The War Years
My mother made it sound like a great adventure.
"Tati," she said, using the nickname my brother had given me as
a toddler, "you are going to a marvelous place. A farm. A real farm."
My six-year-old's imagination filled in the rest of the details.
Enormous plow horses. Fat, grunting pigs. Dairy cows with sharp horns and
swollen, swaying udders. All manner of fowl: chickens, ducks, geese. Dogs
and cats. In short, heaven.
Maman had more practical reasons for sending me to a farm.
School had ended, and I would be on summer vacation for the next two and
a half months. In towns and cities, food was always scarce in France during
the Second World War. In the countryside, farmers may not have had two
sous to rub together, but gardens produced vegetables, corn grew in fields,
pigs became fat, chickens laid eggs, and cows gave milk that was turned
into cream, butter, and cheese. Out of kindness, rural folk would take in the
children of townspeople, giving room and board in exchange for chores.
Although hearty, the food at the farms was simple and straightforward,
coarse and without variety. A gratin of squash with cream, homemade
cheeses, roasted or boiled potatoes, and cured pork held in barrels from the
previous year were the most common dishes. Occasionally on Sundays,
farm families ate roast chicken or rabbit, followed by plum or apple tarts.
Nothing fancy, but compared to what we ate in town, this was feasting. In
the fall, the children would return home tanner, stronger, and fatter.
The big day came. Maman prepared a picnic lunch. I hopped into
atrailer that she towed behind her bike, and together we set off through a
landscape of hills, valleys, vineyards, fields, and roadsides shaded by the
leafy branches of plane trees. Late that afternoon, we arrived in Foissiat, a
hamlet in the center of the rich agricultural region of La Bresse. We pulled
into the courtyard of a farmhouse identical to any of a hundred Maman had
already pedaled past. It was fashioned from blond-colored mud and round
stones and had a red tile roof, plain except for being topped by the ornate
and vaguely Middle Eastern–style Saracen chimney. Just as I had
imagined, chickens, ducks, and a pair of majestic geese squabbled,
quacked, and honked in the courtyard, and a stinky, mud-caked pig grunted
in one corner. It was exciting and a bit scary to be that close to real farm
The farmer's wife greeted us, ruffling my hair and cooing. It was a
surprising sound, given its source: the tallest, roughest-looking, and most
powerfully built woman I had ever laid eyes on. She had a bright red face
and wore the traditional peasant's bonnet.
While she and my mother went into the house, the farmer, a big
man with a great moustache that curled up at the corners, took me to the
barn, which was even more exhilarating than the courtyard. Although I had
seen plenty of cows in my day, I had never stood close to one. In that
shadowy building, where the sweet scent of hay and raw milk mingled with
the acidity of manure and urine, a dozen broad, wet noses turned in my
direction. The closest cow, an enormous beast, lifted her tail and hunched
her back. I jumped away just in time to avoid being splattered by the
resulting mess. That was my first act as an apprentice cowherd.
We returned just as the farmer's wife heaped dinner on the table
— literally. She slopped spoonfuls of a yellowish brown porridge, called
gaudes, not onto plates or bowls, as we ate it at home, but directly into
hollows carved into the wooden tabletop. We gathered around as the farmer's
wife poured cool, raw milk over our gaudes. With no further ceremony, we all
sat down and dug in. The gaudes were thick and smooth and had the salty,
slightly nutty taste of the roasted corn flour from which they had been
made. The best part of dinner was getting to eat with my elbows on the table
and not even being asked whether I had washed my hands. What a summer
this was shaping up to be!
But as soon as the last oil lamp was blown out that night, my
excitement vanished, replaced by a hollow sense of emptiness and
abandonment, sadness and fear. The farmer's wife had done her best to
provide what comforts her home offered. I was given a tall bed beside the
wall. For warmth, she tucked an eiderdown around me, and I curled up
beneath its homespun cover. It smelled of the fields and outdoors, a foreign
scent to a six-year-old boy who, until that night, had always fallen asleep in
his own bed in a second-floor apartment in a busy little town. Lying there
with a coeur gros, a heavy heart, I thought of my family. Papa, a jovial bear of
a man. Zizi, or Roland, eighteen months my senior, a mentor, constant
companion, and best friend, so much more than a big brother. Richard,
known as Bichon, just a baby. And, most of all, my beautiful, effervescent
mother, who had slipped away without my even knowing.
