Is it a Sabbatical or is it Exile?
Understand that at home I have this artist husband who was not jumping through hoops with delight that I was taking my whisk and going away for over half of a year. But he also realized I had more than earned a sabbatical (his term vs. exile, my term) and that my health was in a critical state of needing repair. Wanting to be supportive but wondering if my mind might dry up from lack of stimulation, he hit upon an idea that has great appeal to me. A description follows of this great, abet long overdue, project.
Sometime in the very distant past, when I was about 18 years old, I was digging through an old chest in the attic of my maternal grandparent’s farm garage. The chest had belonged to my paternal grandfather, who had immigrated from Denmark via France after a long hitch as an Escoffier trained chef in Paris and in the south of France. In 1904 he began writing a book of his recipes that I assume he had prepared at the various restaurants he had worked in. In this old ledger book, yellowed with age, was a treasure trove of recipes, all in French. At that time I had not come to realize my love of the culinary arts. But as I sat there in the dusty attic of the garage by a window offering afternoon sunshine illuminating years of dust particles gently fluttering in the sun’s rays, I decided that someday I would translate the book and publish the results. And not only was the book a find but a packet of handwritten letters of recommendation from various French restaurants where my grandfather had worked in the late 1800’s was next to the book in the chest.
Voila! I could visualize a book printed on paper that looked like the ledger with blue lines and red page numbers in a sepia tone. One page would show the beautiful, delicate hand script written with a gold tipped ink pen, (included in the chest of goodies) and the opposite page would offer a modern day interpretation of the old recipe. His letters of recommendation would be scattered throughout the book along with pictures of his graduation from culinary school and when he was in service to the French Army in Montpelier at the officer’s dining room. Also a few old menus from places he had worked were in the packet of letters and I thought this would be a great addition to the book. As I look back I realize now that I had formed a lasting vision of what I thought the book would eventually look like.
I carried that book almost around the world with me, always hoping the day would come when I could put aside the daily activities of life and concentrate on the translation and development of the book. When John and I met in 1980 I shared the book with him and occasionally spoke to others about my dream over the years. Thus the brain storm that hit John in a blink of an eye was the concept that the sabbatical was the perfect time to finally make the dream a reality and get down to brass tacks translating the book.
He also was quick to point out the concept of a book documenting our many trips to Provence. I had a journal for all of them over the years. Wow, do I see carpel tunnel syndrome in my future! I choose the cookbook as the brain enriching project and left all but one journal at home.
So what is this book all about? The cookbook is hard work as I do not read or speak French anywhere fluently. The three year old down the rue knows more than I do. Not to mention that the French my grandfather wrote is over 100 years old and holds some misspellings, as his first language was Danish. Nonetheless I embarked upon the book and was lucky to have found a coauthor that does speak fluent French and is a three star chef in a restaurant here in Les Arcs. Max Calligari has created a haven of fine French cuisine and lodging in his restaurant and hotel, Logis du Gutterra at the top of the village. We are kind of cut out of the same fabric but he is a genius with food. So we meet each week and plow through the old book and become inspired to develop recipes that will delight the palates of home cooks in the English speaking world. Without Max I could not make the dream a reality and I am delighted to share the author billing with him.
Ladies, please note here that while the book is difficult, I am blessed with this darling, charming, French man in my kitchen two or three days every week, with the sexiest accent you can possibly imagine. It makes the project doubly interesting and my heart flutter each time he walks in the door. But alas, I am old and chubby and actually very happily married. I think he looks at me like his mom while I have some outside the box fantasies about him. Enough said!
So back to the question, exactly what is this book about? It is about this remarkable experience of picking up my computer and heading off to France for a life change. It’s about the rugged beauty of Provence; the intense blue sky and the tropical style of heavy rains, it’s about exceptional people and their kindness to a crazy American lady living in the Parage all alone. It’s about food, the heart and soul of this country and it’s about experiences that could only happen here in Southern France. It’s a little humorous, a little historical and a little hysterical! Maybe it is a way to record these months so I can revisit them when I am really old and pushing the walker across the rest home floor in my snap front house coat. But in any case it’s a story unique to me that I want to share with others. It’s a crazy and scary move to just up and get out of Dodge, leaving behind a husband and a business and many dear friends like Ned who begged me not to go, but supported the decision anyway. (As a side bar, Ned was just thinking about his stomach as he dotes on my cooking. He and my dear friend Pat, his devoted wife and nearly a saint, have traveled with us to France on two separate occasions. It is from Ned that I learned the term “It’s wine o’clock”)
Now, between the cookbook and this endeavor I have certainly found plenty to keep the brain alive and learning. Daily life in the village, without benefit of a car has proven to be very interesting and far different from the rat race in America. I really think American doctors should prescribe this sort of treatment for patients with hypertension. As a side business docs can have small travel agency offices in their main offices to fill the prescriptions of “Provence Treatment”. They could also fit their patients with good walking shoes and prescribe a walk of at least 3 kilometers per day. There are all sorts of profit centers for American docs in this school of treatment.