So, tell me, Jacq,” said my friend Aude in her Provençal French as she picked at her niçoise salad. “Why is it you North Americans love to eat crap?” I was 21 and had just come to school in Paris with a suitcase full of antiperspirant and Kraft Dinnertwo things I knew would be in short supply in France. I told Aude I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about and proceeded to dig my 12th chunk of baguette into a jar of Nutella. “No, really,” she insisted. “All the snacks, the mushy bread, the bland cheese, the white lettuce in sugary dressingyou guys eat like a bunch of kids.” Before I could take offence, I thought back to the overprocessed foods of my childhood that I still loved. And she was right. Thank God for Flintstones vitamins. “Come down to my family’s house in the South and I’ll show you real food,” she said. Of course, I took her up on her offer.
Aude took me to a blond stone house outside of Avignon, cradled in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There, her wild-haired mother lived with a lover 20 years her junior. Under an amber lamp at a weathered table, Aude’s family talked and dined for hours. No one ate in front of the TV. No one was on a plan or in the zone. They just sat together and enjoyed their food.
The landscape of their table was utterly foreign. The lettuce was actually green – deep greenwith no Thousand Island dressing in sight. And they had vegetables I had never seen up close: artichoke, asparagus and zucchini. New tastes arrested me: white wine-and-mustard vinaigrette that made my nostrils tingle; fish baked in parchment, drizzled with olive oil and Turkish spices; and heaps of sautèed tomatoes, garlic and zucchini, fragrant with the rosemary that had overtaken Aude’s rocky garden.
I was heady with flavours that hadn’t been doused with sugar and salt or stuffed into a pizza pocket. It felt like tasting food for the first time. And we took the time to taste it. Most remarkable, nobody looked at my plate and said I ate an awful lot for a girl. They just asked if I enjoyed my meal.