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French Food Memories: An interview with author Harriet Welty Rochefort

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camembertBefore the blogosphere became crowded with American-in-France expat blogs, each claiming to unlock the secrets of Life in the Hexagon, there were three women whose books — real books — I read and reread when seeking the expertise of intercultural communication specialists.  The first was Raymonde Carroll, a French anthropologist whose Evidences Invisibles (translated as Cultural Misunderstandings), though published back in 1987 by Les Editions du Seuil, remains a watershed work today.  The second was Polly Platt, who, in her first book French or Foe, did some trailblazing research focusing on cultural differences between French and Americans.  The third writer was Harriet Welty Rochefort, a longtime resident of Paris who has wittily educated expats and Francophiles (and even some French readers) beginning with her first book, French Toast, through her subsequent work, French Fried, and the soon-to-be-published Joie de Vivre: Wining, Dining, and Romancing like the French (St. Martin’s Press) which will hit the bookstores this October, 2012.

With her broad body of knowledge and hands-on experience in her adopted culture,  it was natural that I thought of Harriet when putting together this series on Food and Memory. She writes in a light-hearted and informed fashion, often including her French husband Philippe’s viewpoint on her personal observations.  French Fried, a book which centers around  “The Culinary Capers of an American in Paris,” has a clever format in which the chapters end with a conversation between Harriet and her husband.  One of the most delightful and spot-on of these is found midway through the book, in a chapter entitled “Le Pain, Le Vin et le Fromage”:

HWR:  Why do you have to have bread with everything, even when the meal includes other starches?  Isn’t one enough?

PhR:  Bread is the staff of life.  And your choice of the word “starches’ is funny.  It’s like that American guest of ours who said she’d like “protein” for breakfast.  We’re not running a chemical factory.

HWR:  That’s the truth.  Speaking of bread, tell me again about that afternoon treat your Auvergnat grandfather would make for you–the piece of bread rubbed with garlic and pork fat.  Wasn’t he worried about cholesterol?

PhR:  Are you kidding?  He was worried about whether he was giving me something with taste; he ate raw onion for breakfast and pork fat every day of his life and he died at age ninety-four.

I caught up with Harriet just as she was preparing to take care of her grandchildren for part of the summer.  She kindly took the time to answer my questions.

Describe your first meal in France.  Did you order something familiar?

It may not have been my first meal in Paris, but it’s the first one that struck me.  I was living in a pension de famille in Arcueil-Cachan frequented only by French students, so it was the Real Deal.  We ate traditional French food in a family setting, one huge table, as I recall, with the owner of the pension at one end, and his wife fluttering around the table making sure everyone was served.  When we got to the cheese course, the paterfamilias of us all, a charming Maurice Chevalier looking white-haired gentleman who had a son my age, Jean-Pierre (handsome to boot and a fledgling pilot who flew me over Deauville and then did a few sickening dives to my horror but that’s another story), held up a small piece of baguette in one hand and a small piece of Camembert in the other.  “This is how you do it,” he said, looking at me and gently placing the camembert on the bread, bringing it to his mouth to swallow, then picking up his glass of red wine to take a huge sip. “Ahhh,” he exclaimed with pleasure. I sat there mesmerized.  Then I picked up a (small) piece of bread and (small) piece of cheese and did the same. It may not have been the world’s most elegant way to down the cheese and wine but was it ever good. And why do I stress “small”?  Because I learned that small portions are good, even better than large. You can have so many small pleasures when it comes to food and they should all be that “Ahhh” moment.   Rather than wolfing down huge quantitites, I learned to parse small moments of pleasure.

Was I hooked after that first meal in the pension?  You bet!  At that table were young French students who were used to eating regular meals sitting down at the table so this was no surprise to them.  That meal took place so long ago I’m afraid to admit it (ok, it was in the late sixties) and I’m not so sure that scene could be re-produced today.  More likely, the students would be strolling around Paris with a MacDo and frites. Quel dommage, but fortunately family eating habits remain and the French still respect and revere the family meal.   When I see my little French granddaughter eating raw milk Camembert the way American kids eat M & Ms, I’m reassured.

Away from France, did you try and replicate this French meal?

