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The memoir of a young diplomat’s wife who must reinvent her dream of living in Paris—one dish at a time
When journalist Ann Mah’s diplomat husband is given a three-year assignment in Paris, Ann is overjoyed. A lifelong foodie and Francophile, she immediately begins plotting gastronomic adventures à deux. Then her husband is called away to Iraq on a year-long post—alone. Suddenly, Ann’s vision of a romantic sojourn in the City of Light is turned upside down.
So, not unlike another diplomatic wife, Julia Child, Ann must find a life for herself in a new city. Journeying through Paris and the surrounding regions of France, Ann combats her loneliness by seeking out the perfect pain au chocolat and learning the way the andouillette sausage is really made. She explores the history and taste of everything from boeuf Bourguignon to soupe au pistou to the crispiest of buckwheat crepes. And somewhere between Paris and the south of France, she uncovers a few of life’s truths.
Like Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French and Julie Powell’s New York Times bestseller Julie and Julia, Mastering the Art of French Eating is interwoven with the lively characters Ann meets and the traditional recipes she samples. Both funny and intelligent, this is a story about love—of food, family, and France.
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Ann Mah is a journalist and the author of Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family, and Finding Yourself. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune, Washingtonian magazine, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. In 2005, she was awarded a James Beard Foundation culinary scholarship to study in Bologna, Italy. Ann divides her time between Paris and New York City and enjoys eating everywhere. Visit annmah.net.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Paris / Steak Frites
I’m not a voracious carnivore, but there’s something about being in Paris that makes me want to sink my teeth into a bloody piece of beef. Perhaps it’s the French paradox, the seductive theory that a diet rich in cheese, meat, and red wine actually lowers cholesterol. Perhaps it’s watching all those sexy French women purse their lipsticked mouths while slicing through a juicy chop.
Steak frites is a relatively easy thing to order if, like me, you’re still struggling to master those nasal French vowels. The words fly off the tongue, without any hidden surprises—unlike, say, asking the waiter about preservatives only to find out you’ve interrogated him on condoms. But, as I found out during one of my first meals in a classic Paris bistro, ordering a steak leads to more questions.
“Quel cuisson désirez-vous?” said the waiter in an offhand way, like asking my date of birth or my hair color. He wore round glasses, a white shirt with a black bow tie, and a long black apron that reached past his knees. It was difficult to discern who was older: him or the desiccated leg of ham hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room.
Thus far I had tricked the waiter into thinking I spoke French, but now, I realized, the jig was up. Medium, I thought, and tried a quick, desperate translation. “Uh . . . moyen?”
A look of weary disappointment crossed his face. But he’d been around enough American tourists to know what I meant. “À point,” he corrected me.
Later I would memorize all my steak vocabulary—the hot sear and chilled interior of bleu, the rosy glow of à point, the tough brown gnaw of bien cuit. I would learn how to enjoy a steak the French way—saignant—with a magenta center and juices that ran red. But at that moment I just repeated the words after him and washed them down with a gulp of wine.
I’ve wanted to live in Paris since I was six, when my family and I took a summer vacation to Europe. We went to London first, gray and proper, where we spent a week shivering into our teacups, even though it was mid-July, and I stared in terrified fascination at the Mohawked punks in Piccadilly Circus. Then we arrived in Paris, which was ablaze in a high-summer heat wave. It seemed alive, Paris, alive with warmth, and days that never ended, and beautiful people on the streets wearing beautiful clothes and speaking a beautiful, strange language. Every aspect of the city assailed my senses: the grand buildings in pale limestone, the parks teeming with half-naked sunbathers, the taste of baguette dipped in chocolat chaud, the seesawing sound of the sirens, the imprint of wicker café chairs against my sticky thighs, the Coca-Cola poured from chilled glass bottles that turned tepid without ice cubes, the smell of fresh croissants and ripe cheese and human sweat. It was all so new and different from the only place I really knew, our home in the sterile suburbs of Southern California. I didn’t like everything, but it all gripped me, holding me in an embrace that I would come to know was Francophilia.
The trip has gone down in Mah family lore as the nadir (or zenith, depending on who you’re talking to) of my brother’s rebellious teenage years. He spent a lot of time plugged into his Walkman while my parents coped by drinking red wine. As our voyage continued, they—my parents and brother—seemed to grow more and more matted and worn, more impatient to return home to their own routines and clothes and space. In contrast, I became more energetic as the days passed.
“I want to learn French,” I proclaimed. It felt like my destiny. After all, hadn’t my parents given me a French name, Ann Marie? They responded with wan enthusiasm, dampened even further by the sticky oppression of our hotel room. We’d had a long week of sightseeing, my parents juggling the manic highs of their nurseryrhyme-chanting young daughter with the manic lows of their adolescent son. My mother considered French impractical, a pastel bonbon of a language, the linguistic equivalent of empty calories, unlike her native tongue, the useful, fibrous Mandarin Chinese. If you have any experience at all with Chinese mothers, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I ended up studying Mandarin.
