The first sentence of Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard had me worried: “I slept with my French husband halfway through out first date.” Oh no, I thought, this is going to be another one of those books about rather desperate, morally-lax ex-pats, seduced as much by France as by Frenchmen, and I’m going to spend the entire time hating the narrator and feeling smugly superior to her. Clearly, this has happened to me before. Happily, it was not the case here.
There are few cities in the world with the inherent glamour of Paris. To name it is to instantly conjure up a city of romance, of passion, of love. Even the thought of Paris, for the giddy Francophile, is enough to induce palpitations. It would be easy to follow the clichés, to write of an idealised life that works in all the stereotypes, particularly when writing a book like this aimed at an English-speaking audience so eager to hear only wonderful, fantastic things about France and Paris in particular. Happily, Bard avoids this path. Her life in Paris is neither too glamourous nor too squalid. In fact, at times, it is downright boring. After moving to Paris, Bard is unemployed and her life revolves around the miniscule apartment that she shares with her boyfriend (and future husband) Gwendal. It is during these months that she begins her cooking adventures, spending hours going to the markets and various venders to track down the perfect ingredients (and even more hours looking up and memorizing the vocabulary necessary for these excursions). I found Bard’s description of visits to butcher, of the strict protocol that must be followed, both amusing and stressful: butchers wield incredible power, no matter what country you’re in, and I’ve had some very terrifying lost-in-translation moments of my own with butchers and their patrons in several countries.
I like Elizabeth Bard. I like her evocative but not overly emotional style of writing, I like her commentary on French culture (the good, the bad, and the perplexing) and, more than anything, I like her recipes. Actually, I may love her recipes. So many memoirs-cum-cookbooks by women have an unbalanced number of sweet recipes. As someone who doesn’t eat many sweets or pastries, this can be frustrating. Bard strikes a nice balance and the ratio of savory to sweet seems to be around 2-1. The recipes themselves are very well-written: clear and concise, they assume the cook knows what he or she is doing and thereby refrain from the annoying condescension present in many books of this sort. (Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life is guilty of this sin and it was the only thing that marred my enjoyment of that book.)
The stories around the recipes had my mouth watering. Bard knows how to write about food, a skill that not all food writers can claim. Her description of a New Year’s feast towards the end of the book, hosted by a friend with North African roots, had me almost in tears it was so alluring. The meal went for more than eight hours and the dishes Bard provides the recipes for, Chicken Tagine with Two Kinds of Lemon and Tagine with Meatballs and Spiced Apricots, will grace my table as soon as I can track down enough people to do justice to both dishes.
Part of what makes the food so alluring here is the social setting in which it’s eaten. Most of the meals are eaten with friends or, more often, family. An amazing recipe is one thing but a fantastic meal shared with those you love, dragged out over several hours of good conversation and good wine, is unforgettable. I may be antisocial most of the time, but at meal times I wish for long tables lined with people.
Though some facets of French culture remain alien to Bard and confuse and frustrate her, her tone never becomes whiney or obnoxious. She may not be able to understand why things are done the way they are, but she doesn’t attempt to interfere – an ideal, if rare, ex-pat. Some of the commentary is most interesting, including her observations on the French medical system, the very non-American aversion to leftovers, and, because it’s endlessly fascinating, the eating habits of French women. But it’s the food that’s the focus here. The book may be subtitled “A Love Story” but that’s a clever ruse to sell copies to sentimental women. Yes, Gwendal is very nice (he tap dances!) and their relationship plays an integral part in the memoir (he is, after all, the reason she moves to Paris), but passion does not consume the narrative, unless that passion is for a good cheese. Already, I’m thinking of buying a copy for my father, a devoted home chef and Francophile, which I would never dare if the book were too sappy or emotional. That said, I’m afraid one moment in their relationship will prove costly for me some day: they had an eighteen-piece big band at their wedding. That has blown every dream wedding scenario I had concocted since childhood out of the water. A big band, smelly cheese and the man you love…perfection.