This year’s anniversary was very unique, and may not be easy to wrap your head around. It was a tribute to Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière (1758-1838) and his dinner club and “goguette” or singing club Le société du caveau . I’ll let you read about Grimod la Reynière, but I will tell you this: he was the first food critic in France and the world! He wrote the Almanach des Gourmands or the gastronomic almanacs. He was also a grocer and one of the first people to use the business card. He also set-up a comittee to taste and critique foods. We see drawings of him in a library where there is food on the shelves instead of books. We always see him portrayed alone at a table writing, eating or pondering the food in front of him. He is portrayed as an independent thinker and taster in this way and his tools for his livelihood are the pen and the fork. Grimod de la Reynière had deformed hands, and his parents kept him out of public view. Because of his time alone, he developped his intellectual faculties, independent thinking, but also a deep desire to gather people together with him around a table and shared gastronomicexploration. I can relate to this. At one point, he had a dinner party at his parents’ house and they came home to find a pig dressed-up and eating at the table with a sign saying he was the president. His parents disinherited him after this.
Grimod de la Reynière was a trained lawyer and had been a theatre critic, but was forced to write about somehting more “neutral” which led him to gastronomy. He had a love for art. Besides eating with his club and drinking as the name “Caveau” suggests. The club was a goguette which means that they also sang together. You could find poetry and theatre during their dinners as well. His dinner club mixed food with the arts.
The second pioneer that we payed hommage to for our club’s 11 year anniversary was Samuel de Champlain and his club L’Ordre du bon temps ou The Order of Good Cheer . Samuel de Champlain started L’Ordre du bon temps to keep his men from dying of scurvy or of fatally low moral during their first winter in New France in 1606-1607. Each member took turns hunting and coordinating the catering, and they never missed out, in fact, they ate lavish meals. They also mixed food and art and had a theatre piece about de Champlain meeting Poisedon.
As a side note, I had a French professor tell me that Grimod de la Reynière was much more interesting and his club pre-dated de Champlain’s. It’s hard to see clearly when you see the world through your country’s belly button. She can’t help it… Sorry to the French people, but the Société du Caveau only started in 1729.
So how did all of this work into our dinner club celebration? Well, first things first, we celebrated it on February 1st, right in the throes of winter when the morale of many is at an all-time low as is their consumption of vegetables.
We are also a bit of a do-gooder club once a year and we like to spread the joy, so myself, special guest Nathalie Cooke and long-time member Judith Colombo went and sang folk songs at an old folks home for “La Journée m’enchante” which is practiced in 3 countries. It turns out that most of the dinner club isn’t that much of do-gooders, they mostly come for the food…We, however had a really nice time singing at Le Manoir de Verdun songs like “Au Chant d’allouette”, “L’hyme de l’amour” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. It was really nice.
We chose the food them of “French Colonies” as it gave us alot of options and we are in a former French colony! We ate a Cambodian beef salad, cretons, tarte au sucre, bahn mi, crispy vietnamese lemon duck, “poisson cru” a Tahitian ceviche in a coconut sauce, yogourt rice from Pondicherry, cajun artichokes stuffed with shrimp and a black triangle salad (sugar, rum and nutmeg in it!).
We also mixed music, dance and theatre with the meal, Nathalie helped us re-create the piece about de Champlain and Poisedon. It was amazing!
This was just what I needed to get through the lowest part of winter and experience some good cheer with my fellow goguettiers! I think De Champlain and his men would have had an even more delightful winter if there were a couple bellydancers in the mix!
I was house-sitting in Ormstown on a large piece of land with two dogs: an old and subdued healer, Chancy, and a young and rambunctious Husky-German Shepard cross, Katie. There are many food favours and negotiations going on all the time. We were told by the Masters of the house, a spunky and tiny French bomb of energy, Ariane and British husband, Eric, to help ourselves to any food in the house (except the frozen steak and kidney pies Eric has to drive way out to get and are the nostalgic fix he needs). Of course, when they got home, there was sauerkraut, homemade ham, Parkins biscuits (he had the Golden syrup to make them and I had the fresh ginger to sex them up), British malt vinegar pickled red cabbage and poached fish. We too wished to thank them for the time at their cozy, wood-heated, solarium-lit, deluxe kitchen and jacuzzi having place nestled in their 50 acres of land full of trails and a joyful steam that dances through. The food seals the pledge of trust and appreciation of each party. Food also concerns the dogs. They are fed at the same time every day. They are also rewarded with treats when they behave well and come when they are called.
