Book Quote:

“The wine comes in 250-ml bottles, or by the carafe, your choice. You take a sealed bottle. Vin du pays from Hérault, 11.5 percent alcohol, with a picture of grapes on the label. Screw top. There’s also a liter bottle for drunks. The wine has the power to humiliate you. Like truth serum, it scours, strips, reveals. It flows into you like a kind of blood, spreading pain. The soul plunges into it. You grimace as the first swallow announces the metamorphosis. The wine is like a developer solution specially formulated for the wretched misery we stew in. The photograph that emerges isn’t a pretty one: a guy sitting in front of his cafeteria tray, head down, grinning at his neighbors’ tired jokes, his heart in his mouth. (from “Cafeteria Wine” by Laurent Graff)”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd AUG 13, 2011)

According to Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, when Homo erectus, already master over fire, threw some tubers on a spit, freeing up nutrients and easing digestion, teeth, jaws and intestines shrunk, paving the way for the evolution of larger brains, and us, Homo sapiens. In the wilds of the prehistoric world, it’s likely our human ancestors gathered around a single fire for safety, and a communal feast, suggesting that our need to sit and break bread with each other – rather than scarfing down food, alone, in a moving car –is an ancient memory buried deep in our brains. And so, it’s little wonder that meals, and the rituals surrounding them, are of unmatched importance in human society; can you think of a holiday that isn’t centered around food, if not in the form of a celebratory feast than in a ritualized period of denial? If food – it’s acquisition and preparation – is arguably the foundation of human evolution, it’s also the cornerstone of our culture, and there is no better way to familiarize oneself with a foreign country than through the idiosyncrasies of its cuisine.

No other country has mastered this relationship between ritual and sustenance, nutrition and indulgence, quite like the French, and, for better or worse, French cuisine is inextricably linked to our concept of French culture. The caricatured Frenchman, sporting a mustache, sailor-stripes and a beret, brandishes a wine glass and a baguette. In much the same way that, from Bogota to Beijing, the Golden Arches signals a (perhaps comfortingly familiar) McDonalds, rattan-backed chairs, red banquettes, polished wood and brass rails characterize reproductions of the French brasserie all over the world. But without resorting to these cultural clichés, French Feast: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, a collection of short stories translated from French, provides a window into French culture through its relationship to food.

William Rodarmor, the editor of this collection, notes just a few of the French words that have entered our culinary lexicon: entrée, quiche, escargot, crepe, hors d’oeuvre, petits-fours, Bearnaise, baguette, croque-monsieur, vinaigrette, pate, maitre’d, sous-chef, “and even the word cuisine itself!” To Mr. Rodarmor’s list, I would add: à la carte, à la mode, au gratin, soup du jour, nouvelle cuisine; and I’m sure you’ll be able to add your own too—there’s just so many of them. My pocket copy of Gastronomic Dictionary French-English was indispensable for dining in France; from cuts of meat to sauces and preparation techniques, the French language is far more nuanced when it comes to food. So needless to say, it should be no surprise that there are enough (good!) French stories to compile a collection thematically centered on food.

The collection is broken into sections, each its own component of a long French meal: Appetizers; Entrees; Main Courses; Libations; and Desserts; the stories of each section linked by a single theme; memory, manners and society, family, fantasy, and love and sex, respectively.

In “The Taste of New Wine” (Mariette Condroyer), a dying man longingly eavesdrops on his doctor’s lively household through the door connecting the doctor’s examination room to the kitchen. The aroma of the doctor’s wife’s cooking both fortifies and weakens the old man, filled with longing for a life he knows he’s soon to leave. In “Pfefferling” (François Vallejo), a young man remembers a summer spent at a hotel in Switzerland, quite close to the sanatorium featured in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book the boy has just finished and loved. When an elderly German countess offers to walk with him to the sanatorium, the boy agrees, but when they reach the buildings, the boy doesn’t want to go inside, “afraid that like Hans Castorp, [he] would never come out again.” Instead, the countess offers to show him the cemetery out back, where they harvest the chanterelles that grow in abundance on the graves for an omelet back at the hotel. The boy has difficulty swallowing “these chanterelles of death, these fleshy mushrooms swollen with wet and earth and mixed with the rotting flesh of old Davos and Magic Mountain TB lungers.” But, all too often in life, it’s through the memories of those meals we never wanted, or of things too mundane to notice– the smell of onions frying in a young wife’s kitchen – that we come to appreciate the miracle of our lives.

