by Lauren Sarazen
Before I was a wife, cooking was an adventure. I took pleasure in complexity then. Bringing home French cookery books, I’d spend hours decoding instructions in my second language. Time would pass slowly, whisking egg whites into tentative submission and anxiously surveilling slow-simmering bouillabaisse. My meringue would be over beaten and chunks of white fish were outrageously overcooked, but we’d laugh and eat it anyway.
The shift was gradual, only splintering once I became a Ringuet. It takes a special kind of magic to decay one of life’s pleasures and Sido has it in spades. His sister Camille, too, though she’s not out for blood. “Camille just wants to help, that’s all,” Sylvain would say. When it came to wanting our future children to join some French variant of Junior Life Guards before they learned to ski, or eating the cheese out of order at a party, Camille was the gentle stream of criticism to prevent me from losing face a second, third, or fourth time. Sido wanted me to rue the day I left Long Beach and clapped eyes on her son.
“It’s not you,” Sylvain would say, following me into the kitchen where I leaned heavily against the counter after each bloodletting. “Maman is particular with food.” Maman was particular with everything.
Sylvain picked me up during my lunch break at the café. I’d sat fidgeting at the end of the counter, unable to let go of the rhythm of scanning the room for empty carafes and dropped silverware, barren bread baskets and beseeching glances. He’d just come in, and was hanging up his jacket on the hook when he looked at my staff meal with dismay. “But you don’t really want to eat that, do you?” he said, gesturing toward my oily plate of battered chicken. I set down my fork, and he shrugged back into his jacket, steering me out the door. We went across the road to a café much the same as mine where he bought me a salade chèvre chaud and convinced me to write my phone number down on a napkin. When we met, I was still the kind of girl struck down by a free salad.
Four years later, marital bliss—if it had ever truly caressed us with its benevolence—had long left the building. I was steadier now, no longer rattled by life in another language. He was increasingly calcified by tradition. We saw one another in the stark light of reality, each finding the other lacking. The end of his work day inched from 18h to 20h to 21h. I spent more time with screens. It was the year the grandes dames of the Nouvelle Vague died, and my suffering was caught and crystallized in an amber fugue. My moods paired perfectly with their films’ melancholic tinge. I knew they weren’t all meant to be sad, but I always cried. I couldn’t help myself. I knew now that no salad was truly free.
“You’re watching that again?” Sylvain would say, coming home to see my laptop propped up on the kitchen counter. “Isn’t it a bit late to start dinner?” Onion skins littered my chopping board. “Shhhh,” I’d hiss, waving the paring knife. Transfixed by Anna Karina wielding silver scissors with menace and dancing through the umbrella pines, the tears streamed down my cheeks. I couldn’t tell if it was the syn-Propanethial S-oxide or matrimonial rot.
On Sundays, the Ringuets ate lunch en famille. I was relegated to the lowest rung, the magret de canard and pâté en croûte reserved for the big leagues. I’d yet to graduate from the tartiflette, which was always pronounced trop sec after reheating a touch too long in Sido’s oven. “If you would only follow Maman’s recette,” Sylvain would sigh. But I cook the way my mother does, adding ingredients in pinches and dollops—the epicurean take on orchestral improvisation.
“It’s hard to fuck up tartiflette,” my friends would say doubtfully when I let loose my complaints at apéro. I agreed. It was nearly impossible to ruin. It was French comfort food personified. Potatoes, cheese, bacon—the gang’s all here. Yet under the stern gaze of my belle-mère, it was always within the realm of possibility. The ratio of cream to reblochon was off. She found the taste of the smoked lardons dégueulasse. The potatoes were too dry. There were too many onions. I’d used the wrong white wine; yes, she could taste it. There was always something with Sido. We both knew it wasn’t about my culinary skills. If it wasn’t my cooking, our battlefield would have been my closet full of loud prints. It didn’t matter how many hours of language classes I logged or family recipes I mastered. I would still be une américaine.
But today, I awoke alone and sprightly with purpose. The bags are already packed, lined up neatly at the side of the bed. Sylvain is already in the country. I picture him up on the ladder, decorating the hall with crepe paper streamers, telling the aunts and cousins that I am still here, running the half marathon. He assures them I will arrive; yes, with the tartiflette; yes, Sido’s recette. It is the weekend of the Ringuet family reunion, and I’ve lied my way out of half of it. I wait for regret to seep into my bones, but it doesn’t come.
