Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 2: TASTE
Chapter 20. Poor Food?
the faint sound of a hard-boiled egg firmly cracked on a tin counter
it’s terrible this faint sound
when it stirs the memory of a starving man.
JACQUES PRÉVERT, “La Grasse Matinée” (Sleeping In)
Forty years ago, the Greek island of Hydra was just a backwater at the end of a four-hour boat ride from Athens. The little kafeneion where I went looking for lunch wasn’t the most appealing, just the only one still open after the departure of the ferry. How was I—a young Australian, visiting Europe for the first time—to know that the moment the tourists disappeared on the boat that brought them, so would all the cafés and bars as the locals closed up shop and went home to eat or sleep?
Back then, Greek restaurants still honored the tradition of “the look”—a visit to the kitchen to check what was on offer. But in this case the cook, a gaunt woman in an apron with enough stains to feed a family for a week, appeared diffident, particularly when I showed interest in a vegetable stew simmering at the back of the stove.
Tugging my sleeve, she drew me to the back door. Just outside, a scrawny sheep revolved on a spit over palely glimmering coals.
“Lamb,” she said encouragingly. “Is good.”
I shook my head and pointed to the stew: “This.”
“No, no. Zis … zis is …” She groped for the words. “Poor food.”
She didn’t mean it was bad, but rather that it was what the locals ate. Unlike tourists, they couldn’t afford to dine every day on lamb.
Grudgingly, she served me a plate of what I’d come to know as briami but which Greeks call simply tourlou—“mix-up”: zucchini, eggplant, onion, potatoes, and tomatoes, all richly oiled, herbed, and garlicked, then braised with a little water. With a basket of fresh pita to mop up the sauce and a carafe of the local red demestica, I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. My appreciation won her over, since she plonked down a battered pot of fragrant sweetened coffee and homemade baklava oozing honey and waved away my payment. Briefly, I had become one of them, the eaters of “poor food.”
This was the culinary world in which I had been raised in rural Australia. For people like my parents, who’d endured the Depression and World War II, meat was a luxury reserved for Sundays, when a chicken or a leg of lamb provided the week’s biggest meal. The French movie star Jean Gabin, who began his career in the 1920s, was asked why he became an actor. “So I could eat meat every day,” he shrugged. Meat every day? To most people of his generation—and that included my parents—this was inconceivable, even a little obscene.
We lived at the edge of town in a clapboard bungalow roofed in corrugated iron. On the acre of ground behind the house, we grew tomatoes and lettuce in summer, carrots and potatoes in winter. A dozen fruit trees, ancient and gnarled, provided tart apples for pies and bitter, thick-skinned oranges for marmalade. Our kitchen stove burned wood or, if we were lucky, coal, which my young brother and I scavenged from the railway embankment at the foot of our street. There was no snobbery about eating what we grew. It was how we survived.
At fifteen, I took a job with the railways that had furnished all that free coal and fled to the city. As a bachelor with little money, I taught myself to cook. Instead of taking women to restaurants, I invited them to my tiny apartment for dinners of asparagus with Hollandaise sauce or lamb roasted with fresh rosemary. What impressed them was the fact that in a country where, traditionally, men only entered the kitchen in search of a corkscrew, this one had cooked for them.
Once I settled in the United States, the concept of “poor food” became increasingly remote. I never expected to see it in Georgetown, the most prosperous neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and least of all in the home of a former high government official. My girlfriend was good friends with his daughter, who explained he’d lost his job in the last change of administration. The family had kept its silver and porcelain, but times were so hard they were surviving on food stamps. Nothing, however, would force them to lower their standards, least of all for their traditional Christmas dinner for more than twenty friends and neighbors, including my girlfriend and me.
Only someone raised in similar circumstances would have noticed the stratagems used by our hostess to create a—superficially, at least—lavish meal. Her decanters were Baccarat but I recognized the wine as supermarket burgundy. The well-flavored aspic of the jellied starter disguised the fact that the meat was stewed pork cheeks, while the host carved the rolled, stuffed lamb shoulder with such ceremony that one didn’t notice the thinness of the slices and how liberally he piled each plate with baked potatoes, canned tomato casserole with cheese and breadcrumbs, creamed-corn pudding, and that southern specialty, Mock Oyster, in which eggplant baked with eggs and Ritz crackers miraculously assumes the flavor and texture of an oyster casserole.
I thought again of the cook on Hydra. Why should we be ashamed of using modest resources with intelligence and creativity? “Poor food” shouldn’t be an apology, but a boast.
And then I moved to Paris.
As a working journalist since college, my new wife had never learned to cook. She loved to eat, however, particularly the dishes of her childhood as their housekeeper had prepared them.
“Pot-au-feu,” she rhapsodized. “Gratin d’endives au jambon. Hachis parmentier. Blanquette de veau …”
Pot-au-feu? But that was just cheap cuts of beef simmered with potatoes, leeks, and turnips. Hachis parmentier was that old meat-stretching standby, Shepherd’s Pie—minced leftover lamb baked under a layer of mashed potato. For blanquette de veau, one stewed tough cuts of veal, then cloaked them in the stock thickened with egg yolk. As for endive, few vegetables were cheaper, even if, as in the recipe she remembered, you rolled each one in ham and baked them in a cheese sauce.
Not to the French, however. To transform pig’s blood into boudin noir, duck livers into pâté, and baked snails into escargots, a delicious dish that has become a national icon, wasn’t economy but art.