My pillow was still damp from tears when I woke up the next
morning to begin the routine that would set the tone of my summer days. At
first light, after a breakfast of café au lait and bread and jam, the farmer led
me into the barn and presented me with a wooden staff. The other
component of my cowherd's uniform was a pair of wooden shoes stuffed with
hay. I was also introduced to my work mate, a big black mutt. Our job was to
escort the cows out into the fields in the morning, watch over them during the
day, and see that they returned safely to the barn in the evening. Although I
fancied myself very important and hardworking, the truth is that the cows and
their canine overseer knew what was expected of them far better than I did.
Still, there have been few prouder dairymen than I as I trailed
home behind my twelve charges that evening. Inside the barn, the woman
sat me on a stool beneath one of the animals, which caused me some
nervousness, given the size of the beast and my close call the previous
day. She took my fingers gently in her callused hand and placed them on the
cow's teat, showing me how to pinch the top with my thumb and forefinger
and then pull down, squeezing with my palm. To my delight, milk squirted
noisily into the pail, more each time I repeated the motion, until it brimmed
with creamy, frothy milk. The woman took down a small bowl and filled it.
"It's yours, mon petit," she said, handing me the bowl.
The milk was foamy and slightly tepid, with a rich, buttery flavor.
She had no way of knowing it, but that plain country woman,
whose name I have long forgotten, taught me one of the most important
lessons of my life: food could be much more than mere sustenance.
That night, I didn't cry.
I was born on the eighteenth of December, 1935, in the town Bourg-en-
Bresse, about thirty miles northeast of Lyon, the second of three sons of
Jeanne and Jean-Victor Pépin. Weighing only two and one half pounds, I
nearly died at birth. The midwife lined a shoebox with dishtowels and put
me inside, placing the makeshift incubator between two bricks that had been
warmed on the stove.
Like his grandfather, father, and older brother before him, Papa
was a cabinetmaker, an ébéniste, from the word for "ebony." He specialized
in period furniture such as the table en chiffonnier, a narrow dresser made of
cherry wood, with three drawers and elegant curved legs carved in the Louis
XV Provençal style. It was precise work, more art than craft. In his
workshop, he had a can of colle de bois, or wood glue, that he kept hot on a
small wood stove. It had an awful smell. He told me it was made from
mistletoe berries. I was fascinated by the idea of those little white berries
turning into that darkish, thick, sticky, and smelly mixture.
In contrast to my small, energetic mother, my father was big,
barrel-chested, and jovial — a happy guy, a man's man, more like one extra
overgrown kid under our roof than an authority figure. He'd throw us in the
air and catch us, bounce us on our beds, and wrestle with us, and he was
always up for a game of soccer or rugby, a sport at which he excelled. He
loved to drink wine in the company of his many friends. It always put him in
a cheery mood, and when he had a few too many glasses of Côtes du
Rhône, he would sometimes remove his shirt and dance on a table, La
Bresse's answer to Zorba the Greek. When fooling around like this, he would
show off by hurling walnuts against the outside windows of the café with the
accuracy of a major league pitcher. The nuts shattered each time but never
broke the glass. It was his private trick, and he got a kick out of seeing our
puzzled faces. No one ever found out how he did it. My mother, who tried it
once, broke the window, and Roland and I never dared to attempt it.
But like virtually all young Frenchmen, Papa, then twenty-nine,
was drafted when war was declared against Germany. Nine months later,
the French army was routed and a period of confusion and disarray called la
débâcle began. We had no idea where my father was, whether he was safe
among the hordes of retreating soldiers who clogged the roadways trying to
get home, whether he was suffering in some military hospital, or whether
he, like thousands of young French soldiers, lay dead in the mud of what was
once the invincible Maginot Line. But by then, those of us at home had our
own war to fight.
At first they were quiet, like wind moaning through branches or the howling
of distant dogs. But they became louder, like the whistle of an approaching
I awoke, sitting up.
Maman was already there with Bichon in her arms.
"Hurry, Zizi, Tati," she said to Roland and me.
We hopped out of bed, still in our pajamas, and ran outside
behind her. We crossed the street and dove beneath a railroad underpass,
where some of the neighbors had already gathered. Maman wrapped us in
blankets, and we waited.
The sky lit up. A second later we heard thuds and felt the ground
vibrate. Then silence. The adults whispered among themselves. After the
consultation, Maman turned to us and said, "We can go back now."
