On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town

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Overview

Susan Loomis arrived in Paris twenty years ago with little more than a student loan and the contents of a suitcase to sustain her. But what began then as an apprenticeship at La Varenne École de Cuisine evolved into a lifelong immersion in French cuisine and culture, culminating in permanent residency in 1994. On Rue Tatin chronicles her journey to this ancient little street in the midst of Louviers, and how she came to call it home.

With lyrical prose and wry candor, Loomis ...

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Overview

Susan Loomis arrived in Paris twenty years ago with little more than a student loan and the contents of a suitcase to sustain her. But what began then as an apprenticeship at La Varenne École de Cuisine evolved into a lifelong immersion in French cuisine and culture, culminating in permanent residency in 1994. On Rue Tatin chronicles her journey to this ancient little street in the midst of Louviers, and how she came to call it home.

With lyrical prose and wry candor, Loomis recalls the miraculous restoration that she and her husband performed on the dilapidated convent they chose for their new residence. As its ocher and azure floor tiles emerged, challenges outside the dwelling mounted. From squatters to a surly priest next door, along with a close?knit community wary of outsiders, Loomis tackled the social challenges head?on, through persistent dialogue?and baking.

As fresh ingredients abound in this rural haven, along with a reverence for the kitchen, On Rue Tatin features fifty delicious recipes that evoke the essence of the region, such as Apple and Thyme Tart and main courses including Duck Breast with Cider and Braised Chicken in White Wine and Mustard.

Transporting readers to a world whose cobblestone lanes shirk commercialism in favor of cherished tradition, On Rue Tatin provides a touching glimpse of the camaraderie, exquisite food, and simple pleasures of daily life in this truly glorious corner of Normandy.

About the Author:
An internationally recognized journalist and chef, Susan Herrmann Loomis is also the author of six books, including Farmhouse Cookbook (more than 90,000 copies sold) and The Great American Seafood Cookbook (more than 70,000 copies sold). A regular contributor to national publications such as The New York Times and Gourmet, she lives with her husband and their two children in Louviers, France, where she owns and operates On Rue Tatin, a cooking school.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
When Susan Loomis arrived in Paris to serve as an apprenticeship as a chef, she fell in love with the country; its distinctive, sometimes cantankerous inhabitants; and certainly its cuisine. After she moved back to the states, she convinced herself that annual French visits would be required -- "palate tune-ups" she called them. In 1994, Loomis, by then a recognized cooking author and chef, decided to postpone her yearning no longer. Buying a 14th-century convent, she and her husband moved to Normandy. Her arrival was not entirely welcomed by her neighbors: "You've arrived here," one of her French friends told her, "like a cheveu dans la soupe, a hair in the soup. They didn't ask you to come. And you're American." But, being Americans, the Loomis stayed on, receiving an unsentimental education in all things French. Her well-seasoned recollections of their first six Normandy years offer one additional pleasure: The author of the Farmhouse Cookbook includes 50 recipes, several of which make fine reading snacks.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Loomis, an American chef and author of Farmhouse Cookbook and The Great American Seafood Cookbook, enthusiastically recounts every aspect, both intriguing and mundane, of her immersion into the cuisine and lifestyle of northern France. She moved to Paris in 1980 to study cooking and, after a rough start, found her place as a weekend visitor at one family's home in Normandy. After cooking school, she went back to the States, returning to France frequently to visit friends. It wasn't long before she became addicted to Normandy's fresh ingredients goose, garlic, rabbit, wild mushrooms and rich gastronomy, and found herself longing to live there. In 1994, Loomis and her husband moved to the region and bought a dilapidated convent in the small town of Louviers. Her tales of adventures in restoration and run-ins with locals (e.g., the crotchety priest next door, the incorrigibly gregarious rug salesman) are funny, but certainly familiar, especially given that many recent books have told similar stories about ambitious expatriates' forays into rural European life. The cookbook/travelogue/memoir hybrid has become an overcrowded genre, and Loomis's doesn't distinguish itself. Nevertheless, few food writers have depicted Normandy so attentively, and Loomis has compiled an impressive collection of savory recipes that evoke the region's best, including Civet D'Agneau (Hearty Lamb Stew) and Roti de Cuisse de Sanglier (Roasted Leg of Wild Boar). Furthermore, classic Gallic personalities are accurately and engagingly rendered, making this more than just a culinary memoir. (Apr.) Forecast: This work targets Francophilic gastronomes, but probably won't break out of that niche. Nonetheless, the success of Loomis's cookbooks should help boost this title's sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Here are two culinary memoirs by American women now living in France. The similarities end there, as one author went to France for the food and stayed for the life that grew up around her, while the other moved to France for its own sake and realized that she'd better learn to cook once she became engaged to a Frenchman. In On Rue Tatin, Loomis, a food writer and an accomplished cook, recalls her initial journey to Paris to attend cooking school. Her apprenticeship at La Varenne cole de Cuisine led to a job as an assistant to food writer Patricia Wells and a lifelong fascination with French cooking and culture. Eventually, in 1994, she and her family permanently settled in a medieval convent on Rue Tatin in the Norman town of Louviers. Interspersed with her lyrical descriptions of daily life in urban and rural France are 50 recipes from a simple frittata to a complex pot au feu culled from both famous chefs and the local fish seller. The author prepares most of the dishes in her own home, and American readers should be able to do the same in a well-equipped kitchen though they may have trouble finding a leg of wild boar at their local supermarket. In French Fried, Rochefort (French Toast) writes about how her obsession with French food became a personal one when her French husband-to-be announced that they could not afford to keep eating in restaurants for the rest of their lives. There are a few recipes, most of them for "basics" such as vinaigrette or homemade mayonnaise. More of a general commentary on life in France as seen through its cuisine (one helpful tip for tourists: don't go into a restaurant and order only a salad or a sandwich because this is something you do in a caf ; restaurants are for meals), French Fried is the book to purchase if your patrons are looking for an informal travel guide. Buy both books if you are able; and if you regularly answer reference questions about the cooking of wild boar, you'll definitely need On Rue Tatin. Wendy Bethel, Southwest P.L., Grove City, OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767904544
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • Publication date: 4/10/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.97 (w) x 8.55 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Herrmann Loomis is the author of five previous books, including Farmhouse Cookbook and The Great American Seafood Cookbook. A regular contributor to publications such as the New York Times and Gourmet, she lives with her husband and their two children in Louviers, France, where she owns and operates On Rue Tatin, a cooking school.
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Read an Excerpt

