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The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchenby Jacques Pepin
The War Years
My mother made it sound like a great adventure.
?Tati,? she said, using the nickname my brother had given me as a toddler, ?you are going to a marvelous place. A farm. A real farm.?
My six-year-old?s imagination filled in the rest of the details. Enormous plow horses. Fat, grunting pigs. Dairy cows with sharp horns and swollen, swaying udders. All manner of fowl: chickens, ducks, geese. Dogs and cats. In short, heaven.
Maman had more practical reasons for sending me to a farm. School had ended, and I would be on summer vacation for the next two and a half months. In towns and cities, food was always scarce in France during the Second World War. In the countryside, farmers may not have had two sous to rub together, but gardens produced vegetables, corn grew in fields, pigs became fat, chickens laid eggs, and cows gave milk that was turned into cream, butter, and cheese. Out of kindness, rural folk would take in the children of townspeople, giving room and board in exchange for chores. Although hearty, the food at the farms was simple and straightforward, coarse and without variety. A gratin of squash with cream, homemade cheeses, roasted or boiled potatoes, and cured pork held in barrels from the previous year were the most common dishes. Occasionally on Sundays, farm families ate roast chicken or rabbit, followed by plum or apple tarts. Nothing fancy, but compared to what we ate in town, this was feasting. In the fall, the children would return home tanner, stronger, and fatter.
The big day came. Maman prepared a picnic lunch. I hopped into a trailer that she towed behind her bike, and together we set off through a landscape of hills, valleys, vineyards, fields, and roadsides shaded by the leafy branches of plane trees. Late that afternoon, we arrived in Foissiat, a hamlet in the center of the rich agricultural region of La Bresse. We pulled into the courtyard of a farmhouse identical to any of a hundred Maman had already pedaled past. It was fashioned from blond-colored mud and round stones and had a red tile roof, plain except for being topped by the ornate and vaguely Middle Eastern?style Saracen chimney. Just as I had imagined, chickens, ducks, and a pair of majestic geese squabbled, quacked, and honked in the courtyard, and a stinky, mud-caked pig grunted in one corner. It was exciting and a bit scary to be that close to real farm animals.
The farmer?s wife greeted us, ruffling my hair and cooing. It was a surprising sound, given its source: the tallest, roughest-looking, and most powerfully built woman I had ever laid eyes on. She had a bright red face and wore the traditional peasant?s bonnet.
While she and my mother went into the house, the farmer, a big man with a great moustache that curled up at the corners, took me to the barn, which was even more exhilarating than the courtyard. Although I had seen plenty of cows in my day, I had never stood close to one. In that shadowy building, where the sweet scent of hay and raw milk mingled with the acidity of manure and urine, a dozen broad, wet noses turned in my direction. The closest cow, an enormous beast, lifted her tail and hunched her back. I jumped away just in time to avoid being splattered by the resulting mess. That was my first act as an apprentice cowherd.
We returned just as the farmer?s wife heaped dinner on the table ? literally. She slopped spoonfuls of a yellowish brown porridge, called gaudes, not onto plates or bowls, as we ate it at home, but directly into hollows carved into the wooden tabletop. We gathered around as the farmer?s wife poured cool, raw milk over our gaudes. With no further ceremony, we all sat down and dug in. The gaudes were thick and smooth and had the salty, slightly nutty taste of the roasted corn flour from which they had been made. The best part of dinner was getting to eat with my elbows on the table and not even being asked whether I had washed my hands. What a summer this was shaping up to be!
But as soon as the last oil lamp was blown out that night, my excitement vanished, replaced by a hollow sense of emptiness and abandonment, sadness and fear. The farmer?s wife had done her best to provide what comforts her home offered. I was given a tall bed beside the wall. For warmth, she tucked an eiderdown around me, and I curled up beneath its homespun cover. It smelled of the fields and outdoors, a foreign scent to a six-year-old boy who, until that night, had always fallen asleep in his own bed in a second-floor apartment in a busy little town. Lying there with a coeur gros, a heavy heart, I thought of my family. Papa, a jovial bear of a man. Zizi, or Roland, eighteen months my senior, a mentor, constant companion, and best friend, so much more than a big brother. Richard, known as Bichon, just a baby. And, most of all, my beautiful, effervescent mother, who had slipped away without my even knowing.
My pillow was still damp from tears when I woke up the next morning to begin the routine that would set the tone of my summer days. At first light, after a breakfast of café au lait and bread and jam, the farmer led me into the barn and presented me with a wooden staff. The other component of my cowherd?s uniform was a pair of wooden shoes stuffed with hay. I was also introduced to my work mate, a big black mutt. Our job was to escort the cows out into the fields in the morning, watch over them during the day, and see that they returned safely to the barn in the evening. Although I fancied myself very important and hardworking, the truth is that the cows and their canine overseer knew what was expected of them far better than I did.
Still, there have been few prouder dairymen than I as I trailed home behind my twelve charges that evening. Inside the barn, the woman sat me on a stool beneath one of the animals, which caused me some nervousness, given the size of the beast and my close call the previous day. She took my fingers gently in her callused hand and placed them on the cow?s teat, showing me how to pinch the top with my thumb and forefinger and then pull down, squeezing with my palm. To my delight, milk squirted noisily into the pail, more each time I repeated the motion, until it brimmed with creamy, frothy milk. The woman took down a small bowl and filled it.
?It?s yours, mon petit,? she said, handing me the bowl.
The milk was foamy and slightly tepid, with a rich, buttery flavor.
She had no way of knowing it, but that plain country woman, whose name I have long forgotten, taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: food could be much more than mere sustenance.
That night, I didn?t cry.
Copyright © 2003 by Jacques Pépin
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