Our home was part of a small apartment complex near a key
bridge leading to Lyon and next to a railroad sorting depot. Because of the
depot and bridge, it was a strategic area frequently targeted by bombers.
After the first raid, we never knew whether or not we'd get a full night's
sleep. Night after night, siren wails awakened me, and I ran from the house
with my mother and brothers.
The responsibility of keeping three young boys safe and fed during
this time fell solely to my mother, then only in her mid-twenties. Maman
was strikingly beautiful, with proud, erect posture, high cheekbones, large
brown eyes, and masses of black curls swept back from her forehead. She
was a tiny, wrenlike bundle of energy, always on the move.
She earned money by working all day as a waitress at L'Hôtel de
Bourgogne in Bourg-en-Bresse. In the evenings, she sewed every article of
clothing the family wore. And on her one day off from the restaurant each
week, she shopped for our food, though hers was hardly your typical
grocery run. Early in the morning, she would put on one of her Provençal-
style floral dresses and wrap her dark curls in a scarf before mounting an old
bicycle with solid rubber tires (no inner tubes), pedaling down our street onto
the main road and out to the dusty byways of the countryside. With her slim,
muscular legs, she pedaled thirty-five or forty miles, going from farm to
farm, filling the wicker basket strapped on the back of her bicycle with bread,
eggs, meat, chicken, honey — anything that she could find that would help
Somehow she managed, and we ate every day, but necessity
exposed my taste buds to some unconventional recipes. In lieu of sugar,
which wasn't available, Maman made a wartime sweetener by cooking
beets in water on her wood stove for hours, straining the mixture, and then
reducing the syrup to a thick brownish liquid. It filled the entire apartment with
an earthy, slightly caramelized sweet scent — an aroma every bit as
appealing to me as the inside of a pastry shop. I loved the stuff almost as
much as I hated another one of our staples, Jerusalem artichokes, which we
consumed "natural," with no butter, oil, or cream. Their smell made me gag.
But when I grimaced and said, "I don't like these," Maman would say, "Too
bad, Tati, that's all we have." And I would eat them, though I haven't put a
Jerusalem artichoke in my mouth since.
At the end of each meal, our plates were sparkling clean, so
clean that we would turn them over, and the small circle in the center of the
underside would serve as a dessert plate. Usually, when we had dessert at
all, it consisted of a few tablespoons of jam or fruit purée that Maman had
made, bartered for at a farm, or purchased on the black market.
When she had the ingredients, Maman made something she
called coque, or matefaim, roughly translated as "hunger quencher," a kind
of French toast. For this, she used eggs that she had preserved in a whitish,
slimy mixture of lime and water, which made the shells very brittle and
rough. She mixed the eggs with flour and water, or milk, if available, creating
a thick, unsophisticated crêpe batter, in which she soaked slices of dark,
tough, dry bread. To produce the coque, she cooked the soaked bread and
some of the batter in a skillet coated with a little rapeseed oil. Not exactly
French toast, but it did quench our hunger.
Another unlikely favorite of mine was mou au vin rouge: cubes of
beef or veal lungs cooked with onion and the sediment left in the bottom of
a red wine barrel. Before cutting them into cubes, Maman inflated the lungs
by blowing into the trachea. I once witnessed the disastrous results of
omitting this step. The lung pieces expanded in the cooking liquid, tripling or
quadrupling in size, until the lid of the vessel suddenly lifted and pieces of
lung spewed out of the pot like volcanic lava. Maman never had such
problems with her mou and served it several times a month. Even though
the spongy texture of the lungs and the acidity of the sauce would not thrill a
gourmet, I loved mou au vin rouge. In a perverse way, I still do.
Occasionally, my mother got a few pounds of butter, which she
would cook and salt to preserve in jars. The darkened scum that rose to the
top of the butter and stuck in a ring to the sides of the pot as the butter
cooked was la crasse du beurre, or "butter's dirt." Despite the name, it had
a deep, nutty taste that turned a stale piece of bread into a culinary triumph
that ranked right up there with mou.
