It was a gift to a sixteen year old girl from a French woman who - at that time - was the same age I am now: 40 (in her case, -ish). Being French, she was effortlessly chic and so, ageless. She's been gone nearly a decade, her life cut too short by the malingering neurological illness from which she suffered.
I haven't opened this book to read in a long, long time. It hasn't been my go-to book for anything really. Many of the recipes therein I know by heart, or have variations taught to me by the French friends who have wandered in and out of my life.
But I thought about her recently. Because of an animated film. Pug is enamored of Pixar's Ratatouille...which made me think about her - because the first time I ever ate ratatouille was at her home in Grenoble - which made think of this book. I made confit byaldi recently - the haute cuisine version of ratatouille that Rémy serves Anton Ego. And like Ego, tasting the dish -- the combination of garlic, eggplant, squashes and tomatoes - it brought me back to my childhood, to being sixteen, to living in the south of France that summer, to being at the cusp of all things possible because I had all my life ahead of me. And here I am now, in a satisfied middle age, having earned these stripes and these years -- and I think of Michèle.
She was the great amour of her husband's life; so much so that when he woke and found that she had passed away in the night, he held her for a few hours in their bed, before he was ready to call the ambulance. I told this story to a friend; she said, "That sounds creepy." But it didn't to me. It sounded perfectly normal. After a lifetime and two children together, I could understand that he would want those last few hours to hold her before he had to let her go forever.
She took me out to eat at fancy restaurants. She took me to mountains. She took me to Aix-En-Provence and other French towns I would never have otherwise visited. She made blue jeans look formal. She was the quintessential, classic French woman. She did not laugh when I told her that some day I wanted to live in a chateau. You have to understand: I was sixteen; and at the cusp of all things possible. I truly believed that some day I would live in a chateau (privately I still do). And she went right along with it.
I had forgotten this particular, peculiar wish until I saw the inscription in the cookbook again:
I wish I had had an opportunity to see her again after that summer in 1986. I wish I'd been able to cook for her. I think she would have found my kitchen a grand place to eat. It's not the chateau I envisioned; but it is my castle. She would have understood that.
And she would have understood too, why I don't use the recipe for Ratatouille Niçoise on page 151. Why should I?
I have her recipe.