The story of our adventure, our move to Rue Tatin, began some thirteen years earlier, when I first went to live in Paris. Of course back then I had no idea that I would fall hopelessly in love with Michael Loomis, and then with France. Nor did I ever imagine longing so heartily for the French countryside, the French language, the thousands of things that make French life what it is, from dozens of varieties of bottled water to the sweet cream butter. There wasn’t any way to know then how deeply and irreversibly seduced I would be by the markets, the restaurants, the French lifestyle that takes its cue from the meal and the table.

The suitcase was big, and it was heavy. It had everything I thought I would need for a year in Paris, including a little wire contraption that worked on 220 current and would boil water instantly, my favorite earthenware Melitta coffee maker, and a Le Petit Robert Dictionnaire de la Langue Française French dictionary, the best I could find.

After months of planning, applying for and getting a student loan, packing, and moving, I was finally in Paris for a year’s experience as a stagiaire, or apprentice, at a cooking school for English-speaking students. It sounded like a dream–working all day at the school, taking cooking classes at night with French chefs, and living in Paris to boot. I was beside myself with excitement. And fear. I didn’t know a soul. I’d only been to Paris once before, for a short week when I was barely twenty. I’d studied French for years in school but had never really spoken it.

Already concerned about just how I was going to make the $2500 loan I’d gotten stretch for ayear, I decided on arrival to take the metro rather than a cab from the airport to the city. That meant heaving the suitcase up and down stairs, through archaic turnstiles (all of which have been modernized since to accommodate luggage), in and out of metro cars. It was several very rough hours before I arrived at the apartment where I was to stay with a young woman who had just started working at the cooking school and had offered me her spare bedroom. The apartment was in the ninth arrondissement, not far from Montmartre. I would stay there just long enough to find a place of my own.

No one was at the apartment and I was in a hurry. I dropped my bags, took a deep breath, and immediately ran back out the door to renegotiate the metro and report for work.

