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A Good Tooth
I've noticed that people who know how to eat are never idiots.
When our daughter was eight, Marie-Dominique and I overheard her talking to another child as they bounced on a trampoline at a beach in southern France.
"Je suis une petite Australienne," Louise explained, "et mon papa est cuisinier."—"I'm a little Australian, and my father is a cook."
Neither statement was quite true, nor quite false either. Louise does hold dual Australian and French citizenship. And I do cook our meals, and have done so ever since I moved to Paris eighteen years ago to marry her mother. And each Christmas, for some years, I've also prepared Christmas dinner for my adoptive French family, up to twenty people.
In hell, it's been said, the drivers are Italian and the police French, while the lovers and, worse, the cooks are English. The Australia of my childhood still thought of itself as an outpost of the British Empire, and ate accordingly. Scandalously for a country abounding in succulent fish and seafood, fresh greens and salads, in mangos, papayas, and pineapples, Australian cuisine comprised hot dogs and meat pies, fried fish and chips, overcooked roasts, soggy vegetables, and canned fruit with canned cream. Meals were less a case of "chips with everything" than "chips instead of everything."
I can see most of my life as a flight from the horrors of the Australian table. It's ironic that, almost as soon as I left for Europe in 1969, its food began to improve, until today there are few countries where one can eat and drink sovariously and well. But by then it was too late. I was launched on a voyage that would take me, via the cuisine of a score of cultures, to safe harbor in the gastronomical capital of the world, and cooking Christmas dinner in Paris.
That a person raised in rural New South Wales, in the heart of the meat-pie-and-peas country, should end up preparing Christmas dinner for a French family with roots deep in the soil of medieval France, and, moreover, do so in a country house dating from before Australia was even discovered, seems the height of improbability.
First, I had no training as a cook, no experience in a restaurant, no diplôme from the Cordon Bleu school of culinary art. What I knew about food I'd learned the hard way, as a means of survival and to satisfy a craving to taste interesting things. Some people are born with a knack for drawing, the ability to sing in tune, or that flair for theatricality Noël Coward called "a talent to amuse." My inborn talent was more selfish. In Australia, anyone possessing a healthy appetite is said to have "a good tooth," and my qualifications for this title were impeccable.
Second, I was not French—a fact my new in-laws felt as keenly as I did, but were ready to endure because I made Marie-Dominique happy and because, far more important, we had added a child to the family.
My third deficiency was social. How could I become integrated into a distinguished French dynasty when my forebears were so low-class? Specifically, the Australian branch of the Baxters was descended from a criminal, albeit a not very skillful one. In the early nineteenth century, my English great-great-great-grandmother stole a bucket and was transported to the penal colony of Botany Bay, never to return. (She was one of the lucky ones. Had there been anything in the bucket, they'd have hanged her.)
As it turned out, I was wrong to worry that Marie-Dominique's family would think less of me for my convict forebears. The French are no strangers to vice. Indeed, they invented many of the more interesting ones and have worked hard for centuries to perfect the rest. To the French, sin—provided it is conceived with imagination and carried off with flair—is like the dust on an old bottle of burgundy, the streaks of gray in the hair of a loved one, the gleam of long, loving use on the mahogany of an ancient cabinet. It's evidence of endurance, of survival, of life.Immoveable Feast. Copyright © by John Baxter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.