In my memory, Parisian food is wrapped up in a stream of rapid speech: agile words of which I miraculously manage to keep abreast even though they often try to get away from me and even gull me.
I’m in the ill-appointed kitchen of a student dorm in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris. Around me are young people who chatter in a rapid flow, which makes my ears ring. They’re here not just to feed themselves, but to get some necessary social interaction: joke, tease, laugh, argue, negotiate or merely exchange information. I’m able to catch an occasional word here and there. The rest of the babble washes over my drowsy, jet-lagged brain. While I’m chopping my onions, I duck my head in an attempt to avoid eye contact in order to remain as unobtrusive as possible.
Right across from me, a young woman is putting together a salad. She has neatly braided hair and is wearing an impeccable cotton blouse. I watch her competent moves as she washes lettuce and tears it into pieces, then combines it with olives, hard-boiled eggs, fragrant tomatoes, and some fresh green beans. She is making a version of Salade Niçoise, which I soon learn is not really Parisian food. (In the early days of my stay in Paris, I lacked the right French words along with the cultural competence to identify this.) A fine art deco gold ring with a carnelian stone on one of her supple fingers catches my eye. I fill in the blanks that my insufficient French throws right in my face with information gleaned from my neighbor’s appearance: an upper-middle-class fresh-food-connoisseur for sure, an experienced cook who shares my interest in artisan early-twentieth-century objects. A smile flutters over my lips while a group of fellows bursts out laughing. It doesn’t really matter that we are cheery for different reasons: it still looks as if I have understood enough to join in their merriment.