Throughout our childhood, my brother and I had the very sweet fortune to be shipped off every summer from Long Island, NY to our homeland in south central France. More precisely, to a tiny village of 20 souls called "La Salle Prunet," named after its sickly looking twisted plum trees which line the narrow alleys and drop rotting fruit all over car hoods. La Salle is five hours from the nearest airport, or, a nine hour grueling drive from Paris in a Renault 4, also known as a “quatrelle.”
|view from la rivière|
Grandmother, or "Mamé" at the wheel, grandfather, “Pépé,” snoring and overflowing from the headrestless front seat upholstered in a 70s brown plaid. My brother and I in the back with the dog, Chadel (old Patois name). We would leave at the crack of dawn, the car enshrouded in mist and fog, the quatrelle reeking already of old people, dog, motion sickness and the snack staple hard boiled eggs (we never, ever, ever ate at rest stops), all of which would only get worse after our departure.
Back then, and I'm talking more than 20 years ago, the highway was only built until about halfway, somewhere after Clermont-Ferrand where we had the choice to take the longer smoother route, or the shorter, but much more twisty turny way. It was my choice, and I always picked #2, and ended up vomiting somewhere along the Col de Montmirat, over a decrepit stone wall barrier deep into the valley below, with a fabulous view of Les Cevennes, its breeze blowing fresh heather into my tears.
No car radio, no air conditioning, windows that never seemed to slide open enough. The dog would bark wildly at anything resembling a cow and scratch up my legs and spray drool all over. Mamé would smile into the rearview mirror, seeing a cloud of kids and dog hair, anticipating the wonderful two months ahead: July and August full of river swimming and biking and hiking and mountains and french food and friends. This torture was so worth it. It wasn't until someone had the bright idea to drug Chadel could we actually talk to each other and get even more excited about what was to come, as angry truck drivers swerved dangerously to pass us on the mountain bends.
One year, there was a new boy in the village with a wallet chain, doc martins and dark rebel red pants. Some bad kid from the Loire whose parents shipped him to the country to mellow out for the summer. We apparently became boyfriend/girlfriend for a few days, he, like many, allured by my “foreignness.” My brother and I were known throughout the region as “les américains,” fantasy characters they only knew from TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes (Arnold et Willis). Our relationship was punctuated by a ceremony by the river where we counted down from three, breathed in and kissed. It was totally gross, horrifying even. He wanted to symbolize this union by trading something, so we could each carry an object to remind us of the other. I gave him what I had on me, my cool American watch, and he gave me his switchblade, which Mamé later found and freaked out over. The night before he was meant to leave with everyone else known as the "july kids" (you were either July or August, if you weren't lucky enough to have two full months of vacation like me), he smoothly asked for his knife back, because he would need it, and he returned my watch. And there it was, loose ends all tied up, everything as before, the bookends of each summer.
Mamé cooked whatever we wanted, which was more often the pasta mix she was making for Chadel, ground meat cooked in slabs of butter the size of a deck of cards. Upon our return to the states we would get our annual check-up and blood tests, to which our pediatrician’s eyebrows would leap above his eyeglasses and he would scold our parents: “so much cholesterol, in a child! France is not good for their hearts!” Yet, after only a few weeks good ole american sustenance, our blood returned quickly to normal.
It was when the doorbell rang in late august, around lunchtime, you knew it was the end. It was a young local girl, holding a bag of ripe green Reine Claude plums for the "fête des prunes," the annual plum tart fest held in the courtyard of the single room town hall.
Though Mamé never socialized with any of the "vieux ploucs" of the village who spent every evening on the bench near the fountain talking about the weather, tart day was an exception. We would drive to our great aunt's house to pick up this enormous pie tray. I recall it being larger than my wingspan, a low sided metal thing with crinkly sides, always sticky and dusty from last year's use, and barely fit in the trunk of the car. Our tart would not only be the biggest, but the best, and if you didn't already know that it was ours, we made that clear by adorning it with some Americana - a dollar bill or maybe a statue of liberty or a star spangled flag of dough.
Three days before the event, most of the village would gather before the communal oven. Every town has one, a little stone building with a cast iron door head-level above the ground, opening into a cavernous stone space. (Also a classic hiding spot for some to cache their cigarettes during a dog walk). The men made a huge fire inside the oven, opening the door periodically to fan out the ashes, add more wood and wipe sweat from their heads with their forearms.
On the day of the fête Mamé rolled out the dough with a mostly empty bottle of Pastis as we halved the plums. Now here came the crucial moment: anyone who makes plum tarts puts them open side facing down, so you have nice little half plum balls, which you see in every bakery and fancy restaurant around. This might look very nice, but according to Mamé the people who do this are backwards classless yokels. Because all the juice comes out of the plums and makes the dough a soggy mess! no no no. We place our plums up, like the aristocrats we are.
When ready, we paraded our tart proudly and carefully through the village on the way to the oven, handing it like a giant present to the men to cook, making sure it was placed nice and center and not relegated to the edges where it cooks unevenly.
The first year our pie was the only one with upwards facing plums. Over the sounds of the live accordion I heard people commenting on it, in their southern accents, as they held a piece above their heads, studying the crisp and sturdy and dry underside, as the other pie slices drooled through the paper plates. Over the years more and more pies would turn over their plums, I guess you can say we started a revolution.
Mamé has long since passed away, as for the the pie dish, I was told I could pry it from my cousin’s cold dead hands. When I moved to Berlin, my brother - now professional chef, whose life lessons to me comprise pickling recipes and “don’t wear make-up because it makes you look like a cheap dancer at Le Moulin Rouge” - sent me one of his characteristic French eBay gifts: a nondescript brown package from some weird address I have never heard of. It was a brown metal pie dish, with the low crinkled sides and the bottom part that comes out so it's easy to put on a plate and serve. A replica of our famous tray that actually fits in a conventional oven.
More recently, I met a charming East German man who after a few dates invited me over for dinner. He seemed to connect with my American humour and open to culinary variety. After our first kiss he pressed a little gift into my hand, a cute magnet for my fridge. He had this way of looking deep into my eyes and soul, so I wanted to impress him with dessert. Mamé was the first one to tell me that the way to man's heart is through his stomach. His kitchen being rudimentary, I brought over the pie dish along with some pastry dough I quickly kneaded after work. I sliced up some organic apples, covered them with a simple cinnamon and sugar mixture overlaid with a lattice top geometry that would make Monsieur Eiffel blush. We ended up eating the pie for breakfast (nudge nudge, wink wink) and, still dizzy from his gaze and touch, I forgot the pie dish in the sink with the dirty dishes. In the week that followed, my impulsive, impatient and self deprecating humour went horribly wrong via these newfangled electronic messages, and I seemingly convinced him I was a complete sociopath. To the point where he wouldn’t see or speak to me again, and, well, I probably seemed quite obsessed with a pie dish.
I eagerly hope to be reunited with my dish, so I can date again, bake again, especially next summer’s plum pie. And so I don’t have to tell my brother what happened to his gift and listen to his sarcastic response. While I can always laugh it off as another dating disaster that made my friends at the bar cry into their drinks, what I really long for is those simpler times, where things made sense, and were clear. Things happened for a reason, and there was always an equilibrium status you could gravitate slowly back to, like in a quatrelle. I have this magnet, whereas he has both my pie dish and some of my pride, but I'd still be up for a simple, humble trade, to return to normal, honor my heritage, plums face-up to the sky.