Coming of Age with Coq Au Vin

            When I faced my first plate of snails, I was all of 16, a far-flung foreign exchange student who had never once set foot on a plane until that fateful trip.  The half dozen that arrived were plump, meaty things with tiny antennae long past wriggling, and they were swimming in a buttery, drippy sauce fragrant with garlic.  With sheer abandon, I tugged the first morsel from its shell and sank my teeth into the juicy flesh.  The heady scent of garlic engulfed me, and I surrendered myself to the thin veil of pungent seasoning.  Raised on pork chops and meatloaf, the texture of the little beasts overwhelmed my palate, and I was transported somewhere around heaven.  It was a gastronomic epiphany.

            Perhaps it was the skill of the chef, but I believe the magnitude of the meal had more to do with the decidedly French atmosphere.  No doubt the bistro kitchen had a hand in the level of perfection, but these were no garden-variety snails.  No, these were real honest-to-garlic-goodness French snails prepared by a French chef in the intoxicating white hot heat that is the south of France.  Sitting at the outdoor table of the crowded little bistro, I could have been served burnt toast and would have declared it a triumph.


            Raised on a small Midwestern farm, my experiences with good food were extensive, but while grand in quality, they were severely limited in variety.  My domestic dinnertime “adventures” barely extended beyond your basic meat and potatos.  These were quite competently fixed in ample quantities by my mother, but, as is often the case in the land of the frozen dinner, creativity and range was sacrificed at the hand of convenience.  Needless to say, while my mother is an excellent cook, variety was not a regular part of our dining experience.  Breakfast usually came from a box, except on Sunday mornings when my father took over the stove and whipped up inch-thick pancakes studded with apples.  Lunch was the standard American childhood fare – Spaghettio’s, bologna sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly crackers.  They were filling and we were kids – we didn’t care.


Lunch sometimes bordered on the adventurous when my mother would break out a can of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo soup.  As she served us steaming bowls of processed broth with gumbo chunks and things that resembled chicken, she relayed fascinating tales of stalking the wild gumbo at night with our trusty tomcat, cleverly named Tom.  We never saw the cans, and we bought the whole story hook, line, and sinker.  I imagined my mother dressed in black, stick in hand, crawling through the backyard brambles with Tom pulling forward on the end of a crude leash made of hay rope.  Together they would spy a herd of the rogue gumbo and Mom would release Tom who would attack the wild beasties with all his might.  I imagined the work it took to catch such a beastie, and wondered how many it must take to make a whole pot of soup, since obviously Mom only used the intestines.  At least, that’s what I imagined the sliced pieces of gumbo to be, and I ate them heartily as any tomboy would.


           Mom usually followed up her gumbo soup with warm molasses cookies.  She once told me that it took a great many moles to make all of those cookies and after that, I could no longer eat them with raisins.


            While lunch was not exactly a culinary tour de force, my mother always did go all out for dinner, and the meals were good, hot, and substantial.  It was stick-to-your-ribs, this-is-Indiana kind of food, but the repertoire of dishes included a limited cast of characters.  We ate two vegetables – corn and green beans – mostly because these were planted by the acre in my father’s garden and canned by the quart in my mother’s kitchen.  Dad hated peas, so they never made an appearance, and broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus were rare treats that I inhaled by the forkful at my grandmother’s house on the holidays.  If we couldn’t grow it well in large quantities, we usually didn’t eat it.  Tomatoes we had in abundance, but the majority of these were processed into chunks, sauces, and ketchups.  Potatoes were considered a separate category altogether, but they too made their appearance in limited form – mashed and fried.  Mom sometimes threw in cheese, but it was always Velveeta.


            The meat course was usually dictated by whichever family pet was currently taking up precious space in our freezer.  We would butcher a few hapless pigs in the spring and eat pork for six months.  Then, suddenly, we would see the bottom of the freezer and, in short order, in would go one of our luckless steers – one year Clover Rover, the next Alfalfa Fred.  Beef would grace our table for the next nine months until we practically begged for our father to “do in” another pig.  These monotonous streaks of chops and roasts, loafs and steaks would be broken by the occasional Sunday chicken, but for the most part, that was it.  


