Find out what it's like in a French kitchen

Susan LoomisSusan Herrmann Loomis was born in Orlando, Florida. Her childhood was spent moving around the USA and from country to country with her military father. She now lives on Rue Tatin in Louviers, France with her husband and two children. She's written many cookbooks, and her latest is In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France. (Enter our contest for your chance to win a copy, and get details on Loomis' book tour on our Calendar of Cookbook Events.) Loomis has provided us with a peek inside her cookbook, which contains lovely prose in addition to recipes: 

The French love Food.

I know, that's like saying "The sky is blue." But the French love of food isn't just carnal. The French love of food is primordial. They love food the way we love our Grand Canyon, our freedom, and our waves of grain-primitively, instinctively, fundamentally. Their love for food is overwhelmingly universal-it permeates the air, the life, the lifestyle, and the habits of all in this country.

This love of food resonated from the day I set foot in France and smelled butter in the air. It was a chilly day in March, and I had just arrived on an early flight. nothing was open in Paris that morning, and I walked to stay warm, inhaling that buttery smell that would balloon into intensity each time I passed a boulangerie.

When one finally opened its doors, I stepped inside and bought my first French croissant. It shattered all over me when I bit into it, and I've never been the same since. This buttery, shattery moment led me to a French life. There was, of course, a lot more involved. But that croissant was like a perfect first kiss at the start of a lifelong romance.

Since then, I've discovered just how much the French love food, which has allowed me to openly love it, too. I always loved it, which made me something of an extra-terrestre when I was in college and after. Then, friends and colleagues greeted my love of cooking with skepticism and friendly derision, as if to say, "Who on earth would want to spend time cooking?" The minute I came to France I was surrounded by like minds, and my somewhat suppressed passion came fully out of the closet.

Fast-forward to a life in France raising children, writing books, teaching cooking classes, settling myself into a culture where food is the linchpin, the gathering point, the warmth in a cold world of politics, social upheaval, complex religious persuasions, and every- thing else that composes our contemporary French world. Here, I'm surrounded by people who love food.

Take Edith, my friend and cohort in many an exploit for thirty years. She is the antithesis of the stay-at-home mom, though that's what she's been for nearly thirty years. The thing is, she coddles no one, believes that a harsh life is better than a soft one, wears Birkenstock sandals every day of the year regardless of the temperature, and is always dressed in items of designer clothing that she assembles with the flair of a diva. As for her four kids, they were born, they were fed, they were schooled, and now they're out of the house, all of them strong individuals with passions of their own.

What did Edith do with her time? She painted, landscapes and portraits that enchant everyone who sees them. She has many other passions-remodeling, sewing, hunting down bargains on eBay. One of her most notable passions is her love of eating. I've never encountered anyone who approaches meals with so much gusto. When she sits down in front of something she loves, you'd better be sure to serve yourself quickly because otherwise she is likely to eat it all, with big, appreciative mouthfuls, down to the last crumb.

I see a lot of Edith. For one thing, I often swim in the pool she and her husband, Bernard, thoughtfully put in their backyard. If she isn't making lunch when I arrive, she's about to sit and eat it, and it's always a hot meal. Lately it's been boiled potatoes with mustardy vinaigrette and smoked herring (it's herring season). But it might as easily be thick, herb-rich potage, or pasta with lots of garlic and a shower of Comté, or a mass of vegetables that she pulled from her garden and braised with bay leaf and thyme.

Edith wouldn't dream of eating something she considered less than scrumptious, which for her is heavily weighted to vegetables, garlic, and olive oil. Her refrigerator is mostly empty, but half their property is given over to a vegetable garden where her neighbor, Mr. Harel, has tended the same few crops for at least fifteen years. There are leeks and carrots, lettuces and potatoes, onions, green beans, and a big row of red currants. It never varies (which would drive me crazy because I like variety, but which suits Edith just fine). As long as she has these fresh staples, her life-and her diet- are complete.

What I find fascinating about Edith, aside from her colorful nature, is the time she spends cooking. She has absolutely no passion for it, yet her intense passion for eating drives her into the kitchen twice a day. She's efficient there like she's efficient everywhere. Nothing she cooks takes long-leeks are washed and cut in seconds, then set to braise in olive oil and garlic; potatoes are put on to boil; cheese comes out of the fridge. Edith loves good bread and while she might not take time to go to the market for vegetables, she'll drive miles for a great loaf. She loves dessert and whips up a chestnut and honey cake in five minutes, or a thick chocolate sauce, which she'll pour over homemade ice cream, or a fruit tart made from the figs off her prolific tree.

Her meals are all impromptu and very simple, whether she's cooking for herself at noon on any old day or has ten people coming for dinner. For a dinner party, she'll just multiply that warm potato and herring salad, preceding it with nothing more than some delicious cured sausage, fresh walnuts (from her tree), and perhaps a chickpea or avocado purée; she might decide to splurge and grill perfect little lamb chops, which she'll cook in the fireplace; these she'll serve with buttery tender green beans or sautéed leeks. If she doesn't want to eat meat she won't serve it and will, instead, offer an extra-ample cheese selection and call it good. Her meals are direct and no frills, like her. And because she's an artist, while guests might be surprised, they allow her this peccadillo.

Most of Edith's dishes are based on memories from her austere grandmother Juliette's farm, where she spent many a summer and school holiday. I swear, there isn't a flavor or food memory she's forgotten. If she's making braised endive, she'll tell the story of how her grandmother forced her, at age twelve, to sit in front of a plate of braised endive every meal for three days until she ate it. (This is a true story. Then, she hated endive; now, miraculously, she loves it.) When she bites into a butter cookie, it reminds her of those the housekeeper made with fresh top cream when she was a girl; when she makes chocolate sauce with water, it's because her aunt at the farm did it that way.

Edith wasn't  surrounded by a lot of warmth and affection when she was growing up, so food became the vehicle for emotion. She is much like her grandmother, somewhat austere to those who don't know her. Yet eat at her table and you'll feel as though you're wrapped in a down comforter. Food, for her, is memory and warmth all wrapped up together.

Reprinted from In a French Kitchen by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2015, Susan Herrmann Loomis. Photo credit: Francis Hammond.

1 Comment

  • Dcskeen  on  8/29/2015 at 7:21 PM

    I hope I win this book. I'd love to read it and maybe cook something!

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