Food is universal. And whether in Beijing or in Paris, food writer and book author Ann Mah shows us that food can forge connections and food can be a lifeline.
Ann’s debut novel Kitchen Chinese was loosely based on her time in Beijing. Now, her new memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love From a Year in Paris (Pamela Dorman Books, September 2013) reflects her experiences living in the city of her (and many a Francophile’s) dreams, Paris.
The wife of a U.S. diplomat, Ann’s dream comes true when her husband lands a plum posting in Paris. Unfortunately, her dream is put on hold when her husband is sent to Iraq for a year and she has to fend for herself in a new country with nary a support system in place.
Living in a foreign country is never easy. When Ann lived in China, she found herself under scrutiny because she looked like everyone else but she identified with being American. In France, she grapples with the language, deals with the awkwardness of adapting to local customs, faces the challenge of meeting new people, and above all she nurses her longing for her husband.
Not one to wallow in her loneliness (at least not for too long!), Ann devises a plan to distract herself and so begins her investigation into the history and origins behind French favorites like steak frites, cassoulet and boeuf Bourgignon. Through her travels to regions all over the country–Brittany, Alsace, Savoie, etc.–Ann slowly overcomes these hurdles as she meets fascinating people and learns to make herself at home in her adopted country.
Just like its title, Ann’s book is chock full of lessons about food and love. Plus, the stories she regales us with—whether she’s making soupe au pistou with a group of gossipy, middle-aged women or learning the process behind the true cheese used in traditional French fondue (hint: it’s not Gruyère!)—are a delight for both the avid, and the armchair, traveler.
I’ve asked Ann to share some thoughts about her lovely book and her publisher Viking/Penguin is graciously giving away a copy. All you have to do is leave a comment about a favorite regional dish you’ve had while traveling (in another country, in another state, doesn’t matter!) and I’ll randomly pick a winner!
Pat: Your feelings of being apart from your husband really resonated with me and this beautiful book came about because of that separation. Loneliness often pushes us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise think of doing if we were in a comfortable place. Do you think it would have happened if he hadn’t gone to Iraq? If you had a choice, would you do it all over again?
Ann: This book grew out of the year I spent alone in Paris and I don’t think it would have happened if my husband hadn’t gone to Iraq. So, yes, there was a major silver lining to the experience. That being said, as much as I loved writing and researching this book, I wouldn’t choose to be separated from my husband again, especially now that we have a baby daughter.
Pat: You lived in Beijing and then in Paris. Would you say there were similarities in your experiences in the two countries although they are wildly different?
Ann: I think there were more similarities than differences — I loved exploring the regional cuisines of both places — and I noticed that both are quite fond of tripe! In both China and France, I was very grateful to be able to speak the language.
Pat: History and culture are clearly important to you as is evidenced in your book. Each dish in each chapter is painstakingly researched. How did you go about it? How did you find all your subjects to talk to and interview?
Ann: My favorite thing about traveling in France is discovering the connection between place, culture, history and food. I love the way a recipe can grow from the land and be cooked for centuries. I was able to connect with local chefs, home cooks, bean farmers (and more!) via friends and acquaintances — and also via my secret weapon, the local tourist office. French people are very proud of their region (justifiably so!) and eager to share what makes it special.
Pat: You speak Mandarin and then you picked up French quite quickly before you headed to Paris. What was it like learning a new language as an adult? Did knowing the language help with adapting to the local culture and making friends?
Ann: I always wanted to speak French so studying it was a labor of love. I think that’s half the battle in learning to speak a new language. My ability to speak French was invaluable in meeting people and discovering the local cuisine, especially in rural France where very few people speak English.
Pat: You write about all the different dishes with equal passion (even andouillette which you professed not to like). Did you have a favorite?
Ann: I love all the dishes in the book (even andouillette, which I love in theory, if not in taste). My favorite dishes in the book are the ones that were made for me by home cooks — crêpes in Brittany, soupe au Pistou in Provence, and choucroute garnie in Alsace. Granny’s version is always the best, of course!
Pat: What’s it like to be a diplomat’s wife … really?
Ann: I don’t know any other type of marriage, but I suspect being a diplomat’s wife is like being anyone’s spouse — there are ups and downs and lots of compromise. And the added bonus: lots of adventure — and an intimate familiarity with moving boxes and packing tape!
Don’t forget to leave a comment about a favorite regional dish you had while traveling for a chance to win a copy of Mastering the Art of French Eating! Last day to enter: Wednesday, November 6, 2013.
(This giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada)
Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of Ann’s book to review but I am writing about it because I truly love it!