Updated Oct, 20th 2014
The subject I’ve chosen:
Madame Casties oversees and cooks the daily meals for a four-generation household, while also pulling a daily shift at the till in her daughter’s grocery, in a tiny village called Autignac, in the Languedoc region of southwestern France. An eager eater and mostly fluent French speaker, I have found a way to visit Maman regularly at her post, over our family's three recent extended stays in the village. She appears quite unaware that the ordinariness of her life, her comfortable status as a villager steeped in the cuisine and food culture of her region, contains secrets that much of the world would envy, if it could find its way to her.
The angle I will take in the piece:
I am choosing to describe in detail (well, from 1600 words down to only 1000 words of detail, which is hard for me!) a single scene that occurred in the grocery store on one particular evening around dinner time, as Madame Casties and her husband finished up their shift. This scene contains the clearest story and character arc of all of my encounters with Maman, and best expresses for me the sense of extraordinary ordinariness that I frequently felt during my discussions with this mother/grandmother/housewife/daughter-in-law who also happened to be an encyclopedic cook rooted in the cuisine of Mediterranean France. So often in the midst of extended travel abroad, there comes a dawning sense that the reality of the experience is falling further and further short of the pre-departure daydreams. In this case, Madame Casties and her no-nonsense advice exceeded any hopes this American gourmand might have entertained back in Minnesota.
Final Draft (1000 words):
Vinegar and Verveine
I held out a bullet-shaped endive to Maman, under the fluorescent lights of Le Jardin de Marie.
Her daughter Marie owned the business, but I loved walking in and seeing Maman’s slight, erect figure on the stool behind the counter. How often does a Minnesota eater have access to a Languedocian family cook, who has spent fifty years serving variations on the French canon to four generations? It was like wanting to get rich someday, and discovering that your local bank teller was a talkative fellow name of Buffett.
Tonight I was asking about endive, while Papa stocked produce.
“One does what with this?” I asked.
She looked up at me with a conspiratorial smile.
“If one is French,” she said. “One makes a salad.”
I wondered aloud how one might make such a salad if, by some misfortune, one were not French.
As she spoke, she gently tomahawked the tight, ivory head crosswise with the edge of her hand, and suggested tossing the resulting half-inch slices with une petite vinaigrette.
I wondered further whether she felt inclined to share her vinaigrette.
“Well, it’s very simple, I take vinegar and a little salt, and then I . . . you have mustard?”
“So. A drop of mustard to emulsify, and then I whisk in the olive oil.”
“How much olive oil?”
“Enough olive oil,” she said, with a slightly wide-eyed playfulness, “until it tastes like vinaigrette.”
“White wine vinegar? Or red?”
“Oh, red wine vinegar!” she said, and the first shadow of concern crossed her face.
After a thoughtful-looking hesitation, she asked, “You have what kind of vinegar?”
“Well, we have red wine vinegar, because I have had trouble finding white.”
“Finding?” she asked. “Finding where?”
“At the grocery store.”
“Oh, là là,” was all she could manage.
She was now truly alarmed. We were no longer amicably roofing the house of her vinaigrette recipe together. We were shoveling furiously to shore up the foundation.
“You mean you don’t have du vrai vinaigre?”
“Du vrai vinaigre?”
“Yes, of course. Du vrai. That you have made. At your house.”
My attempt at an apologetic smile was all the answer she needed.
“Chéri!” she called, and ordered Papa across the street immediately so that this young man might make a proper vinaigrette for his salade d’endives.
Papa dropped a double handful of shallots into their display and left the store at a slow trot, fists pulled tight to his chest.
“So you make your own vinegar?” I asked
“Monsieur, every family does. You will see. It has nothing to do with vinegar from the store.”
I then learned that her mother was over 100 years old and lived in the basement.
This struck me as an abrupt conversational shift, until Maman elaborated that the Casties family vinegar resided in the house across the street, in a ceramic crock, and was fed regularly with bottles of good red wine. The “mother”—a rubbery cloud that activated the transformation from wine to vinegar—descended from an original mother born over 100 years ago in that same basement, in that same crock.
Papa Casties, returning a little breathless, confirmed all of this in a distracted way while he set two slender, unlabeled bottles on the counter. One was half-corked and full of a rusty red liquid. The other, sealed with a cap of scarlet wax, held a stalk of greenery suspended in a viscous golden syrup.
Maman sifted noisily through a drawer, murmuring “Voyons, voyons,” and came up with a teaspoon. She uncorked the vinegar bottle and poured a dropperful onto the spoon.
I wouldn’t understand until much later that my life—not dramatically, but permanently—had just changed. All I knew at the time was that the liquid on my tongue, filling my sinuses and wringing my salivary glands, changed the definition of whatever I had previously understood vinegar to mean. It smelled like wine, and it had a fragrant, gentle acidity that had nothing to do with the harsh sourness of every vinegar I’d ever previously paid attention to.
I swallowed and looked back and forth between them.
“Vous voyez?” asked Maman.
“Yes, I see,” I said.
“Voilà,” she said, recorking the bottle with a bustling matter-of-factness that showed how little doubt she had ever had.
Papa lifted the other bottle by the waist.
“In the freezer,” he said tapping the bottle with a thick fingernail, and looking me in the eyes. “One hour before dinner.”
“In the freezer,” I nodded.
“You drink a little bit as an aperitif.” He pinched what a little bit looked like between his thumb and middle finger. “Very cold.”
He nodded solemnly. “Liqueur de Verveine,” he said. “You will see.”
“It is very good,” agreed Maman. “You will see.”
“Listen,” I said. “I don’t even know where to start. Can I at least pay . . .”
“Oh!” said Maman, and rang up two endives, as an expression of how out of the question any payment was. As a sort of exclamation point, she threw a bundle of parsley stems into the bag with the endives.
Not knowing quite what to do with myself, I thanked them, and shook Papa’s hand. Then, without thinking, I leaned across, and aimed my left cheek at Maman’s soft left cheek, and made a smooching sound into her left ear, then her right.
“Oh, il est gentil,” she said.
“Allez,” said Papa. “Bon appétit.”
I rang the tinkle bell above the door, carrying a plastic sack in each hand—one containing 90 centimes worth of endives and parsley, and the other, slightly heavier, holding something my money couldn’t buy.
Back home, I began the post-supermarket-vinegar phase of my life by tipping a tablespoon of rusty liquid into a bowl with some salt.
They would still be on duty at Le Jardin de Marie. Papa stocking shallots. Maman on the stool beneath the humming, double fluorescent tubes. She would be sitting with good posture. Waiting for the next customer.