And then I went to France.


            To say that it was a gastronomic awakening is an understatement.  I was fortunate as a child – most of the food I ate, from the goat’s milk we drank, to the eggs we fried, to the green beans I hid under my napkin, were home grown.  But I come from a small town that once voted Taco Bell as its favorite Mexican restaurant.  Seafood to me was Mom’s tuna casserole (light on tuna, heavy on the egg noodles and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup) and occasional trips to a fast food fish joint after Friday night Lenten services.  Cultural variety of any kind was not an option.


Then suddenly, overnight, I found myself surrounded by a culture that thrives on the creativity of its cuisine, and my taste buds, primed through years of 1970’s Midwest monotony, were ready for the challenge.  The family I was living with for the summer resided in Basel, in northwestern Switzerland but my host mother, Marmee, was French through and through – a product of Alsace-Lorraine who bled coq au vin.  Thus on my first day in Switzerland, we packed up and headed out for a month-long holiday in her homeland.  Our destination was a quaint, little rustic cottage with no TV or phone, and which contained a kitchen barely measuring ten feet by seven feet.  The refrigerator was no bigger than a cooler, the stove was small, ancient, and gas fired, and the entire room included maybe three feet of counter space, but it was all the canvas Marmee needed for her daily creations.  It was in this charming little home, perched on the edge of a deep, pine forest three miles from the Cote d Azure, that I soon discovered in France, meals – even every day, little meals – are an occasion.


            Breakfasts were an event served rain or shine on a little covered porch with a view of our neighbor’s vineyard and chicken run.  Two loaves of French bread arrived fresh daily, delivered beside the morning newspaper in a little plastic bag hung on the mailbox.  We ate three-minute eggs out of painted egg cups, and sipped huge bowls of cafe au lait served steaming hot with slices of biscotti.  As breakfast ended, we scooped up the few remaining crumbs and fed them to our neighbor’s chickens that stood watching us with obvious envy.


            Breakfasts were followed by long hours at the beach where we lay soaking up the sun, conquering the waves, or reading.  Lunch was usually light, straight out of a picnic basket, and involved fruit, bread, wine and still more cheese.  But the bread was always fresh and crusty, the cheeses different each day, and the wine was intoxicating in a way that alcohol alone could not impart. 


Late afternoon would bring a slow stroll up the boardwalk to the seaside town of Contis Place with plenty of stops along the way for Marmee to pick up her instruments for that evening’s performance.  There was no one store, no huge one-stop shopping extravaganza.  There was a fruit and vegetable stand overflowing with artichokes, eggplants, and more kinds of mushrooms than I knew even existed.   A little further on still stood a tiny market that specialized in dairy items, especially cheeses, ice creams, yogurts, and crisp sorbets.


            The town contained a butcher shop with interesting displays of fresh cut, unwrapped meats and poultry, their heads fully intact.  Rabbits and venison were also on display – things I had never seen on a butcher’s counter before.  The rabbits still had their legs on – proof that they were indeed rabbits and not cats – but the sheer thought of purchasing a cat for dinner, I thought, was an amusing gamble.


            My favorite stop, by far, was the seafood shop, where every day was a different experience, depending on the morning’s harvest from the Atlantic.  Shimmering whole-bodied fish lay in deep rows, nose to tail, at attention, and ready for inspection.  Huge sections of freshly caught tuna, too big to display in their entirety, took up their own counter.  Earthenware containers heaped with ice held shrimp, mussels, clams, and crabs by the dozen.  A wooden barrel teaming with snails stood by the door and as I watched, several of the slow-moving creatures tried to make a break for it down the sides.


            After Marmee had collected her treasures for the evening’s repast, we would head back to our little cottage in the woods to relax and unwind while she worked her magic.  Often Marmee’s son, Phillip, and I would head out into the woods in search of mushrooms.  Our prey in question were chanterelles – large, fairly flat with curly edges, but most impressive of all, they were the most marvelous shade of pumpkin orange.  We would arrive back home an hour or so later, our sacks swelling with fungi, and relate our adventures as we cleaned our harvest in the small bowl of the white porcelain sink.


