A Question of Taste
by Meredith Escudier
Raising babies gave me a much-needed opportunity to learn how to cook. Raising babies in France where I was building a family with my young French husband probably lifted the bar a few inches higher. Up until then, although the daughter of a gifted and intuitive home-cooking mother, I had remained impervious to any instruction, instead staking out the daughterly role of cursory table-setter and enthusiastic diner. I did excel in sandwich-making though, dabbling in the layered Dagwood variety during adolescence and its attendant rush of ravenous appetite, but such experience was useless in France when confronted with real-live babies with no teeth in sight and no sentimental sandwich lore in their background anyway. They were, however, hungry. Everyday. And learning to cook for my tiny titans was a pressing imperative.
It is true that I didn’t attempt canard à l’orange or côte de boeuf for my little charges. Their baby teeth, barely cutting through, would have to wait a while before tearing unctuous flesh from the bone of a bird or the rib of a bovine. They couldn’t chew or cut their meat, fork up tomato slices or fold up lettuce leaves. Nor could they be expected to de-bone their fish or twirl up spaghetti carbonara with a fancy flourish, but such natural limitations offered me, their new and inexperienced mother, a clear framework whose terrain I could explore. Besides, their talents lay elsewhere. With admirable conviction, they could suck, slurp, lick and sort of inhale as they worked their reflexes to transport food from the front of their mouths to their throats. Good enough. As for their palates, I fully trusted them as the attributes and arbiters of future gourmets. Right or wrong, my confiance was boundless.
Daily, I made them little soups, logically enough, la soupe du jour. Quantities were modest and perfectly doable: One potato, a carrot, maybe a floating leaf of lettuce or two, or if not, the French classical potato/leek combination whose fast rolling boil brought on a thick cloudiness that told me it was done. A bit of butter, a dash of salt and it was good enough for us all. Depending on their abilities to ingest, either sucking soup through the enlarged nipple of a baby bottle or opening their little mouths for the step-by-step spoon feeding, I either pureed it or fork-mashed up the solid parts. The yolk of a hard-boiled egg or better yet, ground veal liver (the freshly-cooked, darkly powerful veau de génisse…did I really do this?) could be mixed into the mash to provide the protein I thought advisable to include.
Snack time varied in content, but never in time. 4 o’clock? C’est le goûter, time for a mashed banana, say, with petits suisses. Yes, I added sugar to this creamy cheese that came packaged in clusters of 6 little cylinders, smartly snapping them off two by two from the pack. The petits suisses came in two versions, one proposing 40% butterfat, the other 60%. Untroubled by excessive matière grasse, I chose 60% and my babies (who later turned into slim young men) loved it. I did my part as well, spooning up the last bits for myself in a ritual worthy of any weary, watchful mother.
And so it went, the day punctuated by the reliable regularity of a hungry baby and a hungry toddler. Without their imperious needs, I seriously wonder whether I would have learned to wield a good kitchen knife, fitting its smooth wooden handle comfortably into the palm of my hand. Without my children, would I have learned to peel potatoes and watch the earth-encrusted potato skins working their roughness into the grain of my right index? Would I have learned to grate carrots until my shoulder hurt, learning the hard way that a poor gesture could scrape off a bit of epidermis around the knuckles? Also, where or why would I have honed chopping, mixing, mincing and scraping? Stirring, rinsing, filtering and sprinkling? Their little palates, mixed with my ferocious maternal surge to keep them alive, to watch them chew and swallow and swirl their baby spoons around as they set about for the next bite, inspired me and taught me and loosened me up to experimentation, unusual combinations…like chicken with almonds (should I try a dash of honey?) or potatoes with carrots (why not a sprinkle of caraway seeds?).