To supplement what my mother acquired on her excursions
through the countryside, we had a plot in a community garden about a half-
mile from home. Roland and I were assigned to push a homemade cart and
clean up behind a large Percheron horse that made grocery deliveries
through the neighborhood. Often competing with other local boys, we rushed
in and shoveled up the malodorous but precious "piles of gold." Our garden
was truly organic. And, thanks to us, the streets of Bourg were kept
The few crops we grew in our plot were precious: potatoes,
radishes, onions, leeks, parsley, zucchini, beans, and, especially, salad
greens. One day, Roland and I were instructed to get salad from the
garden. But when we arrived there, we were confused. Which plants were we
supposed to pick? After some discussion, we chose the tender young
greens aligned in well-cultivated rows, by far the most appetizing specimens
and also the easiest to pick, although gathering enough for a salad required
the uprooting of three entire rows. We proudly bore our harvest home, only to
be greeted by a shriek from Maman. Those seedlings had been transplanted
from the cold frame only days before. Although baby greens may be all the
rage today, size often trumped quality on the tables of wartime France.
One afternoon, during the peak of Mussolini's bombing of Bourg-
en-Bresse, Maman was off waitressing. Roland, Grandmother, and I were
weeding the garden, while Bichon napped in his carriage at the end of a
row. By then, the howls of air raid sirens and the thuds of exploding bombs
had become so common that we barely looked up from our chores when a
loud blast went off nearby. It wasn't until we turned the corner at the top of
our street on our way home that we saw the destruction. In front of our
building, the landlord's car had been reduced to a blackened, smoldering
tangle of metal. Much of the ground floor had been blown away. Protruding
above, completely windowless and minus its balcony and the exterior
staircase that provided access, was the apartment that had been the only
home I had known.
Everyone was gathering what belongings they could and fleeing
from the advancing German columns. We lacked a car, but my aunt, La
Marraine, said we could get out of Bourg with her. Nothing could have
delighted me more. La Marraine was the mother of my favorite cousin,
Robert, who was a teenage version of Papa. Traveling with him would make
Robert just like another brother.
But to my disappointment, La Marraine informed me that Robert
wouldn't be going with us. He had joined the army, and La Marraine said
that he had disappeared. We climbed into my uncle's old Citroën; he had
also gone to war. La Marraine, who did not drive, drove. Crowded into that
car, which smelled of gasoline fumes, old leather, and Uncle's tobacco, we
struck out toward the mountains of the massif Central, near the Auvergne
region. Our progress was anything but smooth. La Marraine worked the shift
like an uncooperative pump handle, and the gears crunched and grated
before engaging, jolting the car forward. Just as often, it jerked to a stall.
During those interludes when La Marraine got us moving in the right direction,
she drove at full throttle, swerving from side to side like someone who'd
enjoyed one too many glasses of wine at lunch. We might never have
survived that journey had we not passed a young soldier wandering the road.
La Marraine stomped the brake.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
The soldier shrugged. "I don't know. I've lost my regiment."
"Well, you do know how to drive, don't you?"
"Good, it's yours," she said, sliding over so he could take the
A few kilometers later, he spotted a couple of trucks filled with
French soldiers along the side of the road. Hoping to get some information
about his regiment, our driver stopped and called out. Immediately, a young
man in the dark blue uniform of the French army jumped from the truck and
embraced him. La Marraine screamed. Incredibly, it was Robert. He took
over the driving, and we ended up in a small hamlet called Baribas, where we
found lodging in a farm for a few weeks. Eventually, we moved back into our
home on rue de l'École normale. One morning I woke up and there, seated
at the table as if not a day had passed, was Papa.
Unfortunately, this period of tranquility turned out to be but a
moment of peace in the eye of the storm. In late 1943 and early 1944, the
Germans began gathering able-bodied men at random and coercing them
into forced labor for their war machine. Many men, moved by patriotism as
well as unwillingness to participate in a German labor camp, joined the
French underground, known as le maquis, the term applied to the tight,
impenetrable bush regions of Corsica, where bandits would hide from the law.
One day my father was strolling down avenue Alsace-Lorraine, the
main street of Bourg, when a German officer accosted him, accusing him of
being part of le maquis. The soldiers lined up Papa and seven other
townsmen against a wall outside the Préfecture de police, a seventeenth-
century castle-like building at the bottom of the street, and held them there
all day at gunpoint. In the late afternoon, the soldiers dragged two of the
men away and summarily shot them. The Germans returned. Instead of
taking more victims, however, they told the survivors to go home. Shortly
afterward, Papa moved to the mountains and joined some of his friends in the
For a second extended period, he was gone. But this time, he
would occasionally slip home, often at night when my brothers and I slept.
