Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In the Soup

“Alain makes zee best soups,” Rolande had told me. “Oh, wait until you taste one of Alain’s soups. Zey are zee best soups in ze world.”

I’d been invited to live as an artist-in-residence in the village of Bozouls, in the southwestern corner of France. Hugging both the base and the rim of a deep river gorge, the tiny village featured two medieval stone sentry towers, attached to one of which was an efficiency apartment equipped with a small pool and a Jacuzzi that would be my home and my studio for three weeks. As things happened, I never saw my hostess. An international attorney, Rolande was tied up with a complicated case back in New York. Aside from Alain, the caretaker, and Mama Maguy, Rol-and’s eighty-nine year-old mother, who lived in the tower proper, I was completely on my own. Which suited me fine. I had my own door, and my own key. After having driven me to Bozouls from the station, Alain seemed to disappear. As for Mama Maguy, though I knocked more than once on her door, it never opened. A dog barked inside. That was all. I wondered: would I ever get to taste Alain’s famous soup?

Finally, one afternoon, I ran into Alain at one of the town’s two cafes. “Ah, Pee-taire! You must come for soup this evening!”

Soup--the magic word! After days of surviving on croque monsieur (grilled cheese) at the town’s only cafe I was starved for some authentic and homemade French cooking!

Having barely finished a painting outdoors I was late for my 7 p.m. dinner invitation. I arrived to find Mama Maguy and a young girl sitting at a big oak table. The young girl was Magalie, her housekeeper--one of her many housekeepers, it turned out. Mama Maguy looked her age, with large blue eyes rendered even larger by thick lenses. She wore a red and white striped blouse that accentuated the pale whiteness of her skin and her parchment-colored hair. She sat at one end of the table and Magalie sat at the other, both with napkins tucked, waiting. On the oak table candles burned and the famous pot of soup sat waiting next to a bowl of grated cheese and a cutting board with some bronze, crusty bread sliced into cubes. And there, at the center of the scene, stood Alain--Alain with his long stringy dark hair and pointy goatee, looking like one of the three Musketeers as he stirred his famous soup.

“Ah, Pee-taire, Pee-taire,” he wagged a bony, warty, castigating finger at me.

“Excusez-mois,” I said.

As Alain ladled the soup, pouring over the grated cheese and croutons, I smelled its rich, mushroomy smell. Wineglasses were filled and Alain said grace. My hand reached for my spoon when suddenly Alaine stood and announced that he had to make a phone call. Taking a cell phone from his pocket, he dialed. For the next forty-five minutes or so he paced back and forth along the table’s length talking in a rapid, non-stop voice. My French being adequate at best I could barely make out a word, though I understood him to be talking about the global economy, then about the Algerian dilemma, and then about Protestantism and the Catholic tyranny and why wood finally replaced coal as the fuel of choice in French villages. To whomever he’d phoned he explained why Amsterdam was a terrible, evil place and why drugs generally were evil, and how depression was not genetic and he could prove it, because three--three!--of his cousins had attempted suicide, one successfully, while he had never, ever in his life been depressed--not the slightest bit! Also, he refused on principle to drink Eau de Vie or Aquavite. And did you know, he told whoever was listening, that during the Second World War the corpses of over a dozen fetuses were found by soldiers in a barrel in the woods behind the local abbey?. . .I looked at my watch. I’d been sitting there for over twenty minutes. Another twenty minutes passed and Alaine was still on the phone, with the soup congealing in our bowls. He went on and on and on, endlessly, oblivious of our soups getting cold. Every so often he would throw us a nod with his D’Artagnan chin, indicating that we should start without him. But Magalie refused to touch her soup or even sip her Bordeaux until we were all seated. As for Mama Maguy, she seemed used to this scenario, as if it were part of the dinner ritual. Alaine went on to discuss fluoridation, global warming, the expanding/contracting universe debate. I wondered: who on earth is he talking to? Who would listen to all this? Eventually I broke down and took a sip of from my wine glass. I hadn’t eaten all afternoon and was parched from painting under the hot sun. Alain sucked his teeth, shook his head and nodded saying, “Bien sur, bien sur; peut etre, peut etre. . .”

I was sure we’d never eat our soups.

Just as I gave up all hope, he put away the phone. “Alors,” he said, and had just tucked in his chair when a voice rang up from outside. “Ah--moment,” he untucked himself, went to the window and leaned his head out to start another conversation as we sat there with our soups turning to mush. With whoever was outside the window Alaine launched into yet another monologue. To escape the sight of my congealing soup I excused myself and went to the bathroom. There, where the odor of cooling soup hadn’t permeated, I smelled the old smell of invalid people, the redolence of cat box and leaky catheter, the scent of old Europe. Still, I was glad to be in the bathroom, glad to be momentarily free of Alain’s moulin a paroles and of the terrible sound Mama Maguy made with her supposedly real teeth--a grinding, scraping sound like marbles being rubbed together--a sound that made me squeeze my eyes shut and try to think of places far, far away. When I couldn’t justify staying in the bathroom any longer I returned, only to find Alain still deep into his flux de bouche, with no end in sight, and Mama Maguy grinding her teeth louder than ever, and the intrusive guest outside the window still invisible but listening.

