Monday, February 18, 2013

Gourmande: childhood feasts of food and words

An essay on childhood feasts of food and words:

Sophie est gourmande comme une chatte, I heard my mother say to Dad one day when I was about ten or eleven, and I hugged the phrase to myself, loving the sound of it. I rolled the phrase around my tongue all day, savouring the creamy roundness of 'gourmande', the slinking movement of 'chatte.' It was something hard to translate into English: greedy as a cat? No, that isn't right. There's no real native word for 'gourmand' in English, no alternative to the French. It's not about greed, but about sensual enjoyment. I knew exactly what it meant, I could see the cat's delicate, yet rough tongue, smell the bowl of cream set before her, hear the softness of her paws on the kitchen lino. I had forgotten about the original intention; now it was simply another evocation of the power of words, of their satisfaction, something akin to the imagined delights of our birthday cakes.
Gourmande comme une chatte..the phrase stuck in my head as I wrote in my diary: 'Today, I started the Bluebell Club at school, to write stories. And at dinner for dessert we had chausson à la pomme, with lots of cream..Mmm.'
I had watched Maman making the pastry for the chausson, multi-leaved puff pastry, flaking delicately like skin. She kneaded and rolled it, her hands dimpling the pastry as if it were the soft fresh skin of a baby. Under the pale skin, you could see a yellow flush of butter, and the pastry, cool from its 'resting' in the fridge, sighed under the rolling pin. I asked Maman, "But why does it have to rest?" And she, seriously, her hands covered in flour, said, "It makes it better, you see, more beautiful." I watched the rolling, busy imagining a voice for the soft-skinned beauty on the table, hearing, in the sighs and gulps of air under the roller, a sweet cool plea, "let me rest, I'm tired, let me rest.."
Maman let me drape the drooping fold of pastry onto a dish, cover it with a cloth, and put it into the fridge. Again, another time, I see Dad at the table, a teatowel tied around his waist, carefully paring away the flesh from a duck's carcase. It's a couple of days before Christmas, and this dish will be the centrepiece of the Christmas table. In front of him, on a big white plate, there's already the deboned skin-and-flesh of a chicken. It looks like a cloak, a cool, pale pink, faintly gleaming cloak. Dad sees me watching, and smiles."I like doing this," he says."It's so slow, so perfect." At other times, I've been irritated, stunned, by Dad's need for perfection: my impatience is too much to be borne. But just at this moment, I understand. He wraps the duck (a loose, palely yellow, tweedy-dimpled coat) over the pinkness of chicken, and inside that, the pearly- pale green of young leeks. Deftly, he tucks and rolls. The roll of flesh and vegetable sits high above its steamer, gently cooking, sweating juices, and Dad says, "Go on, away you go, you make me nervous, hovering like that..'
So it's back to my diary and the words of description, rolling like buttery pastry and smooth duck flesh off the tip of my pen. I try out words: "opulent" in English,  "ruisselant" in French. That's one of my favourite words, ruisselant , has been ever since I first read that fairy tale where the good girl's words turn to diamonds and the bad girl's to toads. The book said that the diamonds 'ruisselaient' from the good girl's beautiful mouth. Streaming, I translate , not finding much joy in it. Ruisseler is better--in it, I can see the sparkle of water, the bright points of light, so like diamonds, on a stream. And I can hear it, too--the bustle of water, the bright morning sound of it. Streaming is good, too, in its way, showing movement, the languid infinity of water. I try the two words out, rolling them in my mouth as if they were sweets. No, not sweets--like hot chausson, covered in cream..
Even at the worst of teenage times, when shame at being a 'wog' made me defensive, I never forgot that I was gourmande. Something stronger than shame kept me interested in olives, and ratatouille, in home-made chips and our favourite goûter of two pieces of chocolate, jammed in between slices of bread. The smell of vegemite, its look, made me feel sick; juxtaposed with the pale flabby bread favoured by my schoolmates, it looked disgusting. I thought that the white sliced looked like slices of white thigh, a thought I kept to myself, since my friends had already told me that the bread we favoured looked like compressed cow dung. Sometimes, going to the supermarket with Maman, we would beg, S'il te pla..ait, when we passed such exoticisms as blue jelly crystals, green GI cordial, frozen chips, tinned sausages. We knew she'd snap Non! but we'd try, anyway, because sometimes, that way, you got the odd bottle of lemonade, the odd bar of chocolate. When we went into the city, rattling