Dinners with Édith

Two women nurtured my love of food when I was a young man: my mom, who persuaded me to go out into the world, try new things, and always keep an open mind, and Édith Lanthiez-Soyez, who taught me that an open mind is fine as long as you don't fill it with the wrong ideas. With my mom's encouragement, I decided to move to France to broaden my horizons, and after I arrived, Édith was there to make sure I broadened them only in the proper direction. On my return to the States, I brought with me a passion for French cooking and, thanks to Édith, a respect for the art of the French table. The advice of both of these women has long served me well. Lately, though, my thoughts have drifted back to the days I spent under the tutelage of Édith, who played a vital role in my culinary coming-of-age.

I first met Édith in 1986, when she came over from France to collect her 18-year-old son Eric, who had spent a month as an exchange student living with my family in suburban Chicago. A sturdy woman who spoke halting English in a gravelly voice, she was, and is, an exemplar of old-line French beliefs about eating and drinking. Raised in Cambrai, a city in the country's industrial north, she seldom dispensed flattery, and she spoke her mind plainly.

One evening during her visit, when my dad opened a California chablis with a flourish at dinner and served some to Édith, she took a perfunctory sip and announced, "Zees ees a funny little wine." When we took her to the fanciest restaurant in town, she seemed nonplussed at having to leave the table to smoke and was visibly disappointed at what was offered as coffee. Yet, the next evening, when my dad tossed a few rib eyes on the backyard barbecue and—having given up on wine—served Édith bourbon on the rocks, she ate and drank with gusto, quizzing my dad about every element of the meal, right down to the composition of the charcoal briquettes. She returned to France the next day with her son, four bottles of Wild Turkey, and a full-size Weber kettle grill.

It wasn't until I moved to Paris after college to work as a teacher that I really got to know Édith. I lived in a silverfish-infested studio in Montmartre, and my diet consisted largely of baguettes and street stall kebabs. My only respites from bachelor life were my repeated trips—at Édith's invitation—to the house in Beauvais, an hour north of Paris, that she shared with her psychiatrist husband, Luc; Eric; and their two other sons, Jerome and Thibault.

The menu for those weekend dinners, which often didn't wind down until midnight, consisted of a repertoire of perfectly executed French classics like steak tartare and pot-au-feu, the one-pot dish of beef and vegetables simmered in broth. She eschewed supermarkets—I often accompanied her to the butcher's or the fishmonger's, where she'd introduce me jokingly as her "American son"—and I only rarely saw her glance at a recipe.

In the decade and a half after my return from France, I went to graduate school, moved to New York, and got married. And though I've eaten more ambitious meals than those Édith prepared for me, I can honestly say I've never eaten better. I decided it was time to pay a return visit to my old friend and mentor, this time with my wife of five years, Michele, who has known Édith only from old photos and my oft told stories.

These days Édith lives by herself in a tile-roofed bungalow on Île de Re, a beach-fringed island off France's western coast, where she and her family spent summers (she separated from Luc, who remained in Beauvais, more than a decade ago), but thanks to her three married sons and five grandchildren, she's rarely alone. When Michele and I arrive on a hot July afternoon, there's already a full house: in attendance are Eric, his wife, Florence, and their seven-month-old son, Arthur, as well as Veronique, the wife of Édith's son Jerome, and their two children, four-year-old Oscar and two-year-old Faustine, who are gamboling naked around the backyard.

I greet Eric and Édith with hugs and then introduce Michele, who admitted to me on the flight over how nervous she was about meeting this formidable figure from my past. Édith seems hardly to have aged in the eight years since I've last seen her, despite her avowed contempt for exercise and a weakness for tobacco. A half hour after we arrive, as the sun sinks behind the whitewashed walls that enclose the patio and backyard, l'heure de l'aperitif—cocktail hour, a rite as sacred as mass at Édith's house—begins. Édith, a cigarillo between her lips, emerges from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with glasses and bottles. I eagerly start to pour myself a kir—chilled white wine mixed with creme de cassis.

"Ah, non, David," Édith admonishes me affectionately in French, waving away a nimbus of smoke, "always add the cassis first!"

It's a warm evening, and Michele ventures to ask whether there's any rose. Édith hops from her seat, goes inside, and returns with a cold bottle of cotes de provence, a crisp rose from the south of France. "I always keep some around," she says matter-of-factly as Michele fills her glass, "but personally I find it to be a bastard wine."

Aperitifs are accompanied by a buttery homemade salmon mousse, and dinner is a salad of white boudin sausage, escarole, and sliced pears served with perfectly ripe cantaloupe from the Vendee, a nearby region. Édith opens a 2004 reuilly, a tart Loire Valley red that I've never seen in the States. As we settle into the rhythm of the meal, talk alternates between the two habitual poles of French culture: politics and food.

