The Art of French Cooking

My mother is French. It is hers: That one constricting adjective that is draped on one’s being like a weight, target, and favorite t-shirt, all at once; Gay. Muslim. Fat. Lohan. It means nothing and seems like everything to some. In fear, to most and yourself. French: worldly, joyous, sarcastic; enjoyer of life, enjoyer of wine, enjoyer of food. The passing idea I’ve kept that my mother, the French artisan, was not, by far, the best cook in the world (or even the best in my family) became a little more concrete after recently reading a great essay published in Esquire last year.

With a moral aversion to red meat and terrified of undercooked chicken, my mother is that rare breed of vegetarian that “reluctantly” eats chicken cooked in wine and loves all seafood, even if the scallops often make her mouth numb. (We share that genetic peccadillo; I’ve made peace with the Coquilles Saint Jacques that will be so good it may kill me.) In my childhood memories, her mother, my Meme, is front and center when it comes to the indulgence of food. Thanksgivings with turkey and homemade cherry pie, Easters with ham, and always 7-Up in the most beautiful opaque red goblets I gratefully pocketed from her cupboards after her death.

My mother never got the chance to shine on holidays, but made good, repetitive food within her daily grind of being the best teacher in the world. When she found a recipe she liked, she wore it to the ground: Chicken (dry) cooked in wine (dry white). More recently, White Chicken Chili. (Ready to heat Glad-wared helpings now line my parents freezer.). There was a year in high school where all I remember eating was this salmon, baked inexplicably alongside orange slices. This specific concoction is responsible for my aversion to the healthiest fish on the fish list. Unless it’s blackened, sushified, or drowned in salty pesto, get that away from me.

This essay, just nominated for a James Beard Award, a prestigious honor I’ve never heard of, got me thinking of those moments when a young adult begins to realize things about their parents, as they themselves become parents (or others beginning the attempt to overtake the world’s other, less adorable burdens). It’s the time when parents become more real than you ever realized, or possibly ever really hoped. As complicated as yourself.

“My Mom Couldn’t Cook” – Tom Junod

To balance the end of the essay, I’m happy to report that my mom has added a Scallop Provencal recipe to her small repertoire that I quite enjoy. For several holiday seasons now, actually. The shrinking pomp and splendor of holiday is now confronted by the quiet and lovely supper my mom, my dad, and I share on those special days; Thanksgiving, Christmas. My mom and I linger at the dining room table, dipping crusty French baguette into the thick, shalloty butter sauce that may well have housed that killer scallop that does both of us in, numbing us into contentment.

*Photo courtesy of Food Network.


It will begin with Emerson

What lies behind us
and what lies before us
are tiny matters
compared to
what lies within us.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson