Shenandoah, Iowa · The "French connection" · A defining
moment · The pension de famille · The concierge with the
onion soup · Cops in the closet
On the bedroom wall of my Paris apartment is a black-and-white photo of Main Street, Shenandoah, Iowa, 1878. The storefronts are wood and look like facades built for a Western. The dirt street is wide and runs west into emptiness. On the piano in my living room I have another photo, also black-and-white. It is of the beautiful Victorian house I grew up in, a large turreted home with thick carved walnut doors and stained-glass windows built at the turn of the century by David Lake, the founder of the seed and nursery industry in Shenandoah. The only people to live in the house before my father purchased it were Lakes, which is why it was always referred to as the Lake House even when we were living in it.
My father bought the Lake House when I was three years old and it was so much bigger than our Small house on Crescent Street that I managed to promptly get lost in it. Filled with nooks and crannies, a basement with many unexplored rooms you could barely crawl into and a creepy attic with playful mice that pattered over your head at night but that miraculously disappeared when you went up there to play, it was a house made for children.
After my father died when I was fifteen, my mother moved to Minneapolis and sold the house. Although I have seen it fromtime to time from the outside on my infrequent visits to Shenandoah, I have not entered it since my sister's wedding, which was held there in 1968. I have often traveled through its rooms in my mind, though, and prefer to remember it the way it was: a house with many books and a grand piano that was constantly in use, a house filled with young people of all ages and good smells coming from the kitchen, a house that was impeccable yet comfortably welcoming, a house in which everyone could find his or her own space. The kitchenespecially compared to the one I have today in Pariswas huge, with a pantry and a dining nook where we ate when not in the formal dining room.
My bedroom was at the head of the back stairs directly up from the kitchen where the smell of bacon frying was often the only thing that could wrest me from my bed in the morning. The fragrance of fresh baked cookies, especially chocolate chip and ginger, my favorites, was another surefire way of getting me to emerge from my upstairs hideaway.
Without doing it on purpose, my mother contributed to my early interest in France. She chose a turquoise-and-white wallpaper pattern called Monique, and decorated my bedroom window with turquoise café curtains bordered by a harlequin pattern. She certainly could not have guessed what far-reaching effects those seemingly prosaic decorating choices would have on my life. Perhaps because I loved my room so much, I associated France with all things pleasant.
It's all far away now, a continent away, in fact, but I keep those images in my mind and those photos in my home in France to remind me of where I came from and who I am.
So what does that have to do with a book on French food?
First of all, in regard to food in general, I didn't grow up in the age of fast food. In our family, my mother set the table with real silver and linen tablecloths, sometimes for lunch and always for dinner. My brothers and sister and I were expected to attend all meals, and to carry on some semblance of civilized conversation. My dignified father sat at the head of the table, elegant in a white shirt and tie, my mother at the other end, refined and soft-spoken. When I went out into the big wide world, I discovered that my parents were about as far from the stereotype of the Iowa farmer as you could find, yet both of them came from farm families and were the first to come "to town."
My father's great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Welty, settled in Shenandoah in 1870 and "saw the town grow from its birth in the wild prairie grass," according to his biographical sketch. Andrew Jackson's claim to fame, other than his name, was the "leading and fearless part" he took in the fight to keep saloons and spirits out of Shenandoah. My illustrious ancestor surely would have been horrified to think that one of his issue (me) would so much as sip a glass of wine let alone participate in the distilling of it (more on that in the chapter on à la campagne).
My maternal grandmother, who was born and raised on a farm and married a farmer, was a teetotaler as well. The family story is that she only asked two things of my mother. The first was that she attend college. This is because when my grandmother was ten years old, her mother died so she had to stay at home to take care of her father and brothers and never even had the opportunity to finish high school. A highly intelligent woman, she regretted her lack of schooling and my mother's education therefore was of the utmost importance to her. The second request, equally serious, was that my mother never sit on a barstool at the local country club! For my reserved ladylike grandmother, who had never been to the country club and surely imagined it as a den of iniquity, that was the worst possible thing that could happen to her daughter. My mother satisfied both of her mother's wishes, finishing Iowa State Teacher's College (now the University of Northern Iowa) and never sitting on a barstool or drinking anything more than a half a glass of sherry from time to time. Knowing how our sprightly grandmother felt about liquor, we four grandchildren would on an annual basis spice the Christmas fruitcake with rum or whiskey, naively hoping to get her tipsy. To no avail!
It may seem strange to talk about drink when the matter at hand is food, but there's a link. Teetotalers or not, it's hard to imagine either of my parents' mothers having a cocktail hour with all the work they had to do on the farm preparing gigantic repasts of meat, mashed potatoes, gravy, and salads for their men and all the hired hands. Drink was strictly out, and food was serious. Even though my parents left their respective farms and moved to town after they were grown, they maintained a respect for and a tradition of regular meals---major mealsthat farm families have. (When my children were young, we took my mother, the picture of decorum, to a Burger King in Minneapolis. She never would have set foot in there on her own but was a good sport about accompanying me and the kids. We watched with amazement as she carefully set the Dastardly Thing down on her tray, divided it neatly into bottom and top sections, and proceeded to eat it with a knife and fork! After that experience, we abandoned any attempts to perpetrate fast food on her. It just wasn't her style. One of the reasons she loved visiting us in France, she told me, was the way the food is served, one course after another, in small portions. This appealed to her genteel sense of the way things should be.)
Perhaps this respect for mealtime is one reason I feel so at home in France.
A "French connection"
Besides my own family, another influence was our town's own French restaurant. This was not a restaurant that called itself French but a real restaurant run by real French people. In addition to two local drugstores (Jay's and Rexall's), two cinemas (the State and the Page), various dress stores and offices, including my father's busy real estate and life insurance agency, Shenandoah had a restaurant scene as well: Simpson's café and the Spot for a quick bite and for a "real meal," the Delmonico Hotel and the Tallcorn Motel. But the crown jewel for a few years in the '50s was the Normandy Inn, a French restaurant run by the parents of our family friend, Micheline, a war bride who married an air force officer from the Midwest.
What she thought about being transported from Le Havre, a city on the west coast of France, which had been so badly bombed during World War II that it had to be totally rebuilt, to a small town in the cornfields of Iowa I never knew until I questioned her about it one day some forty years later; suffice it to say that coming from an urbane French family where she was a beloved only child with a nanny and English governess, it was a shock to find herself in the southwest corner of Iowa where she even took work in a factory for a time. But Micheline never looked back. Shortly after she arrived, she sent for her mother and father who had been left financially destitute after the Occupation and the ravages of the war. The news of their arrival was duly published in our local paper, The Shenandoah Evening Sentinel, with the headline: "French Couple Will Make Their Home in Shenandoah."
I have the old newspaper clipping, which Micheline sent me, and it brought back memories of how everything was reported in a small town newspaper. This event was, certainly, not an everyday one and our paper made sure we got all the details about the French family who was moving to our town. In a 1949 write-up, the Sentinel reported that Mr. Simenel, Micheline's father, "is not a stranger to the U.S.A.," that he first came in 1906 and stayed three years in different states of the Cotton Belt and that for twenty-three years he had been the official sworn expert for cotton at the Tribunal of Commerce of Le Havre but retired during the American Depression. In an article in August 1954, the paper announced that the Simenels had become citizens, having been called to appear before the federal court of justice in Council Bluffs to take their oath of allegiance. "After the ceremony," the newspaper related, "they were guests of the Council Bluffs chapter of Daughters of American Revolution and of Chamber of Commerce women at a luncheon at the Chieftain Hotel."
The Normandy Inn
Meanwhile, the Normandy Inn had been born and we Shenandoahans had been introduced to a touch of class. To my child's eyes, the restaurant combined foreign and cozy with its red-and-white checkered tablecloths and a candle on each table. A display of beautiful antique plates rescued from the Simenel's house in Normandy, a home occupied by the Germans for four and a half years, lent yet another foreign note. Micheline's father, who had never cooked before other than as a hobby, presided over the restaurant with his pretty petite wife, Madeleine. Surprisingly, though Micheline recalls my family having lunch at the Normandy Inn every Sunday, I have very few vivid memoriesthe influence of the restaurant was surely subliminal.
I do have one reminiscence that is firmly implanted in my mind, though, and that is the Simenel's "Swiss steak Normandy," which became my Proust's madeleine. Granted, Swiss steak is not French, but the person cooking it was, and what a difference it made! Years later, in a Paris restaurant with a Shenandoah friend, we started talking about the Normandy Inn. "Do you remember the Swiss steak?" my friend asked, and we each rolled our eyes blissfully as we conjured up its delicious taste. Memories are tricky things, howevermy brother doesn't remember the restaurant but recalls the family unpacking their goods and exclaiming "ooh la la" every time they came upon a broken object. As for me, as the years passed, I started thinking I had dreamed up the Swiss steak until I contacted Micheline, who now lives outside of Washington, D.C. Not only did she confirm my few memories but she sent me a Normandy Inn menu on which Swiss steak was prominently listed at the modest price of eighty-five cents!