"It's hard to find artisanal sausage like this in the States, no?" Édith asks rhetorically, brandishing a slice of boudin. Before I can answer, Eric pipes up with a comment about industrial farming, which in turn steers the banter back to politics.

"You can't believe any of what you read about our politicians," says Édith, as she reaches for more wine. "I can barely bring myself to read the papers these days."

The dialogue continues briskly along this track for the rest of the meal, with Veronique and Florence occasionally making admirable attempts to include Michele in the conversation. But by the time the cheese course—a pungent fourme d'ambert and a locally made chevre—is served, my wife wears an expression that I've seen before at Édith's table. I suddenly remember a scene from 1991, when my dad and one of my sisters were visiting me in Paris.

Édith had invited all of us up to Beauvais for the weekend, and on Saturday night she concocted a beautiful dinner of whole roasted fish. By the time dessert was cleared away, we had gone through ten bottles of wine, my sister was asleep on the couch, and my dad's jet lag was showing as he strained to follow the chatter, which had started out gamely enough in English but kept lapsing back into French. By 11 o'clock or so, the talk was getting pretty philosophical, and Dad was starting to fade in and out of consciousness, despite my attempts to keep him involved. Suddenly, Eric turned to him as if he'd been listening all along and practically shouted, in English, "And man created God!" Shortly after that, as my dad remembers it, things began to edge toward the ridiculous when Nera, the family dog, loudly passed gas. "Nera!" Édith shouted; then, reverting to her quirky English for the benefit of her guests, she said, "Zat was not indicated!"

I've probably told Michele that story ten times, and as I watch her smiling politely, I can't hide my satisfaction that she's finally getting to experience a genuine Édith dinner firsthand.

"I don't think I've ever seen you eat like that," Michele says as we're getting ready for bed that night.

"You've never seen me eat at Édith's," I say, plopping down on the bed.

The next morning, while the daughters-in-law are at the market in the nearby town, Édith prepares the midday meal. First she makes an elegant terrine of whiting and salmon, which she bakes using a bain-marie and then puts into the fridge to let rest under a weight for a few hours. Next, working with a swift deliberateness, she assembles dainty rolls of cucumber, fresh goat cheese, mint from her garden, and smoked salmon. Afterward, as we congregate around the patio table in the shade of a huge aleppo pine, drinking toiras (a white wine made on Île de Re) and enjoying the food, I can't imagine a meal better suited to a blazing summer day.

"Tonight," Édith tells me after lunch, "we do a terree de moules, so be back here at seven o'clock sharp for aperos." I don't know what a terree de moules is, but a few hours later, after Michele and I have returned from the beach, I walk out back and observe Édith pouring a sack of fresh bouchot mussels (a prized variety found along the western coast of France) onto her Weber grill (one of several she's bought since her first visit to my family, years ago) and arranging them so that they're wedged vertically between the grill's slats. Next, Eric hauls a burlap bag filled with dried longleaf pine needles out of the garden shed and loads heaping handfuls of the needles on top of the shellfish. Finally, after aperitifs are served, I am given the honor of touching a match to the needles, which catch instantly and send a fearsome column of flame and smoke skyward. Once the fire has subsided, we dust away the ashes and gingerly pluck the hot mussels right off the grill, pulling out the tender, smoke-tinged flesh with our fingers and popping it into our mouths.

Shellfish is the star at dinner, too: fresh oysters from the nearby Marennes-Oleron Basin and steamed langoustines served with a cold crab and rice salad. The meal, like every dinner I've had at Édith's, is unpretentious and pleasantly slow to end. Little Oscar and Faustine get chocolate pudding before they're sent off to bed. Then Édith brings out the grown-ups' dessert: a local specialty called tourteau fromager (a sweet bread made with fresh goats' milk cheese and baked in a round earthenware mold that helps create a distinctive burnt crust) and tiny, intensely sweet mara des bois strawberries, accompanied by little glasses of pear brandy. Édith tells me that the tourteau fromager was bought at the local farm market and, on scraping the last crumbs from her plate, pronounces it "more or less correct".

It occurs to me at that moment that I have never once heard Édith weigh in on any gastronomic matter with anything less than complete certitude. And, after a few more unhurried meals at her home, I understand that this is partly what has drawn me back to her: her steadfast belief that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Living as I do in New York, a city containing many bewildering opportunities for gustatory titillation, I find such certainties more comforting than restricting. But there's something else about Édith, something that happens to me when I'm at her table. During those food- and talk-filled hours, the vexations and pressures of daily existence seem to lift, and my appetite for everything that's good in life returns with vigor.

At the end of our stay, Édith bids both Michele and me a tender farewell, and she promises to visit us. On the flight home, I resolve in my mind to rise to the occasion when she does. I suppose I'll just start off with a proper kir, cassis added first, and see how it goes from there.