So yes, I learned to cook. And yes, my children grew and thrived. Still, the image of sweet harmony I seem to be suggesting today, thirty-five years later, was troubled by other moments as well…times when my children recoiled in horror at the contents of their plates, times when the newness factor was not what they had in mind, times when a drizzly grey day called for a saucy meaty dish where they would be able to pour juicy gravy onto a pile of mashed potatoes and create a volcano effect with juice-lava inching its way down a potato-mountainside. That’s what they wanted, sincerely desired, hungered for. That is what a cold, dreary day called for, not a crispy crunchy salad with Roquefort bits and garlicky croutons…. So yes, there were also times when, frankly, they insisted on acting like children.
“Eeooh! What’s this? No, I don’t want to try….”
Language, I thought. I must teach them language…and register, eloquence. Everything is in the tone, in the choice of elegant words, n’est-ce pas? Any message, even distasteful ones, can be heard if couched in a respectful, just way. So once I got over the cruel disappointment of rejection, I taught them a sentence that could only enrich their language tool box, though in later years they mocked me mercilessly for my Jane Austen-ish attachment to form.
“It’s not to my taste,” I said. “All you have to say is… ‘it’s not to my taste’…and I will understand that you have other…you know… preferences.” Sniff.
They learned it and practiced it and proceeded to apply it (when appropriate) as time wore on, using it less and less often as their tastes continued to grow and encompass curry and onions, avocado and cayenne, oysters, shrimp, spiced beef and juicy pork…. By the time my firstborn requested his favorite meal for his tenth birthday – pork roast and Brussels sprouts - "it's not to my taste" had nearly fallen into disuse, rattling around in the dustbin of quaint expressions. We could barely conjure it up and yet….
Years later, our treasured nine-year-old grandson, the very son of Brussels Sprouts Boy, came for an extended stay. Ravenously, he partook of home-made French fries, poireaux vinaigrette, sautéed zucchini and gamey Guinea fowl, but, just like his father, he came to an unexpected halt one evening. Sautéed artichoke hearts, one of my husband’s multiple originalities, did not for him constitute dinner. Plus they were bitter in an adult kind of way. The alternative, chopped celery root melted down in a sinfully buttery reduction, didn’t make the grade either. And chicken? Yes, a nice roasted drumstick straight from the oven, d’accord.
But yesterday’s chicken, diced up in a cumin-spiced vinaigrette? Eh bien…
“I’m not hungry,” he announced peremptorily. Our jaws dropped. Not hungry? This growing, lively, bright-eyed golden grandson, not hungry? Does he have a fever? A chill? A toothache? A migraine? Is lockjaw lurking? Hmm. We could have sworn he’d been batting a tennis ball against the yellow façade of our house for the last hour.
“I have a stomachache,” he continued, weakening his case by a Johnny-come-lately argument.
“Well, maybe, you’re hungry for something else,” we suggested, casting about for a more reliable go-to dish. “How about a slice of delicious cooked ham on a doughy piece of buttered baguette? Not exactly dinner fare, but do you want to give it a try?”
A certain sparkle returned to his eyes and his whole demeanor perked up.
“Tu vois,” I went on, “there’s an expression you could use in times like this.” I could feel myself settling into a certain grandmotherly comfort, a sitting-back mode of wisdom-dispensing. An ol’ rocking chair would have added to the picture, but never mind, we were à table.
“Ce n’est pas à mon goût” is all you have to say and I’ll understand fine. (Speak my language, for goodness sakes! The language of respect and old world charm and a trace of mysterious obfuscation.)
“Ce n’est pas à mon gout,” he repeated mechanically, unaware of the extent of my satisfaction at managing to revive an ancient linguistic tool and assign it a certain timelessness.
Voilà, mon chéri. Life can be so simple. Contentedly, but with admirable restraint, I reached for the butter and started to spread.
|Meredith Escudier has lived in France for 30-odd years, teaching, translating and raising a family. She is the author of Scene in France…from A to Z and Frenchisms for Francophiles. Her essay, “A Question of Taste,” is part of a forthcoming food memoir.|