An "almost French" stepgrandmother
My first experience with French food and French people was, then, in Iowa. I had never laid eyes on anyone as different as the beautiful black-haired, green-eyed Micheline, her tiny white-haired mother, Madeleine, and her tall good-looking father, Bernard, who, in spite of his perfect English, was obviously not a native midwesterner. They blended into the community and at the same time were special members of it: three exotic French birds in a sea of corn!
Experience number two was, as I recounted in my book French Toast, the marriage of my grandfather, after my grandmother passed away, to Blanche Schweitzer, who had been a French professor at Grinnell College, one of the most respected schools in our state. With her white hair, blue eyes, and kind nature, my stepgrandmother, whom we called Aunt Blanche, was another major French influence on me. From the books she brought me to read, I learned that there were boys named Jean and not John, girls named Jeanne and not Jean, places called Brittany where people slept in beds with doors that shut them in at night.
In this day and age of the Internet and CNN, none of this would perhaps seem so alien, so alluring, so romantic. However, in the early '50s in a small town in Iowa where most of my hours were spent in the comfortable confines of the Shenandoah Public Library immersing myself in other worlds, this was crucially unfamiliar territory. Merely the sound of the French language transported me elsewhere. My Aunt Blanche taught me the first French words I ever learned: fourchette, fork, and cochon, pig. The latter was not because of pigs on the farm, but a particular pink stuffed pig she brought me as a gift. I was enchanted. I can't recall it, but I surely heard Micheline and Madeleine speak French together (Madeleine had a delicious French accent in EnglishI often think of her when I get self-conscious about my American accent in French and can only hope that my accent in French is as charming as hers was in English). At any rate, all these influences must have sunk in to a deeper part of me because by the time I got to the University of Michigan, there was only one thing I wanted to do: go to France.
A defining moment and a detour
The summer between my junior and senior year, I got my wish and went to France with Denise, my college roommate. In terms of a defining experience, that trip made all the difference, transporting me from the safety of home to the insecurity and fun of travel adventure. As hard as it is to imagine now, I was more than reluctant to leave home (and I especially didn't want to fly!) but then we were on our way, and I discovered France and found myself under its spell.
Our travel was not limited to France. We hitchhiked in Scotland and were amused to find that neither of us could understand what the lorry drivers were saying, nor could they understand us, I presume. Denise would push me into the cab first so that I would be the one who had to keep up the conversation. In exchange, though, she took care of all our finances, leaving me the comparatively more pleasant assignment of being our PR person. This ended in several fiascos including a memorable one in which we naively got off the train in Italy with a good-looking elderly Italian gentleman who suggested we see his village. He even knew a good hotel, he said. We could stay the night and get back on the train the next day. "Fantastic!" we exclaimed, in our incredible innocence, neither of us suspecting for one second that the motive of this man, who was old enough to be our grandfather, was to parade his American "catches" around the villageand more, if possible.
When our Italian friend tried to break down the door to our hotel room, we suddenly (oh how brilliant we were, how quick on the draw) figured it all out. With great glee, we constructed a hastily made barricade in front of the entrance to our room and after a giggly night in which we tried to imagine the technical details of an elderly man taking on not one but two young college girls, we skittered out of there the next morning, Thank you, EurRail Pass. We also solemnly decided that my future PR efforts would be limited to English and French as I obviously had no clue about what was going on in Italian.
Trying out my French on the French
Far from the clutches of the old lecher, France seemed safer and I could try out my rudimentary language skills. To my surprise and to their credit, the French proved tolerant. "Oo ay lah twahlet?" (Where is the bathroom?) was about the extent of it at that point, but it was useful. Seeing that I could actually make myself understood, after two years of high school French and only one in college, I was overjoyed. When you are twenty years old and emerge from the Midwest and a sheltered life in college and find yourself in a simple hotel in the Latin Quarter overlooking the roofs of Paris; when you go down in the morning to buy your fresh croissant and are hit in the face by the smell of strong coffee; when you peer at the people and they look different, talk different, and act differentyou might have one of several reactions: You might feel ill at ease and want to go back home where everything is familiar; you might not care much either way; or you might, like me, be so totally enthralled that you want to be those people, speak their language, eat their food, and drink their wine. I didn't want to return home and shop for French food in specialty stores or speak French from time to time when the occasion would (rarely) arise. I had made up my mind: I wanted to be in Franceforever!
