There is no more earthly city more beautiful than Paris, France. When I arrived after one semester back at Oberlin, I was rarin’ to resume my exotic life as culinary traveler. On the flight over, I met a farmer from Iowa who was on his way to somewhere in Africa—to teach people how to use miracle grains and how to use a tractor. At the time, I was merely curious and not prone to regard such statements with a measure of skepticism.
However, this chance meeting gained in importance later in life, as you will read later in this book.
The first day in Paris, I looked in the help wanted ads and went to the first job. I was hired on the spot, conditioned on whether I could get some work papers. Being young and not thinking ahead (I was more Ron Weasley than Hermione Granger), it never occurred to me while back in the U.S. that I might have some problems with the papers situation.
I went to the Ministry of Labor (or whatever it’s called). Essentially, I spent three days there. I waiting in line after line. Every time, I was told to switch to another line. Finally, I was told to take the elevator to the 4th floor. Here, I waited in yet another line. Finally, a man said to me, “Look, the reason you’re here has to do with your expired green card. If you want to work in Paris this summer, here’s what you should do. Become a student. This entitles you to three months’ employment without a green card.” He continued, “My suggestion is to enroll at the Alliance Française.”
That’s what I did. All summer, I took classes, which were very simple, as they were intended for a lower level of language development. However, it was a great experience nonetheless, as the classes contained people from around the world—around the French colonial world, that is. An added bonus: Alliance Française sponsored trips. I went on two: one to Mont St. Michel, and the other to Chateaux de la Loire.
It was on the trip to Mont St. Michel that I met Cecille, who was to become my first wife. We (the group of students) spent the day on the island. We ate lunch at la Mère Poullarde, which was famous for its souffléed cheese omelettes, cooked in pans with 4 foot handles directly over the fire in a fireplace. And we also ate agneau de pré salé—roast leg of lamb from animals that had been fattened on the salt marsh grass that lives along the estuary of the Rance river. I have always loved lamb but having consumed the world’s most famous lamb, I’m sorry to say that I cannot remember if it was all that special. I need to go back.
The relationship between diet and meat flavor is relatively unexplored. Years later, when a graduate student at the University of Maryland, certain researchers along the Beltway were exploring the idea of feeding cattle shredded de-inked newspaper (in this case, “all the news that’s fit to eat.”). When you taste today’s milk, you notice that it is particularly bland. When you taste the milk of a farm that allows cows to graze, you notice the herbal flavors. I believe that the marketing story behind the special sea grass flavor of agneaux des pré salés probably rests on sound science.
On the way back to Paris, Cecille sat next to me on the bus. We said nothing to each other for hours. Then, someone in the back became ill and there was a call for plastic bags. Cecille asked me if I had one to which I replied, “No”. She then asked if I was German. “No”, I replied. “Swedish?” “No.” “Then, what?” I replied, “I’m an American, like you.” She was astounded. At that time, my spoken French was really good. Most French persons thought I was from Alsace, as they speak fluently but with a German accent.
So, that was our introduction. She was working in Paris for an Egyptian as his personal secretary. According to her, he hired her for her golden hair (which was dyed that way.) And, she spoke French and English with that pleasant Texas twang. So, she was good for business.
Cecille and I spent much of the summer doing things together. I was in love, really for the first time in my life. As everyone knows, first love is the purest. It’s like a drug; it feels really good. And you can never get enough of it.
I worked all summer at Le Petit Zinc. This was actually part of a group of businesses. Also included was a deli that specialized in horsemeat, a German restaurant called Le Muniche, and a bar, Le Bar Americain. All four businesses shared a single kitchen, which was located in the basement, right next to the street. When you stood at the grill, you could watch feet on the sidewalk.
I started doing grillwork and fried foods. I was responsible for putting out grilled sardines (yum!), something I haven’t had in years but which is truly one of the best of all foods. I also served pig’s ear and tail, which were boiled, breaded, and deep-fat-fried.
The grill was just opposite the bathroom, which was a Turkish toilet (hole in the floor) separated from the grill by a door. When cooks went into the toilet room, which was just a small closet, we sometimes would pour a little alcohol under the door and light it. More young persons causing trouble.
While I worked the grill, I usually kept a bottle of Coke on a shelf. I would add ice cream to it to make a Brown Cow. My cook-friends thought it was OK-tasting and they loved to say the name because it reminded them of my favorite expression at the time, “Holy Cow!” They would parrot it with “Horry Cow!”
Several of the cooks were Basque, so they spoke a language unrecognizable to any other European. The Basque language pre-dates Indo-European languages.
Besides speaking a very foreign tongue, they loved to cook in lots of oil. So, instead of sautéing in a quarter inch of oil, they preferred a half inch.