The apprenticeship was set out in six-week stages, the first of which was that of school receptionist, which meant sitting behind a desk, answering the phone, greeting visitors, and dealing with mounds of paperwork. My ideas of a romantic, food-filled year hadn’t included such stultifying work; the only thing that kept me going was peeking at the cooking classes going on in the adjacent room, and knowing that two nights a week I would join the other stagiaires for cooking classes.

I could hardly wait for the first class. When my workday was finished and the door to the street locked, I followed the other stagiaires to the kitchen. They explained the system to me, which sounded too good to be true. There was a list of perhaps a hundred required recipes to work through during the year, calculated to teach the basics of classic French cuisine, and to prepare us for the year-end exam. All we had to do before each class was to choose the recipes we wanted to work on, in a certain order which went from simple to complex. All of the ingredients would be ordered so that on the night of the class we had simply to run downstairs to the cave, or cellar, where they were kept, and bring them upstairs. We paired up to work, and kept the same partners throughout the year, to the extent everyone’s staggered schedule would allow.

Once I had traded my phone and typewriter for a chef’s knife and covered my street clothes with a long white apron, I was in heaven. Hours to cook, good company to cook with, fabulous ingredients. Never had I imagined produce so gorgeous, so intense in both appearance and flavor. Though my culinary education was relatively broad, from living in England and Germany while growing up, and from having a mother who was endlessly creative in the kitchen and rarely made the same dish twice, it was not sophisticated.

My personal interest in cooking had come rather late in life. It wasn’t until I was in my last year of high school when both of my sisters, who seemed to spend hours in the kitchen baking cookies, were out of the house that I realized I had a passion for cooking. That year and all through college I cooked whenever I had free time. When I wasn’t cooking I was reading about it, planning my next meal, designing my next dinner party. After earning a degree in communications and working at newspapers and in public relations, it dawned on me I could incorporate food into my professional life, which is what had led me to La Varenne. I wanted to be a food writer, but first I had to learn how to cook.

So here I was in 1980 in a two-hundred-year-old building in Paris, near the Place des Invalides, basking in the world’s best butter, the fattest, most pungent pink garlic, spinach whose leaves were so firm and meaty they stood up on the table instead of lying flat; brown eggs whose yellow yolks tasted as rich as they looked. I thought I knew good apples, fragrant strawberries, juicy pears. But never had I tasted the likes of the fraises des bois I had on a tart at La Varenne, and the pears I sniffed made me want to fold them into cakes, slather them with chocolate, poach them in fragrant herbs and spices.

The food was so whole. Chickens came with head, feet, and pin feathers, and so did the pigeons and quail; the fish looked at me with big, dreamy eyes as I took them from the cooler, the lettuce still had soil clinging to it.

Once my onerous receptionist stint was finished I moved on to washing dishes at cooking demonstrations, a job I much preferred. At least I was in contact with food. I lived in a blessed cloud of ecstasy about the food, the flavors, the techniques I was learning. I jumped at the chance to run errands to the market, the cheese shop, the bakery. When I wasn’t at La Varenne I took jobs cooking for embassy families, catering bar mitzvahs, making canapés for special occasions. Anything to be with food. Whenever I could I went to spend a day at a bakery or pâtisserie, often getting up at 1 a.m. and arriving when the baker did, so I missed nothing and could still get to work on time.

The chefs on duty with us for our evening classes–all of them terribly handsome in their crisp whites and with their Gallic attitudes–would yell, scream, cajole, flirt, pinch, and generally try to pummel us into cooks of some merit. After several hours of cooking we would sit down late in the evening to sample and critique our creations. I always raced through whatever my required dish or dishes were so that I could jump ahead and make something else from the list, usually in the dessert category. I always toyed with these extra recipes, embellishing and transforming them by adding ground walnuts to a gâteau breton, for instance, and pâté sablé to a chocolate charlotte. It was more fun than I could have imagined.

Being a stagiaire at La Varenne was a unique experience, not always easy, but invaluable, a sort of boot camp for cooks. All those long days doing the bidding of the chefs, the hours in the basement peeling garlic for a cooking demonstration, or in the office writing or rewriting something for one of the school’s books that were produced there were ideal training for the life of a freelance food writer.

