November 10, 2015

A Memorable Sunday Lunch

Are you a good eater? No, not like, "Yeah, I eat loads of fruits and vegetables, I watch my portion size, I don't use butter, I avoid carcinogens, I consider flax seeds a food group, I stay away from sweets." I mean, are you a good the French are good eaters? Let's explore the difference. 

If you're anything like me, when you have people over for dinner you keep in mind their food preferences, their "allergies," their limitations. Before preparing anything more daring than boneless/skinless chicken breasts, you preview it a little bit for your guests. Back in the U.S., my wife and I regularly hosted people for significant meals. As we planned our menu, we asked if people had anything at all that they didn't like. There was always something we needed to cut from the list of possible dishes: mushrooms; fruit sauces (no duck à l'orange, which is too bad, because my wife won a prize for cooking that dish in a competition here, a victory that snagged us a free meal at a three-star Michelin'll be able to read all about it in this space in late December); organs; small birds ("I find them annoying to eat"); and...this: "seafood is generally not a favorite although I do enjoy less fishy/more meaty type fish...not a fan of lobster or fishy-fish...also, no bananas, apples, pickles or tuna salad...oh, and i hate eggs...eggs cooked in things are great, but no straight we went to a Vietnamese place once and my stir-fry arrived with an egg cracked over it and I nearly died." This person added, correctly in my view, "if you don't speak up in advance, you suck it up and eat it."

In the U.S., such feedback is critically important if one is going to prepare and serve a meal that will please everyone. I consider it a common courtesy to ask, and the more intel I get, the better time my guests will have. We learned this lesson the hard man is capable of staring at a plate of something he finds revolting and convincing the chef that it looks delicious. So, now we ask, lest we plop down some roasted quail stuffed with kidneys in a cherry reduction flanked by a mushroom fricassée with banana flambée to finish. 

Here, things are different. I have seen French people propose poultry to vegetarians, as in, "Oh, you're a vegetarian? No problem, I'll make you some chicken." Never have I been asked if I have preferences of any sort, and a food allergy is surely a sign of weakness. Here is a short list of the things that I have found on my plate when invited into French homes:
  • Homemade venison terrine
  • Slow-cooked wild boar
  • Rabbit saddle
  • Livers of various animals
  • Veal kidneys
  • Pâté en croûte
  • Blood sausage
  • Hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise
  • Sardines
  • Snails
  • Pork roast preserved in its own fat
  • Duck gizzards
All were delicious, but my point is that no one thought to ask me if any of those products were a little too risqué for me. The one time I did have a meal previewed for me, I ended up eating tête de veau and frogs legs for lunch. No vegetables, just calf's head and Kermit. I confess I had a little trouble when one of my dining companions pointed at the tête and said, "See? That's the nostril." Overall, however, I consider myself a good eater. (Ahem!)

On Sunday, I got a chance to prove my worth at the 50th chapitre of the Brotherhood of Chicken in a Pot, or la Confrérie de la Poule au Pot. After more than a dozen new members were inducted into the club, we got down to serious eating. A full seven courses, meandering past veal sweetbreads, snails, foie gras, quail's egg, salad with chicken giblets, sole wrapped around scallops and oysters, chicken cooked two ways (thighs with morel mushrooms, the breast in a fluffy quenelle), cheeses, and a double-dipper dessert of parfait with Grand Marnier and a gingerbread cake. Every course was paired with its own wine, all from Burgundy (duh). 

I will have more to say later about these types of meals with the various brotherhoods of the region, but for now, know that, all told, the "lunch" for 150 people lasted five hours. My wife commented that, two years ago, such a long time at a table would have been unthinkable, but now it has become, well, maybe not normal, but unsurprising. If you're coming to France, you should look up confréries in the area of the country you'll be visiting.  (Let me know if you need any guidance on web searches in French...) There are hundreds and hundreds in every corner of the land, and all of them would be thrilled to welcome travelers from across the globe.

Provided, of course, that they are good eaters.

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