Wednesday, November 17, 2010

French food

It's funny but understandable (indeed predictable) that Unesco should choose to honor French cooking by considering it as part of the cultural heritage of humanity. This morning, downing my humble breakfast (South American coffee, English muffins and French butter and jam), I felt as if I were eating inside a great museum. But I wonder why France was chosen… rather than, say, England.

I've always been impressed by Hogarth's depiction of a grossly overweight monk caressing simultaneously the hunk of beef and his own fat tummy, while salivating around his protruding tongue. Meanwhile, behind him, a priest is officiating at a burial: maybe (we wonder) that of an underfed laborer or child. Besides, the lean man clothed in white (like the priest at the burial), carrying the weighty beef, could surely do with a decent feed. Clearly, between the corpse being buried and the carcass being carried, the fat monk has made his spiritual choice.

Yesterday afternoon, I phoned Madeleine (as I often do) to inquire about a former inhabitant of Pont-en-Royans whose name had just been revealed to me, by chance, in the course of my conversation with another old-timer in a neighboring village. The man about whom I sought information had been a grocer in Pont-en-Royans, like Madeleine herself, for many years. So I figured that she would surely be able to supply me with some interesting facts. (Readers will have gathered, quite correctly, that my dear neighbor Madeleine is my living encyclopedia concerning the people of Pont-en-Royans.) Well, that's where my trivial anecdote takes on, as it were, a universal dimension. In a nutshell: How does somebody (like Madeleine) suddenly describe, in a few spontaneous words, a personage from the past who had probably almost disappeared from her everyday memory? Isn't this the ultimate challenge of human Memory (with a capital M)? What in fact do we recall immediately about an ordinary individual who was once alongside us, in flesh and blood? Personally, when I meditate upon this rhetorical question, I find myself in the same kind of situation as all those zealous well-intentioned Mormon researchers who seek data about ancient births, marriages and deaths in order to attribute entry passes to the Kingdom of Heaven. Except that there's nothing abstract in my operations, since I'm talking with real folk such as Madeleine and the above-mentioned old-timer, who were once in contact with the ghost.

Madeleine talked to me about food. French food. About a certain craving for good old-fashioned French food. Madeleine's grocer colleague was a certain Lucien. He was excessively fat, which was not necessarily an obstacle for a grocer. Madeleine, on the other hand, has always been rather slim. Well, Lucien and his wife Lucette happened to be strolling around in Pont-en-Royans on a Sunday afternoon when they decided to drop in on Madeleine, at home, just to say hello. A sort of contact between business colleagues, you might say. Now, it so happened that Madeleine had spent the morning cooking a delicious regional delicacy called bugnes (pronounced boon-yeuh), which earn the cook cholesterol-based Brownie points in Heaven.

You make a mixture of flour, yeast, eggs and sugar. Then you spread it out thin, cut it up into moon-shaped slices, and fry them in oil. Getting back to Madeleine, and the Sunday-afternoon visit of Lucien and Lucette, the bugnes were accompanied by hot chocolate, in fine cups.

The fat grocer Lucien devoured those bugnes with hot chocolate as if his survival as a mortal on the planet Earth might depend upon this subsistence. The summit of Madeleine's recollection of this Sunday-afternoon encounter was the moment of their separation.

LUCETTE: We really must get going, Madeleine. Thanks so much for those bugnes and the hot chocolate. Lucien and I hadn't intended to disturb you this afternoon.

LUCIEN: Yes, Lucette has to prepare dinner. Then the gluttonous grocer turned towards his wife Lucette. What do think, my dear, about a dish of fried sardines and turnips?

After all those bugnes and hot chocolate on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Pont-en-Royans, and the gastronomical promise of an evening meal of sardines and turnips for Lucien, Madeleine has remained a little disgusted (maybe a milder word would be appropriate) for the last half-century. Meanwhile, we are the champions of the world of food.

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