into the station on the old red trains, at Wynyard Maman would get up, smooth her skirt and say, "Bon. Who wants a doughnut?" What a question! At the counter in David Jones, we'd stand, noses pressed against the glass, while the girl rolled a doughnut for each of us--in cinammon and nutmeg and sugar. Behind the glass, there were also doughnuts with fairytale coverings--pink and blue icing, sprinkled with hundreds and thousands, or silver cachous. I did so want a blue one, with silver cachous. But like frill-top socks, and gold lamé dresses, which I also secretely longed for, they were beyond Maman's boundaries of taste, and I didn't even ask for them. The plain hot doughnut was delicious, anyway, although if like me, you were gourmande, and savoured it slowly, you risked getting it snatched out of your hand by a greedy younger child. Around us, the Food Hall stretched--long glass shelves, filled with jars of sweets; the coffee counter, where delicious smells billowed; the deep glass cases full of sausages, and salami, of ham and speck and bacon, where ladies with thick eastern European accents congregated; the beds of ice where fish rested--the brightness of haddock, the buffoonery of skate, the thick white flesh of flake."That's shark," my mother said, pointing at the flake, and earning a sharply disapproving glance from the woman behind the counter. Shark! I gazed in horror at the thick flesh, wondering, with a tightening of my skull, if that one had eaten people..And if it had, and you ate it, would that make you a cannibal? Ugh.. And I remember the times Dad brought back live chickens, or rabbits, saying, "We'll rear them,and eat them." It was alright, with chooks--you never got to know them, but rabbits! We had one we called Jeannot, and his passing is recorded in my diary with a terse, "Jeannot est mort." Jeannot is dead. I swore I wouldn't eat him, but when he was served up to table, he was no longer a pet but just a dish, a fragrant steaming dish of brown meat and mustard and cream. Camille, however, stuck to her guns, and for years afterwards Maman tried to fool her into eating rabbit."It's veal," she'd say. But Camille looked at her pityingly, and shook her head.
Dad had an idea, gleaned perhaps from the war, that chicken's blood was good for you--you meaning us children, of course, not him! So whenever he killed a chicken, he gathered the blood and then fried it into cakes, flavoured with onion. Sanquetous, he called it, a word derived from Southern patois. Ugh! it was like a combination of sponge and old leather, tasteless and revolting. I wrote in my diary, "Dad made sanquetous today.Ugh. Why doesn't he eat it, if it's so good for you?" The very look of that homely, plain, almost barbaric little word made me see the blood, spattering in the pan, flattening and hardening like lava. I loved boudin, black pudding, which of course is made of blood too; but it was poles apart from sanquetous.
Dad loves wild food. In the park, he'd gather pissenlit, dandelions,and make a peppery, bitter salad which I, for one, did not like. In France, he gathered mushrooms--much to my mother's wariness--and he complained loudly about how, in Australia (at the time) you couldn't eat kangaroo. I wrote disapprovingly in my diary, "Pissenlits again! even their name is horrible, and embarassing." It seemed unfair that you could get into trouble for saying 'pisser', yet the weed was allowed to flourish its piss-the-bed crudity in our salad bowls!
At school, there was a tuckshop to which once or twice a fortnight, we were allowed to go. There were cakes, and packets of chips, sandwiches and drinks, and I'd spend minutes in front of the display case, trying to choose. Sometimes, we could put a lunch order in, in a brown paper bag: One devon roll, one butterfly cake. It seemed the height of exoticism, to me. Especially the butterfly cake, with its wings of sugary, slight sponge and its thick white cream, unlike any we ever had at home. I knew Maman would sniff and say, not even real cream! So I licked the cream even more fervently, loath to admit that it didn't, indeed, have the same lush smoothness, the same depth to it as proper whipped cream. Sometimes I had a cream bun, too, their large shiny globes reminding me shamefacedly of one of the nuns at school, whose large round form ressembled one of those buns, a sweet she was particularly fond of. I wrote, in code, "She eats cream buns. And she is a cream bun!"
Like a gourmande, I drew up vocabulary lists, image lists, cheek by jowl with descriptions of food."Bizarre-- a beggar in patches," I wrote, before complaining, "Nothing special today, except that we had gigot, (lamb roast)with rosemary, and a tatine( Tarte Tatin or upside down apple tart).I had three pieces. I wish there was more."


  1. Oh, what lovely memories, Sophie! But you've made me very hungry ... and the contents of my pantry are tres uninspiring.