Wild excitement! Madame Compagnone was coming to visit! To my very own house---from her tiny village in France to my old (but baby-new compared to hers) sprawling city in California. She was born the very same day and year that I was born, and she was an artist who created fabric wall hangings, just as I did! This odd bevy of coincidences made her visit all the more thrilling! Her granddaughter, Hermine, was in French school in San Francisco with my granddaughter, Natalie, and that was how this visit had come to be. Best of all, however, Madame Compagnone was French!
As for me, had I not been a Francophile since the first of the seven times that I'd seen "American in Paris"? Had I not bought Charles Aznavour records in my twenties, no matter that I didn't understand what it was exactly that he was singing about, but still feeling that great wail of irony and grief attendant to love and girlfriends and cigarettes dangling from the dapper little singer's lips? And did I not believe that being a painter in a Paris garret was the Absolute Coolest thing to be, at any age? Was my English not Frenchified? Beh-ret! I say to myself. Pah-ree! Soup-son! Pleece geef me ze sahlt! Oui!
I obsessed about the visit. (Veeseet!)
I would be cooking the lunch---the stakes were high. What would I give a French woman who was also a (and I staggered at the thought) French cook! I felt nervous and suddenly at the kindergarten level of cookery: here, Madame, have this nice rock with the side of dandelions. The mud cake is in my toy oven and will be ready later.
Everything I ate in the weeks prior to her visit was a contender, including Doritos and toast soldiers. Pasta? Non! Refried beans on cheeps? Non! She may be a vegetarian. Who knows? and I would raise my eyebrows and shrug as best I could, to look Gallic.
I went through all of my cookbooks, including Indian, Italian and Chinese, in case I were to feel especially daring. I didn’t. How about, I asked myself, a cous cous? So newly Californian. So witty, so fresh. Oui! my mind answered itself. What could be wrong with that? A simple green salade and ze cous cous. I will look up and compare all of my cous cous recipes and get the very best from each.
Eet weel be a Veek-tory!
The morning of the visit arrived. I cleaned the doorknobs and rearranged the mantelpiece. I dusted all the surfaces then went after the fine lacy webs that clung so prettily to the light fixtures. I stacked the magazines in neater piles and made a new tablecloth. I cleaned off low, imploring paw prints from the sliding glass door, made by a stray cat who wishes to be one of us. Then I went into the kitchen to prepare the food.
I washed the lettuce, made a lovely piquant dressing and cut up red onions and oranges and grapefruit. I saved the avocado for when I saw the whites of her eyes. Now for the assembly of the cous cous: tiny specialty tomatoes no bigger than marbles, roasted peppers, broiled, so as to skin them, an exercise in frustration (merde!). Sparing no effort, I rinsed the canned garbanzos then added them, along with the Greek feta, currants, toasted pine nuts, (the second batch after burning the first) sauteed onion and garlic, cucumber, the seedy part disemboweled, lemon juice, olive oil, balsamic vinegar--a tad--and kalamata olives. I forgot the parsley but it was too late to go back to the store.
Upon tasting a bit of it, it seemed, well, odd. But it was also 1:45 and they (my daughter-in-law, who spoke such beautiful French, my granddaughter, Natalie, and her wee sister, Julianna, four years younger, and the esteemed Madame Compagnone) were due at 2. Perhaps the dish was not too odd, I hoped. I kept trying it. The feta was so, uh, stinky. Steenky. Fresh as a spring flower out of the deli case, but somehow stinky beyond gourmet-acceptable. Hmm. And perhaps, ah, but no--but maybe, yes? The currants' sweetness was at war with the other flavors here? Also, there was a kind of hugeness about the amount. It was not a delicate amount; it was monumental. A modest ladling on a plate would yield only a fraction of reduction in the serving bowl.
Yet here it was, 1:45. I was quite warm by now, a little flushed with excitement. Also, a worm of dread was gnawing at my vitals, thinking about the suddenly forty pounds of cous cous that I was going to have to haul to the table. I saw myself in the mirror. My outfit was not so chic as it was a decent fit.
A feet. It feet me. That's all I ask of my clothes these days---just be there on my body, preferably with no stains.
Then she arrived. Elle est arrivee! She was human-sized and elegant and not the least bit stuck-up. Her simple jacket pinched in at her waist, showing me that she was slender, and she had arranged a silk scarf handsomely about her neck. Her hair was upswept. I had always wanted enough hair to sweep up, but I had not been fortunate in that way. I secretly busied myself with noticing everything I could with the idea of calculating my imperfections when I had time. Also sweeping into the house came Sandy, my daughter-in-law-the-translator, and ze two adorable granddaughters.
We embraced--tout!--and went queekly to la table. I sliced the final avocado and brought on ze bread and ze monstair cous cous. The cous cous that ate San Jose. A dollop here, a dollop there, ah, and there it remained, enough to feed a class reunion. Much talk ensued! Great French words flew out, hand gestures, laughter, translations! Adorableness from the grandchildren! No seconds for cous cous were requested. The green salad had played a small but honest part. The bread and cheese clearly won the day.
Madame Compagnone was engaging and had merry eyes. She was chic. Tres chic. She had ten grandchildren. Under our vibrant, smiling chatter, however, I was sad, so triste, in the cooking part of my soul. I had not measured up--it was not a Veektory. And I would be eating cous cous until the following Saturday, possibly on into next month. Would I ever be free? Mon Dieu!
After dessert, we went into the living room. I looked at the pictures she brought of her work and she regardez mine. We spoke, we exclaimed, we were translated. And then, the visit was over. Au revoir, au revoir, we cried! And their car drove away.
The cous cous stayed. On Monday night, I cooked those good designer sausages to go with the leftover cous cous. I had made a tiny dent in it on Sunday, but I had not yet gotten to the foothills. I served it to Mark with the sausages, this son of mine who is a wise and tolerant being. After awhile, I noticed no change in the heft of the cous cous mound. I raised my eyebrows, nodding at it--"no?" I said. "Ehhh", he replied, and then, he made a face.
Oh dear. I am so sorry, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and Charles Aznavour and Charles de Gaulle and Gertrude Stein. I've let you down. Quelle fromage and c'est la vie.