Susan Herrmann Loomis, American internationally-recognized expert on food and an award-winning journalist and author, spoke at Après Midi yesterday about how she managed to "cook up a life in France"...having successfully written 13 books, run a cooking school as well as co-researching and co-authoring "The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris," by Patricia Wells.
She's been in France 30 years, lived most of that time in a fabulously ancient, sprawling and beautiful half-timbered home on rue Tatin (also the name of her memoir, "On Rue Tatin") in the Normandy town of Louviers, where she created a professional kitchen and cooked up her life in France. (We filmed an HGTV's House Hunters International show there once, in which we called it "The Witches' House" — because it looks like something out of a fairy tale and because the history of the town includes exorcisms and burnings of two priests accused of witchcraft in 1647!)
While Susan was talking about her love of cooking, I was reflecting on my own culinary history, having once relished a hobby of cooking almost exclusively Italian (à la Italian chef Marcella Hazan) by hosting elaborate dinner parties just about every Saturday night for eight to 10 guests. I did this for many years while living in Knoxville, Los Angeles and later in Paris. Those who had the experience of my Italian cooking nicknamed me the "Pasta Queen" and would drool over the killer Crème Caramel I had perfected from a Betty Crocker recipe (unreproducible in France because of the mismatch of ingredients). Cooking was relaxing, creatively fun and the results were delicious. There were no complaints.
The cooking petered out when my daughter went away to college leaving me on my own with no one for whom I could cook on a regular basis. And as business became busier, so did my available time to invite guests, shop, cook and clean-up. Within a few years, cooking was a virtual thing of the past. I took up dining out twice a day, while keeping my little fridge free of anything extraneous at all. The stove never got dirty, the dishwasher never got used and the kitchen stayed immaculately clean — except for a coffee cup, a stir spoon and a glass of water. I came to love the perfection of its pristine nature and while it's expensive to dine out daily like that, I chalked it up to being my one vice — some people buy expensive clothing or accessories, or travel to exotic places, while I spent my bucks on not dirtying up the kitchen!
When my daughter comes home to visit, she immediately complains about the empty fridge and runs out to fill it to the brim with organic fruits and vegetables. (Imagine how I hate that!) She pulls out the blender, starts making things like celery juice (yuck!) (to detox, she says) and cooks up a storm so that she can eat healthy...while I'm at Café Charlot ordering up their "Plat du Jour" (dish of the day). She cleans up the kitchen, but I find myself cleaning up after her to get it back to the pristine condition to which I've become accustomed. (Yes, it's nuts! But, at least I know it is and she knows I know I'm nuts!)
During the discussion yesterday with Susan, she talked about the quality of food served in restaurants and how the Plat du Jour can often be yesterday's leftovers. Not all restaurants do that, but it makes sense to resurrect that which wasn't used the day(s) before so as to use up every drop of their stock investment. I suppose I'm one of the victims.
Café Charlot, however, offers up a Plat du Jour everyday that makes it so easy to go there on a daily basis — so that I never have to choose something from the same menu which would become tedious and boring. I order it so often, that my daughter discovered from the wait staff recently, when she was there in my absence, that their nickname for me is "Madame Plat du Jour." Funny how the persona went from "Pasta Queen" to "Madame Plat du Jour" with no trace of having once been a formidable cook!
Susan expressed her concern for the new generation, who seem to be too busy, like myself, to take the time to cook and enjoy the process as much as the pleasure of eating it and eating healthily. They are watching the TV or online cooking shows, but are they experiencing it for themselves, she wondered?
I've taken a few of Susan's courses and loved them all. She makes it look so easy because she has a lot of confidence in her ability. This is what she says she tries to teach...confidence in cooking. I understand this magic ingredient, far more important than the spice rack. Without thinking you can cook well, you may never be able to rise to that expectation of yourself. Perhaps that's the main reason I don't cook anymore — I've lost that confidence.
Along with cooking in France, Susan cooked up a real life. And as I have shown, one can cook up a life in France without cooking! C'est la vie en France.
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