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A James Beard Award-winning food writer describes her rise to a starring role on a PBS television series, work as New York magazine's "Underground Gourmet," and family culinary adventures throughout the world. By the author of Return to Paris and Apricots on the Nile. 20,000 first printing.
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Colette Rossant is the author of eight cook-books and the memoirs Apricots on the Nile and Return to Paris. A James Beard Award-nominated journalist, she divides her time between New York and France.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1: The Move
We are on our way to Le Havre. The train is going so fast that the landscape is all but a blur. From time to time, I can see a farm in the mist surrounded by a sea of green fields. I am excited but also scared. It is 1955, and we are on our way to New York. Jimmy and I were married a couple of months ago. Anne, his widowed mother, was at our wedding as was his brother, Murray, but without his wife. The week before our wedding, Anne and my mother fought all the time: two jealous women bickering about dresses, jewelry, food, me, and God knows what else. They were horrible, like two witches. They nearly ruined my wedding. But as usual Mira, my stepfather, saved the day. Mira, born in Normandy, believed that food, that is, very good food, could solve any problem. He took Anne to lunch in a two stars restaurant. She loved it. Back home, she talked lovingly about eating snails with Swiss Char.
"I had a great lunch! Snails with Swiss Char? I had never had that before. I simply loved it," she had said smiling happily for the first time in weeks. My mother looked slightly miffed.
"Well, Anne, I'm so happy you liked it. Mira does know the best restaurants. Maybe tomorrow you and I can try La Coupole?"
"Yes, of course! But only if you let me take you out for lunch."
From that day on, my mother and Anne had a truce that lasted until the day of the wedding.
Anne's choice of a dress for the wedding, a pale green tulle dress shocked my conservative mother. "Can you imagine? At her age! Wearing a young ballerina's dress!" my mother had whispered on the telephone to her best friend a few days before the wedding, recounting all the real or imagined problems she had had with my future mother-in-law. My stepfather once again saved the day by taking them both out to dinner at Potin on Avenue Victor Hugo, using the excuse that they should try the food as Potin was catering the wedding reception. "Anne loves sole," he had whispered to me, "they make the best one in Paris." He was right. The two women both chose and devoured the sole meunière. The next few days were calm despite the problems I had with my brother and my grandmother.
My brother, who was doing his military service in Algeria, had refused to come to my wedding on the grounds that Jimmy was an American and therefore not well educated.
"Marry a Frenchman," he had written, "not an American. He does not belong in our family."
I had not gotten along with him since I came back to Paris from Egypt in 1947 because he resented me invading his space.
My French grandmother, who also objected to my marrying Jimmy as he was not the young man of her choice, had refused to attend the wedding and had left the country for the States to visit old friends. I had loved my grandfather. Although he had died just before we came back to Paris, I remembered him quite well as we lived in Paris until I was six and left in 1939 when my father became ill, and my Egyptian grandfather, thinking that the hot Egyptian climate would help him get better, summoned us to Cairo. My brother disliked Cairo, the heat, the noise, and above all, seeing my father ill and helpless. I was too young and did not realize how seriously ill he was. Within a few weeks of our stay in Cairo, my brother who was then ten years old, wanted to leave and go back to Paris. My parents, ill advised, and despite the rumors of an impending war, sent my brother back, alone, to France to live with my French grandparents. I would not see my brother again until I was fifteen.
My father died a year later. Two years after that, my mother, now a thirty-year-old widow, decided that she needed to find herself, to seek a new life and a new husband. A young child, she felt, would hamper her style; therefore, she decided that I would live with my Egyptian grandparents, and for the next five years, I never saw or heard from her.
We were a large extended Jewish Sephardic family. We lived in an enormous house, near the Nile, in the posh neighborhood of Garden City. My grandparents, their two grown daughters, and I lived on the first floor. My grandparent's oldest son, his wife, and five of their children lived on the second floor. On the third and fourth floor lived two of his other children with their wives and children.
The family was large (my grandmother had had nine children), boisterous, and loving. Being the youngest of all the children and also being treated by everyone as an orphan, I was looked after by uncles, aunts, and older cousins. I had the run of the house, but my favorite hiding place was the kitchen. I loved the warmth of the kitchen. It is there that I fell in love with food and Ahmet, the cook who treated me like his own child. By the age of fifteen, my mother reappeared and insisted that I return to Paris to further my education. I was heartbroken to leave my Egyptian family, especially when my mother, once in Paris, left me with her mother, a paragon of rectitude. Mother once again disappeared for another three years.
