Harriet's Not Afraid

photo: harriet welty rochefort, place de l'alma

Harriet Welty Rochefort, between Liberty's flame
and the Tour Eiffel, at the Place de l'Alma.

Of Cooking 21,173 Meals In France

Paris:- Wednesday, 18. April 2001:- Harriet Welty Rochefort and I have something in common. Between us, we've lived in or near Paris for a combined total of 55 years. This explains how we almost blow our first rendez-vous.

We are going to get together so that I can tell you about her latest book, 'French Fried,' and tell you what an American woman who has lived in France for 30 years is like.

After several emails, in which we agree to meet wherever we happen to be on a Wednesday afternoon - if we can agree to be in the same place at the same time, on three hours' notice - we finally get it pinned down to today.

On the phone this morning - we use it too - Harriet says she is going to be signing her book at the American Cathedral in the Avenue George V at 19:30 this afternoon. There are no handy cafés next door to the church, but we both know there are several at the Place de l'Alma, which is not far away.

But, at which café? I know the one beside the métro entry - it is like a 'métro café,' while mostphoto: apt kitchen of the rest of them are restaurants or tea and cakes places. We both know there are several métro entries and exits, but Harriet knows the one I mean - 'on the Avenue George V.' "There's a closed dress shop beside it," she says.

This tiny French kitchen is three times larger than mine.

I don't know about this exactly, but I do know the café she means. Then we need the recognition signs. She will be, she says, wearing a blue coat - or a red coat. I am, I say, a tall old dude, with a black bag.

I take care of a chore on the Champs-Elysées and come down the Avenue George V. I even read a note taped to the American Cathedral's formidable door - telling Franprix not to deliver the groceries after 17:30 because nobody will be there to open the door. 'Désolé,' it says.

At the bottom of the avenue, at the Place de l'Alma, there is no métro entry and there is no café beside it. Now I remember - every time I come here I make the same mistake. It's around the corner in the Avenue Président Wilson. This 'correct' café in the wrong street even has a closed dress shop next to it.

I don't stand and stare at it - wondering if I should tour all the other cafés around the place - for long before a voice asks me if I'm me. I turn around and see an attractive lady wearing a black coat, carrying a Monoprix bag full of books titled, 'French Fried.'

We have a good, nervous, laugh about this. We make the same type of Paris-mistakes as everybody else makes in Paris.

Before anything else, because Paris is having eight minutes of good weather, I suggest we retrace our paths a bit to get a photo of Harriet with the Tour Eiffel in the background. "Is it near here?" she asks, adding, "This bag full of books is heavy."

It is near - around the corner on a traffic island in the middle of the Avenue George V, and I carry the bag of books. Five shots, wait for the green man crossing signal, and get into the café, for a Perrier and a double-café.

At first we fence around a bit to find out if we know anybody in common, because, "It's such a small world," she says. However, our circles haven't overlapped, except for Harriet having freelanced for the IHT, and I only did one drawing for that paper.

Harriet's latest book, 'French Fried,' follows her first book, the slim but successful 'French Toast.' For biographical details, I'm supposed to "Read the book." I intend to, but who knows what might be left out?

At the Café Metropole Club I am often asked how I came to live in Paris. Long-timers ask each other this too. I immediately feel I know Harriet a lot better when she says she came on a one-way ticket, in 1971.

She was in Paris before then - she lived through part of the '68 party and, "Got the last plane out!" Not because of the uproar, but to return to graduate school.

After successfully completing it, she decided to come back, "For one last look," she says, "Before settling down in Iowa like everybody else."

So the one-way ticket was on a deep-sea freighter to Acapulco where she stayed for a while with some Spanish nuns before catching another freighter at Vera Cruz for the Atlantic crossing to Cadiz. She took the train, with a stopover in Barcelona, to Paris.

This time, in 1971, Paris looked like, she says, "A big city," so she immediately began planning how to get to Argentina. This scheme, and I believe she was perfectlyphoto: book cover, french fried serious about it - only fate prevented me from being Brazilian myself - got derailed, after many Paris adventures, by meeting Monsieur Rochefort.

One night, and it may have been an exceptionally rainy one, Monsieur Rochefort announced that they would no longer be taking their meals in restaurants.

The to-be Madame Welty Rochefort, saw their kitchen in her mind, and it looked like a disfunctioning closet. And she, aside from having licked cake batter from bowls, could barely make toast, even with a toaster.

Harriet Welty grew up in Iowa surrounded by farmers, although her father was a doctor. Everybody ate like farmers, and they ate three squares a day, seven days a week. Harriet had taken advantage of this while she was able to, but hadn't bothered to learn the mechanics of it.

