Friday, March 13, 2009

Dinner with the Beekeeper's Wife


March 2000. The "French Engagement Tour," I'll call it: Paris, Toulouse, Carcassonne. I had been to France with my husband-to-be about a year an a half prior, but at that time I was the "petite amie," and this was different; this time, I was the "fiancée," and the circle of people I needed to meet had grown considerably. On the flight across the Atlantic, and again the night before our official engagement party in my mother-in-law's home, I was briefed on the various branches of the family—the bevy of tantes, flocks of cousin(e)s, the assorted copains/copines. I have great memories of the engagement party and other festivities, introductions, moments of agitation and repose, and I may well post about some of these, but for some reason what stands out from this trip at the moment is one of the more casual evenings, a quieter one toward the end of our journey. My mother-in-law had invited some friends over (two couples of her age), and she had prepared a "simple" meal for us. I remember what was served as though it were just yesterday and not a full nine years ago. She presented a made-from-scratch rectangular pizza with all fresh ingredients; the topping was less cheesy than what we'd make in the States (this seems a paradox given the staggering production and consumption of cheese in France), but it was deliciously rich with tomato, sautéed onion, and herbs. There was also a "salade composée" that featured foie gras. (I was by this point in the vacation feeling like a force-fed goose myself and would have been happy to not see any more goose liver in any form!). Additionally, we indulged in a side of traditional aligot, a cheese and potato purée that was perfect for those last chilly days before spring's true advent. For dessert, a version of a Gâteau Basque without cherries, which has quickly become one of my favorite desserts of hers, because of its almond and Izarra filling. (I have a friend who might interrupt here to point out that even in matters culinary, I tend toward the insurgent; my favorite cheese, a slightly nutty-tasting sheep's milk cheese, is also from the Basque region, and has therefore been dubbed "rebel cheese" by my friend, who has known me from my own rebellious teenage years and finds my food affinities amusing.) Besides the food, I remember the company—of everyone present, but especially I remember the beekeeper's wife, Madame Goodvine (a linguistic modification of her true name). I remember her in part because she has an interesting appearance: Brillo-gray hair, dense and curly and seeming to grow straight up from her scalp in defiance of gravity; petite, thin, looking somehow birdlike (or perhaps this is just a winged metaphor, migrating from my knowledge of her family's apicultural activities); thin lips, bold lipstick, broad smile; finally, eyes magnified by glasses so huge you would expect them to dwarf her features entirely, yet this effect is smartly avoided by an animated personality that easily cuts the lenses (or anything exterior to her person) down to size. Another thing I remember about her is that during this first evening we met, she told a gruesome news story about a woman who committed murder and chopped the body into pieces, hiding these in a suitcase. While she was telling the story, she'd look at me periodically, trying to gauge my level of comprehension. My French is rather good, and I must've made a squeamish face when she mentioned the suitcase, because Mme. Goodvine exclaimed at the end of her story, "Elle a compris la valise!"  ("She understood the suitcase!"), with an excited tone of delight and approval. I have seen her on several subsequent occasions—she seems to make a point of stopping by my mother-in-law's house whenever my husband and I are there visiting—and each time, I have felt a fondness for her that I cannot quite explain, because our contact has always been brief. The last time, in June 2008, she looked the same as my memory of her from eight years prior; she had the same smile, the same wild hair and glasses, the same ebullience and interest in conversation. She brought a gift for my son, which was an unexpected kindness. Also, we almost always return from France with a giant pot of honey, straight from the hives. It is sweet by nature, of course, but this particular honey is also sweet because when it's in my cupboard, it reminds me daily of an interesting, outgoing woman I'm happy to know even slightly, and who seems, for some reason, genuinely delighted to know me, too.

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