Food travelogues, fact and fiction

Une doyenne de la cuisine française et mondiale, Colette Rossant
Une doyenne de la cuisine française et mondiale, Colette Rossant | Source
C'est publiée en français pour eux qui aiment voyager en France (ou bien, en français).
C'est publiée en français pour eux qui aiment voyager en France (ou bien, en français). | Source

The french version of this review is here

Colette Rossant is a naturalized American who spent most of her adult life in New York as a journalist, editor and food writer. A little unusually for a food writer, she's also been involved in setting up and running restaurants, having immersed herself in the world of fine dining from simple, fast food to wider hospitality. Now she’s written a series of memoirs that put her emotional and intellectual interest in food into the context of her life, and why cooking and sharing meals became one of her earliest commercial skills.

Return to Paris published by Bloomsbury Press in 2003, is the second in the series by a real woman of the world. She has really lived, as the Chinese say, in interesting times. Born in France to a well-to-do Jewish family before the second world war, it was decided when she was six years old that she should be sent to live with her Egyptian grandparents. Separated from her mother and everything she knew, the little girl found her father’s family and life in Cairo completely disorientating. Little by little she adjusted to life in the north African metropolis and gradually grew to see herself as Egyptian, learning Arabic words, phrases and dishes from the live-in cook. But the exile from Paris and family sowed the seeds of resentment towards her mother that she would find difficult to forget.

The first in this series is called Apricots on the Nile and the third installment (so far) is The World in my Kitchen. I stumbled upon Colette Rossant’s life story at the midpoint of the autobiography with Return to Paris. It takes up the story at the point in her life where it’s decided that, as Paris has been liberated, Colette should return to her mother’s family. She reluctantly uproots herself from her now beloved paternal grandparents (knowing she’ll probably never see them again) and takes up residence with her mother’s mother and her older brother who had remained in Paris together throughout the war.

Paris in the aftermath of the liberation was still very much in desolation. There was general rationing that demanded strict uses of ingredients, and there was rationing specific to Colette's family because of the financial set-up they had. Throughout Europe there were raw nerves between those who had survived that touched on all aspects of life, and despite Colette’s family still being reasonably well-off financially, the strain percolated through even the most unexpected moments. We get glimpses of the tensions that ripple through families where financial trust funds are administered on behalf of widows and children, the misunderstandings that children perceive as slights, the defences they cultivate, and the comforts they gravitate to in compensation.

The wider Parisian recovery is told in tandem with Colette's gradual acclimatization to her new life, her gradual understanding of her mother and grandmother's generations' different recovery rates is sketched out from a teenager's point of view, and the personalities from her Egyptian uncle to her new French step-dad, her school friends to her new boyfriends, are sensitively but honestly told.

It’s a fabulous life story: warm, observant, steeped in French and Mediterranean history and social mores and it comes complete with recipes for the dishes she describes in the story as she was first introduced to them.

Fiction and food, Irish style

Kate Kerrigan is an Irish writer of women's fiction that mostly falls into that category called chick lit in that it's warm, wise, worldly to the extent that it touches universal subjects, and womanly. The first of her novels that struck a chord with me was Recipes for a Perfect Marriage in which "New York food writer Tressa returns from honeymoon worried that she has married her impossibly handsome new husband Dan out of late-thirties panic instead of love," according to the teaser blurb introducing the novel. To distract herself from panic she begins cooking her grandmother's recipes and we're drawn into the contrasting marriages of the modern New Yorker and the 1930s young Irish woman who married according to her family's wishes rather than her own. Kate's style is inviting, her stories always revolve around ordinary lives upended by tumultuous happenings and her own urbane wit enlivens the characters' challenges.

Marsha Mehran was a beautiful young Persian woman I met during her brief time living in the west of Ireland. Again, her style is hypnotic, once you begin to engage with the women she depicts, you're carried along on a wave of curiosity and charm. Pomegranate Soup and Rosewater and Sodabread explore modern Irish village life through the eyes of Persian sisters who have the gall to open a business in a one-horse Irish town, selling that witchcrafty, aromatic, delicious, foreign stuff! She perfectly captures the initial wariness of a close-knit community and her fictional sisters' café becomes the talk of the town.

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