw-toothed beast back in its slot.
“Wait. “ I touched his arm. “Open the wine, while I light a fire?”
“I’m starving!” he said.
I was nervous to get it going, adjusting the air and the draft. The wood was damp, and my mind leaped ahead to the next day and perhaps finding cèpes or porcini in the forest. The bottle slowly emptied. Maybe she wouldn’t let the fire begin again. She being grand-mère. Had she forgiven me? I had kept her secret. I hadn’t told the tale of what happened here. Yet, that time was over now. It was safe to begin again. We sat back and raised our glasses. The flames twirled like the bird in the tapestry, the Bécasse, flying past the whispers of clouds over the moon, and the millhouse.
Cooking woodcocks or bécasse over a wood fire.
The Auberge was unchanged, I breathed, wasn’t it? Twenty years was nothing in a place already hundreds of years old.
Much to his satisfaction we broke the crust, and playfully teased the heels of the baguette over the fire, turning and toasting. Smearing the hot pain with soft cheese.
I peered around the dark room, the fire reflecting our forms in the picture window.
To be continued.
*A bécasse in French is a woodcock.
Influenced by French heritage and traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch country where she was born and raised, Dorette Snover graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, was a private chef to the rich and eccentric, a food stylist, NPR commentator, and now teaches les bases de la cuisine at her cooking school, C’est si Bon!
In writing, Dorette’s plat du jour is strong female characters woven from her thirty years in the world of cuisine. and her personal journey through landscapes of culinary history. Dorette also leads tours to France for adults looking for truffles in all the right places and for teens interested in exploring the world through a culinary map.
Along with an uncanny mastery of seven languages perfected while she was a scholarship student at L’Université de Paris plus a crystalline singing voice that gained her entrée to the finest church choirs in Europe, my Nana brought with her to, of all places, Lowell, Massachusetts, the Egyptian/Syrian cooking she learned as a girl in her native Alexandria. Sudden love for a fellow Egyptian émigré, Ralph, a barber, took Adele away from her academic and musical aspirations.
Muslim women in Aswan market, Egypt.
Ralph had an idea that opening his own shop in America, the land of opportunity, would put him and his new bride on roads paved in silver and gold. Before she knew what hit her, Adele (called by everyone Lena) found herself transplanted to a blue-collar town with a blue-collar man. The pair had four children in quick succession, each born two years apart: Mariam (Marie), Helen, George and my mother, Edna, nicknamed “Topsy.” Life and the barbershop landed them if not on Easy Street at least on This is Okay Way until Ralph died suddenly and young of a massive heart attack. My mother was six months old. Nana, unable to work full-time and raise four, small children alone (Lowell, after all, wasn’t Paris), took a job doing piecework in Hub Hosiery, one of the city’s many sweatshops and reluctantly put the kids in Franco American Orphanage where they would remain until they came of age.
Middle Eastern pistachio baklawa or baklava.
By the time I knew her, Nana had left her dashed aspirations and heartbreak on the curb and gone about the business of “getting on with it.” Perhaps to make a second stab at rearing the children she, herself, had been unable to raise, she and Marie, who stayed single and made a home for her mother and herself, became co-parents to my sister, Diane, and me. We, too, had been orphaned at a very young age, leaving our mother in the same mess her mother had known. I grew up then with all women: my mother, my sister, my aunt, my Nana, the nuns at school. I witnessed firsthand the power of the female ethos, the banding together of women when Fate has removed all men from the picture, to step in and nurture, as individuals and as a group. I loved my women, but Nana I adored. The love life denied her giving to her own children she heaped on Diane and me. A more caring, hospitable, convivial spirit I have never known. And so, this is how, among other facets and aspects of my growing up years, I was exposed to the Syrian/Egyptian kitchen.
I loved being with Nana in her kitchen, watching her cook. We learn so much from watching. An almost pastoral calm would come over her as the small, old bones of her hands deftly tucked the Mahshi (Malfouf) mixture into the cabbage. In a flash, the stuffed wonders would layer up to the brim of the kettle (Nana pronounced it “cuttle”) to be doused with ripe, good garden tomatoes, homemade tomato sauce, and some water. Even more fun to watch was the way she would fashion a design, using only two turkey needles, into the top of a baked Kibbeh loaf. With the greatest care, too, she placed pine nuts (Snooba) strategically throughout the neat cake (not too many, not too few!). Kibbeh Nayyeh (raw hamburger or lamb) was also a staple of our family table.