My French grandmother disliked me intensely for several reasons: one, for having, like my mother, converted to Catholicism; two, for speaking French with an Egyptian accent; and finally, for not being elegant. Furthermore, she felt I was unsettling the close-knit circle consisting of her and my brother (my grandfather had died at the end of the war). I was having quite a miserable time, trying to woo my grandmother and my brother, both of whom ignored me, and trying to lose my Egyptian accent and learning to become a Parisian. I failed to woo them, but eventually lost my Egyptian accent. As for becoming a real Parisian, the task was too tough as I was short, plump, and I had no one to teach me how to dress properly and be elegant.
Jimmy and I had met in 1949, when I was sixteen. Anne had offered Jimmy a trip to Europe after his graduation. She had met my grandparents before the war, and they had remained good friends; she had given him their address in Paris in case he ran out of money, which he did. To a sixteen-year-old teenager, this twenty-year-old, tall, handsome American was a dream come true. We fell in love, and to my mother's dismay, I announced that I wanted to marry him right away. My mother, who for years had not paid attention to me, became suddenly very involved. I cried, got angry, but I could do nothing to change her mind. She kept on repeating the same thing over and over: "Ridiculous! You are too young; you are still in high school; he has to go back to school and choose a profession. No more talk about marriage."
Her mother, for the first time, agreed with her. Then finally, to stop the argument, my mother said that if in five years we still felt the same way, we could get married. Jimmy and I swore that we would wait. He promised to come back for me. We corresponded from time to time, and five years later, as promised, he reappeared in my life. Jimmy was then doing his military service and was stationed in Munich, Germany. To the horror of my family, especially my grandmother, I joined him in Munich where we lived together for a year until we could get married. Jimmy was in the intelligence corps and getting permission to marry a foreigner while in the service took a whole year.
We were finally married on September 8, 1955. The wedding was lovely; the reception at Potin went well even if a former boyfriend, Francis, drunk and angry that I had turned him down, threw a glass of champagne in Jimmy's face. Everyone laughed; the rest of the evening was more peaceful. After the wedding, we went back to Germany. Jimmy had another nine months to serve. He was discharged in Munich, and together we went to live and work in Italy. By the end of 1956, Jimmy felt it was time to return to New York and start a new life there as an architect and also a family.
We went back to Paris to say our good-byes. On our last Sunday, Mira suggested that Jimmy and I go to the Boulevard Raspail market to buy food for lunch and dinner. As we walked through the market, the smells were overwhelming. Jimmy wanted to buy everything. We stopped in front of an asparagus stand. The first asparagus of the season: white fat asparagus with purple tops next to bunches of pale green wild asparagus that looked more like ferns. We bought some of each. Then we stopped at a charcuterie stand and bought some pâté de campagne, duck rillette, and boudin noir (blood sausages). We bought two pounds of cherries and I ate half of them as we continued our walk. The cheese stand was our next stop. There I bought a chèvre and a piece of Cantal's and Mira's favorite cheese, a ripe Reblochon. Just before leaving the market, I picked up crusty country bread and a dozen farm fresh eggs. Back at home, I showed Mira our purchases. Jimmy was hovering over us saying he was starving and wanted lunch. Mira and I decided to make asparagus with boiled eggs, one of Mira's specialties. We agreed that we would start with the white asparagus, then serve the boudin with mashed potatoes, and prepare the wild asparagus with mushrooms for dinner. As we peeled the asparagus, Mira handed me a raw one to eat. Crunchy and delicious, tasting like freshly cut grass.
Once cooked, I placed some asparagus on each plate with a boiled egg and clarified butter. I had to explain to Jimmy how to eat them.
"Pour a tablespoon of melted butter in the egg, add salt and pepper, and mix it with a spoon, then dip the asparagus in the egg."
We all laughed when Jimmy picked up his knife and fork to eat the asparagus. In France, I explained to him, you don't cut asparagus; you pick it up with your fingers and eat it, sucking the stalks. The light, creamy taste of the egg yolk enhances the soft, earthy taste of the asparagus. Mira said that sometimes he adds some truffle juice but that he had none that day. For dinner, we steamed the wild asparagus, sautéed the mushrooms, and served the asparagus topped with the mushrooms. Jimmy smiled. "Delicious. I never tasted something so light and fresh. I don't want to leave Paris!" We both looked at him.
"Are you serious?" I asked.
"No. I want to go back. New York is wher...
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