I had expected, while doing my apprenticeship, to travel on weekends. Before arriving in France, I’d joined an organization called SERVAS, which is set up to further international goodwill by supplying travelers with names of host families in countries where they want to visit. The idea is that the traveler stays with the host family free of charge for up to three days and must, in exchange, be willing to participate in whatever the family is doing, be it harvesting grapes, taking care of children, or touring the countryside.

I looked through my list and found a family that wasn’t too far out of Paris and called to see if I could come out the following weekend. They were busy but their daughter, who lived nearby, said a visit would be just fine. Early Saturday morning I climbed on a train at Gare St. Lazare and was on my way to my first weekend in the French countryside.

When I arrived at the train station in Normandy I was met by a tall, thin, harried-looking woman who drove me to her large stone house. We entered a huge courtyard with its sculpted privets and riotous dahlias and I saw the image of all I love in France. Solid and square with graceful proportions, it was a maison bourgeoise, its façade a parade of tall windows each hung with a different antique lace curtain. Geraniums and pansies spilled out of window boxes, an antique bicycle leaned against the wall, the wicker basket on its back fender overflowing with petunias.

She said something to me I didn’t understand, pointed to her three chubby, gorgeous golden-haired children, and took off in the car. I was alone and the children immediately started fighting. I searched frantically for words like “be quiet” and “go to your room” but of course, nothing came out. I finally yelled “Arrêt.” They stopped, looked at me with their big, wide eyes, and all started to giggle and point their fingers. I searched in the cupboards looking for something to give them to eat and found only one box of organic biscuits (I now remembered that the description of this family included “vegetarian”). What else had it included, I wondered, as I chased the children through the freezing, massive, stone-floored house.

My hostess finally returned, fed the children giving each a heaping plate of steaming noodles with Gruyère cheese, and put them all to bed. They were crying, but she simply shut their doors and went downstairs. We had a quick lunch of the same pasta, with the most delicious green salad I’d ever tasted, then she indicated I follow her out to the garden. There we worked in almost complete silence, carrying wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of soil, weeds, and stones from one part of the garden to the other. I was delighted, eking out bits of conversation as we worked.

I learned that the woman, Edith Leroy who was just a few years older than I, and Bernard, her husband, had just bought the house. She was by profession a painter; Bernard had recently started his own company, and they were stretched very thin. The conversation was slow going. Edith didn’t make eye contact, didn’t talk much, and never smiled. I was in heaven. I had always heard the French were cold and somewhat austere. I found Edith’s behavior gratifyingly exotic.

We worked for hours, then Edith got the kids, gave them a snack (those organic biscuits), piled them into the back of her green Deux Chevaux and indicated I get in beside her. She flew out of the driveway and we careened through the village and down a winding road to the next town, where she had an errand to run. She left the children with her parents–older, more austere versions of Edith–and off we went.

We ended up at an herboristerie, or herb store, that smelled like lavender, rosemary, and fresh thyme, and was so calm and peaceful I wanted to set up camp there. Edith bought bread, organic cookies, and a cajot, or crate, full of soil-covered carrots, leeks, potatoes, and cabbage, all organic, then we piled back into the Deux Chevaux, picked up the kids and careened back home. The kids were flying around in the back seat screaming and hitting each other, themselves, the car seats. Edith was perfectly composed. I was a wreck, imagining an accident and a little sturdy ball of a child hurtling through the windshield. We arrived home safely, however, and the kids piled out of the car and went to play in the yard. Edith and I went into the house and she began to prepare dinner. It was about 7 p.m. An hour later her husband, Bernard, a stocky man with fine brown hair and large brown eyes, arrived. He set down his briefcase, shook my hand, and offered to give me a tour of the house. He spoke decent English, and we could understand each other perfectly. It was a huge relief. He showed me the small bathroom off the master bedroom upstairs with a pastoral mural painted on the walls, Edith’s work. It was lovely, and freezing. “You may want to take a shower before dinner,” he said, waving to the small bathtub which had a shower attachment. “I know Americans like to be very clean.” Nothing in the world would have induced me to bathe–I could barely keep my teeth from clattering.

