Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Memories of Mayonnaise

It’s been such a wonderful weekend, the kind you hope will never end but secretly hope it does for fear that some silly thing will mar its wonderfulness if it lasts too much longer. Does that make sense?

Well, anyway, it’s a snowy, blustery Sunday afternoon and I am in the kitchen standing over a steaming pot of Cassoulet. The house is bathed in the sounds of a Mozart symphony and the smells of bubbling pancetta and sausage, garlic and onions, fresh thyme and white beans. As I breathe in the aroma, I remember other Sunday afternoons when my Father would commandeer the kitchen, to my Mother’s relief.

He’d walk into the house after morning Mass, take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and head straight for the kitchen to begin the preparations for Sunday lunch.

Upstairs in my room it took every ounce of a 10-year-old’s willpower to ignore the tantalizing smells emanating from below and concentrate on mastering long division.

From my glamorous French-American Mother, a former model and opera singer, I inherited my love of clothes, and from my handsome French father, the son of a chef, I inherited my love of food.

Stunning Leslie Caron, who will forever be Gigi in the minds of most Americans, was also the child of an American Mother and French Father.

In her charming autobiography Thank Heaven… she relates a delicious tidbit that made me smile in recognition when I read it. A Parisian born and bred, she is living in Los Angeles and expecting weekend guests. She discovers she has run out of mayonnaise and asks the cook to make some. The horrified cook confesses she doesn’t know how to “cook” mayonnaise, to which Leslie replies that you don’t “cook” mayonnaise, you make it. In its most basic form it’s just egg yolks, lemon juice and olive oil beaten together.

We were living in Philadelphia when my Father passed away. Several months later a strange jar appeared in our refrigerator and I learned that in America mayonnaise came from a jar. Quelle surprise!

My Mother had no desire to make her own like a proper Frenchwoman. After all, she was only half French, and her American half was perfectly happy with mayo from a jar. My French Father would have been horrified.

Everyone was together to celebrate the 14th of July (“le quatorze”), Bastille Day. I must have been seven or eight years old. We were in the large kitchen of a farmhouse and I was standing in the corner watching the women bustle about in high activity. Seated in the corner was the Baroness. Like my Father, she was a decorated war veteran. We were all in awe of her. She had been in the Maquis and it was common knowledge that she could and did handle a machine gun as well as any man could or did. But at the moment, she was beating oil in tiny droplets into a bowl. I was fascinated. I moved closer to see and my Mother pulled me back. “Don’t bother the Baroness,” she scolded, to which the Baroness replied, “Leave the child alone. Some day she will need to know how to make mayonnaise.” My Mother murmured something about Frenchwomen and their obsession with mayonnaise and left. And so I watched, fascinated by the rhythmic circular motion of her strong hands – hands that could just have easily pulled the trigger of a gun, but were now gently and methodically coaxing a golden emulsion from an egg yolk and olive oil. I was mesmerized.

These days I confess I do not spend as much time in the kitchen as I would like, but I still make my own mayonnaise.

If you would like to learn how to make your own mayonnaise and don’t have a French father or know a gun-toting Baroness, may I recommend Julia Child’s recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking?” It is absolutely foolproof.

Once you’ve made your own mayonnaise, you can never be satisfied with what comes out of a jar. Trust me.

Must dash! Someone’s just come in. “Hi, Honey, I’m home! Wow, something smells fabulous!” Those are the words of a hungry husband who’s just gotten a whiff of my Cassoulet.

Bon appétit!

1 comment:

  1. This is a delightful post. Nothing is better than fresh and homemade without all kinds of fake this and that. I applaud you for still making your own mayo! I wouldn't hold the mayo if I could have some of yours ...

    Lucky hubby to enjoy your homemade Cassoulet. I have a crockpot recipe for Cassoulet but I bet it's nowhere close to yours.

    I will still give the Creme Fraiche recipe a try - once it gets a little warmer (spring).

    P.S. I can picture the Baroness! What a delightful family portrait you paint with words.


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