We would not even know he had been there until the next morning when
Maman, wearing a faint smile, told us that our father had visited. He often
left behind small gifts of food. For a while, we were awash in sardines. Papa
had brought us a few dozen tins that he had gotten from parachuted goods,
compliments of the American air force. I still love canned sardines, served
simply on top of salad with finely sliced onion and a sprinkling of red wine
Summer came, and once again I was going to leave home to spend a few
months on a farm. This time, much to my delight, Roland and I went
together. There were tears on my cheeks when Maman left us at the train
station in Lyon, but they dried quickly as the train, filled with other young
boys, chugged toward Chambéry, a town in the Savoy area known for its
vermouth, pasta, and fish from nearby lac du Bourget. We spent the night in
an army barracks in Chambéry and the next day boarded a small shuttle
train to complete our journey to St.-Jean-de-Maurienne, a small town in the
foothills of the Alps.
Standing on the platform, I heard a voice calling, "Pépin! Les
Roland and I separated ourselves from the crowd.
A priest with a rough, leathery outdoorsman's complexion and
clad in an old-fashioned ground-length black soutane was calling. We
presented ourselves, and without much more conversation, this most
unpriestly-looking priest led us to a distinctly unpriestly conveyance: a two-
wheeled cart to which a small donkey was hitched. The priest climbed
aboard, indicating that we were to sit beside each other on a bench that
faced backward. From that vantage point, I had my first encounter with big
mountains, immense peaks glowing in the bright sun of that early June day.
The priest and his donkey headed up a dirt road, bordered by the
abrupt wall of the mountain on one side and the gaping abyss of the valley
on the other. Finally, we arrived in the village of Montvernier. I was hoping that
Roland and I would stay in the same house that summer, but the priest
took me alone to the home of the family where I would stay, leaving Roland
on the cart. Mme. Mercier was waiting for us in the large, central — and
only — room of the farmhouse. After a few minutes of conversation, the priest
left with my brother, facing backward, waving goodbye to me. Once again, I
Every couple of weeks, Mme. Mercier undertook the formidable
task of making bread, a staple for the family. Preparation started two to
three days ahead of time. She began with a leftover hunk of dough about the
size of a plucked chicken, which she kept covered with water in an earthen
jar in the cool cellar under the house. To that, she added flour, water, and
salt to form a soft mixture, like slurry, in the pétrin, or kneading vessel. The
pétrin was made of carved hardwood and resembled a coffin in size and
appearance. Proudly displayed, with its beautiful carved lid, it functioned as
a table or sideboard when not in use for bread baking.
Making the dough was backbreaking work. The first slurry would
be left to ferment and rise a little, usually overnight. In the morning, the
fermentation would have run its course, and Mme. Mercier added fresh flour
and water to the mixture to give it new life. She left the dough again for a
few hours to activate and ferment, repeating this process, called a rafraîchi,
or a refreshing, several times over the course of three days. Eventually, her
dough became strong, elastic, and filled with pockets of air, which would
burst and produce a wonderfully aromatic, yeasty fragrance that permeated
the farmhouse. On the final day, Mme. Mercier shaped the dough into round
loaves, saving a piece to store in the cellar as a starter for the next batch of
Like every other household in Montvernier, the Merciers lacked an
oven large enough to bake the dough Mme. Mercier had so laboriously
prepared. Instead, the people of the town shared a massive common baking
oven with the residents of a nearby village called Montbrunal. Bread-baking
day had all the excitement of a carnival. Villagers greeted each other loudly
and gossiped in small clusters. Kids ran about and played. I was standing
forlornly on the outskirts when Roland appeared.
He was staying with a family in Montbrunal, which meant that I
would not only see him on baking days but on Sundays as well, since the
villages also shared a single church. Montvernier and Montbrunal were so
close together that we could even walk to visit each other during the week
when our farm duties permitted.
The oven seemed as large as a house, and together Roland and I
watched the baker-farmer feed it with the pile of wood needed to bring it to
the proper temperature. The smell of so much baking bread was enthralling.
We stood there for hours. One after the other, farmers arrived with their
loaves, two dozen or so each, and the baker would take over. At the end of
the day, some farmers brought casserole dishes, containing anything from
beans to cabbage, to be cooked overnight in the heat retained by the oven.
Back at the farm, Mme. Mercier arranged her loaves like
decorative plates on the high, narrow shelves running along two entire walls
of the room. Every night for dinner, she brought down a new loaf. Seated at
the head of the table, M. Mercier held the loaf on its edge and marked a
cross on its underside with his folding wood-handled knife. This was intended
as a sign of respect for the bread and an offering to God, although it was
more a ritual of food than a religious observance. Only then would he cut the
bread into large chunks and distribute it around the table.
