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First French Food Memories with Janet Skeslien Charles

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I first met author Janet Skeslien Charles at Shakespeare & Company, the historic Paris left bank bookshop owned by the late George Whitman.  In 2005 Janet was directing a writing workshop in which I was a participant, back at a time when I had many words in my head searching for a good exit strategy.  Under her keen guidance, my words found a path of their own.

Originally from the plains of Montana, Janet lived in Odessa, Ukraine after earning her degree at University of Montana.  This experience led to the writing of her first novel, Moonlight in Odessa, (Bloombury Publishing PLC) which was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of their top ten debut novels in 2009.  She lives in Paris with her French husband yet returns to her small town in Montana, as well as her family retreat in South Carolina, to give her own words an exit strategy each year.

Describe your first meal in France. Did you order something familiar? Tell me about the when, the where, and the people you were with at that meal.

I’ve had many first meals in France! I came when I was fifteen and then seventeen years old as an exchange student, then after college as a graduation gift, and finally to work as a teaching assistant when I was in my late twenties. I remember more about the people and the conversations than the food.

My first meal as an assistante de langue vivante was in Rixheim, a small town in Alsace in 1998. To be honest, the dinner was hosted by my colleague Régine and her husband. They had three darling daughters and it was fun to watch the girls interact. That was the day I met my future husband, and he was at the dinner table as well. The thing I remember the most about the meal itself was the tête de moine, monk’s head, a Swiss cheese that is scraped rather than cut. Though the food was delicious, in my memory it fades into the background and what I remember is the people.

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

Away from France, I miss crème fraiche and French bacon, staples when I make pasta. I have tried to make crêpes in America but though they look the same, they just don’t taste as good. In America, I usually stick to my mother’s recipes because I miss the meals she prepares and they never taste the same here. I have tried to make chocolate chip cookies here but they turn out as hard as hockey pucks, whatever recipe I try.

I know!  It’s the flour, I think.  It’s milled differently than American flour.

Do you have any specific food-and- France memories?

At home in Montana, my family eats Thanksgiving dinner in 23 minutes, so the memories I have of both France and Ukraine are of friends lingering at the table and enjoying several courses over the period of several hours.  Again, food fades into the background and it is the conversations and faces I remember.

My friend Emma Jane and I both love champagne, so we have good memories of meeting at a nearby café for a kir royal (or two), watching the world go by, and talking about anything and everything (but usually about men).

To read more about Janet and her writing, please visit Janet’s blog at http://www.jskesliencharles.com/.

Buy Janet’s book, Moonlight in Odessa


This article is part of a series on French cuisine. For more, go to French Food Memories.

Series Navigation<< Food and Memories: A Series of Talks with Expatriate Food-lovers in FranceFrench Food Memories: An interview with author 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.