An American Kitchen in Paris

How I Learned to Cook (the Unexpected)

The year after college, I went to Paris to study French literature. My little studio in the 5th arrondissement had a black-and-white checkerboard floor, stucco walls, and a typically tiny kitchen. For the first time in my life, I became the cook.

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, my sisters and I ate what my mom made. At some point in our teen years, we started offering to help, and now and then, she let us. I cut up vegetables, cracked eggs, stirred cake batter. But I was too busy going to ballet classes, writing poems and stories in college-ruled notebooks, and reading like a fiend to realize that cooking could be as much of a passion as eating.

And for my mom, while food is love, cooking new dishes never really was. She adores baking, and her camp and college care packages were legendary. My mom and dad also took pleasure in finding new restaurants to try and in hauling us back and forth between dozens of our favorite haunts. Our palates expanded as we ate pad Thai and nutella crêpes and hibachi shrimp. At home her meals consisted of a solid American repertoire that rotated through the months, with special dishes like shrimp remoulade and crabmeat quiche from my New Orleans Nana’s recipe collection. We always loved what my mom made — but new additions to the menu were rare.

In college, I didn’t have access to a kitchen, and I was perfectly happy to supplement any gross cafeteria meals with heaps of Oreo frozen yogurt and subpar late-night pizza.

Then I got to Paris.

Of course, I ate out plenty there, too. The dollar was strong against the franc in 2000, so for less than twenty bucks I could afford a classic three-course French meal, the kind I would have killed for in the U.S. even if I’d been able to pay four times the price. The simple food was just as inspiring. I frequented a little green kiosk near the Luxembourg Gardens for my go-to panini: a generous slab of feta and thin slips of sweet tomato on a baguette that was as crunchy outside as it was cloudlike inside.

Every weekday on the way to class, I would cross through the famous market lining the Rue Mouffetard, where oozy cheeses and the rich scent of rotisserie chicken (and even more so, the roasted potatoes tucked underneath) made my mouth water. At home, I began to throw together simple meals from a few ingredients I’d bought there — a green salad with feta, clementines, and a slick of mustard vinaigrette, or pasta with olives oiled in herbes de Provence.

But there were no béchamels being whipped on my stove, no vegetables julienned and nestled into a pastry vol-au-vent style. Instead, when I felt ready to take the next step, I called my mother for recipes.

I copied her shake-and-bake chicken, rustling egg-dipped filets in a plastic bag until they were coated with breadcrumbs and came out crispy sautéed on the stovetop.

I botched her spruced-up version of matzah ball soup from a box, scoffing at the instructions to roll the dough into twelve small balls. I like mine big and fluffy, so instead, I made four, and my eyes boggled when I lifted the pot’s lid to find the nearly basketball-sized matzah balls jostling for broth space. Aha, they grow when you cook them. I learned to follow directions.

For a holiday cookie exchange party held at my apartment, I made a batch of my family’s beloved chocolate-covered toffee and a football-shaped scar on my wrist trying to remove the baking sheet from the oven diagonally, the way it had to go in to fit. The guests were so pleased with their take-home haul that they vowed to turn it into an annual tradition, even my French guy friends, who were proud of their brownies.

Sure, Paris introduced me to new ingredients that would later inspire kitchen experiments. There were fresh figs, cold and sweet as ice cream, and greengage plums straight off my French host mother’s tree. There was sorrel plucked from her garden, lemony and bright as summer sunshine. Years after I returned to America, I gradually gained the confidence to dream up new flavor combinations, to tweak recipes and make them a new way — my way. And I now adore cooking dishes that taste of my time abroad. But during my first year in the kitchen, I didn’t aspire to cook like a Parisian. I was happy learning how to cook like home.