The Provocation of a Good Meal
- Literature

The Provocation of a Good Meal

© Jiri Hera / Adobe Stock.

As the year 2011 drew to a close, while I was still teaching in New York, Mary Ann Caws asked me for four recipes, two cocktails without alcohol, and two desserts. Mary Ann Caws, a professor of French literature and modern art at the City University’s Graduate Center, is one of the most extraordinary women I have met. She is a brilliant speaker and can talk engagingly on André Breton, Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Robert Desnos, and René Char. She uses the same talent to write about the novels of Virginia Woolf, literary manifestos, and Provençal cuisine. This time she was compiling a book of painters’ and writers’ recipes for an English publisher under the title Modern Art Cookbook. My first reaction was, Why me? She merely replied: “Because your cooking is one of the best I have ever tasted.” I was flattered to no end. But as days went by I felt sad that such a book was going to be published in America and England. Couldn’t we imagine a similar publication in France?

I became so obsessed with the idea that once back in Paris, I discussed it with Otis Lebert, the owner of the restaurant Le Taxi Jaune, which sits opposite my apartment in the Marais district. By dint of comparing recipes, we had become friends. On my initiative, we decided to write a book of recipes together. After a series of long and heated discussions, we invited Laurent Laffont, my editor, for lunch in order to inform him of our project. I was convinced I could easily win his approval since our friendship dated back to the time when I published my first novels with Robert Laffont, his father. He had welcomed me with open arms when I indicated I would like to be on the authors list of the publishing house he had just taken over with his sister. To my great surprise, Laurent gave a categorical refusal to the recipe book. Not only did he have no interest in the project but mainly, according to him, cookbooks belonged to a specialized field of publishing and distribution. He was so adamant that there was no point insisting. Although Otis accepted the decision somewhat indifferently, I myself was so disappointed that it forced me to think about the meaningful role cooking had played throughout my life. Together with literature it had been my dominant passion for years.

Of course both passions are not fully comparable. Cooking goes back to man’s animal origins, and there’s no use elaborating complicated recipes in order to mask this truth. Preparing food does not fall within the domain of the so-called noble occupations such as mixing colors for a painting or devising rhymes. But very quickly, however, I realized that despite their differences, both passions could not be radically dissociated. They discreetly share common ground. My taste for cooking therefore was mainly inspired by my desire not to conform to the picture of the perfect little girl, so dear to my parents, especially my mother. Instead of massacring “Für Elise” in front of an audience of friends as they feigned admiration, I preferred the realm of the kitchen. It was the same inclination to displease that accompanied my first attempts at writing. My book Victoire, My Mother’s Mother—which is intended to rehabilitate my grandmother, who was a cook for a family of white Creoles—includes a great deal of provocation, a dominant feature of my personality. As a rule, people are said to be proud to count as an ancestor a poet, a philosopher, a historian whose lost notes they found in a trunk in the attic, or else a brave soldier who died for their homeland. To claim as one’s own a dèyè chez, a servant who never knew how to speak French, smacks of heresy.

Let us delve deeper. I remember how surprised my guests looked as they licked their lips after having savored a capon stuffed with candied fruit or a butterflied sea bass garnished with a pea puree. To be considered an excellent cook also helped me change my image as the feminist, militant intellectual I was too often stuck with.

One summer I taught a course at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, the ultimate in scholarship, where professors of outstanding merit compete with one another for an invitation. While lunching in the dining room, a young African girl dressed in white overalls flung her arms around my neck and reminded me that I used to know her when she was a child. She was the daughter of two friends in Dakar. Her mother and father ranked among Senegal’s most prominent intellectuals, well-known opponents of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s government.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I asked her once the effusion had been vented.

“I’m a student at the school for hotel management,” she explained proudly. “It’s one of the best in the States, you know.”

I did know, in fact. My parents would certainly never have let me go in that direction. But what about me? Would I have let my daughters become chefs and not lawyers and economists? On a more personal level, Richard, my husband, is my translator. As a result he examines my books with a critical eye and assails me with questions to clarify his work. His finicky interrogations never stop. As for my talent as a cook, it’s a very different story. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, goes the proverb. Although there is certainly more at stake between Richard and me than the mere matter of a stomach, it is nevertheless true that a meal together is a moment for relaxing and communicating. When he, educated in the English manner and sparing of compliments, tastes one of my dishes and congratulates me, I am filled with plenitude. I get the same feeling when my children seated around me at table do justice to my cooking.

“You know full well,” Sylvie, one of my daughters, said recently. “When we come for dinner, we eat everything in sight.”

“We gobble everything up,” Aïcha, another of my daughters, grins, harking back to her childhood vocabulary.

All things considered this feeling of satisfaction after having sated those we love is somewhat banal. After all, woman nurtures.

There is, however, one last consideration I must address with a certain caution as it is perhaps deeper than the others. Does cooking even the score with writing? For me who has such difficulty fitting into Guadeloupean, African, and finally African-American literature, I who have known so many refusals and exclusions, isn’t cooking an easier way to whet the appetite?

When I welcome my guests for the first time around the table laid with considerable effect with the Chinese Rose Spode dinner service inherited from Marjorie, my mother-in-law, I inevitably venture the same joke: “I know you’ll love it! I’m not sure I’m a good novelist, but I’m convinced I’m a great cook!” Nobody laughs. Not one. It’s because deep down my guests are shocked. What sacrilege! they think. How can she be so bold as to compare cooking with literature? It boils down to mixing sheep with goats, jute with silk.

My enduring crime of treason is the subject of this book.

—Translated from the French by Richard Philcox

 

Maryse Condé is one of the French Caribbean’s most beloved voices. Her many novels and plays published in English include Heremakhonon; Segu; I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem; Crossing the Mangrove; Windward Heights; and Victoire, My Mother’s Mother. She is professor emerita at Columbia University and divides her time between Paris and Gordes in the South of France.

Richard Philcox is Maryse Condé’s husband and translator. He has also published new translations of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks.

From Of Morsels and Marvels, by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Seagull Books. Distributed by University of Chicago Press. First published in English translation by Seagull Books, © 2019.

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