03 August 2007

Fine Dining

A long way from Goliad

I have tried sharing my kitchen with a rat, and it wasn’t nearly so much fun as the new Pixar movie Ratatouille makes it appear. All the time I lived on 105th Street, which I later discovered had been dubbed “Rat Alley” by WNBC-TV, I had furry little roommates. The rats seldom troubled me — with the exception of the one I kicked to death — another story for another day. But the rats were no help when I cooked, and they sometimes scurried over my feet when I was standing at the sink. This was remarkably unpleasant. I wore boots when I washed dishes. The rats refused to be trapped, and despite eating considerable quantities of high-grade poison (I found the crumbs all over the apartment when I moved out), they didn’t die. For all I know, they’re still there, hardy squatters in a renter’s world, real New Yorkers who easily outlast lily-livered transients like me.

This is a somewhat long proviso to an otherwise enthusiastic recommendation of the movie — you remember, I was talking about Ratatouille. (Wasn’t I?) The picture sums up a lot of my philosophy of food, and of France, and of French food. On summer vacations in Royan, Henri Boutrit used to take me to the market, and I’ve never seen a better carnival. Crowds fill the 1950s concrete dome, pushing and shoving and buying and selling a breathtaking array of fresh seafood, fresh vegetables, fresh poultry and meats, fresh bread, and heaps of sausages, cheeses, olives, honey, and jam.

Dr. Boutrit attacked the market like a general at war, with careful strategies and well-honed tactics. Some merchants were to be avoided, others favored. Best-loved of all was Marie, a blue-eyed, bona-fide “Ooh-la-la” charmer who sold exquisite bread: she and Dr. Boutrit engaged in a slightly bawdy repartee that might have drawn paying audiences to any theater. It seemed almost impossible that this wasn’t the whole show, but Dr. Boutrit lugged the spoils of battle back to the house and prepared dazzling meals: boiled langoustines, sardines grilled over brush in the open fireplace, veal chops, Charentais melons and oysters from Oléron, and always, always a green salad at the end of the meal, with a cheese plate and fresh fruit. There was wine, too, even at lunch, offered up with Dr. Boutrit’s cheery refrain, “Ah, bon! Qui veut du rouge?”

Langoustines, sardines, and other delicacies at the Royan market.

I took to New York the lessons of my cher maître. It became anathema to do all my grocery shopping in one store: I had to go to three or four, at least, on my way home from work, because it stood to reason that not all goods would be of equal merit in the same establishment. Even when I dine alone, I tend to eat three or four courses, and to take my meals with wine. And I began, with increasing daring, to cook. With or without rats. And I may say that I make a damned fine ratatouille.

But it wasn’t in France that I learned that food could be special. I learned that in Goliad, my mother’s hometown, as a recent e-mail from my aunt Tisha reminded me. She told me what she’d cook for my birthday, if I weren’t on the other side of the world that day: fried chicken, rice and gravy, yellow-squash casserole, all the favorites of my childhood. I was transported to hot summer mornings at my grandmother’s house, where Bessie, the housekeeper, would tell me stories and quiz me about my girlfriends (whose names she remembered better than I did — I was truly a cad at age seven) while she prepared that precise menu, specially requested in honor of my visit.

Sometime this year, Bessie will mark her seventieth anniversary of working for our family. She claims she’s slowing down, but I don’t see it. She still works a few hours a week for my aunt, and a few hours for my parents, who now live in my grandparents’ house. Not long after my parents moved to Goliad, Bessie came over to the house and fried chicken. To see her back in that kitchen, and filling it with the mingled aromas of grease and chicken and simmering squash, to hear her singing hymns and still quizzing me about girlfriends, was a powerfully emotional experience. I half expected to see my grandmother walk in to check on our progress, though she’s been gone for 18 years, or to hear my grandfather call out from the dining room, though he, too, has long since passed away. Bessie’s cooking was connecting me to my past, but more than that, her cooking made real a kind of continuity. Life goes on. People come and people go, people are born (Bessie has diapered four generations of us) and people die. And the chicken will be fried.

Bessie Pullam and Bill Madison with a platter of Goliad magic

There’s a spiritually similar moment in Ratatouille when a villainous food critic samples the homeliest dish on the menu and recalls, in a flash, why he loves food in the first place. We see him small and thin and alone, a boy in the doorway of his mother’s kitchen. She smiles and serves him lunch. Back in the present, the critic savors his mouthful. His eyes brim with tears, and then he says, “This is what I’ve been missing.” If anybody you cared about ever fed you, you’ll know what he means.

Bessie’s fried chicken means that to me. And Tisha’s fried chicken is nearly as magically potent. (Fried catfish, which she is seen preparing here, is Tisha’s unrivaled specialty.) So I had to wonder whether it was kindness that compelled her to point out that, if I were in Goliad, I’d be eating love.

I had to go out to a Parisian restaurant and eat a three-course meal just to get over the remorse.

(There were no rats in sight: I suspect that, in the wake of Ratatouille, I’m going to have to say that a lot.)

Tisha Robinson prepares poisson-chat pané (fried catfish).

The market in Beynes is about one-eighth the size of the market in Royan, and on Thursdays in August, most of the vendors are on vacation, and those who stick it out may outnumber the customers. But I wandered by yesterday morning, and the organic-produce vendor was selling yellow squash.

Yellow squash is a rarity in this country, although zucchini is found everywhere and it does provide a decent substitute in the old Goliad recipe for squash casserole. Tisha herself has proven this. (Other hard-to-find-here staples of Southern cuisine include corn on the cob, yams, and okra. You have to go to African markets to find the last.) But the organic-produce vendor prides himself on exotic wares, and I snapped up the yellow squash with a greedy sense of purpose.

I went home and fried four pieces of chicken, and baked a yellow-squash casserole, and boiled up some rice. Making good gravy requires a finer hand than mine, so I didn’t even try it: previous attempts have yielded a sort of salty grey wallpaper-paste. But I have studied Bessie long enough that I knew how to cook the rest. The recipes are simple.

Fry the chicken until it is done. Then stop. Allow to cool, then serve.

Boil the squash (and some onion) until it is done. Then stop. Then bake until it is done again. Then stop. Allow to cool, then serve.

How do you know when it’s done? You just do.

Now you can do it yourself.

The organic-produce vendor had fresh tomatoes, too, so I made myself a little salad. I thought of my grandmother, who once heard a song and was enchanted by it, forever repeating the lyric, “Two things in life that money can’t buy: true love and home-grown tomatoes.”

And suddenly I was — well, not home, exactly. My attachments to Goliad and New York and France are so deep, and so conflicting (not only with each other but with every known reality), that I’ve begun to wonder if I’ll ever be at home, anyplace. It is perhaps enough challenge just to be myself, wherever I am, rather than trying to find a place that can be home. I’m still figuring it out. But I do know that when I ate that fried chicken and squash, wherever I was, I was myself. Thanks in no small measure to Tisha Robinson, and Helen Torian, and Bessie Pullam, and Henri Boutrit, and the food they gave me.

And so I was Bill Madison, eating a Goliad meal in the heart of France. And all was right with the world.

Goliad photographs by Robin Barnhill.