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Taking Pride in Poor Food

Writer John Baxter had tried to distance himself from his impecunious childhood. Then a few memorable meals reminded him that “poor food” shouldn’t be an apology, but a boast.

Forty years ago, the Greek Island of Hydra was just a backwater at the end of a four-hour boat ride from Athens. The little restaurant where I went looking for lunch wasn’t the most appealing or neatest, just the only one open after the departure of the ferry. How was I—a young Australian, visiting Europe for the first time—to know that the moment the tourists disappeared, so would all the cafés and bars, as the locals closed up shop and went home to eat or sleep?

Back then, Greek restaurants still honored the tradition of “the look”—a visit to the kitchen to check what was on offer. But in this case the cook, a gaunt woman in an apron with enough stains to feed a family for a week, appeared diffident, particularly when I showed interest in a vegetable stew at the back of the stove.

Tugging my sleeve, she drew me to the back door. Just outside, a scrawny sheep revolved on a spit over hot coals.

Lamb,” she said encouragingly. “Is good.”

I shook my head and pointed to the stew: “This.”

“No, no. Zis...zis is...” She groped for the words. “Poor food.”

She didn’t mean it was bad, but rather that it was what the impecunious locals ate. Unlike tourists, they couldn’t afford to dine on lamb every day.

Grudgingly, she served me a plate of what I had come to know as briam—which Greeks also call simply tourlou, meaning “mixed”—zucchini, eggplant, onions, potatoes and tomatoes, all richly oiled, herbed and garlicked, then baked with a little water. With a basket of fresh pita to mop up the sauce and a carafe of the local red Demestica wine, I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. My enthusiasm must have won her over, since she next plonked down a battered pot of metrios—fragrant, semisweet coffee—and homemade baklava oozing honey. She waved away my payment. Briefly, I had become one of them, the eaters of “poor food.”

This was the culinary world in which I had been raised in rural Australia. For people like my parents, who had endured the Great Depression and World War II, meat was a luxury reserved for Sundays, when a chicken or a leg of lamb provided the week’s biggest meal. The French movie star Jean Gabin, who began his career in 1930, was once asked why he became an actor. “So I could eat meat every day,” he reportedly answered. Meat every day? To most people of his generation—and that included my parents—this was inconceivable, even a little obscene.

My family lived at the edge of town in a clapboard bungalow roofed in corrugated iron. On the acre of ground behind the house, we harvested tomatoes and lettuce in summer, carrots and potatoes in winter. A dozen fruit trees, ancient and gnarled, provided tart apples for pies and bitter, thick-skinned oranges for marmalade. Our kitchen stove burned wood or, if we were lucky, coal, which my young brother and I scavenged from the railway embankment at the foot of our street. There was no trendy adherence to an eat-local ethos in our reliance on homegrown produce; it was simply how we survived.

Once I settled in the United States during the 1970s, the concept of “poor food” became increasingly remote. I never expected to see it in Georgetown, the most elegant neighborhood of Washington, DC, and least of all in the home of a former government official.

My girlfriend was good friends with the daughter of the official, who had lost his job due to a change of administration. The family had not sold its silver and porcelain, but my girlfriend confided in me that times were so hard that our hosts were surviving on food stamps. Nothing, however, would force them to lower their standards, and they graciously invited us over to Christmas dinner.

Only someone like myself, raised in similarly frugal circumstances, would have noticed the stratagems that our hostess used to create a delicious and—superficially, at least—lavish meal. At the table, she poured wine from a decanter into Baccarat crystal; I immediately recognized it as Gallo’s supermarket red. For an aspic starter, she served stewed pork cheeks suspended in gelatin. Our host carved the rolled, stuffed lamb shoulder with such ceremony that one almost didn’t notice how thin the slices were, or how liberally he piled each plate with cheaper side dishes: baked potatoes, canned-tomato casserole topped with cheese and bread crumbs, creamed-corn pudding and “mock oyster,” that American classic in which vegetables baked with eggs and Ritz crackers miraculously assume the flavor and texture of an oyster casserole.

Watching the hosts serve coffee and dessert, stinting at nothing, I thought again of the Hydra cook. Why should we be ashamed of using modest resources with intelligence and creativity? “Poor food” shouldn’t be an apology, but a boast.

And then I moved to Paris. My new French wife had always worked, ever since graduating from college, and she never learned to cook. She loved to eat, however, particularly the dishes of her childhood as the family’s housekeeper had prepared them.

Pot-au-feu,” she rhapsodized. “Gratin d’endives. Hachis parmentier. Blanquette de veau...”

Pot-au-feu? But that was just cheap cuts of beef simmered with potatoes, leeks and turnips. Hachis parmentier was the equivalent of that old meat-stretching standby, shepherd’s pie—minced leftover lamb baked under a layer of mashed potatoes. For blanquette de veau, the cook stewed tougher cuts of veal, then cloaked them in stock thickened with egg yolk and cream. As for endives, few vegetables were cheaper, even if you rolled each one in ham and baked them in a béchamel sauce.

Poor food!

Not to the French, however. To transform pig’s blood into boudin noir, duck livers into pâté and baked snails into a national icon wasn’t economy but art.

There was, I decided, nothing the French could not make delicious. Well, almost nothing.

On my first visit to a Parisian market, my guide was my wife’s friend Clare, who prided herself on her English but, like many French people, struggled with the letter H. Deciding that if you used it often enough, you were bound to be right sometimes, she scattered Hs into conversation indiscriminately.

That day, a charcutier was handing out samples from a large sausage. “His andouillette,” Clare explained in her fractured English, “his very good ’ere.”

Most sausages are a jumble of chopped meat and fat, tinted a meaty pink, but this one was gray and seemed to have been assembled in concentric circles. A slice looked like a section cut through a tree.

“What’s it made of?”

Les tripes.”

Tripe, I knew, meant intestines. I nibbled. It tasted a little...well, musty. And with a curious aftertaste.

“’E say,” explained Clare, “zat zis is the real andouillette, à l’ancienne. Made zer old way. ’E use zer...comment on dit...zer trou du cul.”

I looked blank.

“What is zis?” She rummaged through her vocabulary. “Ah yes. Hi ham remembering. Trou du cul. Zer hasshole!”

I’ve never eaten andouillette since. Some food is too poor, even for me. •

John Baxter is the author of 36 books, including We’ll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light and Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas. He lives in Paris.

Published February 2009
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