I’ve tried to replicate French meals in the States, and actually succeeded in making a boeuf bourguignon in Arizona.  We did the whole French thing for our guests, my sister, and a couple of her friends, starting with the first course of a simple but delicious salad and homemade vinaigrette, the boeuf bourguignon with fat noodles, a salad with homemade vinaigrette, a cheese plate with cheeses found in Tucson’s best specialty store, and a STORE-BOUGHT dessert (more on this later).  What was the difference?  Well, when I went to the store to shop, and touched the avocados, the poor things were cold as the Antarctic.  So I turned to the fellow who was in charge of the fruit and vegetables and commented that I lived in France and was used to getting produce that was extra fresh and not nearing frozen.  Turns out he was from the Midwest and we were the same age. He agreed that this was indeed a problem and steered me to some avocados that deserved the name. We went through the same procedure for the tomatoes, etc.  I told him that when I buy melons or avocados in France I stipulate “for tonight” or “tomorrow” or “in a couple of days” and get just what I want. It was much tougher in the States. Same for the meat: the guy at the meat counter had no idea of what a boeuf bourguignon was (which is ok but he barely knew what a stew was, which is something else again). Somehow I managed to cut the right cut of meat but it wasn’t as tender as what I get in France. Regarding the bone, fortunately they had one there that day but it was clear that not many people request them (they’re good for the sauce, giving flavor and texture).

On to the cheese: now that depressed me, I admit.  The department was HUGE.  There were cheeses from all over the world, you name it, they had it.  Except that there were no raw milk cheeses which is what I wanted (there’s a world of difference between a pasteurized and a raw milk cheese).  And, startlingly, the array of goat cheese was impressive — goat cheese with red peppers, goat cheese with pepper, goat cheese with honey, goat cheese with everything but the kitchen sink. But I didn’t want a goat cheese with additions. I wanted the real raw cheese goat cheese that stands all on its own. (I know-you’re reading this and thinking “what a snob” – I’m not, though, it’s just that I’ve lived for so long in France that I’m used to Another Way).

As for the dessert being store-bought, in the States that seems to be some kind of crime. In France, no one cares if you buy your dessert in a patisserie – au contraire, if it’s a top pastry shop and your cake or pie is from a master pastry place (think Le Nôtre or Dalloyau or Pierre Hermé but there are hundreds of others all over Paris and all over the country), it’s one of the highest compliments you can give your guests.

I was glad I tried to replicate a typical French meal in America and I think our guests were too. But was I ever relieved to return to my French purveyors and my French kitchen where all is simple.

I’m really familiar with this feeling, myself, having just returned from a month in the States.  I had a tough time finding plain feta cheese as I know it.   In my vast American supermarket, I found cubed feta, crumbled feta, low-fat feta, flavored feta (jalapeno feta!!!!) but no plain block of whole-fat feta.  It was so overwhelming!  I, too, felt relief to return to my cheesemonger who, in the midst of offering 365 different types of cheeses–no low-fat, flavored variations on any them– offers just one, perfect feta.

Do you have any specific food + France memories?

If I didn’t live in France, I would weep for all French cheeses, a delicious Soumaintrain from Burgundy, a St. Nectaire from Auvergne that’s redolent of the fresh grass the cows graze on, a creamy Roquefort.  I would miss all those succulent heartwarming stews my French mother-in-law turned out for us, and I would miss most of all the thing that makes a French meal so special: not just the food, but the conviviality. I regret that tourists can only focus on the food because there’s so much more than that: that long French meal is all about sitting around a table telling jokes, exchanging stories, laughing, getting outraged, as the hours pass by and the food and drink go down at a lovely slow pace. Fortunately for me, I’m still here after forty years and appreciate this unique French relationship with “the meal” more and more.

Thank you, Harriet, for your contribution to this series.

To continue reading more about Harriet Welty Rochefort, please visit

www.harrietweltyrochefort.com and www.understandfrance.org and be sure to look for Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French out this fall! I know I’ll be adding it to the “Cultural Studies” section of my own library.

Books by Harriet Welty Rochefort

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Filed under: Food, France

About the Author:

Originally from Marin County, California, Shelby Marcus Ocana has been calling Paris home since 1980, when she decided–in that insouciant way that only 20 year-olds possess– to come to the City of Light “for six months.” 32 years later she’s still there. A strong supporter of international education, Shelby works for the University of California overseeing their Paris-based study abroad programs. She writes about the vagaries and delights of life in Paris at The Paris Chronicles. has written 4 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.