I'm reconquering my kitchen. Clearing the counters and throwing out the rice cakes. Pitching the leftovers and Wildberry fruit roll ups. After my mother's five week visit to our new home in Provence – I’m in need of a scorched earth campaign: leave nothing behind that the enemy can use. Not her instant Vietnamese soup, not her Skippy chunky peanut butter. Following in her Napoleonic wake, I had no choice but to burn it all, exorcise it with the ritualistic pleasure that some girls get from burning pictures of old boyfriends.
Let me be clear. I hate hate hate throwing away food. It makes me feel like a spoiled brat. And yet every time my mother leaves France, she saddles me with a huge bag of leftover, canned, partially hydrogenated horrors that neither I nor my family want to eat. Food is one of the central pleasures of my life in France, and particularly at a time when I am doing my best to lose the last of the baby weight – I simply cannot tolerate (excuse my French) putting shit in my mouth.
When I lived in Paris, I could discreetly deposit the bag outside our building in the evening, and it would be gone by morning. Here in the village, there no spot to discreetly do anything. I can't imagine what my neighbors would say if they saw me throwing away a shopping bag full of instant Raspberry Cool iced tea and processed chorizo pizza. Would anyone here even know what to do with instant Raspberry Cool iced tea? For now, the bag is sitting in the vaulted stone cellar, awaiting further study.
Since I moved to France, my mother has been on a campaign to bring the familiar into my otherwise foreign life. She began with the silver (which I cherish and adore), then she brought over a chipped flower pot in the shape of a tudor mansion from our old den (ok, some sentimental value). But soon we moved on to the apricot Jell-O and Crystal Light. It’s all part of my mother’s Stuff is Love theory: If you transfer enough objects from your old home to your new home, you never left.
Until we were under the same roof for an extended period, I didn’t realize how oppressive this was. I felt violated. The kitchen is my territory, and by filling it with things my family would never eat, she was ignoring my wishes, my independence – simply turning my house into a version of hers. One morning, G. slinked off, bewildered, for an espresso at a friend’s: “I opened the refrigerator door," he said, “the fridge was full, and there wasn’t a single thing in it that I wanted to eat.”
It’s not that my mother takes no pleasure in my cooking. She did cartwheels over the beefsteak tomatoes and fine buffalo mozzarella we often ate for lunch in the garden. She happily tasted the tomme de Brebis at my newfound cheesemonger. She watched with amusement as I squeezed the figs and sniffed the melons. But I – her only child - am so far away, and now I’ve kidnapped not only myself, but her grandson as well. What good is his American passport if he doesn’t eat peanut butter?
I love my mother very much. I like her even more. One of the reasons why this happens is that we are so close she often fails to see us as two separate people (with two separate refrigerators). She’ll read this, and we will probably talk about it. Maybe it will make her more aware of how I was feeling – of taking care to treat me like an adult in my own house. And I hope it will make me a better guest in her home – rather than my classic reversion to a child who comes and goes as she pleases and leaves her underwear on the bedroom floor. That’s the difference between my mother and Napoleon. Napoleon never made up with anyone.
Things are slowly getting back on culinary track here. I have some butternut squash for roasting (my mother’s recipe – though tossed with olive oil instead of Pam), and our babysitter just loaded me up with a huge sack of tomatoes from her neighbor’s garden. I think I’ll make some last-of-the-season sauce for the freezer.
Before my parents left, I made a farewell dinner – a variation of my lentils with sausage from our local butcher. Lentils are one of my favorite French comfort foods – warm and welcoming – like the big hug I often forgot to give my parents this month. Now that everyone is gone, I can hear the creaking of the house again. Last night, I gave Augustin some leftover lentils for dinner. Yes, he was eating leftovers, but they were my leftovers. And somehow that makes all the difference.