My Basque friends were always inviting me to visit Le Moulin Rouge, the red-light district, where we could each find a prostitute for cheap and watch naked women prancing around on stage. I have to confess that I never sinned once, never even accompanied them. I am not proud of that. Although, in retrospect, getting some gonorrheal disease just for a few minutes of ecstasy just isn’t worth it.
We switched cooking stations regularly. I also did prep for the salad station. We made our own lemon-walnut oil dressing. Really excellent. We would juice the lemons and pour the juice into a large glass bottle without cleaning out the old dressing. During the hottest days of summer, the lemon juice would ferment. It was common to see a large, foam plug rising up out of the salad dressing bottle.
For Le Muniche, we roasted suckling pig. It was tender, moist, and we cooked the skin until it turned golden and crackly. We made a sauce with juniper berries, black pepper, and beer.
For Le Petit Zinc, I was regularly prepping Raie Grenobloise or poached skate wings in a black butter sauce. Skate wings are covered in really tough skin with raised, flinty bumps—like coarse sandpaper. One side is white (the underside) and the other very dark grey (the top side). I would put the cut up wings in a large rectangular kettle along with lots of black pepper, bay leaves, salt, water, and white wine. I would bring it to a boil and simmer until done, then put the kettle in the walk-in. When the fish was ordered, you stuck your hand through the gelée, grabbed a piece, brush off the gelée, peppercorns, etc, peel off the skin, and then heat under the salamander. While it heated, you heated butter until almost black, then added vinegar, diced lemon, small fried croutons, and capers, and poured this sauce over the fish.
The texture of skate is stringy and lean. But it’s very good. You can often find it in the better Japanese restaurants.
For Le Bar Américain, I had to make potato chips every afternoon. This involved slicing potatoes thinly, dropping them in ice water to make them curl, then drying and frying. Like any kettle-fried potato, they were crunchy, oily, and marvelous. We used peanut oil (huile d’arachide) for its excellent flavor and high smoke point. Apparently, in those days, there were no peanut allergies. The rise of food allergies in the last 40 years is one of the great mysteries of our civilization. It’s probably a canary in a coal mine in that we do that something is wrong with the way we are living, but we’re not sure what it is.
In Le Muniche, we served a Tarte Flamande. This was a tart crust filled with a Béchamel sauce studded with sweated leeks. We also served Steak Tartare. Named after the Tartars who rode horses, drank horse blood, and dined on them when they keeled over, this specialty was composed of ground horsemeat mixed with a raw egg yolk and the usual parsley, onion, pickle accoutrements. Another specialty was Bismark Herring. We layered raw herring fillets in a stone jar with sliced vegetables and then coated it with oil. A fillet of herring was served with sour cream. We also served Boudin Noir or pork blood and liver sausage. We would grill it and serve it with fried onions and apples.
Every cook was assigned the task of making lunch for the employees. Since I already was a chef tournant (rotating cook), I rarely was assigned this task. However, I did get the honor once, and boy, did I blow it. I was giving a large number of pork brains. I poached them, breaded them, and fried them in butter and served with noodles (!). Unfortunately, I did not follow the French aphorism, “Quand c’est noir, c’est cuit.” They were undercooked, possibly still pondering.
The owners of these four businesses were doing quite well financially. At some point in the summer, the kitchen and dining room were blessed with some new equipment: two reach-in-freezers, five microwave ovens, and two garbage compactors. The freezers were added so that the restaurants could plate up food and freeze it ready to serve. The microwaves made heating tarte au flamande and boudin noir faster and more efficient. I usually use this story to illustrate the difference between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. The owners did a mind experiment and saw a vision of food plated, frozen, reheated in the microwaves and served. They based their purchases on a priori thinking. However, they then found that you can’t freeze sauces as they made them onto food. The blood thickened Coq au Vin sauce or the Beef Bourguignonne sauce would curdle when thawed. The same is true of roux: because of the retrogradation of amylose in starch, freezing such a sauce and then thawing it results in a facsimile of diluted snot. So, I then conclude that with this new a posteriori knowledge, it’s a good thing they had purchased the two garbage compactors.
In August, I was assigned a new job: to replace the pastry chef. He was going on the customary 1 month vacation, and I, being a pliable type, willingly trained with him. I made the usual Bourgeois French fare: Mousse au Chocolat, Tarte aux Quetsches, Tarte aux Pommes, Profiteroles au Chocolat, and Ile Flottante. I immensely enjoyed being replacement patissier.
I returned to Oberlin at the end of the summer and enjoyed the next year of classes, which were mostly in Botany and German, although I also remember taking a course in Sumerian and Babylonian writings. I never took an Art History class at Oberlin, even though that’s one of the strongest fields.
During the spring of 1973, I arranged with the Austro-American Student Association to work in Vienna in the summer. They were able to find a job for me at a little known bakery in Vienna, called Schlögl u. Faber, which has since burned down under suspicious circumstances.