Oh là là! According to Lonely Planet, French gastronomy has just been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. (So that’s two things I learned today, because I wasn’t even aware that such a list has existed since 2001.) #boywasmyfacered
In my former life as an au pair, part of my servitude involved making meals for Le Garçon and La Petite. Until I arrived at the House of Pain, it never crossed my mind that I would be expected to cook. I hadn’t given my duties much thought at all, truth be told — I’d been too busy picturing myself wearing a beret and a striped shirt, riding an old-fashioned bicycle through charmingly cobbled streets, with a hunky, intellectual Frenchman hanging on my every bon mot while Edith Piaf warbled “Non, je ne regrette rien” in the background.
While the prospect of cooking was bad enough, the prospect of cooking French food — for real, honest-to-gosh French people — was daunting, to say the least. My entire life flashed before my eyes at the very thought, and nowhere in the mental slide show did bœuf bourguignon, coquille Saint-Jacques, or pâté de foie gras make so much as an unbilled cameo.
It was a relief when I discovered the bar had been set quite a bit lower than that. French children, apparently, don’t eat the fancy stuff on a day-to-day basis. Maman disdainfully showed me — Maman did everything disdainfully — how to pan-fry beef patties (which, to my confusion, were served without the familiar, loving embrace of a hamburger bun.) She also flung open a cupboard that was stocked with some vile-looking canned ravioli that I’d bet my last centime never crossed her crimson lips.
My host family made its own yogurt, so I was shocked at how much processed food the children were fed. This was 1984, don’t forget. In France at that time there wasn’t the mind-boggling selection of chemically-laden crap available today.
Of course, I ate with the children. My limited repertoire soon produced a certain ennui. Turns out there are only so many naked hamburgers and croque monsieurs a person can eat before boredom sets in. In desperation, I threw together a favourite from my own childhood: egg and chips (a fried egg with French fries, for those of you who didn’t grow up with the delights of English cuisine. With peas on the side, so they wouldn’t get scurvy or something.) The kids were instantly hooked. They started asking —whining, really — for le plat anglais: the English dish.
(Those kids are lucky I didn’t bring out the heavy artillery from my childhood: bubble & squeak and toad in the hole. That would have put the nail in the coffin of Anglo-French relations once and for all.)
One of the staples of the children’s diet was mashed potatoes. Now, my mother is Irish, so I know what mashed potatoes are. And they’re definitely NOT pasty little flakes that taste, not surprisingly, like the cardboard box that houses them.
The day came when I couldn’t face another serving of puréed spuds. I announced that we were going to have authentic mashed potatoes for a change. They watched suspiciously as I peeled, quartered, boiled, and mashed. A little butter, a pinch of pepper, et voilà. Dinner is served.
They each took a tiny nibble before putting down their forks and pushing their plates away in unison. “I don’t like authentic mashed potatoes,” Le Garçon announced.
“It’s ca-ca,” his sister explained helpfully. “We want real mashed potatoes.”
Put that on your Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, UNESCO.