Baba au Rhum
In my favorite movie, My Father's Glory, written by the French playwright and author, Marcel Pagnol about his childhood, there is a splendid scene which I have played over and over, so much does it remind me of my youth and of my experiences with my family in Europe. The schoolmaster and his wife are setting the table for Sunday lunch, where they will soon be joined by her sister and the new husband her sister has recently married. The new husband arrives, bearing two bottles of wine and a baba au rhum cake, which is set proudly as a centerpiece in the center of the table, readied for Sunday lunch. The new husband, a loveable, bear of a man, is now "Uncle Jules" to the two boys of the schoolmaster and his wife, and once he has the boys off to the side for a moment alone, he opens his suit coat to reveal a cornupcopia of candy delights inside, peering from each of his pockets, to delight the two boys. (I, too, had a French-Swiss uncle who wore a similar coat containing similar treats, offered to the children for the occasion of a family Sunday lunch.) The movie's scene is set in a very French apartment in Marseille, a perfect marriage of pleasing aesthetics and highly edited austerity: stone floors, beautifully carved wood furniture, and charming accoutrements, but not too many. Soon the little petty arguments over religion and the relative difficulty of life as a schoolmaster as compared to a city beaurocrat are overtaken by the pleasure of the lunch: the inviting long French table with its sparkling white cloth, splendid china and crystal; the delicious food, which is highly complimented by the guests; the bottles of wine; and the anticipation of the lovely Baba, the scent of which wafts over the table, enticing the diners with its shimmer and luscious appearance. The baba has a romantic history. It was first brought to Paris, France by King Stanislas Leszczynska, the deposed king of Poland and the father-in-law of King Louis XV (1710–1774) of France when he was exiled to Lorraine. According to legend, he found the customary kouglhopf too dry for his liking and dipped the bread in rum. He was so delighted that he named the cake after one of the heroes of his favorite book, Ali Baba from A Thousand and One Nights. Later, his chef refined the sweet bread by using brioche dough and adding raisins to the recipe. The dish was then simply called “baba.” I have always loved this story, as it references the wonderful legend of A Thousand and One Nights, another beloved book filled with rich images that cultivate the imagination and act as muse for me in many aspects of my life.
Lusty food, not overwrought artistic creations meant for show, redolent of soul and satisfaction, is the food of family and friends gathered at table for a liesurely Sunday afternoon lunch. This is not cuisine de spectacle, meant to impress. It is cuisine de famille, which leads to a bonheur d'etre, or a deep sense of wellbeing that catches on from host to guest and back. A kind of liturgy defines a well executed family lunch on Sunday afternoon, and it has a magic all its own. That it is not the stuff of composed plats does not suggest it is not approached with the same discipline and skill, however differently renedered in gorgeous platters of deliciousness on the groaning sideboard, evidence of abundance and generosity. No food is more wonderful than a lovingly prepared Sunday family meal in the spirit of Cuisine de bonne femme (the good wife), and no magic more compelling than the hospitality extended to family and friends, evident in each delicious morsel; in the sense of langour which belies the preparation such that everyone is relaxed and able to be witty and charming, even the hostess; in the beauty of the family heirloom silver and linens on the table, which in themselves recall generations of similar fetes, artfully kissed with a hint of insouciance that prevents the ethos from becoming pious or stiff! Sunday lunch is inpsired by tradition, but tradition is not its jailer, simply a point of departure. In the same way as memory becomes a Muse to the present, and bore the first Muses, tradition is the layering of memories that bind us to our heritage, and to each other. The Sunday family ritual is a sacrament to Love Manifest.
