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The Food Philosophe: A Winter's Tale
by Francesca Rheannon
“The man looked at everything, taking his time and considering each object carefully. He formed an opinion: ‘You’ve a good home here.’Fabienne unwrapped a large black truffle from its napkin with a mysterious smile. Everybody ooh’d and aah’d. She laid it on a plate so it could be passed around the company for inspection. I lifted it hesitantly to my nose, not wanting to violate some unspoken rule of etiquette. It had a delicate and alluring scent, surprising, like eau de turpentine and something musky and erotic. The olfactory round completed, Fabienne shaved dark slivers of the fungus onto crackers, which she handed to us as if they were the Holy Communion.
And even if he had not quite finished forming an opinion, he did so afterwards with Arsule’s good soup.
First a soup plate full and brimming over, then another with all the vegetables whole, with leeks as white as fish, soft potatoes, and carrots; and the fine taste it all left in the mouth! They had a good slice of lean ham with a border of fat that shone like a piece of ice from a spring. After that they had cheese which had grown yellow between walnut leaves and was seasoned with little herbs…He said again: ‘You’ve a good home here, a good home!’
Then: ‘That’s life!’” -- Jean Giono, Regain
Mine almost wafted to my lips. I nibbled cautiously. The savor was subtle; one might even say, faint. The truffle was a trifle immature; but no matter. Mystique trumped taste; it was the first time I had ever seen the rare delicacy, much less eaten one. Murmurs of appreciation rippled through the assembled guests; then we sat down to eat in earnest.
I arrived at Michel and Marie Josée’s house in Apt just before the winter solstice. The city was locked into a deep freeze. Marie Josée fretted about the survival of the fig and olive trees braving it out in her front yard. Snow covered the ground, and even the bright sun did little to soften the edges of the cold. People went around bundled up to their eyes as the coldest winter in years prepared to launch itself over the season’s threshold.
My hosts had little time for me, busy as they were with complicated preparations for a Solstice feast they were giving on the morrow. I hovered on the margin like an anthropologist observing native rituals. The work had begun the day before. Michel, a professional chef who cooked for private clients in the region, spent much of the time at the stove or chopping block, obsessed like an alchemist in his study.
A man of many sides and a checkered past, Michel had not always been a chef. In his youth, he had spent close to a decade in prison. The details were never really forthcoming -- something to do with underworld gangs in Marseilles. He would have looked the part, too, were it not for his warmth and ebullience. He had a street tough’s body, all barreled and bandy-legged. And his temper could be fierce. The tenaciousness of his grudges was legendary. The one time I crossed him — inadvertently, I must add — it took a good deal of bowing and scraping on my part before he let me back into his good graces. (Assiduous watering of the flower of friendship with viticultural gifts didn’t hurt, either.)
After prison, he went to Paris and found a job in a restaurant. He worked his way up to chef and lived an extravagant lifestyle with fast cars, big houses, and an expensive wife. Then divorce and depression sent his fortunes spinning downward. He lost everything and returned to his home region of Provence.
One day, Michel had a car accident. Marie Josée, a nurse, was called to stitch him up. On an evening not long after that, while Marie Josée, who was single, was getting dinner together for her kids, she heard a knock at the door and opened it to find Michel standing there. He asked her to please help him commit suicide in her professional capacity as a nurse. He wanted her to get him the pills he needed to do it. Marie Josée refused. “My job is to help people live; not to help them die,” she told him.
He left, angry. She brooded, upset. And couldn’t get him out of her mind. Several days later, when she saw his car parked along a curb, she left a sprig of rosemary under the windshield wiper. When he returned to his car and saw the spiky curl of green, he knew immediately who had put it there. He invited Marie Josée to dinner. They’ve been together since.
The day of the feast, the guests assembled around one o’clock in the afternoon. The first to arrive was a wealthy couple who ran a local chambres d’hôte. The husband, a red-faced, voluble man, was retired from the plumbing fixtures trade. Within minutes of his entrance, he had already boasted that of every three bidets in France, one of them was his.
His wife, a stylish woman with a nervous, squinting tic and clenched jaw, amused the company with acerbic, witty patter. Her passion was her many animals. She brought a photocopied announcement offering a reward for the return of one of them, a large, sweet-looking hound named, of all things, Francesca, who had gone missing several days before. To my dismay, everybody assumed the local band of Gypsies was to blame. The accusation turned out to be unfounded: after the meal, just as Michel was preparing to go out and confront the supposed thieves in their camp, news came that the dog had been discovered by an Englishman out on a walk. Francesca had wormed her way under an electric fence into a farmer’s enclosure, huddling in a hole in the ground for three days.
When the other guests had all arrived, we sat down at our designated places around the table. I was put next to Klaus, a lanky older Swiss man who had long ago retired to the area. He had come with his companion, Tino, a painter of Italian origin. Klaus had a gentle, thoughtful manner, with a hint of sadness softening his craggy face. Tino, a small man with large expressive eyes, thick glasses and a fringe of dark hair, had a streak of madcap humor.
