Friday, June 12, 2009

Chez Ed

C's colleagues are coming tomorrow for a farewell picnic supper. This morning I went to buy the groceries. Violette is doing the cooking for us: she'll make roast chickens and lasagna, and the équipe will bring salads, quiches, desserts, and so forth. We're expecting in the neighborhood of three dozen men, women, and children of various nationalities. Our oven attends family reunions every other year with its Easy-Bake cousins, and the ovens all sit around and tell stories to each other about all the full-size casserole dishes that they rejected. To put it another way, our oven, he is small.

To put it still another way, the idea of cooking for several dozen people of assorted dietary regimes made my eyes cross. It was only when I remembered that Violette sometimes cooks for Jules and Madame that this picnic supper became more than a twinkle in C's eye. I inquired; she consented. She stopped by and made me a grocery list. We agreed that I would buy the groceries and she would cook them. Then C sent out his invitations.

And so this morning found me at Ed. It's the discount chain of Carrefour, which is one of France's largest grocery store chains. A word about French supermarkets: while they are absolutely the place you want to be if you're doing any French cooking (E. LeClerc, our local hypermarché, has four aisles devoted to fresh dairy products, everything from butter to fresh mozzarella to aged chêvre to chocolat pots de crême), they are pretty bare bones affairs to an American eye. There is no track lighting. The floors are linoleum. There is often a smell that combines overripe Camembert, fish, and the wine that spilled last Tuesday. And maybe today's paella.

And that's in the non-discount stores. So you can imagine, perhaps, what Ed is like. The aisles are close together--a chariot and a half wide, so you can practice your manners while you make your way--and they don't seem to have a lot of help shelving. To wit, flats of sugar or coffee or canned cassoulet sit in the middle of the aisle. In the produce section, fruits and vegetables are heaped on the counters, at the end of the counters, and in boxes under the counters.

Then there's the boucherie. Madame told me the first time we ate dinner together--when she was giving me her tips about the area--that Ed was the place to buy meat, and I've heard it often since. I dutifully went after Madame recommended it. We had pasta and vegetables for supper that night. The butcher counter at Ed leaves nothing to the imagination. Sheep brains. Tête de veau. Racks of pork ribs. Whole rabbits, their forearms raised in surrender. Quail wrapped in bacon, with their heads still on. Slabs of beef. And a half dozen butchers in white coats and hats and aprons, taking orders, wielding knives, weighing and wrapping and bantering non-stop.

It was all a bit much.

But Violette told me that I should go to Ed for the meat, and since I knew she was going to see the wrappings on the meat and thus know where I had bought it, and since I am a coward at heart, and didn't want her to scold me for not having done as I was told, this morning found me at Ed. Before I go on, let me tell you how to pronounce Ed à la française. It's not Ed, like your uncle. It's euh-day. Euh-day. In my hometown, the neighborhood where the tobacco barons had built their homes in the 1920s was called Buena Vista. We said byoona-vista. Some people took Spanish in high school, and some transplanted Yankees, got all high and mighty and used the proper Spanish pronunciation, but usually they had to say it a few times before anybody knew what they were talking about. Byoona-vista. Euh-day.

Apparently everyone in the region is having their colleagues over tomorrow for a picnic supper, because they had all gone to Ed to shop this morning. The chariots at Ed are the size of a small Citroën (the better to buy more low cost food), and I took nearly the last one. I made my way through the produce section without international incident (though there were some close calls) and lined up at the meat counter. No numbers to take; the group simply decided whose turn it was next. When one of the half dozen butchers asked someone for her order, she looked around at her neighbors and, if no one seemed at the point of objecting, she went ahead. I waited a few minutes--long enough to see that the poulets fermiers were still sporting their feet and heads--and then it was my turn. I looked to the woman in front of me; she nodded. I looked to the woman in back; she nodded.

5 poulets, s'il vous plaît, et 3 kilos de viande hâché. We're expecting a lot of people, and leftovers would suit as well.

Madame la bouchère sent me to wait at the end of the counter while the poulet man took away the more vivid parts of the chickens and she herself ground the meat. I watched them both, and the line, and then, since taking off all those heads and feet takes a little while, I fell to perusing the contents of the counter in front of me. I had fetched up in front of the pork and, beside it, the charcuterie, the cold cuts, preserved meats, pâtés and so forth. There was a stack of pork roasts, ribs, loins, chops--everything pork. (And a sign from the French pork council explaining that swine flu had nothing whatsoever to do with pigs.) In the charcuterie case, there were a couple of varieties of head cheese, one with parsley, the other with asparagus and olives. Some squid in vinaigrette. Pâtés in ceramic boats trimmed in blue--the boats, in fact, are for sale, 8 euros; I mused on that for quite a while--and rillettes de porc.

It was somewhere between the pâté and the pork chops that it happened. I began to feel hungry. It was coming on to noon, and I'd been doing some heavy shopping--I'd been to another store, and wrestled with another chariot, before Euh-day--but there, in front of the butcher counter, I got hungry.

I don't know of a better marker for adjustment. I don't cook meat as a rule--chicken, yes, fish, sometimes, pork tenderloin, now and then--because I've always been too squeamish. Blood. Tendons. Death. You know. Start down that road, and well before dinner you're already on to global warming and planetary catastrophe. Although our house has been the family gathering place for Thanksgiving for years, I have almost never been able to cope with the turkey myself: a little too much nature, thanks very much; I'll work on the sweet potatoes. And yet there I was, this morning, wondering idly if the head cheese was good with asparagus.

Not that I bought any. But I did think about it.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post, ma chère!

    Have a wonderful company going-away party!