My children are very partial to the tradition, and loved it especially when their grandparents would join us, or cousins and friends. As my wise aunt once advised me, if you begin a tradition with children, they will soon become its keepers. Don't plan on giving it up anytime soon! Children love tradition, and it grounds them and gives them security and belonging. It helps to define them and the rituals and ethos of the clan from which they hail. My daughter loves to set the table, and choose the china and stemware (of which I have many collections), artfully expressing her sense of joie de vivre and her growing aesthetic sensibilities. She has no difficulty tossing in a hint of the rascal as a little leavening in the mix. Once she brought her stuffed animal of a languid cat, reclining, and set it in the center of the table, surrounded by Tiffany silver, Limoges china and antique crystal, as if to suggest that the cat would just as soon drink milk from a Haviland saucer but chose instead to recline and Watch to see if anyone spilled any morsels (her words, not mine). Yes, the cat did haunt the lunch after a fashion, and made for a wonderful ice-breaker, along with a glass of French champagne while dinner was cooking, family strolling about chatting, or reading the Sunday papers in the drawing room, playing petanque (Bocce Ball) in the garden or nibbling on crudites, children learning origami birds at the marble table in the kitchen (if it isn't full of pasta about to be handcut), all set the stage for the feast of senses to come. The ladies are often dressed in Sunday church clothes, and I having traded in my hat (which I always wear on Sunday) for one of my starched aprons, and the gentlemen bowtied and dapper, bearing wine. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Sunday "dinner" is a long-standing tradition in my family, and its liturgy differs from that of an evening dinner. I often cook things I would never serve at a candlelit evening dinner table, food with family associations or a romantic connection: tomato aspic, homemade dinner rolls or biscuits, layer cake. Even while attending graduate school in French Switzerland, I was often invited to share Sunday lunch at the home of my cousin and her husband, who was a pastor. I still remember the fruit tart, sprinkled with pfumli, a plum brandy made by my cousin the pastor's father. More pfumli was consumed by glass as well, after the coffees were handed round. These lunches were pure magic, and my children never tire of hearing of them, and ask me over and over to tell them the story of this lunch or that. Sometimes, we would attend a lovely music concert at the church later in the evening, and following the meal, we would often take a promenade to explore some Roman ruins, or walk along a footpath, stopping at some point for a refreshing drink at a little outdoor cafe, or a coffee. The liesure and pace were part of the charm of the day, and in the conversation, one on one, as we strolled, a connection was established, begun by the charm and langour of the shared meal, and cultivated by the rich conversation as we walked together. In France, though many shops and businesses are closed on Sunday, it is nearly always possible to find in every town the bakery and florist open for business early Sunday morning, to assist all those travelling to the house of Mama for the Sunday fete. She who has given her love to her family through the gift of the lovely shared meal, is also the recipient of gifts, such that love is both given and recieved, surely a powerful lesson for the children as well as the adults.
This past Sunday, just yesterday even, I cooked a loin of pork for Sunday dinner, which was without a doubt the best pork I have ever eaten or cooked. This is saying something, as I have long been a student of perfectly cooked meat of every kind and have been quite rigorous in my approach to technique, having also had some superb teachers. This surpassed them all. I dry brined two pork loins overnight with a rub of my own making containing fennel and seasalt and thyme. When the time came to prepare lunch, I seared the two loins, tied together to form an even roast (small end to large end), turning to get the carmelization on all sides, and then added onions and apples to the pan. I put the pan in a very low oven (250 degrees) for about 10 minutes and then turned off the oven, allowing the pork roast to reach 133 degrees, at which point I pulled the meat from the oven, removed it to a platter and tented it with a little foil loosely until it reached 138 degrees. The pork was as succulent and flavorful as could be imagined, and perfectly cooked. This was served with Potatoes Lyonnais, a heavenly mixture of sliced potatoes cooked in duck fat to which I added carmelized onions, and some sauteed spinach lightly wilted in olive oil, chicken stock and lemon juice which had been reduced first. While the pork was resting and coming up to temperature, I deglazed the roasting pan, after further sauteeing the apples and onions a little, added some French dijon mustard (not that horrid Grey Poupon. I use Maille), some Marsala wine, some chicken stock, and a dash of Calvados, a brandy made from apples. This I reduced for a few minutes and then added some cold butter pats to thicken the sauce and served it in a sauce boat, first removing the onions and apples to put alongside the pork, which I carved on a diagonal bias, the potatoes lyonnais and the just-wilted spinach. With some fresh bisquits and a little salad of lambs lettuce and Frog Hollow peaches to begin, it was a sumptuous Sunday feast. Sunday fare.
There is a well developed theology of hospitality of which I have for some time been a keen student. My spiritual director recently suggested some new theologs to read when I mentioned I was planning to explore this theme in my blog. (If you want to read his blog, it is tagged here on the right and entitled The Elves are Heading West. He is very thoughtful and thought-provoking). So, assuming you will return here to converse with me, I hope we will have more conversation about the signficance of hospitality in our Life Together. It occurs to me, in thinking about these things as I walked this morning, that God who has given us the great feast of the Eucharist, and who bids us come feast at his table, has already spoken extravagently. Samuel Wells, who has written a beautiful theology entitled God's Companions (also given me from my Director), says that the goal of reconciliation with God and with one another is manifested in the common meal. I know this has been true in my family: that in a sacramental sense, our sharing a meal together has often accomplished what hours of talking never could. He writes: "The anticipation of heaven conveyed in the glory and praise and lifting of hearts is embodied in the banquet of the kingdom..The confession of faith is given its climax in the enactment of the goal of revelation--that God's people might worship him, be his friends, and eat with him." Try it in your "family", or family of friends, on a Sunday afternoon soon. You won't be disappointed.