Bernard was the picture of civility, as calm and warm as Edith was tense and cool. I started to relax and almost immediately began to understand a bit of French. Edith fed the children and put them to bed, and sometime later the three of us sat down at a candlelit table in the kitchen next to the fireplace, the only warm spot in the house. Bernard explained that the house had an old coal furnace, which Edith had to fill several times a day. Even when full it didn’t offer much comfort. Some day they would change it.

Edith had made a simple meal—carottes râpées, a mound of sarrasin (buckwheat groats), with a garlicky, lemony vinaigrette and braised leeks, a huge garden salad, a Camembert so creamy it melted in my mouth. Dessert was an apple clafoutis. I had felt close to starvation during the afternoon, accustomed as I’d become to my daily La Varenne snacks of baguette slathered with butter, and the edge of hunger made the meal taste even more delicious.
The following morning everyone rose early. Bernard was vice-mayor of the village, so he was off to some function. Edith had more plans to work in the garden. The children took care of themselves. I headed for the wheelbarrow, and together and in silence, Edith and I worked until lunchtime. We had soft-boiled eggs; I watched the children as they stuck little sticks of toasted, buttered bread (mouillettes) into their eggs, and did the same. I easily made my way through two eggs, the most delicious I’d ever tasted. I reveled in the intensely garlicky, tart salad, had more Camembert slathered on the hearty whole wheat bread Edith had bought the day before at the health food store, then enjoyed another clafoutis, this time with pears instead of apples.

My train back to Paris was mid-afternoon, and Bernard arrived home just in time to drive me to the station. I bade Edith goodbye; there was a flicker of warmth from her, but not much. The kids yelled “au revoir.” At the station Bernard bid me a safe journey and told me I was welcome to return any time, and if I needed anything all I had to do was call. He kissed me on each cheek, then was gone.

I was completely charmed by the whole experience. I’d finally gotten the soil of France on my shoes in a beautiful little village, stayed in a three-hundred-year-old maison bourgeoise, frolicked with (and yelled at) three darling French children, and been inspired by the simple foods I’d eaten. I was walking on air.

On returning to the school the next day I suddenly found my French much improved; it was finally emerging from my head. My comprehension was better, and I dared to say a few things. My fellow stagiaires gaped at me.

That was the only weekend trip I took. I was too captivated by my life in Paris and five-and-a-half-day school week to leave. I lived in a chambre de bonne, or maid’s room, with a bed so narrow I had to carefully maneuver my body to turn over. My few clothes hung in a small armoire, and I had a sink and small window that let in a flood of light. I loved it. My life was whittled down to the essentials. I showered at a friend’s apartment, used the toilet down the hall, had virtually no housework to do, and the only bills I had were my monthly carte d’orange, or metro pass, and the seven hundred French francs (about $175) I paid each month for my room. I had no phone and didn’t miss it, no kitchen to mess. The biggest problem with my lodging was its location on the sixth floor, without an elevator, and that was a problem only when I’d forgotten my pen and notebook upstairs. Usually, I just bought new ones.

I subsequently moved into two other chambres de bonne, each one slightly better equipped. The best one was in the sixteenth arrondissement above the apartment of the American cultural ambassador. It was the size of a small studio, had an elevator and a washing machine and a bathroom I shared with one other person. After months of traipsing down a dark hall to the toilet it was pure luxury to have one at hand and be able to stretch and not touch a wall on either side. I traded occasional cooking services. Another stagiaire, Roscoe Betsill my cooking partner at school and now a food stylist, lived down the hall and together we were expected to prepare food for dinner parties when the ambassador and his wife entertained. It was a fine situation except that the ambassador’s wife would call us at the last minute to prepare a meal, and there was never any food in her house. We learned to bring ingredients home from school that would otherwise have gone to waste–fresh herbs, for instance–and we had certain staples on hand. We became expert at making little canapés from canned tuna and fresh bread which seemed to delight our employers.
But a small cloud had formed over my experience. My French, which I discovered was extremely literary and terribly impractical, wasn’t improving. I was tongue-tied, and even with the chefs I had to concentrate so hard to catch what they were saying that I would fall way behind in classes. I desperately wanted to translate a cooking demonstration for the English-speaking guests, banter with the chefs and the delivery people, have a conversation with a French person that lasted more than two seconds. As it was, I didn’t really know any French people besides the chefs, since everyone who worked at the school came from an English-speaking country. For a while I traded conversation with a Frenchman who wanted to improve his English. With him I discovered that even though a person is French and speaks English with a sexy French accent he can be a crushing bore. My most childish romantic fantasies about Frenchmen were shattered, and my French didn’t progress either.