            There was always an adventure to tell – deer we spooked, large hawks swooping down after unfortunate squirrels, interesting rocks to pick up, large pine cones to lug home, big, rotten logs to roll with hopes that mushrooms, and not snakes, would be hiding underneath.  It gave our meal an added element of interest to be able to relate an adventure with each course.  To think that our tuna steaks braved the cool Atlantic waters only the day before and that our mushrooms spent the previous evening under the same July moon gave dinner a hint of romance, an aura of elegance.


            The culmination of our six-week long holiday in France was an elaborate evening event prepared by Marmee as an exuberant farewell to her many family and friends in and around Contis Place.  It was truly a magnificent display of talent involving a great deal of planning and preparation.  The day before the big event, we made our way to a nearby vineyard where, in the searing heat of the August sun, we sat at red checkered tables, sipping vintage after vintage – sniff, swirl, sip, spit, repeat as needed – until Marmee found just the right family of wines for both cooking and serving.  Cognac came next, followed by a generous selection of brandies and port.


            We returned home, bottles in hand, and Marmee sequestered herself in the kitchen, making her lists.  The next morning dawned warm and sultry and Marmee and Poppy headed to the markets early, lists in hand, while Phillip, Myri, and I sat up large folding tables under the big trees in the back yard.  Stiff, white tablecloths soon followed suit and were anchored down with thick, cream colored candles surrounded by pine sprigs and cones collected from the surrounding forest.  An odd assortment of wooden chairs, benches, and stools were placed around the tables and then mismatched glass lanterns and candleholders suspended from wire were strewn overhead in the trees.  Finally, long, creamy yards of bridle netting, remnants from Marmee’s seamstress sister, were draped over limbs and twigs, creating a dreamy, makeshift canopy.  It was quaint, it was homey, and it was the most romantic thing I had ever seen.


            When Marmee and Poppy arrived, we all sprung into action.  I sliced warm honeydews in half, scooped out the seeds, and added a tablespoon of sugar to one half.  The sugar was topped off with a ruby colored port, the top of the melon was returned, and the whole concoction was left to ferment in the sun.  Phillip sat nearby slicing plums for Marmee’s tartlet.  Myri busied herself cleaning and de-bearding mussels, while Poppy worked feverishly on the shrimp, peeling and de-veining like a madman.  Marmee orchestrated the entire event from the kitchen where she somehow simultaneously, with the help of Myri, shucked oysters, de-boned cod and lightly kneaded the pastry crust for her piece de resistance, her seafood pie.  This mouth-watering concoction of jewels from the sea not only brought joy to the taste buds, but also delight to the eyes.  A small, cardboard roll which once held toilet paper now graced the top of her pie, encased in layers of pastry and hiding a tiny tea candle up top, in reverent initiation of a lighthouse.  The pie was served at sunset and when the big moment arrived, Marmee emerged slowly from the kitchen with a deliberate pace – much like a blushing bride – and carried her grand creation slowly to the table, candle lit, for all to admire.  It was a radiant performance and we banged on the table, cheered immensely and toasted her with raised glasses of wine.


            We sat under those tulle-draped trees for hours, eating and drinking, laughing and talking.  As the coffee and cognac were brought to the table, decks of playing cards and cigars appeared from pockets and purses.  The smaller children chased lighting bugs and tried to tempt the chickens out of their snug nests with crusts of crunchy bread.  Marmee and her sisters sat clustered together, talking animatedly, drawing pictures with their arms and hands, all the while cradling their drinks, not spilling a drop.  I sat at the table in total rapture, a glass of merlot in my hand, and drank everything in.  My spirit was intoxicated.  The sultry night air was fragrant with warm earth, pine needles, and vanilla candles laced with just a hint of salty sea air.  The toasts were frequent, the coffee and cognac were incredibly strong.  The friends and family were warm and generous.  It was to be my last night at the cottage – we would board a train bound for the Paris the next day – and I sat there with tears welling in my eyes.  The next day would bring more adventures, but that night, surrounded by those lovely people and their warm hospitality, I knew, was special.