Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

 

The Clapeaus were in their sixties, with four grown-up children who brought their families to lunch every Sunday, and many acquaintances they often asked to dinner, which justified their having a live-in cook.

Maybe they didn’t dare admit that they themselves needed fine dishes cooked for them every day, because they loved eating with a fervent, unrelenting love, stronger than they were, that forced them to keep food in the foreground of their thoughts at all times.

It disturbed them a little.

Maybe they only had so many guests to give themselves an excuse for that obsession.

Because it frightened them, loving to eat as much as they did.

‘You have to give your guests a decent welcome, decent food,’ they often said, since they couldn’t say: ‘We really invite people over as an excuse to stuff our faces.’

Did the Cheffe, at her age, realise the Clapeaus didn’t entirely like being what they were, that they wished they could take a tamer, more ordinary interest in cuisine, that they felt in a sense possessed by eating and the pleasure it brought them?

I don’t know. I only know that she always found a way to let the people she cooked for never feel ashamed that they passionately loved having her cook for them.

Oh yes, she hated people feeling guilty because of her, because of the pleasure she could bring them, which happens, she hated that.

But at the Clapeaus’ she was probably too young to understand how deeply those otherwise reasonably friendly and uncomplicated people hated that weakness, that ardour for fabulous, varied, new, memorable meals.

Had she understood the remorse that faithfully visited them after every feast, then she would have seen more sense in their strange behaviour with the cook, the way they fawned over her and harassed her at the same time, praised her with unfeigned enthusiasm in front of the guests and lashed her with baseless, strange, disjointed rebukes when they were alone with her, which the cook, viscerally aware of her power and standing, perfectly grasping what she would have found hard to put into words, answered with serene, impudent, weary effrontery, not fooled for a minute: ‘Yeah, yeah, you loved it and you know it,’ she told them, unless she didn’t actually say those words but simply conveyed their meaning – it’s the same thing, I know the gist of what happened and not the details, I know the spirit more than the letter, of course, but isn’t it the spirit that matters?

In any case, after some time the Cheffe realised the cook had a powerful hold over the Clapeaus.

Whenever they’d berated her too violently on some empty pretext they themselves didn’t believe in even as they were making so much of it (blushing, stammering, looking away), they always came hurrying back to beg her forgiveness, one or the other of them, and everything about them was a plea: ‘Don’t leave us, forget all those stupid things we said, not under the effect of alcohol, alas, we never drink enough to break free of our foolish guilt, we stay mired in that guilt instead of springing away with a joyous, intoxicated kick, no, it wasn’t our usual cru bourgeois that made us deluge you with vague, incoherent complaints, it was only our irremediable sense of shame and dishonour after an exquisite dinner, as yours was yet again this evening, thank you, thank you, please don’t leave us.’

Busy cleaning the kitchen, whisking a broom over the floor tiles glistening with cooking fat, the Cheffe heard every word of what went on between the sneering cook and the remorse-drunk Clapeaus, but I’m sure she never glimpsed the erotic aspect of the exchange, and the cook’s vengeful, arrogant sense of sexual triumph when she afterwards turned to the Cheffe and cried, joyless but with a thrill in her voice, ‘I sure showed them, I’ve got them eating out of my hand, you see that?’ was something the Cheffe simply couldn’t perceive.

Later she could, of course, and she hated it, she would hate it for as long as she lived.

What exactly? Oh, you know what I’m talking about. That way some dinner guests, men or women, have of treating the man or woman who cooks for them like a lover or mistress, since they lack the imagination to dream up any other image of the person who has so lavishly catered to their pleasure and happiness.

And with that there come poses, gazes, even words, that – spoken with no ulterior motive or hidden meaning, almost innocently shall we say – so overtly evoke sexual pleasure that the Cheffe, who had a real loathing for invasiveness, came to dread any expression of gratitude or admiration, as I told you before, she didn’t like coming out into the dining room, didn’t like meeting the customers.

She didn’t like feeling her body close to theirs, didn’t like seeing their tongues, their lips, their post-meal glow.

You’re right, I called it a lack of imagination and I shouldn’t have.

Not because it’s wrong or not what I really think, but because you’re going to ask how in that case the Cheffe would have liked to be thanked, in what register of ideas or feelings she wanted to be praised.

That’s what you’re about to ask me, right?

Because even for a woman as exceptional as the Cheffe, working and slaving and often suffering, and sacrificing any chance of rest or more or less anything like a private life, a family life, on the altar of extraordinary cooking, all that would have been hard to endure without thanks.

As I told you, she wanted no part of worship with erotic overtones, real or perceived.

