I am not, and never will be, a five-star chef. Nor do I see myself as a food writer. That being said, food is one of the pillars of French culture and, therefore, it seems appropriate, no, mandatory, to share one of the many cooking experiences I’ve had during my six months living here. The French way of eating isn’t exactly new to me. I grew up eating a very Mediterranean diet with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish and other lean proteins. Growing up, my brother and I never really ate the “kid foods” that America succeeded in mass-producing and that unfortunately, can now be found on the shelves of French supermarkets as well. I don’t think a bag of Goldfish ever crossed the threshold of our home, my father only recently “discovered” the existence of frozen pizzas as a empty-nesting single father, and Lunchables were a treat reserved for the last day of school. And I have a distinct memory of being made fun of in third grade when I shared with my class that my favorite food was steamed eggplant and homemade split pea soup. Although I suspect that had more to do with the fact that half of my classmates had no idea what kind of vegetable that is and the other sounds like a bodily fluid. I got over it.
Despite my eclectic taste in food at a young age, I have always hated cooking. Actually, it was more the idea of it that I hated because I never really gave it a shot. I was content watching my parents work their magic in the kitchen. Both are very good cooks but now that she is no longer here to whip up her recipes from scratch, I look back on her cooking with a special fondness. Soups of all colors and a variety of mixtures, stir frys, quiches, casseroles, ratatouille, I could keep going. And until returning to France in September, these flavors and smells had been missing from my life for over three years. The dishes my family makes over here taste like memories of Saturday afternoons spent doing my homework at the kitchen table while my mom prepared dinner.
As the months have progressed, I’ve put my keen observational skills to use and made an effort to note how to create these magnificent dishes. I’ve asked questions about the process as well as the techniques. But what has surprised me the most in my six-month study is the casual attitude yet sincere dedication that French culture has toward cooking. While watching my uncle prepare what was to be the most life-changing chicken curry I’ve ever eaten, I asked him how he got to be such a good cook. He laughed, saying he just “throws things together,” a concept that is completely beyond my skill at this point. When my American cousin came to visit and made a similar remark over a pot-au-feu, the comment was also brushed off. Again and again, I have witnessed family members and friends downplay their ability to create a delicious five-course meal, some including delicacies such as a heavenly foie gras and a chocolate mousse that just melts in your mouth. How do these people not realize how amazingly good the food that they’re making is, I kept asking myself. The fact is that they do not identify themselves as being good cooks. They just see a need to create a wholesome, delicious meal that will feed plenty and they do just that. In America, I think those of us who are not naturally inclined to learn how to cook tend to view it as a skill than is endowed upon others rather than something that anyone can learn to do. You might not be a five-star chef (and I am not trying to take away from those who are incredibly talented in the kitchen), but you can still eat well and become knowledgeable in the kitchen.
I didn’t understand this self-denial of an appreciated and admired skill until last week when my family invited some friends over for dinner on the spur of the moment. In participating in this race against the clock to create a tasty and presentable meal, I think I finally understand this difference in thinking about cooking. So, here is a breakdown of what you need to put together a French dinner party in an hour and fifteen minutes:
First, put a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator to chill. If this is not done right away and you end up serving lukewarm champagne, all is lost before you’ve even touched a pot. I’m not actually sure if this is so much a part of French culture as much as just a family standard. But you’ve been warned; if you serve warm champagne to a Barbier, they’ll start bringing their own chilled champagne to your party.
Secondly, you’ll need to be as busy as possible the day of said party. You have other things to do than spend the entire day in the kitchen slaving over a meal. There is nothing like repeatedly putting yourself in this position to put you off cooking entirely. To avoid such drudgery, pick dishes that you know you are good at making and that you could practically prepare in your sleep. Keep in mind that dinner parties are about the comradery and sharing food with other people, so who cares how fancy the dish is or how long it took you to make it.
Secondly, make sure you have all hands on deck. Recruit all members of the household to participate in the mad rush of peeling and chopping vegetables, greasing pans, boiling water, etc. It doesn’t matter if those among you have never peeled a turnip or don’t know the proper technique for slicing a pear. The way you learn these things is by doing them. As long as they’re not slicing off their finger, put them to work. Take care of all peeling/chopping/dicing/washing of ingredients at the start so that everything is ready to be thrown in when needed.
Next, carefully evaluate what needs to be put in the oven first and which dishes can go in together, if possible. Maximizing how you use your oven is essential for throwing together a last minute dinner party. Prepare each dish in assembly line fashion (this should be mad easier by the fact that all your ingredients are all ready to go) and delight in the intricate dance of three people moving around a small space, passing platters to and from the oven. If you are said vegetable peeler who just barely walked away with all her fingers, this may be your cue to leave the vicinity and let the more experienced jugglers handle the rest. Besides, you only have thirty minutes left until your guests arrive so you’re in charge of setting the table.
If you didn’t stop by your fromagier for cheese, make sure you have a delicious dessert. If you don’t have time to make a dessert, take the time to prepare a killer cheese platter. Either or may serve as the last course of a meal, especially for a last-minute dinner invitation. No one will ask any questions.
Once the last dish is simmering, the table is set, and all disputes have been settled, it’s time to get dressed. You have ten minutes to choose something to wear and do your hair and makeup, but that’s okay because aren’t the best outfits the ones you don’t have that much time to think about?
Break out the *perfectly chilled* champagne. This is mandatory.