The month of August, when all of France goes on vacation, approached. The school would close. Paris was already empty, the weather was stifling, most of the stagiaires had exotic vacations planned. I was scheduled to work through the month, though there was really nothing to do but type up recipes. Then one day, Edith called. Bernard had had a terrible accident and would be laid up for three months in bed, at home. She wanted to paint, and she needed someone to come out for the month of August to cook and help around the house. The children would go to day care. Did I know anyone? Without hesitation I said I’d do it, and we made arrangements. I had to check with the head of the school to see if I could get time off, something I was certain would be granted. To my surprise she refused. I begged. She relented, though not without letting me know that she wasn’t happy. Evidently, the typing was more important than I’d realized. Nonetheless, a week later I was on the train to Normandy.

Edith was friendlier this time when she came to pick me up. She told me right away that she couldn’t believe I had wanted to return after she’d been so rude. She explained to me that she had been completely exhausted and that, frankly, she really didn’t feel like welcoming an American who lived in Paris, and didn’t know why she had said yes when I called. It was several years before I admitted that I had thought it was perfectly normal.

I arrived to find Bernard in a wheelchair surrounded by friends, drinking chilled hard cider and expounding on something. He’d fallen some 45 feet off a ladder while pasting up a campaign poster for a friend. Despite the fact that his back and legs were a mess, his spirits were high, his greeting warm.

I joined the circle around him long enough to drink some cider, then went in to see what I could do for dinner. That evening began one of the most memorable months of my life. Edith turned out to be funny, filled with energy and up for anything. I had already glimpsed Bernard and knew he was easy-going; he turned out to be more than that. Brilliant, always searching to learn, he and I immediately set up a schedule of daily French and English lessons. Edith and I worked it out that I would cook two meals a day for the family, and after my first few dinners she began inviting all of their friends, so that each night there were eight to ten people for dinner. I was in heaven, cooking exactly what I wanted within a vegetarian diet–which was fine with me, since I had been a vegetarian for nearly ten years.

Edith, who was supposed to be painting each day, instead decided it would be more fun to show me around, and we roamed the countryside going to brocantes (combination junk and antique stores) and markets, visiting her friends, nearby Rouen, and pretty villages in the area. She wanted me to see everything, so each day unfolded with a new project.

Throughout the month, which sped by, I got to know Bernard’s parents who lived on a very modest farm, and two of his three brothers. I met each of Edith’s seven brothers and sisters, all of her friends, many of her numerous other relatives as we traveled here and there, once as far as Amiens in the north to visit her favorite aunt. I kept urging Edith to paint, to take advantage of my being there, but she preferred instead to amuse herself taking me places, proposing long bicycle trips, or sewing. She made all her own and her children’s clothing, and soon I was wearing her vivid, clever creations, too.

The days followed a certain pattern. I would prepare breakfast, Edith would get her children off to day care, Bernard and I had our EnglishFrench lesson, then the day would speed by while we either ran around the countryside, or stayed home and she sewed while I cooked. In the evenings while Edith put the children to bed I prepared the evening meal and she, Bernard, and I, and whoever else had been invited, usually sat down to dinner somewhere around nine o’clock. I made everything from asparagus soufflé to peach and yogurt tarts, from Asian tofu soups to layered vegetable terrines to classic œufs florentine. I discovered that the lady across the street, Madame Dancerne, had a huge herb garden and raised lettuces, rabbits, and chickens. She became my supermarket, and I got plenty of good cooking lessons from her in the bargain. Everyone called me Suzanne and I became something of a novelty.

For the first two weeks at Edith and Bernard’s I was physically present at the dinner table, but the conversation rolled on too rapidly for me to participate, and I would find myself battling sleep halfway through the meal. No one had any mercy, least of all Edith, who spoke like a mitraillette, or machine gun. About the middle of the third week I responded to something someone said. Bernard and Edith looked at me and laughed. “It’s coming Suzanne, it’s coming,” they said.