People cringe now hearing that we ate raw meat (chased with raw onion). “Cannibals!,” they cry. I don’t know how I, so picky an eater I wouldn’t put a plain slice of American cheese in my mouth, got to love uncooked meat, but I could never get enough of the stuff – one of the treats of going over to my best friend, Anthony Kalil’s house, was the always-waiting Nayyeh on the table – Anthony’s father was a butcher so the house was well-stocked with the very best cuts. I loved the hurry-scurry of Anthony’s three brothers — his poor mom, outnumbered — racing in-and-out of the kitchen on their way to a date, a ballgame, a concert, tearing a piece of Syrian bread (the term, “pita” came into use much, much later on), scooping up a clump of Nayyeh, a bite of onion and chowing down. What with today’s heavy chemical treatment of meats and other No-No’s in meat products, I’m not so sure I would “go raw” now but I can still taste the sting of onion, the salted, peppered meat on my tongue and in my tummy. Good nourishing food.
Never-ending were the delights to be had in Nana’s kitchen. There was Gusa (stuffed zucchini though any squash could be used) with its aromatic garden flavors, bitter to the taste in a good way. Baba Ganoush, a tangy yogurt/eggplant spread, perfect for dipping or eating plain. Nana was never 100% satisfied with her own yogurt. “Is it too tart? A little bit, huh?” There was Makdous, tiny, marinated eggplants sprinkled with walnuts, Fatoush, a fresh lettuce and tomato salad splashed with lemon juice and sumac – a regular visitor to Nana’s table, it made my cheeks pucker. Halami, Halwah (pronounced ‘Ha-lay-wee’), Baklawa, Hummus, Tabouleh, M’jadara (lentil porridge), Za’atar (the best!). How could anyone not leave the table fat and happy?
Egyptian-style stuffed zucchini.
Special Sunday trips were to nearby Lawrence and Bishop’s (Aunt Marie at the wheel) where, if the Arabic food wasn’t quite as good as Nana’s, well, “Hey, I’ll take it!” Our friend, Al, the waiter, would bring us extra olive oil, extra mint, extra bread. Al had a genial face. He looked like Abe Burrows and Sam Levenson, popular humorists of the day, and was funny the way they were funny. After feasting, we would go tramping unsavory neighborhoods in search of Melia A’asi, a girlhood friend of Nana’s in Alexandria. Nana knew Melia lived “somewhere in Lawrence.” Melia became somewhat of a legend in family lore. We never did find her. (Interesting aside: years later, after I told M.F.K. Fisher this story, she thought it would be fun to co-write a mystery novel with me, The Case of Missing Melia A’asi. My pseudonym, she decided, would be “Ricochet Raincoat.” Like Melia, though, the book never materialized.) At least Aggie Michael, Nana’s Lowell friend, existed. Nana and I would regularly visit her home peopled with life-sized statues of every saint in the canon. Aggie was a funny, fat, little Buddha with Orphan Annie hair. I liked her, but Nana and I always heeded Marie’s warning, “Don’t ever eat anything there; she cooks spaghetti in the same pan she washes her feet in.”
Nana’s desserts were my favorite. I could eat Ma’moul, the anise-and-date-scented pastries ‘til they came out of my ears. When Anthony and I brought along a paper bag full of them on our choirboys’ field trip to Boston’s Museum of Science, the other kids made throwing up sounds ‘til we passed the tantalizing cookie-cake-y wonders around. Everybody was our friend that day.
My most-loved sweets were Ka’ak, Proustian in its fragrance and its tastes, Turkish Delights, plump with pistachios, homemade Marzipan (not as hard to make as you’d think) and – heaven in a cup – the Egyptian delicacy, Umm Ali, its circus-y colors beckoning you to become a professional glutton.
Baba Ganoush or eggplant purée.
I liked few things better than being with my Nana, sitting beside her in her kitchen waiting for everything to cook. I can still hear the good heat bubbling up from oven cups of custard, cinnamon-laced, rice and grape-nut puddings, too, and Knefe and Atayef. My whole boyhood early on was exoticized by almonds, the scent of sesame, strong licorice, black and running out of the corners of my mouth. Nana is teaching me how to make tissue paper carnations, pink. I’m not a very good student. Her chatter is punctuated by delightful Malapropisms, mangling the names of favorite entertainers: Florence Welch (Lawrence Welk), Furry Como (Perry Como), Pranky Pontaine (for Frank Fontaine), Ed Solomont (Ed Sullivan) and the funniest – Alfred Pitchfork (He was a bit of a devil!). We crack each other up; she, correcting my Arabic, I, correcting her English. Nana was petite, her white hair pulled up into a donut at the top of her head (very Marseille market). Nana was an anomaly; raised as an Ottoman Jew in Alexandria, schooled in Paris, she came to the new country equipped with a repertory of Baptist hymns (go figure!). Diane and I, per order of our very Catholic dad, were raised in his faith. So Nana and I would alternate dueling music genres: myself trilling The Angelus, The Kyrie and she, in her sweet, clear soprano intoning the old hymns: In the Garden, The Old, Rugged Cross, Abide with Me. Our songs and our laughter lifted the kitchen curtains high while the food cooked and heaven hovered quiet just over in a corner. I never heard her put on airs. She was plain, without make-up or pretensions. I never heard her speak an unkind word against anyone. She did like to thumb her nose behind Marie’s back whenever Marie criticized her about spoiling Diane and me. “Next thing, they’ll want we should build them their own Taj Mahal.”
