28 February 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 2

Another installment in my translation of a cookbook for French schoolgirls, from 1895. In today’s journal entry, we are introduced to Madeleine’s know-it-all Tante Victoire, whom I find terrifying. Even the loving, wise Maman is no match for her!

And if you were unaware that there is a wrong way — several, actually — to peel potatoes, you’re about to find out.


Thriftiness and Order Are Two Qualities of the Good Cook.

Around evening, the time we were preparing dinner, I was peeling potatoes when Tante Victoire came in.

Tante Victoire, as all of us at home call her, isn’t our aunt at all, but an old friend of my late grandmother. She knew Papa when he was a baby and we’ve always thought of her as a relative because of the great affection that she bears us and that we return. Tante Victoire is sixty years old; she is spry, with a clear eye and a strong stomach, she is always in a good mood and is the most obliging person you could meet. In her youth, she worked in a great household, taking charge of the servants and overseeing them. Through this job, she acquired great experience, and each time we have a problem, we go to her. We can be sure of finding the true solution. What a goldmine she is, Tante Victoire, of good advice and of every sort of recipe, and golly! we benefit from her willingness to contribute.

She saw me with my big, blue-canvas apron, looking so important, like a first-time cook.

“Well, well, here’s a good thing,” she said. “Madeleine is cooking! But it’s a real miracle. How did this happen?”

Maman explained that now I was finished with school and would be doing nothing but housework.

“That’s perfect,” said Tante Victoire with an air of contentment. “And how did the little one take to it?”

“The Little One,” that was I. I felt very proud and, without responding, I began to peel my potatoes even faster.

“Well,” said Tante Victoire, “I see that we’re off to a good start and we have only to continue. For you see, ma petite, willingness, industry, and above all the desire to learn and to do well are half the job. It’s impossible for a lazy girl to cook well, since a quick eye and a deft hand are indispensable in certain situations. Then … say, by the way, here is a little lesson that your mother would surely give you, if she weren’t in the next room, setting the table:

“Why, in peeling potatoes, do you not take care to remove only a very thin peel? You see, everything you are setting aside is still good. You’re going to throw it out, and that’s a shame. Give me your knife, and I will show you how to do it….”

And Tante Victoire, with matchless address, swiftly peeled a potato, removing only a peel that was almost as slender as a peach skin.

While peeling, she said to me:

“Remember, Madeleine, that there are two ways to be thrifty: one consists of knowing how to buy; the other, of knowing how to use what you buy. It’s all well and good to run all over the market to buy potatoes that cost two cents less per bushel; but it’s better yet, perhaps, to know how to use them without wasting anything, and that is the mistake you were making in removing too much skin. There … you see, I’ve finished. Compare your peelings to mine.”

The comparison didn’t make me look good. I admitted this graciously and I tried immediately to put into practice the good advice and the example that had just been given to me.

I didn’t quite manage to do it perfectly on the first try. You can’t imagine how much patience is needed to succeed at these little jobs! I would start off well and then, suddenly, crack! I’d make too rough a movement with my knife, and cut off a good chunk. Fortunately, Tante Victoire was there to keep me from getting too excited, since, without paying attention, I let the peelings fly left and right, so that the table and floor were covered with them.

Tante Victoire couldn’t help noticing and pointed this out to me.

“But, Auntie, I can’t do it any other way,” I replied.

“You are going to see, Miss Cook, how you can’t do it any other way,” Tante Victoire said with an indulgent smile.

So she took a big piece of paper, spread it on the table and placed all the peelings that she gathered up in a single pile.

“Now,” she continued, “finish up while taking care to add all the peelings to this heap. When you are finished, make a little bundle of it all, throw it in the kitchen garbage bin, and you’ll see your table is just as clean as if you hadn’t put anything there that might dirty it.

“Now wipe your hands, not on your apron but on the towel which is there by the sink.”

I did what Tante Victoire told me, and I even had the good idea to give a quick lick with a broom to the floor around the table, which put the kitchen back to perfect order.

Tante Victoire complimented me on this precaution, and my dear Maman kissed me as testimony of her satisfaction.

(To copy and keep)

1. I will be thrifty with even the slightest things, I will not let anything go to waste which might be useful.

2. I will avoid messing up the kitchen while I am peeling vegetables, and I will sweep up as often as it becomes necessary.

3. I will receive with pleasure the advice of people who know more than I, and I will follow their opinions.


Anonymous said...

Great material you translated! Somewhat reminiscent of the technique-oriented cookbooks from Pepin, Kamman, etc. back in the 1990's -- emphasizing that eating well is as much about the shopping and preparation processes as it is about combining a list of ingredients. Too many of the cookbooks today are just pretty pictures and lists of ingredients -- what do they call the Food Channel shows? "Dump and stir shows??!!" No wonder we have such an unhealthy food culture in the US!



Anonymous said...

Thanks for translating these chapters. It's rather in the bossy tone of La Cuisine de Madame Ste-Ange, translated last year into English. I recently came across my mother's old copy and recognize in it the kitchen habits she instilled in me.

Where did you find the book?


William V. Madison said...

Oh, La Première Année is only getting bossier!

I found the book in a cupboard here in the house at Beynes. The previous owner, Juliette Chalat, was a schoolteacher, but it's more likely that she was given this textbook when she was a schoolgirl herself — or else she bought it at a used-bookstore.

I don't know La Cuisine de Mme Ste-Ange; I'll look for it, if you think it's worth the trouble.