1950s Archive

Classes in Classic Cuisine

Originally Published April 1955

Every year at Easter time we went to the country to visit grandpère. Though his farm was located only six or seven miles from my childhood home in the heart of France, the trip filled me with a sense of excitement and wonder which could nor have been more incense had he inhabited another sphère planétaire. This feeling of adventure was much more acute during the semaine de Pâques, for Easter in my homeland is almost a greater holiday than is Christmas. At Eastertime the windows of the food shops arc a veritable bouquet of color and are laden with things to cat which lavish the eye as well as the palate. Chez le charcutier there are mouth-watering displays of Easter hams and fancy hors-d'oeuvre, and the confiseries are a delight with chocolate eggs and assorted baskets of bonbons.

In this season the cities are deserted. The residents of Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon leave the noisy boulevards to visit parents or grandparents in the country for the four-day Master week end which begins on Holy Thursday. On Sunday, after Mass, the family spends a good part of the afternoon at table, devouring a bon repas, laughing, and exchanging pleasantries and harmless bits of idle gossip. The Easter table is the yearly pride of every bonne méngère, just as her husband is proud of the bottle of vin du pays which he claims to have found derrière les fagots! Oui! In France, the best bottle is always supposed to be from behind the woodpile.

I suppose that Easter feasting in those days was so important to us because Lenten fasting was so much more rigorous than it is today. As I write this article concerning egg cookery, I am reminded how few eggs we were then permitted during Lent. Like meat, eggs were défendus on Wednesday and Friday, except for very special reasons, and they could not be eaten at all during Holy Week. Since the average Frenchman would rather be deprived of meat than of eggs, this was a real hardship. Rut the restrictions made eggs more important and more appreciated when the forty days of fasting were over. It also put ever)' housewife on her mettle to make up for lost time once eggs were off the proscribed list. At least, that was the circumstance on the farm where my grandmother ruled the kitchen and maintained old-time traditions. At our home in town, my mother was more modern and daring. I recall the visit of an aunt to our house during a certain Wednesday in Lent when my mother served an omelette for supper. “Annette, ” she said to my mother, “nous ne le dirons pat à maman; elle serait trop triste.” (Let's not tell mother about this. It would make her very sad.) Today, of course, all that is changed, and eggs arc a vital factor in the Lenten cuisine.

For the children, there were no Easter toys, no live chicks, no stuffed woolly lambs. We had no Easter bunny to bring us cadeaux, but we were not forgotten, not by grand'maman.' She never forgot to make us gifts of colored eggs. Following her long day of cleaning and cooking, cheese-making and other chores, she boiled eggs and colored them with dyes made of spinach and beets and onion skins. She never began this enterprise until we were in bed and fast asleep, and although as we grew older we knew well what she was up to, we pretended to be surprised.

On Easter Monday, as soon as breakfast was over, each of us took a basket of eggs and raced off to the meadows for the egg-rolling, a symbol of Easter joy after the stern weeks of Lent. When we tired of the game, we gathered the eggs into our baskets and rushed off —past hedgerows suddenly turned white and sweet-smelling with blossoming hawthorn, across fields sprinkled with purple violets—to the area where my grandfather and uncle were plowing. This, too, was part of the Easter Monday ritual.

The burrowing plows uncovered the tiny pale shoots of dandelions which had lain dormant all winter waiting for spring to bring them out. These were fresh, young growths not yet exposed to the sun, and not yet green. In the salad which grandmère made—a traditional post-Lenten dish in our home— they were tender and sweet. She combined them with fresh spring greens which we picked in the meadow and with wedges of our hard-cooked Easier eggs.

When I was thirteen years old and had to go to Moulins to begin my chef's apprenticeship, these pleasant, carefree holidays of childhood were put behind me. On Easter Monday of '98 there was no egg rolling for me. I was receiving a decidedly different introduction to eggs—and this time it was purely culinary.

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