Oscar Mayer frequented my family’s table during my youth. So did Aunt Jemima, Chef Boyardee, and the good folks from Swanson’s. My bologna had a first name and I loved it. Ditto for the pancake mixes and foil-swaddled Salisbury steaks.
In the ’70s, with two working parents and little time, money, or inspiration to spare, convenience and economy ruled the day. My one great gustatory pleasure growing up in New Hampshire was the occasional trip to Blake’s, in the middle of Manchester, to split a fried scallop basket with my beloved grandfather, Georgie. The fried scallop is my madeleine. In its sweetness and brine are resurrected, however fleetingly, both my youth and that kind man.
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But when it came to the pleasures of the table, which is not at all how I would have put it back then, I didn’t know what I was missing. That changed when I landed in Paris as a 19-year-old. I would come to find out that little in life would trump the singular first of being young, unfettered, and enjoying dinner for one on a warm spring evening in Paris.
It was my first time out of the country. If I could, I’d go back in time and tell that naive me to lose the black eyeliner and the pout. If I couldn’t have Future Me swoop in to set me straight, however, how lucky I was to have had Jacqueline. Fifty-something and the mother of three grown children, Jacqueline landed the sprawling, faded, 17th-century apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement after her future ex-husband landed his secretary. She took in exchange students for the income. I treated my year with Jacqueline as an apprenticeship and she was only too glad to have an acolyte.
And so began my French education. I absorbed the rule of what I still call The Perfect One: lipstick, shoes, perfume, black dress, and so on. Style was about quality, not quantity. The same rule applied to the table; there is no word for seconds in French. But real women ate well. I wanted to be just like them.
One night with Jacqueline, in a brasserie along the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the most elegant waiter I had ever seen set an enormous platter of fruits de mer before us. Hearing that it was my first, the waiter explained that a freshly shucked oyster will recoil a bit if you tap its edge, and that that is a good thing.
Shutterstock / Robert Crum
Jacqueline lived well on little money, and, watching her, I came to excel at the same neat trick. And how easy it was to do in Paris! In the most expensive city in the world, I discovered that, where quality reigned, simple pleasures abounded. A fat wedge of caramel walnut tart on a butter-crisp crust could be had for 2 francs. The tang and chew of a baguette a l’ancienne, with its wild-yeast starter, could be shared on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg with the boyfriend who brought along a thick slice of pate and a half bottle of Cotes du Rhone.
One spring night, when she wasn’t home to cook, Jacqueline left a note with 60 francs on the table (about $12 at the time). I was daunted by the prospect of dining solo in Paris. I considered pocketing the money — a small fortune for me — and foraging for scraps in the kitchen. Mais non! I said to myself. This is not what my months of training were for.
I walked through Saint-Germain-
des-Pres and the Latin Quarter until it was dark, peering through restaurant windows and scurrying away when a maitre d’ made eye contact. After circling three times, I settled on a tiny bistro adjacent to the entrance of the hallowed Ecole des Beaux Arts, lured in by the prix fixe menu: Three courses for 60 francs.
I ate moules marinieres (mussels in white wine, butter, and garlic), followed by a lemony roast chicken with creamy potatoes, and mousse au chocolat, served, thrillingly, by me, from a giant glass chalice. “Comme vous voulez, mademoiselle,” the waiter said, smiling (“as you wish”). I didn’t want to seem greedy, but it didn’t suit me to feign dainty, either. I took a heaping scoop.
What I hadn’t factored in was the wine, which wasn’t included. Seeing me carefully count out loose change, the same bemused waiter had given me a little carafe of red, on the house. One doesn’t have to tip in France, but I left the sum I had remaining, not quite the price of that carafe, for him.
It was the best meal of my life, which is not to say that it was the best food I had ever eaten. Jacqueline had already spoiled me by then. But nothing before and nothing since has tasted quite so satisfying, with freedom and discovery and recognition in every bite.
Kelly Horan can be reached at [email protected]