Loving Your Work: Hilary Reyl on “Eating What I Love”

This month, Ideasmyth’s Ideablog is exploring all angles of the theme “loving your work”–a topic that comes up very often with our clients. Especially as in: “How the hell can I start loving my work?!”

Eating What I Love


The artichoke hearts were as Clarence had described them, only more perfect. There were two of them in the center of my large gold-rimmed plate. Each heart was mounded with cream, latticed with green beans and sparkled over with a bright dice of tomatoes.

Here is an essay I enjoyed writing on French food, writing and memory.

When I was eleven, I had the best meal of my life: half a dozen oysters followed by escargots swimming in butter, garlic and parsley, followed by a tournedos Rossini, a filet mignon topped with foie gras, accompanied by a creamy potato gratin and string beans, followed by a cheese plate consisting of my three favorites at the time, Camembert, Livarot and Pont Levecque, followed by a poire belle Helene, vanilla ice cream, poached pear, warm chocolate, whipped cream. This was the fifty-five franc prix-fixe at a small country inn in a land-locked and unchic part of Normandy called l’Orne. Fifty five francs was about fourteen dollars at the time. My parents and my sister, because they couldn’t eat as much, had the three course, forty-franc, or ten-dollar, prix-fixe, so they missed out on the second appetizer and had to choose between cheese and dessert. But I was having my growth spurt and hungry for everything.

I have a profoundly vivid memory for food. I also have a vivid memory for the year between September 1978 and August 1979, which my family spent in Normandy renting the servants’ cottage of a small chateau. My father had a year of Fulbright money left to work on his dissertation with a professor in England. He and my mother thought it would be fun to move to Paris so that my sister and I could learn French. We spent a month there, but Paris was too expensive for us and the school there put us in a class for all the étrangers who didn’t speak French and for whom the most common language was English. So, when they saw a rural cottage advertised at the American Embassy, they figured it was not only within our budget but that it promised full immersion.

Monsieur et Madame Perichon, the husband and wife teaching team in our tiny village, who taught generations of farmers how to read in their two-room school house, took us under their wing and had my sister and me speaking in no time. My love of French is tactile, a love of rolling green fields, sheep, cows, barns, forests, blackberry patches, exposed beams, stone cider presses and pungent cheese. Learning to read and write a foreign language was so thrilling for me that I could practically taste the words; I chose them as I would morsels from an overflowing plate.

Our village was too small to have a restaurant, but our school had a kitchen and a canteen room of two long wooden tables. A stout widow spent the morning cooking our meal and then served it, along with our teachers. There were always three courses, starting with something simple like vegetable soup or paté, then moving on to veal or beef stew, roast chicken or breaded fish on Fridays. My favorite was rabbit, usually with carrots, but at our last lunch before Christmas it came with prunes. Dessert was yogurt, thin apple tart or flan, sometimes chocolate and sometimes vanilla. As the school year progressed, and I got closer to Madame Perichon, I realized how much of her own heart went into these lunches. Since a fair number of children couldn’t afford to pay, she drove around to various merchants and farmers, wheeling and dealing. She herself made the flans at night and brought them to school in little glass pots that she and the widow washed and reused. To this day, little glass pots of dessert make me unspeakably happy.

When we moved home to Pasadena, California, I started the seventh grade on scholarship at a private girls school. The education was great, but for the first time in my life I deeply wanted all sorts of things I couldn’t have, from vacation homes to fancy cars to monogrammed sweaters in rainbow colors. I felt out of place with my academic parents in their genteel poverty. And in a land of brown-bag lunches and frozen yogurt, I was nostalgic for French food. But that too was out of my reach. The restaurants here were too expensive to be anything but a special treat, and the only option at school was a greasy burrito and french fry truck. I conflated my feelings of desire into one frustrated wish for a fabulous meal, a duck maybe, like the one that had magically appeared on the table at a school friend’s farm back in Normandy, followed by tarte tatin.
I was saved from my self-pity by my maternal grandmother, Nadine Blumstein, Nanny, who told me that she used to think that French food was out of her league. She had traveled in Europe as a younger woman, fallen in love with the cuisine, but assumed it was specific to time and place. Then, in 1961, she read a review in the Los Angeles Times that caused her to jump into her car and drive, from her house at the top of Laurel Canyon, into the San Fernando Valley to buy Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It used American measures, cups, teaspoons, and explained the techniques for the American cook. I can still hear the excited tremor in her normally calm voice. Did I want to learn to cook with her?

I asked if we could make a duck, then immediately regretted such an outlandish request. But Nanny said, of course we could. We went to Chinatown to procure one. We rendered fat, we made stock, we roasted the bird with fresh oranges, we deglazed, we added grand marnier and butter. And while this was happening, our chocolate mousse, her favorite, was chilling, stiff with egg whites that I now saw would froth to peaks when beaten with a pinch of salt and were the secret to many a French miracle. By Sunday night of our weekend together, we had a three course meal: vichyssoise, duck à l’orange and mousse au chocolat. We invited the whole family, and everyone sat for a long time to eat and talk. I have rarely felt so proud or so free.

Nanny and I began a tradition, at least one weekend a month, of cooking from Julia Child together. I will never forget reading in her introduction that in order to cook good French food you had to stop worrying about your “waistline.” I learned the virtues of butter and cream. I learned that cool dishes need a trace more salt than hot. I learned about the flavor that leaches out of bones and its place at the root of taste. I learned to slowly caramelize onions and to make a flour and butter roux that would thicken any sauce. But mostly I learned that taking the time for loving preparation brings true delight. That was what Monsieur and Madame Perichon were trying to teach me as they patiently fed me French words along with their hearty school lunches. And it was what Nanny imparted from her own humble study of the pleasures of the table. I am forever grateful to them for showing me that I too can bring about happiness.
I have recently come across a wonderful book inspired by Julia Child’s time in France called Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah. Mah dedicates each of her chapters to a regional French dish, exploring its history, techniques, current significance to French cuisine, and her own personal discovery and sensual experience. A highly recommended journey.


~~~Hilary Reyl has a PhD in French Literature from NYU with a focus on the 19th Century, and has spent several years working and studying in France. She lives in New York City with her family. Lessons in French is her first published novel. She is currently working on a novel called Borrasca, a father-daughter caper set in Southern California in the 1970′s, as well as a young adult novel with a magical Proustian theme. Learn more about Hilary at www.hilaryreyl.com.

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