rance. Food. Right? I have waited this long to tell you not what it’s like to dine out in France, but what it’s like to cook at home. Ahem. Not the same.
Let’s start with the oven. Now, already that is complicated. My husband at the time was asked by a Dutch foundation to move to France and to put the lectures given by Sufi musician and philosopher Hazrat Inayat Khan into chronological order on the computer. The last step was to print them out and proofread them. Some of these years of lectures required three volumes because the talks were so numerous in Europe and elsewhere. You might call this a job, or you might not. The Dutch foundation was on the fence about this, and not wanting to pay all the fees that the French government extracts from employers, opted for a different arrangement. We’d be given a house to live in with utilities paid for and a small monthly stipend. That sounded grand at the time. But we already had a house in the States and a small stipend is, well, a small stipend. But still.
Enter yours truly into the situation. I had worked in publishing in Arlington, VA, as a proofreader. This is important for what is to follow, leading us (eventually) to the oven.
Now, there were two teams working on these books. We were the editorial team. The other team, the short-hand team, learned a funny old Dutch short-hand to transcribe the lectures back into English. (Happily, Inayat Khan, a polyglot, had given these lectures in English.) The short-hand team had a great interest in the way the books were laid out, especially the footnotes, which sometimes ran into the hundreds for one lecture. (I am not kidding about either their interest or the number.) Why so many? The task was to create a definitive text, based solely on the shorthand. Other versions of these lectures, made by students and others, were then compared in footnotes. My favorites were a footnote such as this: Doc 1 changed “the” to “a”; Doc 2 returned to the original. The shorthand team determined that in a particular case, the shorthand most certainly said “Lufi,” rather than “Sufi.” This, the shorthand team insisted, must be the definitive text. I hope you share the amusement of the editorial team, who no way was going to put Lufi in a series of lectures. Endless jokes ensued about the Lufis, who, after all, are a rather esoteric bunch.
Back to yours truly who was the only person who had ever worked professionally in publishing. I proofread these documents, with their many (unnecessary) footnotes, as well as the preface, the glossary, the index. When I happened to remark to the short-hand team that all books have an error in them somewhere, the short-hand team asked that I be removed from the project. They were perfectionists; I was an expert. I know how Dr. Fauci feels. In any case, I was not removed but instead created a document called editorial principles, which thanks to some miracle, management and all teams agreed to.
Because the foundation had already given us a house to live in and a stipend, they believed my efforts were covered, financially speaking. I did not see it that way. We discussed far into the night (until about 7 p.m. because the Dutch were early birds) what compromise we could agree upon. And I pointed out that the house could really use a new oven. Agreed!
Management went back to Holland, having dispensed with their administrative duties in Suresnes, (a bedroom community of Paris). All we had to do was buy an oven.
ME: Hello, Store. I would like an oven.
Essentially, I was asked if I wanted an oven encastré, which probably you don’t know does not mean with casters, but recessed. Who knew? I’m like, sure. I was thinking mayebe encadré which means with a frame. A nice floor oven with a casters and a frame? Sure. Well, it turns out that the part the oven is recessed into does not come with the oven. (No casters.) So then you have to have a carpenter build a cabinet, basically, to hold the oven. And they did! What happened to a simple floor oven?
After all this, you deserve a recipe, gentle reader. You may be surprised to see how you cook a simple, small whole chicken. You start it in a cold oven.
ME: It’s true. You put the oven at 170 degrees C (340F) and put a small chicken in at the same time, for about 1 hour and a half. Interestingly, our French chef, Simon, maintains that if you have a farm-raised chicken and not an industrial one, it will take longer. I check to see if when I insert a knife into the top of the leg that the juice runs clear.
READER: How did you find out about this?
ME: When I went to the butcher shop. They still thrive in France, where you go just to buy meat to cook. And the butcher waits on you. When he learned I was American he took a special interest in teaching me how to cook, since, apparently, the French don’t have the highest opinion of American cooking. I did not help matters when I maintained that our national cuisine was le sandwich, followed by la salade.
The reason I began this post with the oven is that 1) It is the best oven I have ever, ever had since the temperature was so true. 2) You need to know your oven well to have success with this chicken recipe. So if the butcher, or chef Simon, says 1.5 hours at 170 degrees, the chicken was cooked perfectly. You quarter a lemon, and put that with some branches of thyme in the cavity. Rub olive oil and salt over the bird, and voilà. Now I invite you to test your oven. If you have a leaky, desultory floor oven such as I have, you’ll have to add 15 minutes. Anybody ready to give it a try?
SPEAKING OF GODOT
I wonder at Beckett leaving aside all the French cuisine that he was surrounded by, living in Paris. May I offend all Irish readers? Could it be that Irish food, which he ate in his youth, was uninteresting enough to be represented by a carrot or a turnip, the only foods mentioned in the play? I suppose it would be hard to carry a roasted chicken in your pocket. Probably a live chicken would be more Beckett’s style. I always like to look at what is left out of a work of literature. So French food, chickens, and then women. Perhaps Godot is a woman?