Chancy is old, blind and has battled cancer. She is small, but she still has the power over the young and free-spirited Husky. Chancy’s approach to food is to beg at the table with the pathetic pleading eyes of a destitute orphan. Katie, however, is very independent, employing a can-do approach. She hunts mice and birds daily and has been sprayed by 3 skunks, quilled by 3 porcupines and I saw her with a racoon in her mouth one of the days I house-sat.
Katie’s instincts are very close to the surface. She is as free-roving as she is attention-seeking and curiosity and exploration of the outside world are in complete harmony with her need for camaraderie in the pack. For Eric, however, I think the adjustment to such an independent and demanding dog has been hard as he is used to dogs that hang-on their Master’s lead. I thought this was well-illustrated in a story that played-out between the two of them. Katie, sniper extra-extraordinaire, came home proudly with a hawk one day. The hawk was still alive and suffering in her jaws. How could a hawk be caught by a dog!? Eric pointed out that hawks do not have any natural predators, and so may have been napping complacently on the forest floor or on a low branch. Whatever happened, Katie capitalized on her chance. Katie couldn’t care less if the bird was suffering, but to the human sensibilities, this was already a problem. Eric finished the job and then brought the hawk out into the forest to rest in peace indefinitely.
The next time Katie went out, she came back with the hawk in her mouth. To Eric, this meant he would have to revise his strategy, so he went and buried the hawk in the woods. Lo and behold, Katie found it, dug it up and brought it back. The battle continued. Eric threw it in the stream, and somehow Katie tracked it in the stream and brought it back again. Eric was bedazzled. This dog was slick…and determined. Eric ended up freezing it and putting it out with the trash and then it was game over. I listened to this story in awe and with shocked “No!”s every time the tension moved up a level with the: “she found it again and brought it back!” What was the tension? What was the battle? It seemed to me the battle was that Eric didn’t want Katie to kill things or bring dead or dying things home, and Katie I believe, wanted Eric to accept the bird and eat it. The two did not see eye to eye. Eric feeds Katie and gives her treats, but that is a one-way street. Eric does not eat what Katie brings him.
This is the irony of Master and Servant- with food the Server is often Master. It depends on the arrangement, but the one who has the capacity to gather, prepare and serve food often has the upper-hand. They have the capacity to give and give what they want the other to have. We need food to live, so giving someone food to eat is no small affair, it is giving them life. The server may even feel their feathers have been ruffled if the served tries to feed them.
Money changes this dynamic and restaurateurs and those in the food industry depend very much on the coin from the customer. This is a case where the client who is being served holds the power, even if it doesn’t always feel that way in very uppity and sometimes intimidating restaurants. Restaurants are like a stage where people come for an experience. Both the waiters and the client step into roles and “act” in this unreal world, but there is an exchange and both hold power, but the client a little more as they do not need to eat in a restaurant, but the restaurant needs money from clients. Restaurants create a hype or build on a real or feigned image of not needing clients as they are so in demand. This gives them the wield of choosing their clientele or the hand that feeds them…ironic, no?
Think about your lovers, friends, parents, children. Who feeds who? Who holds the power? The person feeding or getting fed? Is it a one-way transaction or two-way? When we love someone, we naturally want to feed them. We want to keep them close to us with food. That’s why mothers keep bringing food even after their children have left home. The feeder is investing in the future of the fed. Feeding the other also gives them purpose and the joy of seeing the other eat, even if they hate to cook! The person being fed gets to devote their time to play, work, healing, things other than food preparation.
When we refuse food, eg. hunger strikes, anorexia, not eating food that is offered to us or only parts of it, there is a power-struggle. We are protesting another’s behaviour, not sharing their values, taste or what they are “laying on the table” or not accepting their control over us or we are fighting for control over ourselves. It is a strong statement when we do not take what the other is dishing out, preferring hunger and debility.
Please think of your close relationships and how food figures. How does food bond you to others or drive a wedge and who is the person you like to be fed by and feed the most? What do you like to be fed and by whom? What do you try to express when you cook for others: abundance, down-to-earth, no-fuss, opulence, health, tradition? What do you refuse to eat? Why? Food for thought….
I really wrote this article so I could put this song on my blog! (Dogs, Housewives and sex- they capture exactly what I wanted to say in a song!)
I have been undergoing an identity excavation and restructuring for the last couple of years. This excavation became somewhat archeological in 2010 when I traced my genealogy and ancestors. Who are they and then who does that make me? I have been trying to measure all of the genetic material and what it has overcome to endure and thrust me forth. I guess I was looking for perspective, but the question quickly turned into “what did they eat?”
