The Pleasure Of The Table


I remember my French apartment, next to the market-place in Amiens, a small town a hundred miles north of Paris. A woman and her husband ran one of the larger produce booths, just a few steps from my window.   She was one of those diminutive nut-brown Frenchwomen — not as pale as most of us were in the frozen north.  She told me that near the Mediterranean, where she came from, I would be called “white as an aspirin tablet.” And when I visited there briefly, that is exactly what they called me.

How she extolled the pleasure of the table, “le plaisir de la table.”  There was quite a production number the night I was invited.  She made Paella, a rice dish with lots of seafood and more things than I could identify.  She explained how each element of the dish had to be cooked separately, so it could be just at the peak of flavor; and only then, could the elements of the dish be put together. It tasted as if it had been worth the trouble.

I complimented her richly.  She insisted that it was worth the trouble but food, in her home, was not that important. I was surprised, to put it mildly.  She explained to me, in a painstaking way, that the pleasure of the table was more important in the lower classes, at it was one of the few pleasures nearly everyone could afford. For instance, when a bowl of fruits was placed on the table, every fruit would have to be neither overripe or under ripe, but “just so.”

She suddenly stopped and excused herself from trying to explain the poorer classes to an American woman who probably did not believe in such things. This woman lived a very upper middle class existence.  I cannot claim that I understood it terribly well.

Months later, her beautiful daughter became engaged to a wealthy man.  She had been a high-stepping majorette, the envy of the little girls. Me, I never understood why someone would bother marching in the street if she did not have a musical instrument. I congratulated her on her daughter’s good fortune. “Yes, she is so beautiful I always knew she would marry well.  She will never have to worry about anything as difficult as getting through medical school.” I did not know how to respond.  She patted my hand. I do not know if she patted it in pity or encouragement.

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