Turkish delight or lokum.
If there were times whole oceans rose up in her old eyes, well, we knew why; thoughts about a life that might have been. But she never let tears wet her bosom for long – she moved on – in acceptance, in grace, loving her life, her family, her kitchen.
The kitchen and her heart went dark in the year of The Bicentennial. So broken by grief was I, I ran away to avoid the wake. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye. I keep every day for saying goodbye by firing up the stove for cooking up a cauldron of Koshari, frying up a mess of onions in good olive oil for M’jadara, closing my eyes and conjuring up Nana in her kitchen, persimmons in ceramic bowls, hard candies and oranges and apples for anyone who might drop by. We learn so much from watching. We celebrate the nurturing women in our lives by nurturing ourselves and others. We nourish ourselves. We eat.
Whether it’s Ragù Napolitano “Classico” or “Leggere,” this richly flavored sauce is a perfect example of traditional, long, slow-cooked (slow, very slow) food, the sort of memory-filled dish that makes all Neapolitans, rich or poor, remember their childhood and nonnas or grandmothers with even just one bite; or even with just one sniff of the bubbling sauce.
Because it needs to be looked after, slowly cooked and attention paid that it doesn’t burn or scorch, it was given the name sugo della guardaporta, the doorkeeper’s sauce, as it needed someone to watch over it as it slowly, slowly, slowly bubbled its way to perfection.
Though now it has come to symbolize family food, it was no doubt created in the 19th-century kitchens by the chefs of aristocratic Naples — its abundance of meat and attention-demanding cooking method would have been beyond the means of the city’s poorer inhabitants, which meant most of the population. Its name came from the French ragout, or saucey stew. The Neapolitan ragù is exactly that: a large piece of meat simmered in either tomatoey or oniony (La Genovese) sauce unlike the ragù of other
regions, which include small pieces of chopped meats and vegetables.
Three satisfies, inviting us to plunge in, while kindly reminding us of life’s impermanence, because soon there’ll be two, then one.
One summer afternoon in New England I ran out to our garden, arriving back with a scant handful of the first cherry tomatoes. Soon, three lazy, but colorful halves topped salads for my husband, daughter and me. Our eyes bounced from red to red orb before we pounced. Why is the odd number three our culinary queen? Two on a plate sit symmetrically sad while only one looks like a cherry on top.
We’re three too — my daughter Emma, husband Tommy and I. I’ve been lured in by that number again and again in life and in food. My sisters Joanna, Ellie and I. My Dad’s writing, Mom’s cooking and me at the point of the triangle, borrowing from both. Young Emma’s PBJ sandwich cut point to point into triangle halves, so pleasing on the plate. Or in my catering days, a cluster of canapés waiting patiently on my cater-waiter’s tray, ready to be served. Those three points of bread work in tandem with three primary ingredients. Like bread and flinty ham topped with mustard sprouts, the bread showing at the edges to express itself just a bit. Or a swirl of gravlax with crème fraîche, a dill sprig propped on top.
I’ve flirted with historic cooking for years, but somehow, the relationship never took off. I would get frustrated by arcane language and ingredients and turn to something more familiar and easier to cook. Cynthia Bertelsen’s new book, A Hastiness of Cooks, has provided the catalyst that just may spark a beautiful relationship.
This slim volume’s subtitle, A Practical Handbook for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks, For Living-History Reenactors, Historians, Writers, Chefs, Archaeologists, and, of Course, Cooks, precisely summarizes the book’s aims and audience. Courtney Nzeribe’s many illustrations remind the reader that the book’s ultimate subject is food and its preparation.