An unusual custom dictated that cheeses, made in the village,
were always to be consumed with bread at the start of the meal. One of
these was a wonderful cheese called Beaufort, rich, dense, and nutty,
similar to a Gruyère. Another Savoy cheese, Tomme de Savoie, was harder
and more pungent than the Beaufort. Sometimes we ate the Beaufort by
itself. Other times Mme. Mercier grated it into soups, gratins, soufflés, and
stuffings, but the Tomme was always eaten on its own. Mme. Mercier's
meals always ended with a soup — precisely the opposite order that I had
been used to. We also ate homemade cured, dried ham, redolent of the hay
in the summer fields. For dessert we had plum tarts made with sugary
yellow mirabelle plums about the size of cherry tomatoes.
Montvernier offered plenty of experiences for a young city boy: the
glorious peaks of the Alps, the frightening chasms bordering the narrow
mountain roads, the powerful and intoxicating smell of the summer hay that
we spent hours cutting and gathering, the hair-raising rides perched on
bales of hay in a cart pulled by a donkey that occasionally slipped as he
headed down treacherous paths on his way to the barn. But for me the most
impressive thing about the Alps was that wood-red bread oven and the way
it not only nourished but also brought together the people of two remote
I had reason to dread the end of summer. Although I was officially too
young to attend, Roland was already enrolled in Lycée St. Louis, a boarding
school in Bourg. Between her six-day-a-week job and her day-off food-
gathering expeditions, not to mention caring for Bichon, who'd grown into a
big, active toddler, Maman did not have time to watch over me. The solution
was to see if she could prevail upon the Jesuit priests who ran Lycée St.
Louis to grant me what amounted to early admission.
She, Roland, and I approached the somber stone edifice that
housed the lycée. We were shown into a dark reception room. A door shut
behind us, and we waited. At length le directeur entered. He was a tall,
austere priest whose pure white hair made him seem old enough to be on
speaking terms with St. Peter himself. He took a seat behind his desk and
"What is it you want?" he said to Maman.
Normally not easily cowed or at a loss for words, she
stammered, "My husband is away."
This merited only a faint snort from the exceptionally long nose of
"And I have a job, and a baby to take care of, and since Jacques's
older brother is already enrolled . . ."
Le directeur did not so much as cast a glance at or in any way
acknowledge the presence of Roland and me. Children, clearly, were
beneath this man's contempt.
"The boy is not of age," he said.
"But, please . . ."
The adult conversation continued for a long time. I'm not sure
what she said, but somehow she accomplished a minor miracle: she got le
directeur to change his mind and, more impressive, to bend one of Lycée
St. Louis's strict rules.
I immediately learned that one of the most important of those
numerous rules was that students were forbidden to talk. A policy of silence
prevailed unless we were addressed directly by a priest or given explicit
permission to speak. A natural chatterbox like all Pépins, I ran afoul of that
rule early in my studies. The priest who was teaching our class said
something that I couldn't hear from my desk in the back of the room, so I
asked a neighboring student to repeat it for me. I spoke in my quietest
whisper, but the Jesuits of Lycée St. Louis, aged though they may have
been, possessed superhuman hearing.
"Pépin!" he roared, before I'd gotten out two syllables.
I snapped to attention bedside my desk.
"Come to the front of the room."
I came forward and was ordered to get down on my knees in front
of the class and extend my arms to the side, palms up. On each palm, the
priest placed a heavy book. He forced me to hold those books until my
arms burned with pain. Whenever I lowered them, even by an inch, he
ordered me to get them back up.
Thursday provided us with a day off from classes, but not from
discipline and rules. The priests' idea of letting boys play in the woods was
to make us form a single line, with a priest at its head and another at its
end, and march us along in that manner. The forest had been the scene of
some fighting, and the priests warned us not to touch any military ordnance
that we might see lying around. I resisted until near the end of our "play"
session, when I spotted a brilliant gleam of brass under a leaf. I checked
behind me. The priest bringing up the rear was behind some trees, out of
sight. The lead priest was looking the other way. I made a swipe. It was a
spent cartridge casing, sleek and beautiful, a treasure beyond compare to a
boy whose father was off in the mountains fighting with le maquis, wearing
an ammunition belt studded with shells just like that one. I pocketed it.
When we emerged from the forest, the priests stood before us.
