08 August 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine: Translator’s Afterword

With one last embrace from her dear Maman and a few instructions on making coffee, we come to the end of Madeleine’s adventures in the kitchen; La Première Année de Cuisine contains several more pages (indeed, the ending sneaked up on me), but these are devoted to ap­pen­di­ces: a recapitulation of recipes that can be found within the chap­ters themselves, a glossary, a section on cuts of meat, with diagrams of the animals and recommendations for what parts of what animal are required for what dishes. I did my best to translate that material in earlier installments, and without the narrative, I’m not sure these sections would hold a comparable interest.

Indeed, for this reader, the narrative is what’s most striking about La Première Année, and it’s what compelled me to share the book with you. I know absolutely nothing about our esteemed author, L. Ch.-Desmaisons, yet I admire her (or his) approach: to teach by example, and to make of that example a character who is so readily identifiable. I was won over instantly by Madeleine’s reaction to the proposal that she learn to cook: she balked. Cooking must be tedious, she thinks, and besides, she’s liable to get her hands messy. It’s the 1895 equivalent of a little girl’s saying, “Eww, gross!” in 2010.

Thereafter, Madeleine is instructed in the traditional model. Her imme­di­ate objective is to be helpful to her mother, but the long-term goal is that she become a wife and mother, herself, one day. There’s only the vaguest suggestion that she might earn an independent livelihood through her skills, and it’s Tante Victoire, of all people, who consist­ent­ly represents that possibility. She, after all, used to work for a living, and if she ever had a family, we know nothing about them. Madeleine doesn’t reflect very long on that model, however; she’s more interested in learning from Tante Victoire how she may be more like her own Maman.

And yet there’s a particular feminism to Madeleine’s story, for it depicts her induction into a powerful tribe of women, who share their wisdom with her. If I’ve occasionally used illustrations of fairy-tale witches here, it’s not only because I find Tante Victoire intimidating (in part due to the illustrations in the original book, which I’m unable to reproduce here), but also because I see reflections of ancient, almost Wiccan rituals as the book goes along. The women gather, they trade arcane knowledge, and together they concoct the sustenance of their tribe. They disdain the uninitiated, in the persons of the neighbor woman and of the visiting cousin, who don’t know how to prepare rabbit and beef properly, but those characters are meant to remind us that, although there are other ways of doing things, the time-tested methods, based on ancient lore, are soundest. For the most part, then, this book is a celebration of the strength of a community of women: Tante Victoire, Maman, Mademoiselle Fleuron, and the novice, Madeleine.

Ultimately, we can begin to understand that it is this womanly wisdom that kept France alive during its tumultuous, blood-soaked history. While the menfolk were thinking up new excuses to fight to the death, women sustained the nation, using whatever was at hand to feed the people.

For this admirer, the genius of French cuisine is thrift; out of privation, imagination flourished, and out of necessity, a universally envied art form was born. When Tante Victoire cautions Madeleine against peel­ing away too much potato or carrot, it’s simply because, the next time there’s a war or famine, there may not be another vegetable to eat. We have to make the food we have go as far as possible.

Only 25 years prior to the publication of La Première Année, Parisian women managed to resist the Prussian siege by adding sawdust to baking flour, and by raiding the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes in order to put some kind of meat on the table. Madeleine would have lived to see the Nazi Occupation, when she’d have been obliged to devise similarly imagi­na­tive recipes, just as the mothers and grandmothers of my friends did.

This book doesn’t go into detail, but it’s true that, in Madeleine’s day, almost everything (including bones and vegetable peelings) that wasn’t eaten would be used to make stock: nothing could go to waste. Even in prosperous times, the French have made delicacies out of scraps that other cultures (including present-day America) routinely throw out. Charcuterie is typically made of stuff that would wind up as dog food (at best) in the States; here, not only does it not go to waste, but it’s pre­pared in a way that preserves it, too, so that it can be set aside and eaten — with gusto and in infinite varieties — during an uncertain hour.

Most of what we think of as classic French cuisine was codified in the generations immediately prior to Madeleine’s, a period that coincides with the American practice of slaughtering bison just for the tongue and the hide. That would never do in France.

One indicator of the French concern with thrift can be seen in the choices of foods that Madeleine and her readers are taught to prepare. These are solid, nutritious dishes, and most are quite simple. The recipes in this text require no elaborate techniques or truly pricy ingre­di­ents. The reason is simple: if the student cook failed, she wouldn’t blow the family budget in the process.

In translating this book, I haven’t learned these traditions and prin­ciples so much as been reminded of their worth. I have, however, been obliged to expand my vocabulary. Quite a lot of the words in this book are ones I use every day — in French — but never had to learn in English. Other vocabulary, especially in the lesson on cleaning a cast-iron stove, was entirely new to me. Throughout the translation, I’ve tried very hard to preserve the archaic charm of the original language, even when it would have been easier to rely on more contemporary English (“Eww, gross” being one example). At every step, this has been a useful exercise. Thanks for joining me.

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