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French lessons

(article, Sharon Hunt)

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Food is like life, my father believed. When you start out, you don’t know anything. As you go along, you learn more and more and, when you near your final destination, you cast off most of what you’ve learned, and hold on to the essentials.


h1.Featured recipes


Many of Dad's food essentials were French. That's not unusual. But, given his origins, it was certainly unusual for him.

When he was just a kid, Dad's mother was confined to bed with a mysterious illness. (It was never explained to him, but my dad thought the affliction might have been a mental breakdown.) His father worked long hours, and his older brothers wanted nothing to do with cooking. His sister was better away from the stove; in her hands, even the simplest dish was a burnt offering. 

[%image boy float=right width=400 caption="The author's father as a boy, about the time he taught himself to cook."]

So my father, at 10 years old, went into his mother's kitchen and taught himself how to make the hearty (but hardly varied) food of his Newfoundland upbringing. 

Several years later, on trips he and his brothers took as young men to the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Dad's interest in French cooking took hold. 

Saint Pierre and Miquelon are anomalies; they sit a dozen miles off Newfoundland’s south coast but still are governed by France. They are the last remaining fragment of North America's once-thriving New France.  

From the gray and repressed Newfoundland of the 1940s and 1950s, Dad and his brothers heard the siren call of joie de vivre, and couldn’t wait to answer it.

My father also loved stories of adventure and danger, and these French islands echoed with them. The waters between the islands were known as "The Mouth of Hell" because of the hundreds of ships that had foundered in them since the 1800s. 

Saint Pierre had the grim distinction of being the only place in North America where the guillotine had been used for an execution: on August 24, 1899, to dispatch Joseph Néel for murder.

And rum-running had a long tradition in the islands; in 1931 alone, it's been estimated that almost two million gallons of whiskey were smuggled from Saint Pierre and Miquelon into the "dry" United States. This legacy meant that plenty of cheap wine and rum were still available for island visitors to sample, along with the wonderful food.  

My father and uncles stayed in private homes on the islands, where the lady of the house fixed breakfast and dinner for them. Food bridged the language gap, and often, while his brothers slept off a late night, Dad would drag himself downstairs to help make breakfast, marveling at how the resident cook could transform a few basic ingredients into croissants aux amandes (almond croissants) or baguettes. 

The croissants and baguettes — along with butter and homemade jam, boiled eggs, cheese, ham, liver pâté, and strong coffee — filled the men until dinner. Served family-style, that meal often consisted of one-pot dishes, such as a cassoulet rich with meat (usually pork sausages and duck) and beans that had simmered for hours. 

A little more baguette to soak up the juices and a tarte aux pommes for dessert were all they needed to gird themselves against the dark rum ahead. What made the apple tart special was its frangipane layer — a mixture of butter, sugar, eggs, almonds, flour, and brandy — on which the fruit was arranged before baking.

Dad went home with this and other recipes to make in his own island kitchen. Later, when he left Newfoundland for work on the mainland, he took his recipes — long committed to memory — and drove across four provinces (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec) to Ontario, his new home.

Before reaching Ontario, though, he took a wrong turn, and ended up in downtown Montreal. It was a frenetic place, and he still didn’t speak much French; his awful accent didn't help. But his easy smile and manner drew people to him. Soon, a couple of harried policemen and a handful of passersby not only gave him directions out of the city but sent him to a nearby bistro where he had “one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.”

It began with French onion soup, that famous broth of onions and wine simmering beneath a crust of bread and cheese. Brandade followed, a mixture of salt cod, potatoes, and cream that he’d grown to love on Saint Pierre. He spread it thickly on a warm baguette, saving some bread for the “runny cheese that smelled bad but tasted good.” 

[%image cake float=left width=400 caption="Montreal Chocolate Cake"]

He passed on the wine, and finished with chocolate cake so moist and dense that he had to know how to make it. He smiled his way back into the kitchen and got the recipe, scribbled out in French. 

As Montreal’s skyline faded, he decided to get lost there again, and indeed he did — when, as a family, we drove east during summer holidays.

Years later, Dad discovered Julia Child. As a thank-you for the cherries my father had offered from our tree, our next-door neighbor sent over a cherry clafoutis. 

The pudding-like dessert sent him back across the garden to find out how she had achieved such a delicious thing. He borrowed her cookbook — later, he bought a copy of his own — and set about achieving what the title promised: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Soon, my father and I — now his kitchen helper — found Julia on television. She was large and gangly, with that sing-song voice that made you smile, and her passion for food was like Dad’s. He was clearly on a French path now, and would never look back. 

On Saturday afternoons in our suburban bungalow, we beat eggs into a mixture of butter, sugar, and flour, making pâte à choux for profiteroles and éclairs. (He learned not to leave me alone with the whipped cream, or half of it would be gone before we filled the pastries.) We made the Montreal chocolate cake, the recipe having been translated by a man he worked with, and the Saint Pierre tarte aux pommes. 

Since he loved savory foods, too, some afternoons were devoted to brandade or French onion soup, with a golden crust waiting to be cracked open to the fragrant broth below.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="The cook in his later years."]

“Did you know,” Dad said, after discovering the fact himself, “that poor people in ancient Rome ate onion soup because onions are easy to grow?”

One day he came home from work with a recipe for pouding chômeur, "unemployment pudding."

“The article says it was first made by female factory workers during the Depression, in Quebec,” he told me. 

Pouding chômeur may have had meager beginnings, but it was a magical thing. In the oven, the cake batter rose while the hot syrup we’d poured over it fell, as if a spell had been cast while it baked. It certainly cast a spell over us as we ate the moist cake with its rich brown-sugar sauce.

“We’ll keep this one,” Dad said, tucking the recipe away.

I wrote it out, afraid the page he’d ripped from the magazine would get lost. (It did.) I still have the recipe and make it when days darken early, in winter, still awed by how the syrup falls and the cake rises as it bakes. 

Now, whenever I eat it, I cradle my bowl of pudding the way Dad did his, close to the heart. I may sometimes reduce the amount of brown sugar, substitute maple syrup, or replace the milk with cream, but generally I stay true to the recipe, because it represents what the pudding was meant to be: a quick and inexpensive way to add a little sweetness to life.

I find life’s sweetness too in my ever-expanding cookbook collection — my way of staying true to Dad’s openness and willingness to explore foods from other cultures. Still, I am drawn most to the French tradition, as he was, and return "home" to the recipes he and I shared: French onion soup and brandade for warmth and comfort, and pouding chômeur, cherry clafoutis, and the Montreal chocolate cake for the sheer joy of transforming ordinary ingredients into sweet magic. 

Merci beaucoup, Dad.

p(bio). Sharon Hunt is a Canadian food writer whose work has also appeared in Edible Vancouver and Gastronomica. She is writing a book about food, memory, and growing up in a family of superb cooks.

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