Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Eating for two

I'm not a picky eater. When I was growing up, I remember only two or three things that I refused to eat at home, including bottled "French" salad dressing and a tomato, rice, and lime concoction, a specialty of my father's that he called Key West pork chops. My parents had little cause to complain, and never suspected that the real list of foods I disliked included things most kids loved but they'd never think to buy: marshmallow fluff, jello, Twinkies, chewing gum, and breakfast cereals that turned the milk a color other than white. I was blessed with parents who knew how to cook and liked to put together inventive family dinners. I therefore learned to like real food at an early age, and was wary of anything that came wrapped in plastic or dyed some artificial color. When I think back on it, my palate was probably French from toddlerhood, if not from birth.

When I first met my husband, he would always carefully check with me before he served me anything out of the ordinary. He'd lived in the US for five years and even dated an American, and he knew that as a general rule we are not adventurous eaters. From the start, I was determined to show him that I wasn't like the others. No, bring on the stinky cheese! Salad with duck gizzard confit? Why not! Steak so rare it's ready to walk off my plate? Yes, of course! I wanted to prove my gastronomic worth.

It wasn't difficult, because I loved almost everything he found to serve me. I remember my first dinner with my in-laws-to-be. As the first girl he'd ever brought home to meet his parents, my future mother-in-law quickly understood the significance of the event and offered to make homemade foie gras. My husband and I had known each other then for a fairly short period of time, and I think he was a bit worried that this exceptional dish wouldn't be appreciated, and then what would everyone think? He checked and double-checked with me that it would really be okay. No, I told him, I'd never had foie gras, but I'd try anything. He reminded me several times not to spread the foie on the slices of toast, horrible faux pas, but just place them delicately. I felt like the whole thing was some sort of test, and I was desperate to pass.

It turned out that my mother-in-law's homemade mi cuit foie gras, gently baked in a water bath and doused with just the right amount of Cognac, is ambrosia. Luckily at my belle famille's table there's no ban on taking seconds.

There are a few French dishes I still haven't warmed up to. I am not fond of andouillette, a tripe sausage, although every time my husband orders it I dutifully take a bite to make sure I still feel the same way. Last time I was almost convinced. I'm equally skeptical of tête de veau, former president Jacques Chirac's favorite dish. All in all, though, I'm proud to say my diet is almost completely French. (Since there's no hope I'll lose my American accent, I have to be proud of my integration elsewhere.)

Gourmet and gourmand that I am, adhering to a limited diet during my pregnancy has been torture. I love French cheese and once planned to sample every kind until I learned that there are, according to Charles de Gaulle's famous quote, over 246 different varieties. Of the ones I have tried, my favorites are all unpasteurized, making them off limits for nine months. I also cannot eat rare meat, which makes duck breast and all decently cooked steaks inaccessible as well. Tuna tartare is out, as are any desserts with mousse, which may contain uncooked egg white. I was heartbroken to take a pass on my mother-in-law's foie gras this Christmas in favor of a plate of avocado and canned crab.

At home, all this has simply forced me to be more creative. I believe that chefs can do their best work under culinary constraints, and working with a limited number of ingredients forces one to be creative. That and sheer laziness is why I send my husband to the market to pick up whatever he finds that looks good and is in season, leaving me to improvise with whatever he brings home. And after shunning the fromager for the first few months, we finally asked his advice on pasteurized cheeses. He seemed offended: but of course there are plenty of delicious ones, he explained, we just had to ask!

I am, of course, happy to make these sacrifices for the health of my baby. It's all worth it, and I look forward to a time a year or so from now when I can start slowly introducing him to all the wonderful things there are to eat in this world. Who knows, maybe Petit will take to it and end up a chef with Michelin star.

One night at a restaurant during our trip to the Gers a few weekends ago I found it all a bit difficult, however. We were at a restaurant we'd remembered fondly from our first trip, and we'd been looking forward for weeks to eating there again. Things started uncomfortably when we were unexpectedly the only ones there on the first night of a four-day weekend. I'm always ill at ease when alone in a restaurant, and I was happy that the owner quickly disappeared to another room after showing us to our table.

I quickly scanned the menu, looking for items I'd have to avoid. The homemade salt-cured ham, which I knew delicious from our last visit, was out. Ditto the marinated salmon. The foie gras, mi cuit as expected, was also eliminated. There went the only three options on the fixed-price menu, and I was going to have to go à la carte. This was going clearly going to be as expensive as frustrating.

The à la carte list was better for appetizers, but none of the entrées were acceptable. The pièce de boeuf and the duck breast would both likely be cooked rare, and I hadn't the heart to ask for either well-done: at the price listed, it would be an expensive massacre, and I wasn't willing to do it. I finally decided that my only option was to ask for a switch, substituting one of the menu appetizers with one the "safe" appetizers from the à la carte list. I chose the peppers stuffed with duck confit, and my husband offered to open the negotiations.

The owner came back to take our order. My husband started to explain things.

"My wife is pregnant," he said, and the owner nodded wearily at the obvious. "And, you see, she's technically not supposed to eat anything that hasn't been fully cooked. So, we were wondering if it were possible to take the menu, but substitute something for the appetizer..."

"I see," she said dubiously, "What did you have in mind?"

I chimed in. "I'd like the stuffed peppers, and then the chicken with morel mushrooms." I had a suspicion it wouldn't be quite that easy.

"But madame, that would be two poultry dishes in a row, which wouldn't do." I looked at my husband, suddenly confused.

"Besides," she continued, "I don't understand. The ham is cooked in salt, and the salmon is marinated, they're both perfectly fine." She seemed offended that we would question the safety of her food, and I wanted to disappear into a hole in the floor. I was suddenly stuck in the role of the Difficult American.

While my husband and the owner negotiated in a flurry of French I didn't bother to follow, I studied the menu again. It now resembled a mine field. "What about the creamed artichoke hearts? Might that be substituted?" I tried.

The owner insisted on checking with the chef, and I was left looking sheepishly at my husband. "What else was I supposed to do?"

She soon returned and gruffly agreed to the substitution. I started to apologize, insisting that I wasn't used to being difficult. She seemed unmoved. I appreciated the meal, but I couldn't get rid of a feeling of embarrassment.

Finally, the dessert arrived. My meal came with a baba drenched in Armagnac; my husband's with a chocolate soufflé. We had planned to discreetly exchange them once the owner had left the room, but to our surprise, she offered to switch when she brought them to the table. I must have looked grateful, for she even managed a smile.

That's eating for two. At least I'm encouraged to think that Petit will grow up French, predisposed to appreciate andouillette and avoid twinkies and jello. I guess that's all a mother could hope for.

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