By the time I made another trip to Paris, twenty-two years had passed. The second visit was with my husband, Calvin, who had lived there for a few years during and after college. He showed me two sides of the city—his old haunts in Belleville, a scruffy neighborhood in the twentieth arrondissement, contrasted by the sweeping grandeur of Haussmann’s boulevards. Unlike so many childhood memories revisited, Paris didn’t disappoint. The city was on its best behavior during that vacation, all bright, clear June skies, a profusion of flowers in the Luxembourg Gardens, and unusually patient waiters who refrained from speaking English when I tried to order in French. They say you’re supposed to be in love in Paris, and I was, headily—with my husband, with the beautiful city, with the slim flutes of Champagne we drank while gazing at the rushing fountain on place Saint-Sulpice.
Is Paris addictive? Maybe. After that trip I abandoned all other holiday dreams. Every penny saved, every vacation week earned, was earmarked for France. We visited in the winter to shiver under covered skies that never brightened; we went in the summer to bask in the sizzle of light that stretched until eleven o’clock at night. And each time I left, I craved more. More crusty baguettes split lengthwise and spread with butter and jam. More wrought-iron balconies adorned with window-box geraniums. More Art Nouveau métro stations, more walks along the Seine, more surprise glimpses of Notre Dame caught from the bus.
When I wasn’t in Paris, I sometimes dreamed of living there, of making a home in one of the ornate stone buildings that give the city such elegant propriety. What would it be like, I wondered, to become part of a neighborhood, to be greeted at the café with a handshake, to have the woman at the boulangerie prepare my baguette without asking, to commute home by crossing the Seine? I wanted to know bus routes, to have secret shortcuts, to greet neighbors with a murmured “Bonjour.” Most of all I wanted to watch the seasons change in the market, to consume and contribute to my own small patch of French terroir, to participate—if only for a short window of time—in the small, prosaic, unbroken traditions of French cuisine. I wanted to buy a galette des rois on Epiphany and chocolate bells on Easter and foie gras at Christmas. I wanted those traditions to be mine, however temporarily, even though I knew that was a dream both impractical and abstract. We had American passports, not European ones. How could we navigate France’s notoriously Sisyphean bureaucracy? How would we support ourselves without working papers? How on earth would we ever convince one of its wooden-faced civil servants to allow us to stay?
There was one possibility but I didn’t believe it would ever happen. Calvin’s career as a diplomat meant we moved often between overseas assignments—he’d already served in Turkmenistan, New York, Beijing, and D.C. Why not Paris? And yet it seemed far-fetched to hope for such a plum assignment, even though Calvin spoke fluent French and followed French politics as avidly as he did the National League baseball standings. The American embassy in Paris was one of the most desired posts in the world, often considered a reward after hardship tours in places like Africa or Haiti, or unaccompanied stints in war zones. But now the unbelievable had happened.
We were in rural Pennsylvania, on our way to visit Calvin’s grandparents in State College, when we stopped for gas at a rest stop, Calvin checked his e-mail, and we discovered the good news. Later, in our motel room, I didn’t sleep the whole night, my mind dancing with images of picnic lunches in the Luxembourg Gardens, and casual glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, and late-night ice cream cones licked while crossing the Seine. It seemed impossible to believe— too good to be true—that we would live in Paris, together, each with our own work that we loved. The frustration I’d felt over the challenges of trailing-spousehood—lack of a steady job, lack of a steady home, distance from friends and family, loss of independence and identity—melted away with the promise of three years in Paris. Some lucky confluence of fate and aligning stars had brought us to the City of Light. Or, for me, the City of Dreams.
Before I moved to Paris, back when I was an American who fantasized about living there, I had an image of the perfect café. It had mirrored columns and a zinc bar, rattan chairs and sidewalk tables where I would nurse a glass of red wine while watching the world pass by. Grumpy waiters would serve up succulent steaks, charred on the outside, rosy within, tender enough for a knife to slip through, paired with a pile of crisp frites to mop up all the juices.
Once I got to Paris, I found out that plenty of cafés fulfilled different parts of my fantasy—some had historic charm oozing out of the coffee machine, others were modern with square plates and a list of overly sweet cocktails, still others had sun-drenched terrasses where I could indulge in a citron pressé on a summer afternoon. The café nearest to our apartment had rattan chairs and sidewalk tables; its owner, Amar, came from Tunisia, and I loved his couscous. But despite their differences, there were a few elements that tied all these cafés together: the coffee, the wine, and the steak.
The more meals I ate in Paris, the more I wanted to know: What makes the perfect steak frites? And how did it become the town’s favorite plat du jour?
