Today, January 6th, was my mother’s birthday. Her name was Gisèle, but those close to her called her Gigi. I won’t say how old she would have been in honor of one of her Frenchwoman’s commandments: Thou shalt not tell thy age. The goal was to stay looking and acting young, not moaning and groaning about how old you were. Plus, she said, it was nobody’s business: if you looked too good for your age, people wondered what you had done; if you looked really bad, people felt sorry for you.
Until the very end, when she seemed to shrink and crumble in pain, my mother looked beautiful and had a youthful spirit that brought joy to everyone around her.
One of the many memories that keep Gigi alive for me is of her flitting around the kitchen, wooden spoon in hand, an apron protecting her elegant, often white, clothing, scampering from stove to sink to refrigerator as she prepared unforgettable meals. She had been an intellectual in Paris, never needing to cook until she came to the States and started missing her favorite French dishes, mostly those from her region of birth near Bordeaux.
Gigi’s mother, my Mami, had cooked good, simple meals, excelling at the puddings, pots de crème and tarts she so loved. Mami only liked sweets, taking tiny bites of meat or fish and teensy sips of soup to placate her husband. Toward the end, when she was in a nursing home, she refused to eat anything but desserts, and the Catholic Sisters were kind enough to oblige her.
But my mother’s grandmother had been a stellar cook, turning out sauces and stews, roasts and cakes with nothing but an icebox, two gas burners, a big kitchen fireplace, and well water that had to be pumped and carried up the stairs. Gigi had spent many hours by her Mémé’s side, assisting and absorbing, and when the time came for her to cook for her own family, she instinctively knew what to do.
As a guide, she kept her grandmother’s cookbook, published in 1929, Traité de Cuisine Bourgeoise Bordelaise by Aleide Bontou. I treasure that little green book with its brown and tattered pages. There are no pictures, and very few measurements, just general directions in paragraph form, as if any decent cook would know exactly what to do when told “faites une liaison avec jaune d’oeuf et beurre.” Translation: bind (or thicken) with egg yolks and butter, a tricky culinary maneuver, which , if done incorrectly, results in a curdled mess.
Here and there, I find my mother’s underlining in pencil, or a recipe slipped between the pages, and I feel as if she is in the kitchen with me. I also have many of her index cards with favorite recipes copied in her loopy script, recipes that made her reputation as the best (and prettiest) hostess in Denver, with a magical je ne sais quoi in the kitchen. I remember her laughing when she told me that her friends always asked why her coffee was so much better than theirs. She maintained she had no idea, but she did: she put real cream in every cup, not skim milk or some awful artificial whitener.
In Gigi’s mind, there was nothing wrong with cream or butter. She believed that many Americans were fat because they ate too much and the food they ate was artificial and tasteless. At the height of its popularity, margarine never crossed our threshold, nor did sugary cereals or peanut butter or ketchup.
Gigi thought the best breakfast for children was a thick piece of French bread slathered in butter and topped with a mountain of grated dark chocolate. In my goody-goody phase, I used to be appalled knowing my children were eating this at her house every morning (and probably every afternoon too!), but it was the same little decadence my grandmother had prepared for me when I lived in France as a child. I had loved it, and now they did too.
Sometimes Gigi would make her grandchildren macaroni and cheese with so much Gruyère that they could pull a strand of it up with their teeth, vying to see whose would break first. The winner would usually be standing up on his or her chair, while my mother laughed and my father scowled.
She also made their favorite stew, which she called Sauce au Vin (Wine Sauce), a variation of Boeuf Bourguignon. She never measured, but it’s an easy recipe. Take good stew meat, which you have asked the butcher, ever so sweetly, to cut into medium-sized cubes, toss them in flour and brown them in oil, with a little butter thrown in just because. Put the browned meat aside and sauté a lot of sliced onions in the same pot. Add a bouquet garni of bay leaves, thyme and parsley, then pour in a whole bottle of decent wine, preferably a Cabernet or Merlot or Bordeaux. (Gigi shunned cheap wines, believing they resulted in lousy stews and sauces. She would not, under any circumstances, have used Two Buck Chuck!) After the sauce has reduced a bit, put the meat back in the pot and cook the stew at very low temperature for about four hours. Check periodically and pour in more wine if necessary. Add sautéed mushrooms at the end, if desired, and serve over buttered egg noodles.
Gigi loved mushrooms, especially cèpes, which we know as porcini, and chanterelles. She had hunted wild mushrooms with her father as a child and was bewildered to discover that Americans didn’t know what they were. Surely they were somewhere to be found in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Later, when mushroom-hunting became popular and friends would bring them to her, she would cut them into smallish pieces and sauté them in olive oil with garlic and parsley, then serve them, sometimes as garnish, sometimes in velvety sauces, and sometimes as a filling for an omelet, eaten at lunch or dinner, never at breakfast.
Every year since Gigi died, I try to make something she loved on her birthday. In her last days, her one true love was still oysters on the half-shell. When we were kids in New Jersey, after dragging us around New York City, she would have to stop at the Oyster Bar in the Port Authority Bus Terminal and order a dozen oysters and a glass of white wine. She taught us to put only lemon juice on the oysters, and to make sure they hadn’t been washed, since that removed the taste of the sea. Before I learned to like oysters, I would watch in horror as she poked each one with a little fork to make sure it was still fresh and alive before she swallowed it.
I can’t shuck oysters no matter how hard I try. Unless my brother is with me, that dish is out of the question. But Gigi also loved scallops, and made a great Coquilles Saint-Jacques, with butter, shallots, white wine, mushrooms and a touch of cream. I think I’ll make that tonight and savor it as I drink to my beautiful mother’s memory.
Before I go shopping, though, I hear her voice in my head with another Frenchwoman’s commandment: Thou shalt never go out looking sloppy or badly dressed. It’s bad for you and even worse for those who have to look at you.
So, out of respect and the deepest love for Gigi, I am going to change out of my sweatpants, put on some lipstick, and head for the market, where I will smile and flirt with the fishmonger, just as my mother would have. Then I will make the scallops and a plain butter lettuce salad, the way she liked it, followed by a simple dessert of raspberries and Chambord with vanilla ice-cream. Before sitting down, I will toast her spirit with a fine Bordeaux while I thank her in silent prayer for being the best mother and grandmother anyone could wish for.