Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Couscous Encore: Why Don't We Trust Our Senses?

My cousin sent me this story.  A few nights ago, at Eliot Feld's "Mandance," she "got talking to an older Jewish woman," who said she had grown up on 'her mother's cooking--spaghetti with ketchup.'  One day she was invited to have supper with the girl across the street. She watched Mrs. Russo carefully stirring the pot of tomato sauce and was fascinated.  When she went home, she told her mother how Mrs. Russo made the sauce. Her mother said, 'She doesn't know what she's doing.'"  My cousin added, in parenthesis, "And that's how mothers survive."  I would add, That's how mothers exert their authority.  Now that she could compare her mother's pasta slathered with ketchup to Mrs. Russo's dish, how long did it take the girl to realize she had been eating slop?   Not long, I hope.  

Why don't we trust the evidence of our senses?  Because we don't know any better?  The members of my painting class in Provence knew better.  We had eaten wonderful food but were fooled at the Chateau d' Arnajon.  Our teacher had arranged for us to paint on the grounds of the Chateau and then to have lunch prepared by the owners, one of whom was the seventh generation of his family to live in the Chateau.  He and his partner ran a cooking school; we looked forward to the food and paid sixty dollars each for lunch described as "gourment."   After working outside all morning on the fabulous grounds among the red poppies, clipped boxwood, and beautiful vistas, we were seated in the dining room, which was painted in rich umbers and yellows, and filled with extraordinary pottery.  We were charmed.

There were bottles of wine on the long table.  We drank.  Our host entered, carrying a large pan, which he lifted high, announcing: 'Fish from our waters.'  We ate; some said it was delicious, this dish of fish, couscous, and black olives.  I said the olives were good.  Next came a dish of fowl with couscous--the bird was not identified--in saffron sauce.  The sauce was the color of dark chocolate; there was too much saffron.  We went on praising the food.  Not John. He abruptly got out of his seat and walked out; I followed him.  'The food doesn't sit right with me,' he said.  I went back in .  We were all still under the spell.  'Look at this,' one person cooed as she discovered yet another marvelous piece of pottery.  Drunk as I was I still could not finish the stringy, overcooked fowl tasting of iodine.  There was no salad, not one vegetable.  the dessert was a bakery-bought apple tart, stale, tasteless, flabby--an insult.  The Yiddish word "kvachik" best describes it.  As for the rest of the food: leftovers!  The fish was old flaked cod. As bad as spaghetti with ketchup.  

Someone asked for milk with the coffee.  Our host served us a jug of disgusting sour milk, the kind that forces you recoil from the odor.  We woke from the spell.  'I saw him'--he of the seventh generation--'drive off while we were painting and come back with bakery boxes,' someone said.  John had been faster than any of us.  Sure he liked pottery but not enough to make him swoon, not enough to kill his palate, not enough to turn him into a fool.  'They  made approximately two thousand dollars serving us stale leftovers, sized us up as American saps, and stuffed us with couscous,' John said.  That night one of our group became ill.  'Does couscous swell up in your stomach?' she asked.

After the meal, the wine having wore off, I walked into the Chateau's garden.  The raspberries were ripe.  I ate them by the handful.  I stole them.  They were wonderful.            


  1. Hi Miriam, I was the one swooning over the pottery, haha!

    I agree, it was not what we were expecting from a gourmet cooking school! I did love the setting though. I suppose $40 of the $60 we can consider an entrance fee for the grounds?

    I just pulled those pictures out the other day. You have inspired me to add the photo of the pottery in that dining room (barn?) up as my screen saver! I can’t believe it was nearly two years ago. Thanks for the refreshing memory!


  2. Yes: it was worth it. Rascals are interesting, and our hosts were rascals. The pottery was super! Those glazes. I remember the glossy dark greens. Good to hear from you!