Saturday, July 7, 2012

French class

A terrifying woman I once knew — terrifying in that she seemed so strenuously cool — routinely made fun of lovers of France. We met shortly after I finished college and moved to the East Coast, where she had lived all her life. I remember once listening to her disparage a friend of ours who had hung a series of Jean-Pierre Jeunet film posters in his apartment. "You're like a Francophile cliche," she said as he looked sheepishly around the room. "It's so ridiculously American." The next time we visited him the posters were gone.

Intimidated and uncertain of my opinions, I adopted hers as my own while secretly listing Delicatessen as one of my favorite movies and still longing to someday see Monet's waterlilies in person. I never mentioned that I'd taken French language classes through high school and college. When we went out to eat, I never suggested Café Luluc or Madame Claude's — restaurants I loved. Whenever she came over, I always took down the large black-and-white photo of boats on the Seine given to me by the city editor at my newspaper. He'd taken it during a trip to Paris and had written across the top: "To Whitney, who was here in another lifetime." I loved that idea. But would that make me a ridiculous Francophile? Who wants to be made fun of? Not me, especially not by this woman!

Lately, though, it's dawned on me that she didn't know what was what. I had been carrying around the idea that she was right for so long that it was surprising when I mentioned to a friend I had always wanted to go to France and she responded in kind. Oh, I thought. Maybe it is time to jettison the opinions of Terrifying Woman and go back to my own. A little perspective is hard to come by sometimes.

So with that in mind I decided to dip a toe back into an interest I once had. Last month I took the entrance exam at Alliance Francaise and was surprised at how much I remembered. I enrolled in a Tuesday night French class, started reading about what to do in Bordeaux during the fall, and bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking. So much has been written about that cookbook that buying it felt like a culinary rite of passage. Planning out a little Friday dinner for a friend who recently got braces and is hungry only for soft foods, I followed the cheese soufflé recipe exactly, and it turned out just the way it was supposed to: tall, airy and packed with the tang of Gruyere.

It's surprising how substantial a soufflé is — it starts out as just a few tablespoons each of flour and butter, a handful of cheese, a few eggs and a cup of milk. But three of us were nice and full when we were finished. My friend had made a spicy yam and tomato gazpacho, and the two dishes balanced each other: one rich and cheesy and warm, the other sharp and spicy and freezing cold. The best part about making the soufflé was how enjoyable it was to see everything come together; if ever you've been intimidated by this endeavor, there's still time to set fear aside! Go to.

Since it would be ingenuous (lying) to say I had done anything else but follow the recipe just as it's written, I didn't think it would be right to include my own version. There was no adapting whatsoever. But here is a recipe faithful to the original.

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