Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Proust and Me

Marcel Proust, the French writer whose Remembrances of Things Past   (A la recherche du temps perdu) ranks high in Western culture as a book everyone quotes and no one honestly reads, writes of tasting a Madeleine and being transported back to childhood. Though both French and writer, and despite not being a Proust, I recently had a Proustean moment. It was not with pastry but with paté. 

Specifically, rillettes, a coarse, peasantish pork dish that has little in common with the more elegant mousses, fois gras, or quenelles favored by blue bloods. Rillettes comprise pork belly, garlic, ground pepper, salt, and herbs that vary according to the region. The recipe is not complex, but it is time consuming. In France, rilletes are a staple of cafés and brasseries where they are spread on slices of buttered baguettes and eaten with cornichons (gherkins) and a glass of the house red wine. They’re inexpensive, filling, savory, and proudly blue collar.

Rillettes were among my father’s favorite foods, though my mother, of a somewhat higher social class than he, looked down upon them and claimed they smelled bad. Much to her disgust, he instilled in me a deep appreciation for the dish. When I brought him to the US after my mother’s death, we found a lone restaurant in Georgetown, Le Pied de Cochon (now a Five Guys hamburger place), that served the dish. The rillettes there weren’t as good as the ones found in Paris, and certainly no match for those from Bretagne, but beggars can’t be choosers. Until his death, my father and I ate rillettes once or twice a month for three years and were never disappointed.

Recently, I found rillettes in a local high-end food store, there alongside the chi-chi cheeses that cost $40 a pound and the rare wines from Argentina and Estonia. I bought a small plastic container of two ounces for almost eight dollars. It was worth every penny and I now understand Proust.

I scraped the thin layer of suet off, scooped out a dollop, spread it on a piece of French bread and… was instantly eight years old again, sitting on the beach in Benodet, Bretagne, watching my tall, thin, war-hero father dive into the frigid water, swim beneath the waves for far too long and emerge, laughing and breathless from the cold as my mother, shaking her head at the foolishness of men in general and her husband in particular, held out a thin towel for him. He splashed his way back to shore and threw a handful of cold water on her, then dragged me into the surf. I squealed with pleasure and fright, and to this day this small event remains one of the fondest memories I have of childhood.

That day there were rillettes, cooked with a hint of anise, hard-boiled eggs, country sausage and hard brown bread, mortadelle,  Pernod for the adults and grenadine syrup for the kids. There was lobster with home-made mayonnaise, too, and sea urchins, shrimp, oysters and other delicacies that the children found horrific. It was a perfect day.

Back here in the States, I ate and dreamed, then I covered the fatty treasure in plastic wrap and placed them in the fridge next to the black cherries and a wedge of ripe Port Salut. Were my father alive, he would have methodically set the table in the dining room with real silverware and napkins, then raided the fridge for his favorite meal of cheese, fruit, and rillettes.

In mediocre times, these are good things to remember.

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