Photos and story by Stephanie Levin.
It’s never about food. It’s about the people who share your table, who invite you into the beautiful blessing of friendship, the profoundly social urge to share, a small mitzvah of psychological well being. I didn’t fully grasp this concept until I moved to France; and even then, my American habit of adamantly requiring advance notice in lieu of spontaneity dictated dining, causing culinary chaos in my new marriage. “It’s not about the food; it’s the company,” my husband reprimanded. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my husband greeted me at the train station in La Rochelle, all smiles, a sack of mussels and an announcement: we would be having dinner in the backyard of our friend’s home, Chez Didier, for my birthday. “C’est pas vrai!” I quipped, eyeballing the mussels.
I had studied French linguistics in Paris for most of the summer while my husband toiled away with his friend’s Francoise Glemet and Didier Poitvin on the Atlantic Coast. It was my 39th birthday, and I had dreamed of dining in a sumptuous seaside restaurant, decked out in a saucy sundress, champagne glasses clinking and après dinner sex, not a foursome cracking shells in a backyard.
“Mussels buried on a board in a backyard for my birthday,” I whined like a child. My husband assured me I would not be cooking. Well, he was absolutely correct about that. I wasn’t about to root around in a smelly, bearded-bag of mussels. Their nano anatomy reminded me of a faded Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective of female genitals, yawning. Mind you, no one from California ate mussels at this time. This was prior to California crowning itself the West Coast culinary capital. Mussels then were simply a clump of black shells clinging to pilings under a pier with a stark warning: Toxic, do not eat! A glass of champagne represented a wedding toast, and Chablis and Chianti were the sole wine choices on a menu.
I harrumphed and whined until we arrived at Francoise and Didier’s doorstep on rue Amboise. Both greeted me with the traditional two kisses on each cheek and excitement about my birthday dinner; Didier’s recipe moule au fou, Eclade, a specialty of the Charente region, which I translated as barbecued mussels.
“Oh, sounds divine,” I lied as we headed for the backyard. A chilled bottle of champagne was uncorked and served; we waxed in French about my amazing linguistic articulation after a summer of classes, the ability to pucker my lips and cull the infamous French r from the back of my throat, a feat that took months to conquer, and how I would no longer embarrass myself by confusing cou, neck, coeur, heart or cul, ass, an unfortunate linguistic mishap, of which I recounted as I recalled my chicken conundrum in Paris. “Monsieur,” I had requested in my best French. “C’est possible de enleve le cul de le poulet?” The butcher replied with a negative nod as only a French butcher could, “pas possible madame; le cou oui, mas pas le cul.”
We laughed; I settled down, recalibrated my attitude, and sat mesmerized as Didier crafted 100 spanking clean hairless mussels, each positioned vertically, pointy tails down, round mouths skyward, the entire mastery culminating into a circular labyrinth of bivale molluscs onto a flat wooden board. Jacques Pepin couldn’t have come up with such a perfectly planned concoction.
Someone uncorked another bottle of champagne while we spectators sipped and watched Didier dig a shallow hole in the yard before he gently placing the board bearing the moule into the hole. Next he blanketed his masterpiece with piles of fragrant pine needles. We all stepped back, admiring Didier’s work before he set it ablaze. An hour of preparation ablaze in an instant…
À la table in 10 minutes, declared Didier. À la table was a blanket plunked on the ground. Francoise whipped out four dishtowels, our bibs, followed by baguettes and juicy plump tomatoes to spread on the baguettes, apparently another Charente custom. Lounging like royalty, giddy from the champagne, the heady smell of burning pine needles, the afternoon sun sinking, four of us in a circle, laughing like loons, dining al fresco on the grass, devouring moule with our fingers, slurping the juice, tossing the charred shells into a glass bowl, and Didier’s supreme joy of sharing a sacred recipe from his family. The moon rose and sailed past; stars announced their entrance; we sipped more champagne, bibs around our necks flecked with crust and tomatoes, friendship sealed forever. This was the first of many birthdays celebrated in La Rochelle, but none as memorable as my 39th birthday.
I am no longer married, and I no longer live in France, but every summer I go back to France. Francoise and Didier have long since moved 30-minutes out of La Rochelle into the countryside with a big backyard. They always drive to the train station to retrieve me as I descend the train. Our first agenda is always food. The three of us frequent the big open market in La Rochelle with our baskets, but we spend most of our time à la table in the backyard over breakfast, lunch and dinner, lingering over conversation. Their two grown sons stop in for dinner. Friends drop in for friendship and afternoon espresso. Moule à la Didier, served in various ways, is always on the menu and I always recall my husband’s admonition: It’s not about food; it’s all about who shares your table.
This element of sitting in my friend’s backyard fills me with joy; it’s amiss in my life back home. Here time stands impeccably still, where the word love need never be mentioned; it circulates around the table, embraces and acknowledges all present, it’s in the preparation of the food, the excitement of everyone eating together, the conversation, the thimble-size coffee, a nightcap under a French country sky. It’s time, the elusive time I cannot catch in California, the precious time that weaves food and friendship into a delicious bond, one that defies all explanation.
IF YOU GO: La Rochelle in the Charente region of the southwest French Atlantic coast can be enjoyed vicariously at the La Rochelle tourism site with history at Wikipedia. A recipe for moules à la charentaise can be found (in French) at 750g De la vie dans la cuisine.