Fabienne brought her mother, a vivacious grande dame with an abundant bosom who bore more than a trace of her former beauty. Throughout the meal, she cosseted her haughty little bichon frisé, who never strayed from her lap.
The first time I had been invited to dinner in France — also at Marie Josée’s — I had expected to be served a single entrée, as in the U.S., where the term has come to mean “main dish”. Somewhere along the way, Americans had to make the meal more “efficient,” collapsing the leisured stations of continental dining into one TV-dinner style serving.
In France, the “entrée” is just that — an entrance into the main part of the meal, not the main event itself. So when the entrée (a cheese tart) was served, I had two helpings, it was so good. Then I realized it was only the start. A second dish with several sides followed, then salad, cheese, and dessert.
This time, I made a mental note to pace myself, but it proved beyond my powers of self-control. The company broke out of the starter line with champagne and canapés, rounded the first corner with Fabienne’s truffle, then settled in for the long stretch. First, the entrée: a traditional creamed tart, this time of leek. It was followed by a simple salad seasoned with a perfect vinaigrette. Then came the meat dish, “Bouffard des Marinières du Rhône,” beef marinated for three days and simmered in wine. (Later, I tried to find “bouffard” in my French dictionary, but the closest match I could come up with was “bouffer”, to guzzle or feed like an animal. The dish was good enough to incite the behavior.)
Then the cheese: Camembert and a locally made goat cheese, runny with age and topped with herbes de Provence. The desserts followed (note the plural), butter cookies á la maison, chocolate tubes filled with grand Marnier, apple compôte, and homemade sugared almonds, a Christmas tradition in Provence. The meal was topped off by coffee, followed by liqueur — the “eventual digestive”.
After the successful conclusion of the meal allowed him to relax, Michel stood in front of the hearth, sipping his coffee. An expression of deep satisfaction wreathed his face. I joined him as he reflected on the event.
“You know how it was all done?” he asked me, raising his bushy eyebrows in a rhetorical flourish as we toasted our backs at the fireplace, espresso cups in hand.
I shook my head no.“It is a combination of the book — I never invent a recipe,” he paused to underscore the interjection, stubby finger raised, “time, and love. And of all of these, love is the most important.”
“Tell me more,” I prompted him. I always loved it when Michel regaled me with his philosophical observations. His views percolated in a pungent stew of anarchism, quasi-buddhism and evangelical Christianity, a combination that never ceased to intrigue me with its unexpected, and always strong, flavors.
“It's a pleasure to give. To share with others,” he said as if it were self-evident. He paused, and then continued. “But there is something else — the hidden part.”
“Ego!” His beetle brows flew up to punctuate the remark.
“Oh, yes,” I concurred, although I wasn’t sure where he was going, “there's always ego.”
“Of course, of course,” he drawled archly. “I am no different than the others.”
We each took the glass of “digestive” that someone handed us in passing.
“When you start to cook for people that you really don't like all that much,” Michel resumed, “you say ah-hah! I'm going to show them!”
He seemed to be leading in the direction of a moral message. “What does that do to your cooking?” I asked him.
“It deteriorates it. I am, in fact, trying to punish the customer. My sentiment is ‘I'm going to show this jerk!’ But the jerk is me!”
I chewed his comment over. He waited for me to digest it. “You’re saying there’s a spiritual lesson here about egotism?” I ventured finally.
“Yes!” He answered. “Well, it’s not just egotism. More precisely, it’s a lack of love.” He thought for a moment. “Of course, you can’t love everyone.”
If you had to love all your guests, being a professional chef could get complicated. Some balance was surely being called for here, a scaling back of spiritual expectations. “But you can cook for people you don't love without this idea of showing them, punishing them with your expertise, as it were. Can’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, but only after you have understood this phenomenon. When you've learned a little humility.”
I wondered which religious tradition was reflected in Michel’s thinking about humility. It seemed more Buddhist than Christian. Or maybe it came out of the place where all spiritual traditions meet, the place where long years of discipline and practice dissolve the ego with the enlightenment that mastery brings. Foodism, like Buddhism, is just one of many pathways to nirvana.
Humility is a virtue. Gluttony is a sin. Paying my sinner’s dues, I finally succumbed to the surfeit of food and drink. Soon after my talk with Michel, the force of gravity propelled me to the living room couch, pinning me, supine, by the weight of my stomach. Once there, it was a long time before I could bend sufficiently to attain the requisite angle to get up.
No doubt it was a predicament well known to the medieval popes at Avignon. Visiting the cavernous banquet hall at the papal palace a few weeks later, I learned that it had hosted feasts of truly gargantuan proportions.
The coronation banquet of Clement VI featured one hundred eighteen cattle, one hundred one calves, one thousand twenty three sheep, sixty pigs, nine hundred fourteen kid goats, one thousand four hundred and forty six geese, ten thousand four hundred and seventy one chickens, three hundred pike, forty-six thousand eight hundred and fifty six cheeses and fifty thousand tarts. I can only guess at the dimensions achieved by the egotism of the cooks. It’s not difficult to guess at the egotism of Pope Clement. Or the girth of his waistline.
