The world is filled with books and blogs built to pay homage perfect French (or Parisian) lifestyles, homes, capsule wardrobes, and/or waistlines. I can be a curmudgeonly sort and on occasion point out that the wardrobes and waistlines are the product of a lack of closets and an abundance of ashtrays, not moral superiority. But, I too get sucked into the fantasy and have enjoyed the reading about life in France in three books I picked up recently: Dinner chez Moi by Elizabeth Bard, Home Sweet Maison: The French Art of Making a Home by Danielle Post-Vinay and L’Appart:The Delights and Disasters of Making Paris My Home by David Lebovitz.
I love anything centered around food and home. And sometimes I spend so much time reading about cooking and recipes that we have to eat out because I never got to the grocery store or made dinner. I am, however, well-prepared to think about what I could make for the next meal. All the recipes in Dinner Chez Moi sounded delicious, and, more importantly, accessible to a home cook. Reading through the recipes (a favorite pastime second only to scrolling through Pinterest for cleaning tips), I was reminded that side dishes do not have to be complicated and vegetables with olive oil are not only good enough for the dinner table, but to be included in a cookbook!
The recipes that conclude each of the chapters of renovation misadventures in David Levovitz’s L’Appart are a bit more involved and sound to me more like projects than dinner, but the if you’ve ever had any work done, you’ll commiserate with David. His dealings with contractors, plumbers, neighbors, and hardware store salespeople are fraught with laughter and foreboding–as a home reno survivor there were many times in the retelling that I wanted to scream, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t believe him!”–and give great insight about real life in France.
Home Sweet Maison by Postel-Vinay, an American who married a Frenchman, shares her stories about what makes a French home special and everything she has had to learn to implement the best parts of French life in her own homes. She outlines the dedicated purpose of French rooms and how each room having its own purpose is not only historical, but how French culture survives today. Like Danielle, I believe in eating dinner in the dining room most of the time. With four kids who wouldn’t quit touching and poking each other during meals, we began eating in the dining room because I could spread the kids out enough so no one could touch anyone else. Amazingly, we could hold conversations if I wasn’t scolding anyone to keep her hands to herself every two minutes, and we started going around the table to share the best thing that happened that day. Thankfully, sister-poking has ended (and I think the battle royales over who gets the purple velvet chair have died down to skirmishes), but we still eat in the dining room and spend time talking.
I thoroughly enjoyed each of the books, but I’m still searching for that elusive je ne’ais se qui. For me the French fantasy that I’m trying to unravel is how they find the time: the time to shop every day, prepare and cook a three -course meal, dine leisurely, and clean up afterward. Something as simple as how do you serve (and eat) the first course if the second course is not something that can sit on the stove? I get that a cassoulet is fine simmering in the oven or on the stove, but what about a sole meuniere? Does the cook get up from the table and go cook the fish while everyone waits? This is what keeps me up at night.