One demanded, "Did any of you pick anything up in there?"
I was too frightened to confess, even if I had wanted to, so I stood
there shaking, my prize clutched in a sweating palm deep in my pocket.
"No?" the priest asked.
We all remained silent.
"If you have anything, drop it immediately."
Nothing hit the ground.
"Pépin!" he said. "Hands out of your pockets."
I did as told, leaving the cartridge in my pocket.
He strolled over to me and frisked the outside of my pants. Before
I could speak, he smacked me twice, as hard as he could across the face.
Corporal punishment was swift, certain, and harsh at Lycée St.
Louis, but it was an era when stern discipline was the norm, even at home,
and to their credit, the priests meted it out equally. I got used to it. But the
same cannot be said for the food, which was simply inedible. On my first
morning there, an older student told me that for breakfast, we were having le
caca de René. René was the infant son of the female cook, and caca
being . . . well . . . if you've ever changed a soiled diaper, you understand.
In the dining hall my bowl was filled with some ignoble gruel, whitish and
thick. It turned out that we were served — and required to eat — le caca de
René several times a week. The slop lived up to its name in every way.
Although we were hungry and nearly starving, we would even pay fellow
students to consume our servings of that vile concoction.
Things started looking up after breakfast, however. As we filed out
of the dining room after the meal, we were each allowed to take one piece
of black bread out of a basket. The bread was hard and stale, but it had to be
better than le caca de René. I was about to gnaw off a chunk when my new
friend cautioned me to stop. Taking his own piece, he struck it on the
corner of the table. Several flea-like insects fell out and began scurrying for
freedom. In time, this step became routine.
Many of the boarders were farmers' kids who from time to time
received parcels of goodies, honey or salted lard or sausages, items that
city kids like us never got. I became excellent at bartering, and for a few
marbles or a roll of string, I would wangle all kinds of food. When I had
nothing to trade with, I cajoled and pleaded. One day I convinced a farm boy
to spread some of his jam on my dry piece of bread. I was just about to bite
into this delicacy when I glanced down the table and saw that another boy
was dipping his knife into a strong-smelling purée of salted fish. I deftly
turned my slice of bread jam side down, so only the bare side was visible,
and begged the other boy for a smear of his purée. Assuming that the only
thing I had to eat was a piece of dry bread, he took mercy. I thoroughly
enjoyed my some-bites-sweet, some-bites-fishy open-face sandwich.
During the winter, the dorm was cold enough at night to freeze the
water in the trough where we were supposed to wash. My feet stayed cold
for so long that they grew red, raw, cracked, and painfully itchy with
chilblains. Finally, spring came, and with it the prospect of a great
celebration. Roland was to have his first communion. All the family, including
La Marraine and my cousins from Bourg, even Robert, were going to gather
at our apartment on rue de l'École normale. My mother would be cooking.
I needed to acquire a suitable gift for Roland, and I finally decided
that the perfect thing would be the dry salami sausage called saucisson.
Every member of our family loved saucisson, especially Roland, particularly
after six months of le caca de René. In war-rationed France, acquiring a
saucisson was difficult, and for a boy confined to Lycée St. Louis, it was
attempting the impossible. But I was determined.
At school I knew a farm kid whose father kept cattle and pigs and
was also adept at sausage making. The boy, well aware of the value of
decent food at St. Louis, flatly refused to get me a saucisson. I bartered
with him for days. First I put my collection of marbles on the table. He shook
his head. I asked him what he wanted. What possession of mine could be
more valuable than my beautiful cat's-eyes and puries?
"Your knife," he said.
My prized pocketknife. That was too much.
"Absolutely not," I told him.
For a time we each stood our ground. Finally, with only a week to
go until the big day, I approached him and told him he could have the knife.
It was a major sacrifice, but this was, after all, Roland's first communion.
"And your marbles," the farm boy said.
We sealed the deal, and I placed the precious saucisson in my
casier personel, the small locker each student had, which was as close as
we got to having private space at that school. Hopefully, it would be safe
from other hungry students. I couldn't resist checking on my prize two or
three times a day to see if it was still there. Each time I looked at it, my
mouth watered and my hand reached out toward it. Eventually, I gave in to
temptation and bit into the end of the sausage, just to taste it. After that, I
continued to gnaw at my saucisson. Luckily, with a couple of days to go
before that special Sunday, I had nibbled only about a half-inch off the end
and was pleased that I had managed to keep the original shape of the
As the weekend approached, my anxiety increased. I couldn't
wait to see the look on Roland's face. My mind was not focused on my
studies, a bad idea at any time at Lycée St. Louis, but especially so when
asking for dispensation to attend a special event. So maybe I was a few
seconds behind the rest of the students in lining up before morning classes.