As the end of my stay approached my spirits drooped. I had come to love the family and this turbulent, fun life. They too, were loath to see it end, and offered me a room if I wanted to stay on, and the price of a commuter ticket to Paris. I was tempted, but the train schedule didn’t match my long hours, and besides, I was ready to return to the city.
We said tearful goodbyes–I was part of the family by now, and couldn’t quite imagine how their life would proceed without me. Bernard was relatively mobile in his wheelchair and was now going to the office, which was in the village center within walking distance. The children would be starting school, so Edith would have some time to work. I would re-enter my five-and-a-half-day a week routine. They made me promise to come visit often.

I was delighted to be back in Paris, in yet another chambre de bonne in the seventeenth arrondissement just over the border from the chic eighth arrondissement. It was small but had a tiny balcony. The family who rented it to me were sweet and gave me free use of their shower. School was beginning anew and it was good to see all the stagiaires, each of whom had gone in a separate direction for August.

I stunned everyone with my French. Now the chefs couldn’t indulge in rude teasing because I understood them. I was capable of translating, and couldn’t wait to do it. From living with Edith and Bernard I’d picked up a very casual, current French, so that my repartie was rapid, and I felt perfectly comfortable. I knew I could avoid even the worst pitfall. And it came my way during my first translation. One of the students asked about preservatives in food. I turned to the chef to translate, and was just about to ask him about préservatifs, when I caught myself–a préservatif is a condom; produit chimique is the term used to describe food additives, and I remembered it just in time!

That fall a reporter for the New York Times who lived in Paris came to speak at La Varenne. She decided later to do a piece on young Americans who cooked for their living in Paris, and I fell into the category. She arranged a time to meet with all of us at a café, and we had a wonderful time. Later she called me to see if I would like to work for her. Her name was Patricia Wells, and I became her assistant.

I would race to her apartment after work whenever I had a free evening, and do whatever job she’d left for me. My favorite one, and the one she and I still laugh about, was testing a cake called the marjolaine, a stunningly rich confection of layered hazelnut and almond meringue with pastry cream and ganache. I would spend the evening making it in Patricia and her husband Walter’s apartment while they were out to dinner, then leave the finished product on the kitchen counter before going home to fall into bed. Patricia would taste it, make some comments, and I’d go back to the drawing board. I think I tested it four times over the course of a couple of weeks. Finally one day Patricia called me. “These cakes you leave us are gorgeous–why don’t you ever take a piece for yourself?”

It had never occurred to me to do that. I loved leaving a perfect looking, perfectly frosted cake in the middle of a clean kitchen. I’d sampled all the elements as I cooked, so I knew the flavors. And I honestly had no appetite. I’d spent almost a year eating more food than most people eat in ten years, and when my work day was done, my appetite was gone.

The year at La Varenne came smoothly to a close. I passed my final exam, preparing consommé with a garnish of brunoise (vegetables cut in tiny dice), roast beef with watercress and freshly made pasta, and mille-feuille for dessert, all made under the piercingly critical gaze of head chef Fernand Chambrette–and earned my grand diplôme. I was ready to move on, but hated the thought of leaving France. By now, I was a regular visitor at Edith and Bernard’s, I’d gotten to know Paris well, I had my favorite markets, bakers, restaurants, and pastry shops, where I would do day-long stages, or visits, whenever I could. I couldn’t quite imagine returning to the United States, but I couldn’t simply stay on, either. Most of the other stagiaires were leaving, so my base of acquaintances would soon disperse.
I got a call from a woman who was looking for someone to open and cook for a salon de thé in the sixth arrondissement. It was to be part of an English-language bookstore, and she wanted the food to be American. I went to be interviewed and landed the job. Whew! I could stay on for at least another year. I had a month before the job would begin so I went back to the United States to visit my family. While there I met my future husband, Michael Loomis.