To judge by two of the best stories in the next section, one would think that politesse had had the sole purpose of keeping gourmands from their food. “The Plate Raider” (Thanh-Van Tran-Nhut) is the hilarious account of Ernest Pardieu whose “either stingy or unskilled” mother subjected him to a childhood of watery puree and leathery steak, so that poor little Ernest had little choice by to make sure he never missed dinnertime at the houses of friends with “cordon bleu mothers.” From there, it was just a few years and a few crashed parties until he perfected his “art of infiltration,” setting him on his way to a career as a “professional plate raider.” But who can really blame him, faced with such mouth-watering fare as “ miniature vol-au-vent garnished with bits of scallop and seasoned with a drop of apple pommeau,” “smoked salmon with guacamole and green tea mousses,” “four-spiced foie-gras with crushed pear drizzled with honey,” and “frogs’ legs fricassee in a hazelnut croute.” A real gourmand, the only thing Eric can’t stomach are peanuts, which of course he mistakenly eats, at a funeral, in what can only be described as just desserts.

A chapter from “Belle De Seigneur “(Albert Cohen) works as a wonderful set-piece, the excerpted section a brilliant comedy of manners; Adrien, a clerk at the League of Nations, awaits his boss’ arrival, with his socially ambitious mother, Madame Deume and his long-suffering (and hungry) father, Monsieur Deume . One can’t help but feel for the poor Monsieur Deume who, after an interminable afternoon of fussy preparations, is told he won’t get to eat any of the sumptuous feast laid out for their guest but rather will have to eat “bread and cheese and the three ham sandwiches left over from lunch” standing at the sideboard. And as Madame Deume informs her husband that their feast will be wrapped up and put in the fridge to entertain whichever illustrious guest she can persuade to join them for dinner the following evening, you know he wishes he had the chutzpah to raid the fridge after his wife has gone to bed.

Those closest to us are often the ones responsible for much of our pain – aren’t most murders committed by loved ones? – and two stories in the next section highlight the dark undercurrents that course through our most intimate relationships. In “Tears of Laughter ” (Nadine Ribault), a Sunday lunch reveals complicated alliances and hidden resentments of an extended family. In “Brasserie” (Marie Rouanet), a woman settles in to enjoy a solitary meal, with a glass of wine and good book, only to be distracted by a family with a horribly abusive patriarch.

The Libations section centers on fantastical tales, tales like “The Legend of Bread” (Michel Tournier), an origin myth for those wonderfully crusty-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside baguettes and pains aux chocolats; or “Oysters” (Fabrice Pataut) told from the point of view of – wait for it – an oyster! Perhaps most charming story in this section, “Eating” (Cyrille Fleishman), imagines a Yiddish poet who manages to pack his readings to the rafters (a standing-room only poetry reading? – fantasy, indeed!). Of course, most poets aren’t handing out delectable pastrami sandwiches .

No meal is truly complete without dessert, and like a warm moelleux au chocolat or a silken crème brûlée, “Come and Get It” (Tiffany Tavernier), a steamy account of a couple’s last meal together, satisfies just as naughtily. “Porcupine Stew” (Calixthe Beyala) is more refreshing fare –ginger-lime sorbet perhaps – that delights as it piques the palate for the novel its excerpted from, How To Cook Your Husband The African Way, detailing the sexually charged tension between a woman in love and her lover’s lonely mother.

The collection runs the stylistic gamut, from realism to fantastical, and most stories would be better described as vignettes than fully developed short stories, the kind of book that weathers being picked up (on a train, say) and put down again (because there’s no shortage of fascinating things to do in, say, Paris) only to be picked up again (one lazy Sunday afternoon at a café nursing an espresso) some time later. Whereabouts Press is a house devoted to published literary travel companions, and I couldn’t agree more with their claim that, “Good stories reveal as much, or more, about a locale as any map or guidebook.” As for this book, I can’t think of better companion for trip to France, armchair or otherwise.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Whereabouts Press (June 28, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Q& A with William Rodarmor on FaceBook
EXTRAS: Sample
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August 13, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: France, Short Stories, Translated, World Lit

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