I was saving this story for my memoirs but decided that in honor of my 75th birthday today, and because my treasured friend Max Brossellet died last month, I would share it now.
Ma Vie en Rose #1
It all began with Mimi Sheraton, restaurant reviewer of the New York Times, who came to interview me about my upcoming cooking school. She complimented me on the mini cheesecake which I made for her and the choice of coffee I served (I knew from reading her columns which bean she preferred and where she got it), but she told me that my cake decorating needed to be more elegant and suggested that I study at LeNôtre in France. My response was: Now I can tell my husband that Mimi Sheraton said I should study there. And I lost no time in enrolling in a class. Part of my rush was that I was pregnant and knew that if I had a baby, it would be a long time before I would be willing to leave it to go to go to France.
The class on entremets (cakes) happened to fall on the week before Christmas. French friends warned me that the French don’t invite people for dinner and that the most I could hope for is a cocktail hour invitation. They also advised me that at Christmas time there was no chance of invitation at all. Happily, I ignored the advice.
The day of departure, as I was rushing to leave, I got a call from my great uncle Nat, telling me I had to call his friend Nadège when in Paris and that we would cook together. I didn’t have time to ask if this was a man or woman or anything more about his recommendation, but on arriving in Paris I followed his advice. It turned out that Nadège was a married woman with three children and that she loved to cook. I was promptly invited to cocktail hour at their home on the left bank, a few blocks from Les Invalides.
The drawing room, with handmade lace curtains gracing the long French windows, was a study in elegance. I sat perched at the edge of my chair, trying to mind my manners and speak in the best French I could manage. Max, the husband, asked me a few polite questions, but things fell apart when he asked the inevitable question “avez-vous des enfants?” I started to answer but, to my horror, tears began welling up and try as hard as I could they would not stop. So, I explained that I had recently had a miscarriage (I didn’t know the French expression at the time so in error I said abortion!). Max’s response was immediate and gently compassionate. He said Je pense que vous avez des caffards, which translates to I think you have roaches, but actually is an idiom for I think you are homesick. And, to my total amazement, he added that I should move in with them during my stay in Paris!
My grandmother, in all her wisdom, had taught me always to look to the wife, which was my first response, and when I did, her expression changed from concern to compassion equal to that of her husband’s.
So I said: “Oui!” The next step was to write down the exact address to get there by taxi. I got out my prized Mont-blanc fountain pen, the size of a small cigar, and Max’s eyes light up with appreciation. “Ah un Mont Blanc!” he exclaimed and asked me if he could use it to write the address. Now, I had been told never to let anyone write with my pen because the gold nib, which had softened to my handwriting, would be altered. So I explained this to Max and instead of his being intimidated he exclaimed with delight un vierge! (a virgin). I weakly countered by telling him it was a bit scratchy to which he smiled and said: I’ll smooth it out. Realizing that I had just achieved the near impossible of being invited not only to dinner but to live with this French family at Christmas time, it seemed utterly ridiculous to withhold my pen so I handed it over to him. And thus began a friendship that lasted for over 30 years.
But here comes my favorite part of the story: I went back that very night to pack my things and took a cab from the humble hotel where I had been staying. The ride started out badly when I showed the driver the address and he told me that he couldn’t drive into that street which meant I would have to carry my heavy bags for several blocks. By then, the cab had filled up with thick smoke from a Gitane cigarette the burley cab driver was enjoying. Timidly I asked him if he would mind putting it out. The response was a wordless grumble of discontent so I followed it up with: “Well anyway, it’s not good for the healthy.” Pas bonne pour la sainté? Not good for the health? He spat out twice in succession. You can’t eat, you can’t smoke, you can’t drink anymore, what is left? And as always, my sense of humor got the better of me and I replied softly and with a smile in my voice: En peut toujours faire l’amour.* The driver stopped the car to turn around and scrutinize what manner of woman, with good French but American accent, would have the nerve to utter those words. And then he smiled and said in a resigned but amused tone: Oui! En peut tourjours faire ça. Madam! I will take you wherever you want to go. This was a moment I will never forget. And with that he drove me right up to the door of my new friends’ apartment house--la famille Brossollet.
The plan of my visit was that I would return for a few days after attending the baking classes and stay for Christmas, in fact, Nadège asked if I would make a bûche de Noël based on what I was to learn chez LeNôtre. But though Nadège was a first rate cook, she was not a baker and her oven door did not close securely which would not be suitable for baking. By the time I returned, however, just one week later, Max had bought her a new oven for my bûche to be! Nadège got out her collection of tiny toy buglers to decorate it and we all thought it was a great success. But I think what meant the most to her was that as her teenage children were mocking the holiday, saying how bored they were and that it was toujours la même chose (always the same thing), I succeeded in giving them a different perspective by telling them how I had been warned not to expect hospitality of the sort I was enjoying, and that I felt it to be a great honor to be included as part of the family at such a sacred time.
Nadège, Max, and I were close friends for many years and many visits. Yes, Nadège and I cooked together and shared many intimacies and experiences, and Max, owner of the esteemed Belin publishing company, and also publisher of the French edition of Scientific American Magazine, was a fascinating conversationalist. During my last visit to their weekend Moulin in Normandy, Max drove me over to the ancient nearby church and told me that someday I would be able to visit them there because that is where they would be interned.
The thought of losing this incredibly dear man made me very sad. But also, it was during that visit that I realized it would probably be my last one and for a different reason. When I tried to share with Nadège my recipe for roast duck on the grill, she stopped me short by saying that all I ever wanted to talk about was food. I will always miss both Brossollets and sometimes dream about Nadège. I’m left with the feeling that I must have done something wrong but can’t imagine what. I guess people change. But I prefer the French expression plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. I still stay in touch with their son Martin who was always very special to me as a young boy. I will admit that food is my window on the world, but it is not all that I am. You will see some of the rest if I ever get to write the rest of my memoirs.
* Tragically, this theoretical compensation I had suggested also became bad for the health with the advent of AIDS.