Biography through recipe

Last week I was blessed with dinner chez Magali + famille.  It comes as no surprise that the conversation found itself aboard le Mistral, hurtling toward Paris.

“Do you remember, that time?”

“The lamb…”

“And the haricots blancs–”  Mme. turned to Magali to explain, her French accent making everything marvelous.  “They were not fresh.”

“Cooked from dry,” Mme.’s husband added. “On a train in America, we would have welcomed grilled cheese; and on this one the food was delicious but the passengers were up in arms.  It was a lovely train, le Mistral.”

“Before le TGV,” sighed Mme.

Fresh haricots blancs! My head was still spinning, chasing a moving cabin where legumes knew no compromise. “Back to the beans,” I interrupted. “The French really complained, to the servers?”

“They asked to approach the conductor himself.”

I need to plant haricots blancs,” I thought out loud, realizing I was gripping the table with force commensurate to the thrill of the conversation. No surprise. This was, after all, dinner at Magali’s–an experience that has been called “outlandishly elegant and riotously gastronomic” in certain media.

And at Magali’s they call it pain quotidien. This is perhaps the only corner of the world where, after a casual evening swim at Kaimana, one serves panisse over gorgeously-blackened chicken “Diablo;” a fragrant ratatouille, baguette, salade et fromages… and then announces dessert.  How?  I kept glancing at the tiny kitchen. Watching these dishes parade to the table was  like seeing the Dallas Mavericks file out of a Volkswagen bug.

And that dessert: plum clafoutis by Magali (plums, allowed by Julia’s headnotes as a substitute for cerises) and Mariage Freres.

Our stories ricocheted from haricots to Lanzhou paomo, and through decades.  Magali mentioned a “book” twice, in reference to family cookery, and as intrepid journalist and marginally polite guest I had to pry.  What, pray tell, was this project?

A binder, now quite thick, of recipes–each one patiently tested and calibrated by a father who does not need to measure when he cooks. (The other chef in the family, the French one, said something about refusing to break the rhythm of cooking.) Its contents range from Marseille heirlooms to dishes required for school projects, pan muerto to teriyaki steak.  In parts, the gastronomic canon of a family; in sum, something so much more. Menu as life score, I thought.

“Biography through recipe,” mused Mme., and my jaw dropped.

That would have been the perfect title for the blog, I said.

“It is yours,” she said immediately, forever French and elegant; always quick and deft with courtesy.

The French, I guess, have always had a strong sense of what matters most.  Baguette crusts, evening swims; good wine, fromages. And taste and tale: heirlooms that travel through time, fresh beans on a fast train to Paris.



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