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Cuisine is Just a Word for Kitchen

And, here in France, mine is meager. It’s tiny, with an abundance of dull knives but few forks, and a dour-faced toaster oven replacing a real one. My French cuisine leaves something to be desired.

What’s so great about French cooking, anyway? In Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” she describes her first French meal as an epiphany. At a restaurant in Rouen, her husband Paul ordered sole meuni??re for their inaugural dish, a simple filet of fish: “I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume… The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter.” She deems the plate “a morsel of perfection,” and declares that “at La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I’d ever had before.” That set of succulent flavors sent her chopping, mincing, and grinding up a legacy of cooking in translation.

In opposition to Julia Child’s marvels and successes, and au contraire to Elizabeth’s mouth-watering if messy chocolate chip cookies, my own experience with French food ranks somewhere below relevatory. Restaurant fare sends me so far over budget that the food just stops tasting good. Sure, I’ve made a few successful quiches and omelettes so far, but the majority of my diet consists of the cheapest options: baguette, pasta, and cheese, because the exchange rate of the dollar to the euro seems somehow yoked to the downward-spiraling state of politics over there (it just gets worse?). Today, feeling ambitious, I tried to cook a Ni??oise speciality, courgette beignets. I decided to do this without a recipe, and stumbled through the steps I imagined one might take to create the dish.

La gal??re! Meaning, roughly, ‘what a disaster!’ I usually hold my own in the kitchen, but the ratio of black smoke and burnt smell to edible matter, here: approximately 500 to 0. I now realize that the rift between my feeble imagination of the recipe and the actual recipe must be large enough to fall into. Large enough, in fact, for two zucchini, six eggs, milk, and flour to land in the poubelle, France’s more lovely word for ‘trash can.’

This is all an elaborate set-up for me to compare French cooking to something so all-consuming that I could probably shove it into any invented metaphor. Cooking gets me thinking about language. Just as I maniacally scrubbed the burnt skin off the pan, questioning the true value of ‘French cuisine,’ I ask myself, “What’s so good about the French language?” nearly daily. This might have something to do with the condescension and impatience of (some) French people towards native English speakers. It has more to do with my own laziness. Why should I struggle through a language with a set of verb tenses and conjugations that make Mastering the Art of French Cooking seem like a piece of gateau?

I’m most frustrated with the language when I feel that I’m translating directly from the English floating around the stratosphere of my brain. The result of such direct translation is staccato, punctuated by pauses and exasperated hand gestures, wholly unsatisfying. The magic of speaking French happens when I stop translating; when, shedding a layer of self-consciousness, the words somehow flow. When I stop thinking about all those rules, it sounds better. It is a beautiful, melodious language. I should step back and just listen more often, without translating.

Yet, isn’t language, at its base, a sort of translation? In a wonderful op-ed piece in the New York Times from October, Found in Translation, Michael Cunningham wrote, “I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.” He starts the article with a dissection of Moby-Dick’s famous first line, “Call me Ishmael.” The sentence has an undeniable force. An authority. But it also has music: soft vowel sounds bookended by the consonants’ symmetry. And this is what makes language, all language, special. It can “engage and delight the inner ear. Ideally, a sentence read aloud, in a foreign language, should still sound like something, even if the listener has no idea what it is he or she is being told,” says Cunningham.

I am not going to speak Perfect French anytime soon. I will never be mistaken for a Real French Person. But I can allow myself to love the music of French, the upward-ending cadence of its questions, the pursed lipped intonation, and the way the words all melt into each other like butter in a hot pan. In terms of French cuisine, I will be no master ? la Julia Childs. Mark Bittman (The Minimalist) is more my speed. Following Bittman’s lead, next up in my palm-sized French kitchen: profiteroles to dazzle. Wikipedia informs me that the origin of both the pastry and the word ‘profiterole’ are obscure, but it exists in French and English. And don’t they sound delicious? I mean, the word itself– something proper and order-bound in the ‘pro-fit’ and then the rolling, vowely lightness of ‘er-oles’ — delectable. No translation necessary.