Tall, lean, and achingly handsome, he had been invited to a party to meet my older sister, and I knew that so I stayed clear. But circumstances were such that we couldn’t seem to avoid each other. Before our first date I checked in with my sister who waved her hand and said go for it. Within a month, Michael and I were engaged.
I returned to Paris to begin my job. My bosses–two Parisiennes, each of whom had lived in the United States for extended periods–showed me the café bookstore, very much a raw space, a piece of which was destined to become a kitchen. One of my employers, Odile, turned to me and said “It’s yours, do what you want with it.”
That started a month of hunting out the best appliances and fixtures I could find. It was July and burning hot; my memories of that time are infused with soaring temperatures, exacerbated by the heat generated by arguing to get everything I needed as I learned the French rules of commerce.

Buying an electric mixer stands out as one of my most memorable lessons. I walked into a kitchen supply store and saw the mixer I wanted, which at that time was hard to find in Paris, high upon a shelf. I asked the vendeuse for it by name, and she said they didn’t carry them. I told her they did, and pointed to it on the shelf. Without turning to look, she said “Ça n’existe pas ici,” “This doesn’t exist here.” I was dumbfounded. I pointed to the shelf again, but she wouldn’t look. I wanted to grab her head and swivel it around, but instead, feeling my face get very hot, I raised my voice and said “Madame, j’insiste. Je veux cette machine, vous l’avez, donnez la moi.” “I insist. I want that machine, you have it, give it to me.”

Startled, she turned, climbed up a ladder, got the machine, and hefted it onto the counter. I examined it, paid for it, and walked out with it under my arm. “Au revoir, madame,” said the vendeuse with her musical accent. “Not likely,” I thought, but went on my way, hot, drenched, and still angry. But victorious. Or at least I felt victorious. I’d gotten what I wanted. She undoubtedly felt victorious, too. After all, she’d made me suffer. It took me awhile to cool off. But when I plugged in my mixer back at the salon de thé and made my first batch of brownies I forgot it all, and put the lesson I’d learned to good use. I wasn’t brought up to argue, raise my voice, or object. Doing business in France taught me to do all three.

After choosing ovens and mixers, cook tops and sinks, I was ready. I tested my recipes and fed them to my employers and their families. Finally, in early September we were ready to open. Le tout Paris had been invited. I had prepared pans of my mother’s sticky brownies, chocolate chip cookies, spice breads, molasses cookies, and other traditional American foods which, at that time, were novelties in Paris.
Opening night was a stunning success, and it began an intensely busy year, as my weeks sped away in a flurry of early morning shopping at the nearby Marché St. Germain, where I became friends with the chicken lady and her pâté-making husband. She delivered chickens–heads, pin feathers, and feet attached–whenever I had chicken salad or stew on the menu, and she was always giving and asking for recipes. I took my work seriously and put in long hours, trying to live up to the tradition of what I’d learned. The customers loved the food, from the hearty chili to the green-flecked zucchini bread (which I called spice cake, or no one would have eaten it). My saucer-sized chocolate chip cookies were the biggest hit. One day I stuck my head into the dining room and saw a properly dressed woman eating one with a knife and fork!

Michael, a sculptor in the mood for an adventure, had decided to join me in Paris. Before he’d met me he had been making plans to take a year off, live in Europe, and work on his drawing, so moving to Paris fit in with his plans. Four months after I returned he arrived. He was eager to study French, since he spoke not a word, and he couldn’t wait to strike up an intimate relationship with the museums of Paris. While I was at work he would spend the day in museums or sitting in a park drawing, or attending French classes. In the evenings we would go to movies, or walk along the river eating Berthillon ice cream, the best in Paris, or simply wandering the city streets. We were living on practically nothing and loving it.

I loved my schedule–early mornings at the market, cooking for hours in a music-filled kitchen, filling baskets with buttery cookies and slices of cake, stirring pots of spicy soups, and rolling out pounds and pounds of pastry dough. The bookstore became a destination for Parisian literati. The salon de thé was successful.

Copyright 2001 by Susan Herrmann Loomis
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2002

    Just a great book!

    I don't cook (unless you count microwave popcorn) and I've never been to France, but I LOVED this book. I selected it at random while standing in the Travel section of my local B&N store, and I was not disappointed. I flew through it because it was so engaging and well-written. Loomis is a natural writer and this book brings to life, well, her life in a village in Normandy. You will read this book and long to move to France, or at least live in a small, friendly town with a strong sense of community. And you will feel inspired to try your hand at the delicious recipes included. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes France, food, or simply a good story.

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