My husband was the eldest of five boys, and if my mother-in-law was a relaxed cook, it could be attributed—in part—to her nature, and in part to necessity. When we stayed with them for the first month after moving to France, I had ample opportunity to witness her talent for providing large rations with little stress.
Standing by the kitchen table, always with one foot on a stool, her hands deftly peeled potatoes for the pork roast that would be served with white wine and roasted onions. Another day, she covered white fish with salt and butter, and sprinkled lemon and green chives over this ensemble. She baked stuffed veal, tied in little tasty packets, and served it with green beans. She prepared leg of lamb with garlic spears tucked into the folds, and fresh thyme crumbled on top.
And she made mustard tart. This was my husband’s particular favorite. A salted pie crust slathered with Dijon mustard, and topped with grated Swiss cheese, sliced fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. Into the oven it went until the crust browned, the cheese melted, and the tomatoes wilted just enough to intensify in flavor.
There was always enough food to feed a family of seven, and she was able to store a week’s worth of groceries for these hungry boys in a refrigerator that was little more than five feet tall—a relic older than my husband, and not replaced until years after we were married. Every centimeter was crammed with perishables, which only she knew how to find. She made enough food, but it didn’t mean the boys were easily satisfied.
“Who wants more?” she called out, standing up in her spot at the table with the serving spoon in her hand.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” were the cries of protest when she spooned a greater amount of pasta on one plate than another. She shook her head with an exasperated smile, but attempted to rectify the uneven distribution.
When I met my husband, he was skinny. He didn’t like to spend money on anything other than computers, and he hated to cook. So in the mornings, after downing some coffee in his Lower Manhattan apartment, he bought a large sandwich for two dollars at a Latino bodega below Houston Street and headed uptown for work. That was his one meal for the day, unless his Mexican roommate took pity on him and made him some quesadillas for dinner.
Frankly, he was too skinny for my taste. And proud. It would be three years before I would even consider going on a date with him—not that he spent all that time trying to get me to. He was only vaguely aware that I existed on the other end of our network of mutual friends. But we eventually did date…
“Does she speak French?”
This was the first question my future mother-in-law asked when she found out about me. Upon being reassured that I did indeed, she then asked the second.
“Does she like salad?”
I did. I also loved to cook, and since I had already au paired in Paris for a year, I knew how to make a lot of the French classics. On our second date, we went to a potluck picnic, and—to his astonishment—I brought a Dijon mustard tart!
This—the favored dish of his mother’s that he hadn’t tasted in over a year! The savor of his home country flooding his taste buds right there in the middle of Central Park! A girl who wore simple shoes, and didn’t mind climbing over rocks to get to the picnic site. A girl who could cook! There was only one thing a man could do with this heady combination.
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