From Velveeta to fire-roasted eggplant

I took my college junior year in Aix-en-Provence, which meant I went quite literally from Velveeta, ever present in the refrigerator door, to Brie—and more.

Eating at the university, I soon learned that horse meat is quite okay, but my real food revelation in France came from two different sources. One was a retired newspaper editor who, wanting foreign students to learn Provençal cooking, held classes. The second was a writer whose manuscripts I typed.

After signing up for the cooking classes, I volunteered to show up early and accompany our teacher on his shopping expeditions. It was wonderful to tag along, listening to his observations about everything from live fish to nuts. Yes, the fish were still wiggling when we took them to class for making the bouillabaisse. My strongest memory of the class itself was when someone poured a bottle of wine instead of olive oil into a sauce and our teacher said, “Ah, no matter. A little wine never hurt anyone.”

The writer was a very nice woman who hired me to type her manuscripts. All I knew about her was that her handwriting was nearly indecipherable and she seemed obsessed with food. From time to time she invited me to accompany her and her two daughters, slightly younger than I, to the opera and other cultural events. Once, the highlight of receiving a new manuscript was that she delivered it at Les Deux Garçons, the brasserie famous for such guests as Cezanne, Zola, Cocteau, Picasso, Piaf.

I have profound regrets that, instead of cursing this writer’s miserable penmanship, I didn’t take notes on our conversations, didn’t take notes on the material I was typing. You will understand my regret of lost details when I mention that the writer’s name was M. F. K. Fisher, the noted New Yorker food maven and author of many wonderful books on the history, preparation and eating of food.

W. H. Auden once remarked of her, “I do not know anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” And there I was, typing that prose but missing the matter for the mess of her penmanship. Coming from a household where Kraft macacroni dinner was a staple, all I knew then was that this was a very nice woman whose obsession with food I couldn’t fathom.

I lived in the home of a French couple whose family had grown and moved out. Another American and a Scottish woman also lived there. After a few months residence, we decided to make something typical of our origins for the family. The Scot chose porridge. Family arrived to sample it, but I must say their enthusiasm fell short of hers.

When my roommate and I decided on pumpkin pie, my mother shipped enough ingredients to make several pies. The whole family—including all the children—were excited about the very notion of The American Pie. When pie day arrived, they dropped by for afternoon coffee—and a sample. When they took their first bites, the reaction was universal: Raised eyebrows, gulps, great attempts to smile, and a verbal response: “Very interesting.”

Somewhat chastened but ever hopeful, the next day we took a pie to the editor-cooking teacher. He invited us in to share a piece with him. His reaction was also, “Interesting.” We confessed that we realized the family hadn’t enjoyed it. He explained that cinnamon was a foreign spice and a quite strange taste to the French palate.

With no history of cooking for anybody but my husband, I don’t know how all this translates to becoming a cook at the Senior Center. Very, very occasionally I cook for a few relatives who venture to Vermont. That’s it.

I was attracted to the Senior Center kitchen because I considered the meal plan a noble endeavor—both for the food and for the sociability. I wanted to be part of it. So every week I went in and cleaned tables and wrapped silverware, adamant about not going near the stove. Over time, I became more venturesome—when needed, I’d peel carrots and chop onions. I have no idea of how it happened, but as I write this I’m planning to make Moroccan lentil soup, and next week it will be pumpkin cream puffs for 50 people. How this came about is a total mystery to me. All I can say is that I do this with teams of others, and we are guaranteed a fun-filled time.

In The Gastronomical Me, M. F. K. Fisher describes how she hoped to “blast people’s safe, tidy little lives with a tureen of hot borscht and some garlic-toast and salad, instead of the ‘fruit cocktail,’ fish, meat, vegetable, salad, dessert and coffee they tuck daintily away seven times a week.’’
As I think about the fire-roasted eggplant and tomato soup one of my cooking teams will offer next month, I like to think we’re walking on Fisher’s path. Of course, the first time we cooked this soup, the fire department had to come. But that’s another story.

I’ve read that M. F. K. Fisher had a profound influence on Alice Waters and Julia Child. As it happens, I also had a Julia Child encounter, but that, too, is another story.

I hope that some people reading this might consider joining us to help wrap silverware, peel carrots, wash dishes…and venture forth to the joy of cooking with friends.