In the kitchen, I flick through the recipe cards. When I find tartiflette, my old foe, I can’t help but admire the ornate loops of Sido’s handwriting. There was something to it, living a life within the parameters of chic. She was the kind of woman I could never be, but from a distance, I could recognize the effect. Yesterday, I’d dutifully bought lardons at the boucherie and collected a sack of potatoes from our quartier’s long-suffering primeur, the reblochon and cream from the fromagere who was all smiles. I took joy in splashing out, in communing with the neighborhood characters, but my receipts showed I’d paid close to double what I would at the Carrefour. It was unsustainable to live Sido’s way.
Arranging the laptop, I set Cléo 5 à 7 to play. I boil the potatoes and mince the onions while Corinne Marchand tries on hats. In another pan, I dribble a splash of Sauvignon blanc and toss in the onions. I wait until the onions sweat before adding in the pink and fatty strips of pork. I move them lightly around the pan as she gathers around the piano to sing. I grate two wheels of reblochon, laughing at Anna Karina’s Seine-side pantomime. After rubbing the dish with garlic cloves, I mix the melange of potatoes and lardon onions, evenly sprinkling the cheese and drowning it all in heavy cream. I slide the casserole dish into the oven as Antoine Bourseiller tells her that women love in halves, too afraid to give themselves away fully.
This time, I do things right. I lay out an Agnès B dress. I wash my hair. I sweep blush discretely across my cheekbones and leave my lips nude. I retrieve the tartiflette from the rack just before the timer dings, covering it with tin foil, wrapping it twice and placing it at the bottom of the sturdy carry-all. On the train, I pull up a sweaty selfie from another race. I text it to him. Don’t tell me you’re only just finishing, he replies. We are starting in an hour.
As the train pulls into Gare de Besançon-Viotte, I look for familiar faces on the platform. No one is there to pick me up, but Besançon is a small town. I know the way. I’d learned its topography, the curve of its river. It was once the historical seat of French watchmakers, and where Stendhal’s Julien Sorel studies in Le Rouge et le Noire. It was the town where Victor Hugo was born, and later, where members of the French Resistance were executed during the Occupation. More specifically, I knew that Sido had agreed to marry Pierre Ringuet by the fountain at Place Jean-Cornet, and Sylvain was born three weeks premature in the university hospital. This was before Paris. This was before me.
By the time I push open the doors to the hall, they are already enmeshed in apéro. From across the room, Sylvain greets me with raised eyebrows. His sister turns around to shoot me a close-mouthed smile. She wears a burgundy sweater dress and cognac ankle boots, her hair cut into a severe bob that hangs lank like curtain panels on either side of her face. The other Ringuets don’t notice at first as I cross the room to deposit the tartiflette on the banquet table. Pulling back the tin foil, I fold it carefully and slide it beneath the dish for later.
“Notre américaine!” Sylvain’s jolly uncle cries, setting down his plate to kiss me on each cheek. “ Ça va?”
My smile for him is genuine, and I make the rounds to faire la bise with the forty-odd members of Sylvain’s extended family. The ones who live the farthest are the warmest, gripping my cold hands in both of theirs as they ask how we have been in the city, if we have given more thought to moving home. I duck and dodge conversational probes until Sylvain pulls away from his cousins.
“You’re late, but you look nice,” he says, kissing me quickly on the mouth. “It’s good.”
When I circle back to the banquet table, Sido is examining my dish, her mouth set firm. Camille pecks daintily at her plate of sliced saucisson and cornichons, her glass of wine resting on the table between dishes.
“Ah! You have arrived. En fin.”
I lean forward to give them air kisses, barely brushing my cheek against theirs. I am pulling back when Sido turns her attention to the tartiflette. She carves out a petite square, excavating the lardons poking through the chunks of cheesy potatoes with a clear plastic fork. She spears a bite nibbling tentatively, and proffers the plate towards Camille.
“It’s not quite right,” Camille says after a moment, dabbing at her mouth with a cocktail napkin. “There is too much—”
“Non,” Sido says, holding up a bony hand, a reptilian smile sweeping across her face. “En fait, c’est parfait. Absolument parfait.”
When they are called away, I pour myself a glass of red wine, a deep Pinot noir. I chat. I laugh. I smile. I do what is expected of Sylvain’s wife. When they call for a group picture, I stand beside Sylvain with the others. My smile is bright. It even reaches my eyes. This will be the last time I will see the Ringuets. It is the last night I will be sa femme. Tomorrow, I am leaving.
Lauren Sarazen is a freelance writer who lives in Paris, France. She graduated from Chapman University and received her MA in Literature from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, where she is currently working towards her doctorate. Her words have appeared in Hobart, The London Magazine, The Washington Post, Vice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Stinging Fly, and more.
Image source: Ting Tian/Unsplash