The meal’s basic ingredients—beef, potatoes—don’t point back to Paris. Cattle are not traditionally raised in the surrounding area, and frites—or French fries—come, arguably, from Belgium. Perhaps its popularity lies in the dearth of options on a typical café menu, so few choices that most French people know what they’re going to order before they even sit down. Or perhaps—as William Bernet, a former butcher and owner of the lauded Paris steak bistro Le Severo, told me—it’s because of the rush of city life. “A piece of seasoned meat, it cooks in an instant—and it’s fast to eat,” he said.
Steak was brought to France by occupying English forces, sometime after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Even the word comes from the other side of the Channel, derived from the Old Norse steikjo, which means “to roast.” In fifteenth-century England, cooks dished up their meat sizzling, sprinkled with cinnamon, but by the time of Napoleon’s defeat it was eaten plain, without sauce. As is true today, steaks were originally cut from the sirloin, rump, or fillet—that is, the animal’s loin—though modern butchering techniques vary among countries and cultures. Talk to any butcher and he’ll convince you that his method produces the best, most bountiful and tender pieces of meat.
Steak is a relatively easy thing to prepare—season it, slap it into a hot pan, don’t overcook—but while talking to meat aficionados, I quickly learned about the skill and patience required for a superior version of the dish. When I arrived in Paris, a food-loving American friend sent me to the southern edge of the city to the fourteenth arrondissement, to visit William Bernet at Le Severo. Who better could explain the intricacies of a hunk of beef and a few fried potatoes?
Bernet is a thickset man with the observant eyes of an experienced waiter and professorial-style glasses that slide down his nose. He grew up in the Vosges, in northeastern France, where he trained as a butcher, eventually moving to Paris and working, among other places, at the famed Boucheries Nivernaises. In 2005 he opened Le Severo, a shoe box of a restaurant with a handful of dark wooden tables, a series of scrawled chalkboard menus covering the room’s longest wall, and a short zinc bar overlooking a kitchen big enough for one. Bernet fulfilled front-of-the-house duties—taking orders, delivering food, and recommending wine from the two hundred bottles on offer—while the cook presided over this tiny kitchen. I heard the fresh sizzle of meat hitting a hot saucepan, the crack and bubble of freshly cut Bintje potatoes twice bathed in hot oil, first an initial dip of 140ºF and then a second one at 350ºF.
Steak’s true magic, Bernet explained, happens before the meat ever hits the heat—it’s found in the aging process. He hangs whole cuts of well-marbled beef in a dry, chilled space for weeks, sometimes months, a process that concentrates the meat’s flavor and breaks down its connective tissues, resulting in richly beefy, butter-tender fillets. In French, dry-aged meat is called rassis, a term that can also refer to stale bread or to a stick-in-the-mud.
Aside from a few first-course salads; side dishes of green beans, fries, or potato puree; and classic desserts like crème brûlée, I spotted only meat on the menu: beef or veal, served plain, without sauce. That’s it. “If you write about my restaurant,” Bernet said to me with a pleading note in his voice, “please say that I would prefer it if vegetarians came here as little as possible. I just don’t have anything to offer them.”
One flight down from the dining room was Bernet’s lair, a tiny, brightly lit basement workshop where he butchered sides of beef into individual portions like the bavette (skirt steak), faux-filet (strip steak), or entrecôte (rib eye). In a corner of the room was a walk-in refrigerator, cooled to 35ºF, where he hung his oversize cuts to dry and age. Inside, the racks of meat gleamed dully, like unpolished jewels, ruby red against a startlingly white layer of fat. Bernet held up two pieces of beef, one aged, one not. “Before it’s rassis it still smells like the slaughterhouse,” he said. I dutifully sniffed both pieces. They smelled exactly the same to me—a faint, raw, damp whiff of aging animal. Some of the older pieces of beef had developed a dark, furry mold on their surface, a crust that Bernet would trim off when portioning the meat for service. (When I asked if I could take a photo of the meat locker, he gave me a horrified look. “I would never allow a picture of this to be published!” he said. “It’s too unappetizing—no one would ever come to eat in my restaurant again.”)
Today, under the constraints of time and profit, the practice of aging beef in France is disappearing. A well-aged slice of beef has lost at least 30 percent of its original volume in evaporation—a considerable amount if your product is sold by weight. It’s next to impossible to find a Parisian butcher or steak bistro offering boeuf rassis, Bernet told me. He checked the refrigerator’s meat, rewrapping some pieces in muslin, turning others, handling them as if he were an artist and these hunks of flesh his oeuvres. He showed me a côte de boeuf, a prized cut that sells in the restaurant for eighty euros for two people, turning it from one side to the other. “It takes at least thirty days—minimum—to age a côte de boeuf properly,” he said. “If only I could double that. Six...
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Book Description Pamela Dorman Books, 2013. Hardcover. Condition: New. New with remainder mark. Seller Inventory # 1406050008
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