For Christmas 2010, I went on an extreme back-country ski trip in the Charlevoix region, being prepared for cross-country skiing with a friend from Montréal and two great girlfriends from France. We had a great time, without accomplishing the skiing from refuge to refuge. We ate a decadent reveillon dinner in a cabin in the woods and then got shamanistic and loose in an igloo under the moon. On the way home, though, we stopped in the villages of my ancestors: Petite-Rivière-St-François for my Simard side, Chateau Richer for my Chabot and Mésange side and Ste-Anne-de-la-Pérade for my Leduc side. It was winter and very beautiful, but things were closed for the holidays, and the only hint of my ancestors’ diets was that in Ste-Anne-de-la-Pérade were the ice fishing cabins dotting the river, and I imagined my ancestor Antoine Leduc, courreur des bois, ice fishing as well. These cute villages seemed to take on a special meaning as I connected them to my genetic origins.
In the summer of 2011, I went to France to visit the same French girls I had visited my ancestral villages with in Québec. I wanted to see them all, but I didn’t have time to see Angoulême where my Simard side is from. I did see Nalliers in Poitou-Charentes where my father’s paternal Chabot side emigrated from. It was really old, rural and quiet. The village was tiny, the church empty and I only saw a few really old people in the streets.
The second place I visited was the origin of Antoine Leduc, my maternal grand-mother’s ancestor. There is a novel about him and he had quite the adventures as a Courreur des Bois, getting married to a Fille du Roi and eventually getting killed in the Toronto or Detroit region by the Iroquois while trading furs. His village was called Louvetôt and it was in Normandy.
I took the train from Rouen to the closest village and then I was going to walk 7 km to Louvetôt. A trucker picked me up, and asked why I was going to Louvetôt as I was obviously far from home. I told him I was searching my ancestral lands for my roots. He said “Oh la vache!” when he thought about someone coming from Canada to a place like Louvetôt with probably about 100 inhabitants.
When I got there, I couldn’t really figure out what they ate either as they had one bakery that sold a few pan-French pastries and cheap candy. There was a church and the City Hall and school were combined. It took me about 5 minutes to walk from one end of town to the other. I walked through the countryside all afternoon from one rural village to the other. It was nice, but I didn’t find my ancestors’ food.
The last place I visited though was wonderful! It was called Mortagne-Au-Perche- still in Normandy. I hitch-hiked there and was driven by a sweet Portuguese family and a very kind Turkish man that went out of his way to bring me there. I stayed with a sweet 71 year-old woman named Madeleine.
Mortange was the place of origin of my ancestor Marie Mésange, wife of Mathurin Chabot(My father’s paternal ancestor). She was baptized on April 4th, my birthday, and Mathurin died on June 12th the day of my father’s birth. Mésange is the French name for the tit (bird).
The culinary past is still present. Boudin Noir! Mortagne is the capital of Boudin Noir (black blood sausage or pudding). Over 100 exhibitors, butchers, traders and artisans from around the world gather for an annual festival for blood sausage enthusiasts! Four to 5 kilometres of black blood sausage is sold during the three days. There is a competition for who has the best blood sausage (tasted cold), a pig squealing contest and participants have to take a vow, swearing that they eat blood sausage at least once a week religiously and that they will sing and spread the good news.
I didn’t eat blood sausage until I got to Québec, and I loved it. It felt like coming home. I made it for my Simard family in a Caribbean-style (Pudding and Souse) a few years ago. My Mom, my Aunts and Grand-parents were overjoyed to eat boudin visibly displaying pangs of nostalgia, but my cousins weren’t having it. Why did blood sausage feel comforting and delicious to me and not my cousins?
I really felt at home in Mortagne-au-Perche. The architecture and scenery was gorgeous. I was welcomed into Madeleine’s home. I also enjoyed the company of Madeleine’s friends one evening, two newly re-married couples in their 60’s living life to the fullest, cracking jokes, the wine flowing, getting that dreamy Shangri-la look when they spoke of the mystical Quebec of Gilles Vigneault that they’d never gotten a chance to visit, but had seen on tv so many times.
They grumbled about how the butcher, in the centre of town with a snazzy shop, shouldn’t make blood sausage because he’s stealing business and the work of the charcutier. They made it clear that Le Roi du Boudin was the place to go. The boudin was delicious. I had it smoked, with candied oranges, apples, chestnut, and much more. Other regional specialties in Mortagne-au-Perche are cider, pommeau and calvados. I don’t drink anymore..but I drank while I was there… I love pommeau and cider and it was great with the blood sausage. I did find traces of my ancestors: I ate what they ate, I saw buildings that had belonged to the aristocratic Mésange family and I saw the bird itself.
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