Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris
by Ann Mah
Pemela Dorman Books/Viking Press, 2013
Review by Leo Racicot
I knew a woman who suffered a series of sudden losses and shocks, left herself for dead and was spending the greater part of her days and nights lost deep inside an easy chair, a grey fleece blanket pulled up over her head and her sorrow. Nothing her friends and family did -- not cajoling, not prayers, not promises -- would wrest her from this big and powerful weight until a neighbor she hardly knew or spoke to, hearing of this woman's flight from daily life and living, walked her over a small, hot bowl of homemade soup, and fed her. Yes. Here was an adult woman carefully spoon-feeding another, and silently, and the other not resisting but leaning in hungrily to the spoon with its magic elixir and the kind hand casting it. The neighbor returned to perform this ritual every day. Slowly, the Wounded One came back to herself. She remembered the beautiful flower she had once been and allowed herself to blossom again...
Author Ann Mah reminded me of this story when I was given her Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris to read. Mah's story is so similar --
As her book begins, Mah is beside herself with excitement when her Diplomatic Corps husband, Calvin, is given a three-year assignment in Paris, a city Mah has dreamed about ever since she was a kid. The newly-married couple happily leave their New York City apartment and lifestyle behind and Paris becomes a honeymoon land for them, so in love with each other are they, and with France and its capital city. But no sooner does France roll out its Welcome Mat than a sudden change of plans whisks Mah's husband away to a solo gig in Iraq, a danger spot where no spouses are allowed to go. Devastated, Mah sinks to her bed in a heap where she cries until not a tear is left to wet her pillow. But -- formidable spirit that she is, the author resolves to combat her husband's departure by reminding herself that a Paris apartment and all of France at her feet is not the worst way to cope with an absent husband (and a possibly faltering marriage ?) Interested from a young age in cuisine and in the origins of where a particular, traditional recipe originated, she latches on to the idea of going on a hunt, a sure pilgrimage, to discover how and where and why certain French foods came to be, and evolved into how they are prepared and eaten today.
Thus, we are treated to Paris where Steak Frites was born, to Brittany and its honeycombed, laced crepes, so airy-thin, they melt in your mouth, to Lyon and its famous Salade, to Provence's Soupe au Pistou and to the regions of Toulouse, Castelnaudary and Carcassone and their divinely-inspired Cassoulet. Further adventures find Mah drooling over Choucroute in Alsace-Lorraine, Fondue at Savoie, a practically orgasmic Boeuf Bourgignon courtesy of Burgundy and in Aveyron, an undeniably unequalled Aligot guaranteed to make you hungry or honey, you're dead.
Mah swiftly and handily won me over from the get-go; her story is immediately involving and her made-to-order prose is so satisfying, I gulped it down in one sitting, something I hardly ever do with any book. She extends the hand of her culinary curiosity and we greedily take hold and follow, for she understands well the concept of 'spirit of place', so important in travelogues of this kind. Her explorations into the land and ways of France, the French way of eating and French customs and culture, are so uniquely hers -- she makes them hers -- we feel we are walking beside her through the alleys and avenues, vineyards and forests she visits, or sitting beside her in the restaurants as she tastes her first Andouillette (Yuk!) or a perfect, lovingly-concocted Pistou au Chocolat (Glorious!).
Mah comes to know the spiritually healing properties of food and of being cooked for, and fed or, lacking someone to hold the spoon, of feeding oneself. Her odyssey here is culinary, yes, but also an emotional Hejira made to that Holiest of Cities -- the Self.
I won't dare spoil her story by revealing if Calvin comes back to her from Iraq, or if she joins him there. Or whether they ever see each other again. Whether her husband returns or not, Mah's real journey is propelled by a brave and deliberate choice to replace loneliness with the far more desirable Solitude, to use the curative powers of a foreign country and foreign food to resurrect her flattened spirit, to awaken in her a new Ann Mah, to say hello to a new tomorrow...