Today is my husband’s birthday and, as such, it will be a busy one in the kitchen. But I have all of my grocery shopping done, which is always such a cozy feeling, and now it’s just me, a humming oven and my cookbook.
This year, I’ve decided to up the ante on the birthday meal by using a French cookbook. And by French, I mean cuisine style as well as the language in which it’s written. We picked it up at our favorite restaurant in Montreal, Leméac, but so far it’s remained closed.
French and I have a complicated relationship. We spoke English at home, but I was in French immersion from kindergarten through high school, meaning I had every class in French except for, of course, English. The teachers were very strict about it too, with points deducted if we were heard speaking to our friends in English or if we had to revert to English while speaking to the teacher.
This worked well for some. I have several friends who are fluent in French and have jobs that require them to be bilingual. My sociable little brother Matthew, for example, did quite well with it too (he can fake it by adding a lot of fillers like “ouais,” “ça fait que,” “awww ben” in between his sentences). But my tendency toward shyness meant I wanted to sound as incompetent as little as I could so I either kept my mouth shut or risked getting points deducted.
As a result, I understand French very well, especially if it’s French-Canadian French. In fact, many math- and science-related words I think of exclusively in French. When I see a test tube, for example, I always think of it as an “éprouvette.” Or when I see a2 + b2 = c2, which admittedly isn’t very often, I think of the Théorème de Pythagore.
But it didn’t end up in me actually being able to converse easily in French, mostly because I didn’t practice enough. Plus, the French are very discriminating (surprised?) in what constitutes “a nice French,” and my accent is ugly and boorish. When I’m in Montreal, even when I feel brave enough to put my French out there, people almost always respond to me in English, immediately detecting that language on my tongue.
So in short, when I think of dealing with French in any form, it just seems like a hell of a lot of work, both mentally but also psychologically as I have to face my fear of sounding like a dolt.
However. This cookbook. I’ve eaten several of the dishes at the restaurant and pine for them if we’re away from the city for a long period of time. Here was a way I could bring Montreal here and, better yet, Montreal to William on his very birthday. Now, to just understand it.
Since Sunday, I’ve spent several hours looking up word translations. I don’t feel too badly over how frequently I have to refer to Google because even when I read an English menu, there are often words I don’t recognize. But couple that with French cooking expressions, and you’ve got yourself a project.
For example, I kept running into “2 c. à soupe de crème” or “1 c. à soupe de beurre.” Surely they didn’t want me to add cream soup to the recipe. Did they? Was there a place for Campbell’s cream of celery at Leméac? Finally, I discovered, the “c” is short for cuillère, which means spoon, so c. à soupe actually means soup spoon, or tablespoon. Teaspoon is c. à café. Neat, right?
I also had fun with the word “gousse,” which can mean clove if you’re talking about garlic, but means a pod when you’re referring to vanilla.
But the most interesting thing is that the language of cooking itself is proving to be universal. I know what the cookbook means sometimes simply because I can anticipate what will need to be done with which ingredient. And that is removing a lot of the “work” I associate with French and making room for just enjoying the study of it.
Anyway, to the kitchen I go. Escargots, braised lamb shank, and blanc manger with passion fruit are on the menu. Wish me bon chance!