Now, here, in downtown Paris France, Monsieur Rochefort, was expecting two-and-a-half 'squares' a day, 'a la française.' How Harriet managed to pull this rabbit out of a beret - by cooking '21,173' meals herself - is what 'French Fried' is all about.

Here our personal histories diverge, because neither of my 'madames' were French. We ate in restaurants of course, but what we did in the privacy of our kitchen was not dictated by grandparents, parents, in-laws, friends or free-loaders.

In fact, the only place I could be sure is getting a reasonable facsimile of a home-cooked French meal was at a place in the co-incidently named village of Rochefort-en-Yvelines.

By the time I get to page 26, on the page after the historic 'fatal moment' - otherwise known as the 'dikat française' - and read 'Soupe à l'oignon à la concierge,' I realize that I've seriously bungled my food life in France - for 25 years.

No, I do not and never have eaten while standing in the light of an open refrigerator door. I do not even have a toaster. But - neither do I have an all-purpose 'cocotte minute' - a pressure cooker. I have a microwave, but it is not plugged in. I am a French food-culture nitwit.

According to Harriet, these - the 'cocotte minute,' not nitwits - were invented in France - long before frozen food was discovered - for enabling family cooks to make traditional dishes in a fraction of the time that their grandmothers took.

Early models exploded sometimes, but the French are adventurous. Even after the introduction of frozen food, thephoto: cocotte minute 'cocotte minute' still leads an important role in French kitchens. When you buy one, a cookbook comes with it, called '300 Recettes SEB,' by Françoise Bernard. Harriet writes that this book has saved the reputation of millions of cooks, in France and all over the world.

A French cook's 'dream machine,' the 'cocotte minute.'

In France, of course, many people still look on this 50-year old invention with suspicion. Meanwhile new models of the 'cocotte minute' appear, with an updated cookbook. Harriet says Françoise Bernard has even co-authored a new book with Alain Ducasse, with another 208 easy and fast recipes - in which they both take the same basic foodstuff, and do radically different things with it.

You see - when it gets around to food in France, the paragraphs get longer. This is because it is also major topic of conversation. At breakfast you discuss lunch, and most likely dinner too - plus details of special meals, weeks in advance.

'French Fried' is not a cookbook, but it does contains Harriet's and friends of Harriet's recipes. Before each one there are several pages of story, explaining their origin or explaining French eating habits - or a crossover between the two such as 'Brains In the Microwave.'

She writes about the country and the city and about eating all parts of all animals and plants. She test-shops markets, she goes to cooking school, she helps out making home-made booze, she takes the sweets course at Lenôtre, and follows it up by trying out weight-loss 'cures' at spas.

Once becoming an expert in her own kitchen she ventures out again to restaurants - 'How to Eat Eyes, Slice Cheese and Send the Wine Back.' And restaurant waiters get a going over too - a not entirely unsympathetic one.

To bring readers right up to date, there is also a chapter about fast food in France - and the resistance to it that is summed up with the word 'antiglobalization' and symbolized by José Bové and the Peasants' Federation.

The above is in the second-last chapter. The last in the book is reserved for 'Slow Food in the Provinces.'

But 'French Fried' is not only about food. Most of it is about what it is like to live on a country wherephoto: harriet with french toast food and drink have a very high priority - far higher than almost anything else except the Alps.

'French Toast' was Harriet's first book. Her third is simmering slowly, according to Harriet's own recipe.

Harriet has included 16 recipes, slightly more than one per chapter. Additionally, there are especially enlightening mini-interviews between the author and Monsieur Rochefort, who is somewhat more informal in the book. A sample -

Harriet Welty Rochefort - "Don't you think 'truffade'* is really fattening? I mean, think about all that cream and all those potatoes."

Monsieur Rochefort - "Basically that's a very dumb question."

*"A 'truffade' is a mouth-watering Auvergnat dish of fried sliced potatoes, with Tomme cheese, cream, bacon and garlic." Monsieur Rochefort claims you can eat this all you want without gaining weight, because you are supposed to eat slowly and because you are supposed to 'walk a lot' in France.

Somehow Harriet has managed to stuff 30 years of experience of living, shopping, cooking and eating well in France into a fairly slim volume, and as a bonus has added a bibliography plus a list of cookbooks and guidebooks. Try it - you'll like it, a lot. On account of it, I may plug in my microwave.

'French Fried' by Harriet Welty Rochefort. Published in 2001 by St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-26149-7. Take a look at Harriet's own Web site at www.hwelty.com. 'French Fried' is available at all major bookstores and at online bookshops.

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