Nature determines not only what the menu shall consist of in any given region, but often as well what selection will be made from the various possibilities and how they will be prepared.
- Waverly Root, The Food of France
While the rich and noble were enjoying their rarefied existence, the country people lived off what they could grow, rear or barter. Throughout the vicissitudes of French history, away from the capital city, Frenchwomen sought to feed their families, and especially their children, as best they could by relying on their own inventiveness....
Most of these recipes therefore belong to a feminine tradition....
- Jean Ferniot, French Regional Cooking
The traditional French country kitchen was a frugal place. Nothing was wasted.
In peasant life, from time immemorial, where the means to keep body and soul together must be won from Nature through great physical effort, frugality has been a necessary way of life. A similar way of life is thrust upon others the world ‘round, not all of whom off the land or even in the country. Anyone whose livelihood is lean and uncertain had best be frugal. It occurs to me that something like what is said of greatness can also be said of frugality: some women are born frugal; others have frugality thrust upon them.
My grandmother, I think, would be proud of my ways with a chicken.
A second-generation American, my maternal grandmother came from mixed European peasant stock and married the poor Irish immigrant to America who became my mother’s father. (Not yet a citizen, that immigrant nevertheless served in the U.S. Army in World War I.) Following the early end of that marriage (facts shrouded in mystery), my grandmother made a love match with another poor man, a Florida “cracker,” and the two of them moved around the country from job to job, from one town to another, from coast to coast during my young mother’s toddler and little girl years until finally, when my mother was an adolescent, they settled on a small plot of land outside Springfield, Ohio.
What my grandmother called their “farmette” was certainly no more than five acres and quite possibly less. To the child I was when staying there, no doubt it seemed to me much larger than it was. They had space enough, anyway, to keep a cow for milk and to raise chickens and fruits and vegetables, the cow and hens my grandmother’s, orchards and gardens my grandfather’s domain.
Their house was modest in the extreme. Two small bedrooms (and only two, though the family produced a younger brother and sister for my mother during the Ohio years) had nothing but sheets hung in the doorways for privacy – no doors that could be closed. At the end of a long brick path through the backyard orchard -- the bricks laid out in a herringbone pattern and the path shaded by trellised grapevines in summer -- stood the wooden outhouse, a place of terror for my next-younger sister, with its spider-hung interior and outside eaves decorated with nests of wasps and hornets. While the house had no modern indoor plumbing, a hand pump raised to counter height in the house’s shedlike kitchen annex saved my grandmother the bother of going to an outdoor well for water. This, by the way, was in 1950s postwar America.
The road that led to the house was unpaved, and all the children who lived along the road, black and white, went barefoot all summer long. How many had shoes at home, I have no idea. I was happy enough to be shed of mine! Everyone had dogs and cats and gardens, however, one or two families had ponies, so how could I see the neighborhood as disadvantaged?
When my next-younger sister (she of outhouse trepidation) and I were left with my grandparents for an entire month one summer, I felt as if I’d gone straight to heaven. In the road and driveway, clay dust as fine and soft as talcum powder caressed my feet, and, little sensualist that I was, I squiggled it happily between my bare toes. Trees to climb and leafy branches to hide in were everywhere! My grandmother assigned me chores, but helping to feed chickens and string beans and setting the table for dinner left me plenty of hours to run joyously “wild,” alone or with the neighborhood children. Much of my time, in fact, was solitary, but never lonely, thanks to an imagination as wild as coltish legs and grasping monkey hands. Never in my life, I think, have I felt as free and as thoroughly myself as during those weeks of what many would see as rural poverty.
The land put food on my grandparents’ table directly and, through my grandmother’s sales at the city’s farm market, indirectly, augmented by my grandfather’s labors at a daytime factory job. My grandmother was a master of “slow cooking” because that is what cooking was to her. She knew better than anyone that ingredients could not simply be thrown together and heated, that they needed time to “get good.” I can close my eyes see her, standing at the stove, spoon in hand, tasting to see if her goulash was “good” yet.
As a child of six, seven, eight and nine years old, I gave little thought to frugality, but with so little money in the house and many mouths to feed, my grandmother obviously had to be frugal. When my sister and I were part of the household that summer, we also couldn’t help noticing that certain people from the neighborhood, usually single men, often dropped by just as dinner was coming to the table. My grandmother always set another place, quickly, no questions asked.
“Why would she do that?” someone who is no longer part of our family (!) once asked in offended self-righteousness as my sister and I were recalling childhood vacations in Ohio. The questioner saw in the story nothing but lazy freeloaders taking advantage of hard-working people. “Why? Because they were hungry,” my sister answered. Wasn’t it obvious? Turning someone away was not my grandmother’s way. She was frugal, not stingy.
Winter is a lean season for a bookseller in a summer resort town. When I buy a whole roasting chicken at the grocery store, I think of my grandmother culling one from her flock to bring to table, and I think she would admire my resourcefulness: stuffed roast chicken, leftover roast chicken and stuffing, chicken noodle soup, chicken sandwiches, chicken pot pie, more chicken pot pie, and the last of the chicken soup. That’s a week’s worth of meals from one bird. (There was gravy, too.) The pie takes the most time to prepare but is also one of the heartiest meals of a chicken week, with whole wheat crust and generous filling of cubed chicken, onion, mushrooms, green peas, sliced carrots, and cubed sweet potato in a Béchamel sauce. And it smells so good coming from the oven!
Cooking in Paris apartments is not always what it used to be. There are stores now, right in Paris, that stock nothing but frozen foods, including entrees and desserts. Do such stores exist in the provinces, too? I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve known one or two French refrigerators that held yogurt in multiple, very tiny individual-sized containers, rather than one large one. As for making yogurt? Well, I did that a few years ago (in Aripeka, FL, and posted on Books in Northport, but do you think I can find the post?), and maybe should take it up again this winter. I still have the little yogurt maker, and just thinking about it I’m feeling inspired. The point I started out toward, however, is that making their own yogurt isn’t something many household cooks are doing these days, either in Paris or in the French countryside. In that way, as in so many others, my “Paris kitchen” is not all that French.
Well, I have made a ‘mishmosh’ of this post, as M.F.K. Fisher wrote often in letters to friends – my Paris kitchen, Parisian and French provincial cooking, my grandmothers’ country life and ways, my own winter meals. But I did have a theme: FRUGALITY! So in closing let me say that pinching pennies need not be a “dismal science” but can be an inspiring and enjoyable challenge to the cook, whatever the size of her kitchen.
[Note: In the final sentence above, please note I am using the generic ‘her’ to indicate her or him.]