"You're late, Pépin," said a priest, a notorious stickler for
punctuality who had never much cared for me anyway. The same priest
later made me stand up in class and explain aloud to one and all why I was
gazing out the window instead of reading my lessons. What was I to say?
That I was daydreaming about the apartment on rue de l'École normale
filled with relatives and friends there for Roland's party? I apologized, and I
guess I murmured something under my breath as I sat down after receiving
my public humiliation.
"That's it, Pépin," said the priest. "We'll see if you learn to behave
after being grounded for the weekend."
My mother pleaded with le directeur, but he did not relent; I was
to be restricted to school during that weekend. On Sunday after church and
before the big meal, the whole family came to visit and comfort me. I
handed my saucisson to my mother as they left and went up to the empty
dorm. There was no one there to hear me crying.
But it has always been hard for me to stay unhappy for long. Time
passed. Papa continued to visit occasionally in the night, leaving exotic
treats like bananas and oranges. Word reached Bourg that the Allies had
landed on the beaches of Normandy. Paris was liberated. Our home was
bombed again, this time compliments of the retreating Germans, but no one
was hurt, and we soon returned. Then one afternoon, people poured into the
streets, yelling, "They're coming! They're coming!" Roland and I joined the
crowds standing in the sunshine along avenue Alsace-Lorraine. In the
distance there was a rumble, clearly different from the familiar drone of
Italian and German bombers. Certainly no car, not even La Marraine's ancient
Citroën, ever produced such a racket. The noise got louder, and then its
source appeared: an Allied army tank.
Roland and I burst from the crowd and, along with every other kid
in Bourg-en-Bresse, began running behind the tank. The soldiers —
Americans! — laughed and tossed goodies to us. Roland and I managed to
catch gum, something entirely new and such a luxury that we kept it for
days, passing it between us; I'd chew it for a while and then Roland would.
The soldiers also threw candy bars. Running behind the tank, I
caught one, broke off a piece, and put it in my mouth. For the first time in
memory, I experienced the silky, bittersweet richness of milk chocolate.
My war had ended.
Les Oeufs Jeannette
yield: 4 servings
When we were kids, eggs were a staple on our table. Meat or poultry
showed up there once a week at the most, and more often than not,
our "meat" dinners consisted of a delicious ragout of potatoes or cabbage
containing bits of salt pork or leftover roast. Eggs were always a welcome
main dish, especially in a gratin with béchamel sauce and cheese, and we
loved them in omelets with herbs and potatoes that Maman would serve hot
or cold with a garlicky salad.
Our favorite egg recipe, however, was my mother's creation of
stuffed eggs, which I baptized "eggs Jeannette." To this day, I have never
seen a recipe similar to hers, and we still enjoy it often at our house. Serve
with crusty bread as a first course or as a main course for lunch.
6 jumbo eggs (preferably organic)
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 to 3 tablespoons whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (preferably peanut oil)
2 to 3 tablespoons leftover egg stuffing (from above)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon water
Dash of salt and freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE HARD-COOKED EGGS: Put the eggs in a small saucepan, and
cover with boiling water. Bring to a very gentle boil, and let boil for 9 to 10
minutes. Drain off the water, and shake the eggs in the saucepan to crack
the shells. (This will help in their removal later on.) Fill the saucepan with
cold water and ice, and let the eggs cool for 15 minutes.
Shell the eggs under cold running water, and split them
lengthwise. Remove the yolks carefully, put them in a bowl, and add the
garlic, parsley, milk, salt, and pepper. Crush with a fork to create a coarse
paste. Spoon the mixture back into the hollows of the egg whites, reserving
2 to 3 tablespoons of the filling to use in the dressing.
Heat the vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet, and place the eggs,
stuffed side down, in the skillet. Cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes,
until the eggs are beautifully browned on the stuffed side. Remove and
arrange, stuffed side up, on a platter.
FOR THE DRESSING: Mix all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl
with a whisk or a spoon until well combined.
Coat the warm eggs with the dressing, and serve lukewarm.
Copyright © 2003 by Jacques Pépin. Reprinted by permission of Houghton