Friday, June 1, 2007

The French-Puerto Rican Connection

I was telling someone the other day about a book that I read a few months ago and loved - Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.

Pepin is a French chef who in 1959 emigrated to the US. He was raised by a mother who owned a series of cafés, and he was expected to help in the kitchen. He talks extensively about all the fresh ingredients they were able to easily find, either in markets, or picked straight from the ground in the countryside. During World War II, foods were strictly rationed, down to the most essential things, like butter; as we say in PR, "hicieron de tripas, corazones" (from guts, they made hearts). Okay, I know the literal translation is still a head-scratcher - the closest saying in English is that when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. So, in conclusion, they made the best of things. End of Cliches Explained, International Edition.

He became an apprentice in several French restaurants, and by all appearances rose in the kitchen ranks fairly quickly. He learned the old-fashioned way to make dishes that are incredibly demanding, and require nothing but complete attention in order to come out correctly and please demanding palates. In the late 50's he served as Charles de Gaulle's personal chef. When de Gaulle's tenure was over, Pepin decided to move to the States, where he was offered a position in the White House kitchen. He turned it down, deciding to work for Howard Johnson - his role was to help upgrade the quality of food served in his restaurants, while at the same time understanding the constraints of having to prepare recipes that would be consistent and feasible at every single Howard Johnson's kitchen. One would imagine that quite a few eyebrows were raised - rejecting the fine cuisine and prestige of the White House in favor of working for a chain? Whatever. Pepin had his reasons - he stuck to them, and for 10 years turned out to be an invaluable asset to the Howard Johnson's chain.

Later, he opened his own lunch spot in New York City called Soup's On. It served, yes, soups, and became wildly successful. This helped gain him recognition from different high-falutin' people on the food world, such as James Beard and Julia Child, and he's ended up writing dozens of cookbooks and starring in several PBS cooking shows. With all this going on, the man found time to go to school to learn English, and earn a BA and a Master's from Columbia University.

So why am I recounting his life story? It's a framework that props up my reasons for loving his autobiography - the man has a fascinating personal story, an enviable relationship to food, and an unfailingly positive outlook on life. All this, and he remains self-reflexive and capable of admitting when he's made mistakes. This is why I thought I loved The Apprentice.

As I heartily recommended this book the other day, I heard myself say the following: "He moved from France to the US, and instead of complaining that he no longer had access to his usual French ingredients, or lamenting that French culture was so much better, he kept the best of France and adopted the best of the US into his cooking." (Well, I was not quite as eloquent, but that was the message). The man did not assimilate into his new home's culture, losing what he had learned in his home country - he adapted, to include what the US had to offer. He understood when French cuisine had an advantage. He also understood that ingredients to be found here had their own value, and that there were customs here that might suit him better. He doesn't seem to believe that he has to cling to his home country's every custom and long-held beliefs simply because they are from his country. He weighs what comes to him, and then decides.

It was one of those moments where as the words come out of your mouth, your brain is going "Hey. Genius. This is just occuring to you?"

Sometimes, when I feel like in some ways I have become Americanized, I wonder if I am assimilating rather than adapting. It seems like it's hard to draw that line at times. Thinking back on Pepin's story, I realized that by practicing some mindfulness, it's not necessarily complicated: it's a combination of following your logic, and following your heart. You adopt customs that are not your own when logic tells you they will work well for you, but also when your heart tells you that you have not forgotten where you come from. You can, indeed, straddle two cultures without putting your origins in jeopardy. When it's not just your brain that retains memories of your home, but also your heart, the act of balancing two cultures becomes as natural as a veteran tightrope walker getting on his rope and relying on his senses to guide him.

A great example of how Pepin has done this is in his cookbook, Fast Food My Way. He understands the value of having simple, easy to prepare meals at home. The French also have simple, hearty foods, but the concept of "fast food" is quite American. He brings his cooking experiences from his French life - simple recipes, fresh ingredients - and adapts them in such a way that Americans can relate to on a more culturally-personal level.

And if this man has not already proven to be awesome enough, he married a woman who is half Cuban, half Puerto Rican. The man, he has taste.


1 comment:

billy said...

I am so proud to say you are my sister. I'm reading everything when I get a chance. Truely impressive. I hope to write with such fluidity as you do, some day soon.