As a child, I spent most of the holidays at my grandparents’ summerhouse in Normandy, France. This is the land of rainy days and green lush pastures. Normandy is known for its horse breeding farms, beautiful brown and white painted cows, and for its delicious cheeses named after Normandy villages such as Camembert, Pont L’Évêque, Livarot and more. This is also the region of the apple and its many incarnations. Needless to say, it is a land of good food and beautiful scenery.
I remember going to the farm next door with my little sister Muriel and bringing back milk in the old fashioned, now obsolete milk jugs and eating the eggs that we were getting right from the chicken coop. The summers were a mixture of beach time and endless swimming in the ocean, trapping crabs or harvesting mussels that we ate, biking for many hours back and forth to the sailing club, tennis courts and friends’ houses. How many calories did we burn as kids? It must have been phenomenal. There was no TV, no computers, a phone used only for emergencies. So all we did was MOVE. We were happy, healthy and skinny kids living a simple life.
My mother and grandmother were accomplished cooks, preparing and baking everything from scratch and with fresh ingredients. But I really learned cooking from my grandmother, as we spent almost three months there every summer. We ate everything -- “No, I don’t like this and won’t eat it” was unacceptable. We had desserts on Sundays when my grandfather brought pastries from Trouville with such delicious names as “éclair au chocolat, Paris-Brest, religieuse, Napoléon, mille feuilles,” and they always remained a rare and exceptional treat.
We had toast and jam for breakfast or cereals with milk, sometimes an egg. At lunch we had a salad, meat or fish and lots of fresh vegetables. Dessert was always yogurt or a piece of fruit. We had a four o'clock snack at the beach, and dinner was very light, a soup most of the time. My grandparents rented their meadow to local farmers, so we had cows, horses and sheep. We harvested the apples in the meadow and a local brewer transformed them into cider for our own consumption. We also had cherry trees, plum and apricot trees, strawberry patches, raspberry bushes, vegetable and herb gardens. My grandfather raised rabbits that we petted and ended up eating! All of this to say, we ate local in the most honest sense of the word -- almost everything we ate came from our backyard.
As it rained a lot, we were often trapped at home, with my grandmother cleaning, reading a book, sewing something or cooking. So my sister and I cooked with her. We found it funny and pleasurable to play with the dough. I remember squeezing the dough through my fingers as if it was Play Doh. There were a lot of muscles required, because in the 60’s we had almost no magical cooking aids such as the Kitchen Aid -- at least not in our house. We mounted the egg whites with arm muscles; we peeled the apples; we got the peas out of the pods; we harvested the green beans and created everything from scratch.
We experimented, participated and while doing so learned all of my grandmother’s art and tricks. When the final product came out of the oven, we were all "ooohs" and "aaahs." We had all cooked this together and it was a family accomplishment. I remember how we would invent recipes, like “Muriel’s caramel pot” or “Véronique’s grated celery and carrot salad.” Even today, after more than 45 years, I can still picture my grandmother with her apron -- I still have it -- running in the kitchen because the farm milk was boiling and spilling over. She was always doing twenty different things at the same time, and I have inherited this trait from her.
She was a very intuitive and creative cook, always adding a “je ne sais quoi” to her recipes. She made the best vinaigrettes. Because of the war, she had been raised in a culture where nothing was ever allowed to spoil. So she added the left over green beans from yesterday in the vegetable medley of today, or improvised new recipes based on what was in the fridge. She was also using herbs a lot and we learned to appreciate and cook with rosemary, thyme, mint, chives, parsley, etc. We learned not by reading a recipe, but by learning to trust our instincts, experimenting and trying new things with her.
I was a rather busy mother -- with a demanding corporate job and tremendous travel schedule -- when my two daughters, Pauline (now 25) and Camille (now 21) were young. But we always cooked breakfast and dinner at home. When we moved to the United States, my husband Paul decided to stay at home for a while because we wanted our kids to always have a parent with them. So he gets a lot of credit for having taught our daughters how to cook and so much more.
We are a cooking family and everybody has a specialty. We cook well in pairs but not in trios -- too many chefs in the kitchen. All I can say is that when we cook together we share love and precious moments. We create something together and we build souvenirs.
I learned to cook, not from my grandmother, but from my parents. There are a lot of things I could say about learning to cook with my father -- how it brought us closer together, smoothing over the bumps in our relationship, or how it taught me to be independent and take care of myself after leaving home. I could also say many things about learning to bake from my mother; she taught me her best chocolate mousse recipe, and still masters many things I cannot. Despite being somewhat scatterbrained and the busiest person I know, I still look forward to when she is cooking dinner -- it’s guaranteed to be healthy and very delicious.
It was always about more than learning how to cook, though. It was about spending time together, creating something we could enjoy as a family. It was also about learning how to survive on my own, my parents instilling in me how to eat fresh, healthy foods instead of processed alternatives. It was about learning how to figure out which peach is ripe when, what kind of meat to use for different stews, how to put time and care into what I eat and what fuels my days.
My memories are different than my mother’s; I didn’t grow up in a time with farm-fresh milk and eggs still warm from the hen. Rather, my memories are about sitting around a table, just the four of us, sharing our days and spending that time together every night. Family dinner was, and still is, mandatory, and I have a great appreciation for that -- it meant that no matter how busy we were, we always took time out of our days to eat a great meal and share a conversation. As a small expatriate family of four in the US, far from our extended family in Europe, this was an important way to stay tethered together despite the myriad demands on our time. My memories are about watching my mother make a perfect meringue effortlessly and trying to recreate it (spoiler alert: I still can’t).
Despite not having lived at home for the past four years, I still call my parents for recipes and advice, frequently texting my father in a panic about something I’m making. I’m still learning how to cook, and I think I will continue learning until the day I die. My ability and willingness to learn and engage with the food I’m creating and eating, however, has been instilled in me since I was young, and for this I will forever be appreciative. You may call me a food snob, I just call me Paul and Veronique’s daughter.
Cooking is a love affair with life. Cooking is a gift we must share. My grandmother would be proud -- I still wear her apron. I feel her love from above when I cook. Cooking fresh ingredients, from scratch, is like building an ephemeral piece of art that we can all share afterwards. Vegetables and fruits are a miracle of nature that have been given to us. They nourish us with vital elements and the love that went into growing and preparing them. That’s why I am a facilitator for The Suppers Programs. I want to share my love. Please, parents who read this and who preach and (do not always) practice healthy eating: Cook with your kids and eat together at the table as often as possible.