About the food of France

I moved to Paris when I was 13, just weeks after my brother died. He was a year and a half older than me. His death was sudden and I was a mess. Paris was not so much a new chapter, as an entirely new book in my life. I wasn’t yet ready for hope, but the distraction of a foreign country proved perfect.

When I stepped off the plane I was tired.  The air was thick and heavy and the cold stone of the surrounding buildings was grey, grey, grey. My French-speaking aunt greeted me with what else, but a cow’s tongue fresh from the meat market. She sliced it thinly and offered me a piece.

“You must be hungry,” she said with a smile.

I was taught to be polite and, so, politely, I declined. I blamed jet lag and fatigue but embarrassment took over. I went to bed and slept for 15 hours.

Not even two weeks later, at a glamorous wedding, I faced my second food Adventure – the rarest piece of filet mignon any child from west of the Atlantic has ever consumed. Not willing to repeat my first refusal, I dutifully ate the filet with sliced baguette. Politeness got me started, but enjoyment kept me going. The meat was soft. Tender. Buttery. Which reminded me, my bread needed butter. Upon asking the waiter, he informed me that “French bread is so good, we don’t need butter.” He was right.

He also refused to get me ketchup for my French fries which, to this day, I still disagree with.

The supermarket confused me. The cheeses were so stinky, I avoided the entire department for the first year. Over towards the meats, cases spilled over with gelatin bound vegetable and meat terrines, whose graphic designs looked straight out of the 1970′s. The produce was lovely but I cared nothing for that at 13 years old. Most of my time was spent over by the baked goods, sniffing at the croissants, fresh baked breads, and sweets.

Instead of hot dogs, street vendors sold crêpes au chocolat and, in the winter, hot roasted chestnuts. Thank goodness for those glorious treats. I regularly burnt my mouth eating them, rather than waiting to let them cool down.

As the years went by, I became more and more Parisian. I cut my hair short, tossed French slang around and hung out with my French friends, eating our snacks and pointing at the tourists.  Some days we split an entire baguette. Not bad for an afternoon snack.

Portions were small – just enough for everyone to almost fill their plate once. A bowl of French onion soup could make a meal. As could a piping hot plate of ratatouille – a healthy blend of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and garlic.

Perhaps the most fun were the school lunches. I remember filling my tray up with steak haché and frites (rather like a hamburger patty with french fries – but much tastier). Dessert could be a half a grapefruit with sugar on top, or a little cup of fromage blanc (a white cheese product, similar to yogurt, but sweeter) with a drop of blood-red raspberry jam drizzled over the top. Pots de crème, or custards, were everywhere. Crème brûlée and flan were equally divine.

Veggies could include asparagus, leeks, potatoes au gratin (with melted toasted cheese), and mushrooms.

The three and a half years I spent in Paris were my Pheonix. With my brother gone, I was an imploding, fiery mess of rebellion. But… and this is the important part… I had to experience this internal fire to begin on the path of renewal. Paris made room for that.

Photos: Benh LIEU SONG, Roby
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Comments

  1. Janine Long says:

    Very moving… (sniff sniff). Although you don’t mention your brother much, the idea this was all happening during a difficult time for you was very moving for me. Your cooking is a tribute to your brother’s memory. Without his death perhaps you would not be so involved with food. The food also sounds delicious of course :) x

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Thank you Janine. The course of our lives is driven by such a web of influences. He certainly played a huge role in mine. And yes, the food was wonderful. It woke me up, like out of a bad dream.

  2. I’ve read Proust so of course I enjoyed reading this.

  3. Collette Lemons says:

    That picture of you when you were small could just as easily be Ava. Did you notice that? If i din’t already know, I would that thought it was her.

    • Sasha Martin says:

      She lucked out though – her eyebrows don’t look quite so much like rulers. Strangely, her hair also started out much darker than my light brown (which is now black).

  4. That picture of you in the beginning looks SO much like Ava. Sorry to hear about your brother.

    Your description of France is so fitting. As a half-French girl myself, I completely relate. To this day, I rarely put butter on bread at dinner (my dad tells me it’s only for breakfast!). But as a half-French girl, I’ve always been attracted to the stinky cheeses. Brie is still my favorite — and I eat the whole thing, rind and all. Charlotte at 21 months has had more variety of cheeses than most Americans their entire lives (she loves them all!).

    Can’t wait to see what you make this week!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Mmm I love Brie… really, anything stinky. It just took me a little while to come around. I’ll have to get Ava into more stinky cheeses. Great idea! :)

  5. Jessica Bennett says:

    The young picture of you really does look like Ava. And you still look exactly like the teenage you. This is a beautiful blog post. Clearly cooking is not your only great skill.

    Where did you go after you left Paris?

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Thanks Jessica – the post spilled out of me – I guess it had been percolating for a while. After Paris I lived in Luxembourg for a few years. The “Pheonix” was still relatively aflame at that time. It really wasn’t until I went to college that I got my act together.

  6. I knew France was gonna be poignant for you! Nice entry and the photos are fantastic!

  7. “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” – Kenji Miyazawa.

    I’m sorry to learn you lost your brother. It must have been a very dramatic experience.

    I also thought it was Ava in the first picture, and that you still look very much like your teenage self.

    I hope the scents of your French global table will do for you what the madeleine did for Proust, and look forward to reading your daily updates this week.

    But honestly – I have to agree with the waiter.

  8. yay! That picture of you in the lizard king shirt..so reminds me of You and Paris..This was the day I was in the hospital about to give birth to Donovan and you were going back home to Paris!!! Good writing, I noticed how you avoided too much detail about Damiens death, but added just enough to form a purposeful and bright energy around this menu. So happy you are here, and perservered in ways others could not!!! Love you! <3
    oh speaking of food in france,, when I visited you four things stick out in my mind..drinking publicly, eating fancy homemade "to go" meals in the car on sort-of fancy plates, driving by the nude mannequins in the store window, and you 'my younger sister' refusing to order my coke for me, you made me order it in French….LOL Pouvoir cola s'il vous plait ( I think)…and then theres that song we made up..oh and the boy riding his bike with that long baquette..oh joy!!! <3

  9. Your writing is like a painter’s canvas…the picture is vivid and the heart forever touched.

  10. Thanks for sharing a little (but important) part of you with everyone. It was really beautiful– loved reading it :)

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Thank you, Karen. It’s a little scary to share details like that – so I appreciate the encouragement.

  11. A beautiful honoring of Paris, your passion for good food, your brother and their convergence in your life. It was evocative and inspiring to read , thank you….

  12. Wow, I thought that was a picture of Ava! How adorable you were … still are!
    I’ve finally got a new computer and I can see I’ve missed a lot of good stuff :)

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Yay for a new computer! I hear it is pink – awesome!!!! :D Thanks for checking in – see you soon, I hope.

  13. Such a beautiful post. Thank you.

    It’s funny you mention the short hair – several of my friends who lived in France for a long while have told me they started to feel real French when they cut their hair short. Way too short. And discovered how flattering and pretty and comfortable it can be. I still hope it is this way, with the current very long hair craze all girls have!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      I keep trying to convince Keith that I should cut my hair short again, but he’s not having any of it. Maybe I need to take him to Paris to encourage him. :)

  14. <3

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