Bertelsen has provided the organizational structure and clarity that will help the reader analyze recipes from earlier centuries. This volume concentrates on the food on European tables from the Middle Ages to the 1700s. Spanish and English recipes get prime attention—after all, the territories that Spain and England conquered were huge and were the source for a steady stream of new foods entering the European repertoire. Interestingly enough, England, whose early cooks were influenced by France, Italy, Persia, the Iberian peninsula, and Turkey, led the way in the production of manuscripts on cooking—which suggests to me that British cooking may have gotten a bad rap in the years since World War I.
Mustard is second only to ketchup in the pantheon of popular condiments.
All mustards start with seeds (of various colors and Brassica species). The suspended particles of ground powdered mustard or seeds, left whole, or used in combination, produce a variety of textures and flavors.
One of the glaring ironies of my life consisted of being pals with food goddesses Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, and yet not knowing how to make anything other than a peanut butter sandwich. My friends used to tease that, “Leo could burn boiling water if you don’t keep an eye on him.” When I was a kid, my poor mother, who often claimed I was her ticket to sainthood, would prepare the evening meal for my father, my sister, Diane and herself, and a lonely hamburger on a back burner of the stove for me because other than it and the peanut butter and bread, I refused to so much as look at any other kind of food. “This isn’t a restaurant,” my mother would say, but I was willful, wanted my burger and nothing else. So, in later years, it was of particular surprise to many, and especially to me, when I became a private cook to two former members of the Roosevelt administration, Hilda and Francis Shea, their son, Richard, and their live-in staff of 15 to 20 men.
Julia Child in her kitchen in 1997 (R).
I can boast a little bit now that I am quite the accomplished cook – I whip up a mean jambalaya and can flambé and sauté with the best of ‘em. But I did myself at the time no good throwing the names Fisher and Child around because that made Ms. Shea assume that I, too, knew how to cook. “Oh, Leo. Do you know how to make a Sauce Soubise?” she intoned, summoning up her most aristocratic accent. “Suuuuu-beeeeeze??” I said I did not and reminded her she had hired me to be Richard’s companion/caregiver. It led anyway to the dread question, “Well, did you ever take Chemistry 101 in school?” “Sure,” I said. I was then led by the nose over to shelves heavy with cookbooks of every decade and design, names so dear to me now but which instilled instant quivering in my spine when I first laid eyes on them: some vintage such as Michael Field’s Culinary Classics and Improvisations, and of course, the twin bibles of every serious kitchen: Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking and Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and some quirky, even strange cookbooks such as Cook It Ahead, Live High on Low Fat, John Thorne’s Outlaw Cook, Only Kosher Cooking Matters, The Zodiac Cook Book. Ms. Shea waved her hand à la Vanna White showcasing letters of the alphabet and said, “Well, this is just like Chemistry 101, only with food.” She showed me where the apron was and left me to my folly.
I come from a land — California — where lemons grow on trees. To buy them in a store would be ridiculous since they grow outside your window. And if you don’t have a lemon tree, your neighbor does and will share them with you. In season, there really are lemons everywhere.
Once, I wrote a humorous-ish front-page column for the San Francisco Chronicle about how there are lemons everywhere in the Bay Area, and that every time I pass a tree, I stash one or two in my handbag. They ran a cartoon of me dressed up as a burglar, reaching into lemon trees.
Yes, in Italy, they eat pasta, but Venice and the neighboring Veneto region are relative newcomers to both pasta and Italy. Venice and the Veneto, which the Venetian Republic dominated for centuries, only became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866 to escape the rule of the Austrian Empire, imposed after the Napoleonic Wars. Before that, the people of the Veneto didn’t speak much Italian; they primarily spoke Venetian. The Italian language and customs? They’ve adopted those, including pasta, relatively recently.
Abandoned agricultural storage building in a rice field in northern Italy
Roquefort cheese has been made in the caves of Combalou, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, at least since Gaul was occupied by the Romans — Pliny the Elder spoke highly of it, and he was not the sort who normally gushed gourmet superlatives. By 1411, Les Causses had been granted the exclusive right to the name “Roquefort,” and all other blue-veined cheeses had to make their own reputations. Salads, of course, go back much further — they were known to the ancient Greeks — but didn’t have an entire book devoted to them until 1699, when Robert Evelyn published his Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets.
When salad and Roquefort cheese first got together is somewhat more mysterious. Usually, recipes just “happen,” they evolve — often in several places at the same time — in response to new tastes, the availability of new ingredients, etc. Recipes, or “receipts,” have only found their way into print after a sufficient number of people found them useful. Only rarely can we provide, with any certainty, the “who, what, where, when and how” of a recipe’s creation.