Finally, with an “A demain! A demain!” the invisible window guest apparently shoved off, and Alain bustled back to the table in high spirits.

Now at last it was time to eat the soup--or so it seemed. Alain said grace again. Again I lifted up my soup spoon. But then--before we could actually eat the cold glop--we had to hear all about how it had been made, how Alain had gone to over a dozen markets in search of the very finest ingredients at their height of freshness: mushrooms, carrots, onions and leeks. . .how he had chopped, diced, sauteed and sliced, creating his own stock from veal and chicken bones, which he simmered, stirring in butter and salt, folding in cream for what sounded like hours, days, weeks. . .But that was only the beginning, for as Alain explained (at great length, of course) the secret to a good soup was not in its original creation, but in its evolution, its accumulating character, so to speak, over time--its journey from meal to meal, with enhancements along the way, for the chopping and dicing of which he spoke had happened ages prior, and the soup that (with any luck) we were at last about to savor now was in fact dozens of soups melded and grafted and simmered into one another over time, a soup of soups, with the original Ur-soup apparently dating back to the beginnings of life on the planet--to the amino-acid soup of creation itself.

“Bon apetite!” said Alain, toasting.

Finally, we ate.Though lukewarm, it was a good, thick, salty soup, gray-brown in color and porridge-like in consistency. Still, I questioned all of Alain’s dicing and slicing. Those tiny bits of vegetable floating in my bowl looked vaguely dehydrated. And there was that unmistakable essence of industrial-strength, MSG-enhanced bouillon cube. Nevermind, at least we were eating.

And then Mama Maguy, who’d been silent as a sphinx all this time, spoke up, and kept speaking, as if she were an internet site than had taken all this time to download. She loved Paris in the Fall, she said, and drank only Bordeaux in Summer, and loved her home, and herself. “Look at my stone walls,” she said. “Look at my thick beams, look at my straight nose and my still blonde hair and my spanking white pigeons. Damned if I’m not the talk of this town! (They say that my daughter, Rolande, is the talk of the town, but it’s not true--I am the talk of the town. I always was the talk of the town.) Look at me, don’t I still look good? Under this eighty-nine year-old flesh there is the body of a raving beauty. Oh, I was beautiful--much more beautiful than Rolande! You know, I almost gave her up, and probably should have, the little wench! But I didn’t; I stuck it out. No orphanage for my daughter. Of course she worships me now--and why shouldn’t she? I saved her life! If not for me God knows--imagine what a different life she would have had--possibly no life at all--had I given her up as I had every right to do! We were so poor, you cannot imagine. Poverty--the worst disease of all! Every three months we had to pack up and move to cheat the landlord, always farther and farther away from the center of the city, my beloved Paris. Once I even made Rolande leave behind her doll collection in order to fool the patron into thinking we were coming back. Oh, she cried tears as salty as this soup (I think, Alaine, that you have put too much salt in it this time)--but it was better than the alter-native, wouldn’t you say? And do you think she was grateful? Of course she was! And then I even found her a father, a respectable man who gave her a last name. Yes, that’s right: gaze upon me in awe and wonder here in my tower with my caretaker, my maidservant, my white pigeons and my squeaky teeth!” Cold soup dribbleed from her chin.

In addition to her occasional sly farts Mama Maguy gave off a faint but pungent odor of fermentation as some old people will, a tangy smell closely related to the smell in the bathroom and which invested itself into every spoonful of soup and sip of Bordeaux, making me gag slightly as I ate, watching her talk with her soupspoon dripping onto the collar of her red striped blouse, her pale globe-like eyes darting back and forth, back and forth under milkbottle lenses. Meanwhile Alain has gotten back on his cell phone again to continue the conversation of before, his whisp-thin lips moving at the speed of sound under his D’Artagnan mustache, his S’s faintly whistling through the gap in his front teeth, his phone-free warty hand stirring the now ice-cold soup. He spoke of Global Commerce, the situation in Nepal, the need for earthquake-proof construction in third-world nations, the threats being posed to the sovereignty of the Euro. . . He held forth on fortified wines and genetic engineering and improved techniques of spinal surgery. . .all the while stirring his prize soup, his Soup of Ages, his Infinite Soup, like an alchemist in his medieval tower-laboratory. And just as Alain’s soup was made 90% of past soups, and men’s bodies are made 90% of water, Alaine’s life, I perceived, consisted 90% of words, his own homemade, sliced, diced, constantly simmering words, flowing endlessly, like a river of soup.

“Bien sur, bien sur,” he said, referring to the Jacuzzi, which after five days of tinkering on his part was still unfunctional. “Sans doute, sans doute! Certainement! Certainement! Peut etre! Peut etre!” (Incidentally, was I aware that it was a Frenchman who had invented the so-called “whirlpool bath”? However--as with so many other French inventions-- the man, being something of a nincompoop, had neglected to apply for his patent on time, and therefore--). . . .

1 comment:

st. pierre said...

I haven't laughed that hard in a long time. Thank you! This is perfection: "the soup that (with any luck) we were at last about to savor now was in fact dozens of soups melded and grafted and simmered into one another over time, a soup of soups, with the original Ur-soup apparently dating back to the beginnings of life on the planet--to the amino-acid soup of creation itself."