The Eating Conversation
No matter what food behavior I describe, people think I am “not a typical American.” And my descriptions vary widely. For example, I was born in Columbia, Missouri. We moved away when I was 6 months old, but my parents were there long enough for my father to enjoy frog gigging and develop a taste for frog’s legs. Are you familiar with the English word, gigging? I had forgotten it. Frog gigging involves going out at night with a flashlight, stunning the frog with the light, and snagging it with the “gig,” a pronged spear. Then, just like in France, you skin the frog and fry up or sauté the legs, usually in lots of garlic and butter. My father loved frog legs and always ordered them in French restaurants when he was visiting. I like them too, and people always claim I must not be a typical American.
Seemingly in contrast, but ending with the same conclusion are my experiences at the Pump Room. In its hay day the Pump Room was a venerable Chicago restaurant, located in the Ambassador East Hotel. If you know the Fred Fisher song Chicago (“Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town”) you’ve already heard about it: "We'll meet at the Pump Room-Ambassador East/To say the least, on shish kebab and breast of squab we will feast/And get fleeced." Yes, it was expensive. And it was a hotspot for celebrities passing through Chicago, although I was waiting only to see Paul Newman, who reportedly did dine there, but who I never saw.
During my childhood my family went to the Pump Room and it’s there that I developed a taste for escargot. Even now, having eaten escargot in hundreds of venues, I still remember that escargot as being perfect. Except for the garlic and butter part, though, the Pump Room and Missouri frog gigging are worlds away. Still, they both reflect liking what is considered French, at a tender age at that, and therefore the conclusion that I am not a typical American. Growing up I dined on squirrel, rabbit, venison, moose, bear, raccoon (barbequed!), and pheasant, in high-brow and low-brow preparations. Does that make me typical or untypical? I don’t know.
I feel sad when Europeans have lived in some smallish city in the US, usually in the South that, according to their report, only offers those chain restaurants like Chili’s or Applebee’s (I have never been to the second). This means that they have never savored my friend Preston’s (from Georgia) bourbon-injected barbequed pork, or Robin’s (from Louisiana) crawfish étouffée, or Seth’s (from Wisconsin) gourmet pizzas piled high with roquette, or Julie’s (from Texas) succulent southwestern red beans and rice, or my cousin Jon’s (from Kansas) smokin’ baby back ribs. They probably haven’t dined on Maryland crab cakes or been to a Baltimore crab house. My kids’ eyes popped when I explained how crabs, boiled in Old Bay Spices, are poured by the bushel onto your table and you eat them with wooden mallets. They can’t imagine that yet. They have been to a (white) fish boil on Door Co (WI). It’s fabulous.
My kids were all raised on French food. At the medical cabinet where I took my sons since birth, when your baby is about six months old, the pediatrician tells you that you should start feeding them ratatouille. There is also early concern (at about 7 months) about introducing cheeses to the baby’s palate, and bleu comes up very early in the list of cheeses that they should eat. Brie is fine too, since it is soft. In the Auvergne (cheese) region of France, where we lived, St. Nectaire, is also recommended early on.
One of the things that I valued about being a working mom in France, and perhaps contrary to cliché, is that the appreciation for expertise and specialization in cooking and baking is such that doing these things yourself is usually not expected. It is perfectly acceptable to buy prepared or catered food for a dinner party, and it is more than fine to buy cakes and desserts in bakeries rather than baking oneself. Too often I forgot to bring a cake to school because it was one of my son’s birthdays. In the end I realized with relief that the bakery on the way was a perfectly acceptable, default, solution. The first time I apologized to a teacher about having purchased rather than baked a birthday cake, the teacher looked at me quizzically and said, “Why would you feel you need to bake it yourself? That is what the pâtissier is for.” At that moment, I felt the supermom pressure fall right off my shoulders.
Still, I inadvertently became part of a cliché a couple of years later when I realized on a Sunday evening that the next day I had to bring a birthday cake for my son’s French school, and another for his Anglophone one. I found some of those cake-in-bag-ready-to-go deals, poured them into a single pan and threw it all into the oven. Somehow it came out totally lopsided. Looking at it my husband muttered, “Can’t send this to school. It is just too weird-looking.” So our oldest, Alexandre, and I decided to bake a cake. Only we didn’t have enough butter, and we didn’t have enough baking powder. We tried our best, but the next day the thing looked and felt like cinderblock. After it had joined the lopsided cake in the garbage, I took my purse and set off on foot, ready to pass by a bakery to buy some cakes.
Only on Monday morning, no bakeries are open. The first one was closed, so were the second and the third. Running down rue du Port, after about 25 minutes on the move, I saw a place that was open and that seemed to sell sweets. They had one flan, which I asked them to wrap up, and then I ordered a bag of bugnes (small donuts) for English class. I was sweating and running across a place when I passed a real bakery, which was open. I stopped in because I was doubting that the French teacher would be equipped to serve the kids a flan. Too messy. I set down the flan and the bugnes on the counter and discussed the problem with the patissier. “Well, we don’t have any cakes here, but I’ll call and see if they have a cake at the location where we do the baking. If we do, they can run it over by car.” He called and they had a cake that would serve 25 kids, and they would be right over. When I saw the box coming out of the car, I knew I had made big a mistake. Indeed, it was a wedding cake covered with roses and it cost 35 or 40 euros. That is, crazy-expensive. But I had committed and I was very late, so I just swallowed. “Can I leave the flan here and I’ll be back for it later?” I asked after I had forked over a check. Of course. So now I had a bag of bugnes and a huge wedding cake in an open box, and I took off running and sweating again. All of this before I went to work, myself.
As I approached the school I bumped into a French friend who peered thoughtfully over the top of the box at the cake. “Very American,” she concluded. “No one else in their right mind would pay that price for a group of 8 year-olds."