Dutifully, I returned to get my B.A. from the University of Michigan but my heart by now was miles away. After having seen France, my last year of college was anticlimatic, a parenthesis in time before I could return. In an attempt to dissuade myself from the admittedly crazy idea of going to France to live, I did however make one intense last-ditch effort to entice a handsome young law student to marry me and take me back to Chicago with him, where we would live together happily ever after in bourgeois paradise. Destiny wouldn't let me off the hook: after all my wily arrangements to get him interested in me, he announced that he was getting engaged to someone else. I spent a despondent five minutes contemplating Life After College Without Marriagein those days this was no small matterbut I was quite sure everything would work out in the end, and besides, France was out there. It was time to get on the move.
Arcueil-Cachan and the pension de famille
While my friends busied themselves getting married and then getting jobs or not (that was the order in those days), I arranged to stay in a pension de famille in the working-class suburb of Cachan south of Paris and bought a one-way ticket to the French capital.
The husband of the lady who ran the pension would pick me up at the airport, I was told. Not to be caught unaware and not to let him know that my French was minimal to say the least, all through the long ride from America, I had repeated what I would tell him when he asked me the inevitable questionDid you have a good flight?
"C'était très bien," I would reply.
He was a white-haired gentleman driving a sardine-can Citroën 2CV, and he did indeed ask the question, as I had thought he would. When I replied, I even added an innovation. I had noticed that French people often punctuate phrases with an exclamation-question, "Ah, bon?" Every time he would rattle on in French which I absolutely did not understand, I would wait for him to pause, and then knowingly place my "Ah bon?" It worked like a charm. Jean, we'll call him, chatted merrily away as we drove through a series of nondescript suburbs to Cachan. I was given a tour of the pension, during which time I was informed that there were no other English speakers, and that my sheets would be changed every two weeks (my French was good enough to understand that). By eight o'clock that evening, now far away from l'Amérique, I sat dazed in front of a table laden with good things to eat. Lots of good bread and, it seemed to me, lots of wine. Jean gestured for me to watch him.
"This is how you do it," he pronounced in what I thought was beautiful French, cutting a piece of creamy, slightly runny Camembert to spread on a piece of his baguette. He brought it to his mouth slowly with one hand and with the other picked up his glass of vin rouge to wash down this savory bite. I sat across the table from him, watching in utter fascination. What he was doing looked so French I couldn't believe it. Was I in someone's dream? Then I imitated him, slicing into the Camembert, spreading it on my bread, chewing on it very slowly, and washing it down with the wine. I later learned that this way of eating cheese would not exactly stand up chez la marquise but since we weren't in any way, shape, or form chez la marquise, it didn't make any difference. I was learning about French food firsthand and loved every minute of it.
La rue des Volontaires and the concierge
with the onion soup
Another crucial eating experience took place a few years later in the late '60s with my concierge in a bourgeois (i.e., respectable) building in the fifteenth arrondissement where for a time I rented a maid's room on the seventh floor. She called me Mademoiselle Wetly instead of Welty and was very interested in which of my boyfriends would eventually become my husband. She rejected the suspicious-looking, oddly dressed, unshaven, leftist types and cast her vote for the polite well-dressed Englishman in tweed who turned out to be French and did indeed become my husband.
Perhaps her most outstanding characteristic was that she drank like a poisson. Her demeanor was that of a pug but perhaps the bulging eyes and red nose and smashed-in features were the effect of too much wine. However that may be, my concierge and I took an instant liking to each other and so it was that one day I had the privilege of being beckoned into her tiny courtyard kitchen, separate from her living quarters, to partake of her homemade onion soup, which was, naturally, accompanied by massive amounts of red wine. As with Jean and the Camembert, I couldn't have been more pleased to have been included in what for me was a truly French moment. The soup was hot and flavorful on that cold rainy evening, the wine, although by this time even I could tell it was ordinaire, just the ticket. I couldn't really understand much of what she was saying became my French still wasn't all that good, but I was starting to figure out that any kind of human contact in France that was accompanied by a sharing of food, no matter how modest the surroundings, was to be considered special.