Sunday, August 26, 2012

Madame Sokolov and the Art of Eating Alone

When I was a kid in Paris, my parents would occasionally ask the one-floor-up neighbor at 3, rue de la Terrasse, to babysit me.   These were rare occasions and I always enjoyed them as Madame Yelena Sokolov's apartment was far more interesting than the one I lived in, and she always addressed me as Jeune (young) Monsieur Thierry.

Mme. Sokolov--I never learned her first name--was the daughter of a White Russian refugee, and she claimed a direct if confusing link to Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, the last tsar of Russia.

Mme. Sokolov smelled of lavender. Her white hair was always up in a tight bun, she had high cheekbones, thin and serious lips, an aquiline nose and piercing blue eyes. In her younger years she must have been stunning. My father occasionally flirted with her--or tried to. She was not particularly amenable and, in retrospect, it is clear she thought my family was one step up from barefooted serfdom.

Mme. Sokolov fixed herself three complete meals each day and never ate leftovers. Sometimes, when I was in her apartment, she would set the table for one with two forks, two knives, three glasses and two linen napkins--one for the main course and one for desert, which was usually sherbet in a silver cup. I was never invited to sit at her table. I had a special small chair, and was given a tray to balance on my knees, which I did fearfully. She served me minute amounts of her own minute servings. I remember veal in a sweetly bitter sauce, fish so white it dazzled the eye, tiny potatoes no bigger than grapes, and only once a thin slice of bleeding meat that may have been Steak Tartar or perhaps a Russian version of Beef Carpaccio. Everything she cooked, she consumed. When she ate, it was with both hands on the table, holding a fork with the tines pointed downward, and a small, very sharp knife. Her back was absolutely straight, and if mine was not, she would mutter, Votre dos, Jeune Monsieur Sagnier. Nous ne sommes p-as des paysans." To Mme. Sokolov, being called a peasant was the ultimate slur. 

I remember thinking it must be very sad to always cook for one's self.

Now I do it two or three times a week, sometimes sadly, but mostly not. I seldom set the table, though I always sit, and think eating while standing is a crime against taste and worthy manners. My cooking repertoire is rather limited. I make a good Salade Niçoise and decent shepherd's pie. My ratatouille is famous, my rice and beans acceptable. I often cook in large quantities and eat the same thing for a week or longer. I throw out too much food and feel guilty for it. I occasionally bake, more often grill, and on rare occasions invite people to my home to dine.

I often think of Madame Sokolov's lonely culinary exploits, and where I had seen aloneness, I now believe there existed a wonderful expression and reward of the self. Madame Sokolov never once evinced the slightest hint of melancholy. She was proud, kind in a manner that no longer exists, self-contained, her manners impeccable. She had an elegance that brooked no nonsense and the manners of an exiled princess which, for all I know, is precisely what she was.

I have no idea what became of Madame Sokolov.  Her name, it turns out, is among the most common in Russia. It is cited in a 1920's book titled "The Last Days of the Romanovs." Grigori Sokolov is a celebrated pianist.  Alexander Sokolov is a champion armwrestler. Authors, painters, and several families in Minnesota also bear the name. I doubt her history will ever be known. But I think of her teaching manners to a small child of another culture,  cooking alone in a minuscule kitchen, among the last of her class and bearing, a proud survivor of the Russian revolution. I hope she was celebrating herself.


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