When Dalton stayed full Mondays at maternelle, it meant he was invited to dine with his entire class in the cafeteria. Dining meant just what it sounds like: four courses, linen, silverware, straight backs. No plastic utensils, trays or cups. No nuggets and ketchup, no canned corn. No sandwiches, certainly, since how can one eat a sandwich with utensils? Even les pommes frittes, or French fries, were to be eaten with a fork, we learned.
The value in dining, explained Madame M. as she and I stood outside the cantine, peeking occasionally through the port-hole window in the door to watch how Dalton was doing, was to eléver le palais, a phrase that threw me at first. Was this some kind of telekinesis, lifting up palaces or something? What it meant was to educate (or raise) the palate.
“A child,” Dalton’s cheery pedagogue explained, “must not be given food that will degrade the palate. If early in life he develops an appetite for bad food—fast food, cheap food, tasteless food —- how then will he distinguish later in life what is truly excellent?”
I peered at the preschool children sitting straight in a row, linen napkins across their knees, utensils held firmly in each hand. My Dalton, his back to me, was eating les épinards, or spinach, quiche and sliced fresh fruit with yogurt. In a blue ceramic dish was a small salad with mustard vinaigrette, I was told. He and his classmates would be offered a selection of cheeses after that course before the small square of chocolate to finish off the meal. He drank water from a glass-glass. A woman in a white frock and orthopedic sandals touched him on the head and pointed to his napkin when he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He then used the napkin. And looked both ways as he pressed it flat across his lap.
“This, Madame Bradford, is as important a part of la formation as is anything else your son will learn. The French, you know, consider food to be about much more than just eating. La gastronomie is an art and a science and,” (to this day I recall these words with the sound of a background gong) “the sign of an evolved culture, of an evolved human being.”
Whuh-o. That one hit like an indictment, a personal kidney punch, though I’m sure gentle Madame M. didn’t mean it as such. But I cringed, and while cringing, felt my back instantly hunch over, hair cover my entire face and then my whole body, my knuckles start dragging on the ground. All those barnepark brown bags of a single slice of bread and goat cheese? Eaten with bare hands? All those Norwegian birthday parties with a set menu of tepid hot dogs, chocolate cake and red punch? The Norwegian office buffet for Randall, which, over the years, never changed from sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, two sorts of cheese, bread and a platter of room- temperature canned herring? What about the one and only brand of milk — its carton said, simply Melk — that first year we lived in Norway? And the two types of cheese — goat (brown) and cow (yellow) –— compared with the 378+ types in France?
Golly. We’d kind of liked that approach to food. It left so much time for the important stuff.
Going back even further, what about all those New Jersey vending machine hoagies eaten on the run? The Slurpees downed in an elevator? The Big Macs scarfed behind the wheel? I’d not only been eating the wrong food, I was now realizing, but I’d been eating all of it all the wrong way. Mobiley. As my Parisian neighbor Lauren would tell me some years later, eating while taking an elevator, while driving, while watching T.V., while doing anything but eating was, well, a sport for barbarians.
Now I understood better why, on the other days when I would arrive to pick up Dalton for lunch, the mothers and babysitters were all gathered around the school gates discussing lunch menus. You’re going to braise endives? And she’s going to sautée chicken livers? And she over there will whip up a souflée to go with the fennel salad with chunks of Parmesan and toasted walnuts? It seemed everyone wanted to know what was on everyone else’s menu for the 50-minute lunch break to which they would treat their three-year-old cherub.
I just held tight. It was somewhat destabilizing to listen to everyone’s fancy menus. At this early stage in our life in France, I was feeling challenged enough merely figuring out what was in those shelves in the grocery store, or where to get things if I deduced that what I needed was not there, and who to task for help to find something as basic as salt, for starters. Because that whole food-on-the-table thing was, with everything else going on (floods, ants, no reliable heat, no closets in the entire house, finding a place to park, learning a new language) really all I could handle for the moment, I listened closely to the women’s talk primarily because it was an excellent source of language education, and only secondarily so that I’d feel culinarily inept by comparison. Never did I dare admit what my own son was going home to: a vulgar, cheap bowl of microwaved canned ravioli. In a Barney dish.
You can bet I swore him to silence.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.