I wonder what Clement VI would have thought about the petition submitted to the current pope by the famed French baker Lionel Poilâne. The baker was distressed that “gourmandise” was listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins in the French catechism. He argued that the word should be changed to “gloutonnerie”. “In his pacifistic works”, Poilâne continued, “the gourmand …helps quality triumph over quantity…Over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years, la gourmandise became such a powerful catalyst of virtue that it imbued its creators with a spiritual state of as high a quality, nearly, as their gourmet creations.”
The lesson is clear. Excess promotes sin; quality promotes virtue. It is no surprise that the baker Poilâne addressed his plea to such a high religious authority as the Pope. In France, food is a religion, a fact so well known that to mention it is to be guilty of a cliché.
But what may on the surface seem simply to be a charming idiosyncrasy of the French, is revealed upon closer examination as proof of a profound comprehension of the spiritual place of food. Buddhism says that life is suffering and comprehension of that truth is the prerequisite to true happiness. I have no dispute with this teaching, as it counsels the wisdom of acceptance.
But is it not as true that life is pleasure and happiness reposes in its enjoyment, as long as the pleasure hurts no one, and particularly when it feeds the soul as well as the senses? My meal with Michel and Marie José was epicurean, not in the self-indulgent, gluttonous sense of the term today, but in the spirit of Epicurus himself: the enjoyment of simple pleasures shared with friends.
Michel himself had a profound interest in the spiritual dimensions of food. He called it the “philosophie d’alimentation”. One morning several months later, Michel, Marie José and I were breakfasting on some chewy fresh rolls from the market and Marie José’s homemade mulberry jam as the spring birds sang their little hearts out in the olive grove next to the patio. Michel took up the theme again.
“You are what you eat,” he stated with an air of inviting questions and comments.
“You mean biologically?”
“No, I mean it spiritually. But it is not just what you eat, but more importantly, how you eat.”
I mumbled encouragingly through my crumbs for him to continue.
“You pay attention. You add a little salt, you think about what you are eating. You see what I mean?”
Marie Josée chimed in, “Yes, because there are people who eat just to supply themselves with nourishment –”
Michel interjected, “To fill themselves up.”
Marie Josée continued, “They pay absolutely no attention, they eat anything.”
“The consciousness-disabled!” Michel snorted.
“Do you mean ‘bouffer’?” I was proud to use this newly learned word. “Like an animal?”
“Voilá.” He took out his tobacco pouch and began rolling a cigarette.
“A lot of Americans eat like that,” I said, thinking of my own guilt in that regard. “Including me,” I added sheepishly.
“Yes, that's why you have the problem of obesity in America. C’est dramatique. And it's beginning to appear in France. At the school, you see this kind of espèce du merde of chocolate bar. I know these kind of candies for kids. They are shit.”
Marie Josée inserted, “McDo, too, with all the sugary drinks.” More French eat at McDonald’s than any other Europeans; the country is third in the numbers of McDonald’s franchises (behind Germany and Britain), but it is first in total sales.
I shook my head sadly. “I was thinking yesterday that here in France people have it so good. The food, the good company around the table. Why do they want to do things the American way — especially the worst of it?
“Well, it’s very easily explained,” Michel told me. “It's because America is a myth, ‘the American dream’— especially since the forties. And the cinema—which you have colonized” (Hollywood was another one of Michel’ pet peeves about American cultural imperialism) “and the music, and so on.”
“All the young people dream of going to America,” Marie Josée concurred.
“Of course!” Michel exclaimed with sarcastic levity. “All the children of the middle and upper classes want to take a tour of America. It's a must!” He pulled on his cigarette and blew an exasperated smoke ring into the air.
“Well, they also go to learn the language,” Marie Josée said soothingly.
“They could go to England for that,” I commented.
Now Michel laughed scornfully. “It's the same thing. In England they eat like pigs.” He tipped his chair dangerously back and puffed another smoke ring.
“Yeah, fish and chips,” I joined him in derision.
“Oh!” He brought the chair’s front legs down with a thud. “Now that’s fantastique! The fish and chips are fantastic!”
The mood became suddenly giddy. Marie Josée waxed rhapsodic on American fare. “And you know, the hamburger, and the hotdogs, with sauerkraut and mustard, oh-lá-lá! That's also really good!” she enthused, then added prudently, “from time to time.”
Michel looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “You see? In France, they can't resist it. They love the hamburgers at McDonald's. And the French sandwiches totally lack imagination. It's always ham with butter, ham with butter.” His lips pursed a disdainful grimace. “You can't find a good sandwich here. It's not possible.”
And so, sated with good food and conversation, and buoyed by the leaven of international good will, we concluded our repast.
Like a fine meal, Michel’s lessons in the French art of gourmandise required time to savor and digest. I have come back to them again and again — catching myself wolfing down my fare, already living in the next instead of the present moment, or stuffing myself with an over-large portion set in front of me, ensnared in the illusion that quantity is equivalent to quality. Then I imagine Michel looking at me from under his beetle brows with an expression of amused remonstrance and I slow down to taste what I am taking in.