Steak au Poivre
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
When Earnest Hemingway wrote those words to a friend in 1950 he captured the sentiment shared by many of us who have been lucky enough to have lived abroad as a young person. You inhabit a foreign place for a time when you are young and sponge-like, and then, once you leave, you discover that the place now inhabits you.
I always tell people that my junior year abroad in Strasbourg, France was one of the most important years of my life. Completely untethered from family and most of my friends, I was flying solo for the first time in my life. My only connection with home was through letters and the occasional pre-arranged phone call made from the nearest post office where I would go to the counter, hand over the phone number, pay a few francs for a set number of minutes and then wait in a phone booth for the connection to be made. It took several weeks to arrange those calls via letters back and forth across the Atlantic so it wasn’t something I did frequently. The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter was elected president while I was abroad.
Back then, spending a year abroad was more uncommon than it is today. While I was certainly privileged to be spending my junior year abroad, I didn’t feel entitled. I had to live within a tiny budget, I didn’t go home for Christmas, and my room, a former maid’s room on the top floor of a small apartment building had a sink but no bathroom. The toilet was shared among three of us and was located down the hall. I went to a public bath once per week for a good washing up and otherwise took sponge baths in my sink. The nearest laundromat was a bus ride away. I felt I was enormously lucky.
A Francophile since early childhood, I had been determined to go abroad since high school. By the time I went to France I had declared French as a major and had spent the entire prior year attending a class designed to prepare us for the experience. I credit my father with giving me the confidence to make such a leap of faith. I think he somehow knew that the adventure would help shape my life in ways that would only become apparent years later.
When I boarded the plane from Chicago’s O’Hare airport with one of my fellow classmates in the program I was filled with both excitement and fear as we took off. I wouldn’t see my family again for ten months. I had never been to a foreign country, let alone taken a plane across the ocean.
My first indelible impression of what it was going to be like living in France occurred even before I landed in Paris. The flight from Chicago made a scheduled stop in Montreal where we picked up several more passengers. Among them were twin sisters, not much older than I was, who were—at that moment in my young life—the most glamorous looking young women I had ever seen. Tall and thin with jet black straight hair and bangs, they could have been body doubles for Cher. If this is what women look like in Montreal, I thought, what must they look like in Paris?
I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They seemed so exotic to my Mid-Western sensibilities with their make-up and clothes looking like they just stepped out of the latest issue of Vogue—I was sure everything I had packed was going to be all wrong.
As we neared Charles de Gaulle airport the next morning, they each stepped into the lavatory to freshen up and came out in full make-up looking as fresh and well-rested as the moment they had boarded the plane the night before. How did they manage it, I wondered?
I have never forgotten them. To this day, I think of them when I am landing after an overnight flight sporting bed head, smudged mascara, a greasy face and a muddy mouth. While they may well have been Canadian, they represented that je ne sais quoi quality of French women that continues to elude me.
My second enduring memory of my first days in France was equally discomfiting in a different way. It had to do with dog poop—you know, the kind that frequently dots the sidewalks in France that the French seem to sidestep without missing a beat but which can easily land on the soles of unaware foreigners (particularly awe-struck, giddy American students). You know where this is going.
I was assigned a room in the aforementioned small apartment building along with a classmate in the same year abroad program from my university back home. On our way home the first day one of us stepped in said dog poop and tracked some up the stairs to our mean little rooms on the top floor. Within minutes, our landlady, Madame Wiedemann—a stout Alsatian woman with bottled red hair in her early seventies—came huffing and puffing up the stairs to sternly lecture us about tracking dog poop on her newly washed stairs. I felt every inch the foreigner who is singled out for not understanding the customs.
Many of my first impressions of France have stayed with me always. Like a first kiss, they are full of intensity and emotion and are different from experiences that come later. When I returned to Strasbourg decades later to show my husband where I had spent my seminal year I was struck by how few memories I had of a large swath of my day-to-day life. When we went to Petite France (the medieval section of the city a bit further from the area around the university where I lived) I couldn’t conjure up a single memory of my time spent there and yet I’m sure I went there often.
Yet, like so many before me, the food of France has never left me. I fell for it hard. She had me at my first sip of café au lait at some touristy spot on the Champs Elysée my first morning in Paris. Her grasp on me tightened from there.
While my fellow students were loading up on pastries I was frequenting the cheese shops. There was one in my neighborhood I used to drop into almost daily for a hunk of this or that to go with some crusty bread that would serve as my dinner at night. I often bought a little slice of pâté or some ham to go along with it.
Comte, Appenzeller, Gruyère, Brie, Morbier and many, many more. I tried them all. The thrill of discovering the world of French cheeses was worth the price of a scolding by Madame Wiedemann at the amount of bread crumbs that inevitably lay scattered on the floor of my room.
Then there were the dishes I ate like poulet rôti, omelets, steak frîtes, an unforgettable Boeuf Bourguignon I ordered at a little restaurant in Chartres, and Alsatian specialties like Tarte Flambée and Choucroute Garni. The memories of those meals were the most treasured souvenirs I carried home with me. (To say nothing of the aforementioned cheeses and pâtés.)
The Christmas after I returned from France I wanted to recreate a little bit of my French culinary experiences with my family. I picked up my mother’s copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—to this day my touchstone for French cooking—and began to scour its contents for ideas for a Christmas Eve dinner.
I settled on Steak au Poivre—an odd choice perhaps for a dinner for five but I recalled a memorable meal of steak au poivre I had eaten in Bordeaux along with a bottle of Saint Emillon (or maybe it was just a glass—I wasn’t yet the wine drinker I am now).
To accompany the steak, I chose Pommes de Terre Sautées and for my green vegetable—which came out of Mastering Volume II—Courgettes Rapées, Sautées.
My family was anticipating the meal as much as I was. No one thought I wasn’t capable of pulling it off—something that amazes me now given that I had never cooked a single meal for my family, let alone a French meal. That’s love.
I read and re-read the recipes until I had practically memorized them. When it came time to cook the meal, I kept the cookbooks—which still bear the splatter marks of that long ago meal—close at hand and followed the instructions to the letter. Everything came out perfectly. (Such is the genius of Julia Child.)
That Christmas Eve meal has gone down in family lore. It was one of my proudest moments. And, like my year abroad, it will always be with me, wherever I go.