She wanted it to be spiritual, she wanted the eater to fall into a state of quiet, modest contemplation, she wanted him to speak to her, if he so wished (but she would have rather he didn’t), as he would to the officiant of a ceremony at once simple in its presentation and elaborate in its conception, and then she, the Cheffe, the celebrant, could be complimented for having so skilfully organised the phases of that ritual, she could be thanked, she could be praised for her thoughtful and sensitive observance.

That, she could tolerate, it could sometimes be a pleasure, she could put up with it, yes.

It was in that spirit that she practised her art.

Otherwise, she would have said, why bother?

She didn’t want money or responsibilities, she wasn’t greedy, had no taste for luxury, wasn’t interested in her legacy.

Cooking was sacred.

Otherwise, why go to so much effort?

No, of course, that’s not how she saw things in the days of Marmande and the Clapeaus, she didn’t see anything, she wasn’t really looking.

But she was feeling, concentrating the rays with her tireless little magnifying glass, secretly absorbing and transforming everything offered by the part of her working day that she spent helping the cook, that woman who would never be her friend.

Very simple tasks, yes, peeling, washing, slicing.

One of the Clapeaus’ grandsons was kind enough to send me a copy of Madame Clapeau’s cash book from those days, and the entries for meat, vegetables, groceries and wine fit perfectly with the dishes the Cheffe remembered seeing the cook make, which she tried to describe in detail when I asked her about her informal education at the Clapeaus’, she loved remembering that sort of thing, how she later mocked the heaviness of those menus!

For the Clapeaus, you couldn’t give your guests a decent or even, in a sense, a friendly reception without a first course of charcuterie and then another of fish in sauce, a main dish of roasted or braised meat with multiple vegetable sides, a generously crouton-topped salad, a huge cheese board, a tart or a cake, all of that followed by fruits, chocolates, petits fours.

They loved a platter of pork charcuterie, they loved pate en croute, meat pies, galantines, ham croissants, which they didn’t trust their cook to make but had delivered from a shop in Paris, I’ve forgotten the name, they claimed it was the place to find the best of all things pork.

The Clapeaus had a serious passion for meat, and since, strangely, they seemed to find that passion as acceptable as their fondness for fine cuisine was shameful, they sometimes exclaimed, in a tone of exaggerated, faintly absurd pride, ‘Meat galore, that’s what we like!’ – hoping to hide the fact that in truth they loved everything, creams and flans, roasted vegetables, warm goat’s cheese on toast, and that deep down what they really loved was eating, even if organising their dinner parties, planning the menus, choosing the products, endless deliberations with the cook on the choice of a dish supposedly favoured by some guest, all those falsely anxious, ostensibly fraught preliminaries (everyone was supposed to believe those many invitations were a duty and a chore the Clapeaus were shouldering) brought them enormous pleasure, a pleasure so ill-concealed that the Cheffe saw it almost immediately.

Yes, it was the Clapeaus who first gave her an example of the pleasure the vocabulary of cooking can inspire, they pronounced the words carefully, repeated them needlessly, kept each one in their mouths as long as they could before going on to the next.

They also gave her an example of what it is to be helpless and lost, not because good food was the only thing they ever thought about but because their own nature shocked and alarmed them, and they looked at themselves with the same stern, censorious gaze they would have given anyone whose life was ruled by an obsession.

They hated that about themselves, they couldn’t even understand it, that was why they were lost, unworthy of respect, people mocked them behind their backs, sometimes hardly behind their backs at all.

That was what taught the Cheffe you should only let your obsessions show if you’re proud of them.

What did they look like?

I couldn’t tell you. I never saw a photo.

The Cheffe never described them, except to say they weren’t in any way unusual.

I’m not sure she would have told me even if they were enormously fat, I can imagine her conscientiously keeping that to herself, out of politeness, compassion, esteem for those people who, in the end, treated her well.

So it means nothing either way that she didn’t say if they were or were not grossly overweight.

The Cheffe was the most loyal person I ever knew, and that’s what lay behind so many of her mysteries.

She kept quiet or concealed the truth out of faithfulness to loyalty, if I can put it that way.

I myself have to take care to be both loyal and accurate, to be faithful to both loyalty and accuracy, and it tortures me terribly, talking with you I’ve often found myself deeply discouraged, yes.

I’d like to tell the Life of the Cheffe the way people write the Life of a Saint, but that’s impossible, and the Cheffe herself would have thought it ridiculous.

So I try to make plain honesty my watchword, but sometimes I hear the clear, calm voice, slightly tinged with a terrifying threat, the threat of a withdrawal of her trust and affection, sometimes I hear the voice of the Cheffe saying, ‘Do you really think you have any right to talk about all this? If I never did, why should you?’

Yes, it’s very hard for me to accept that one day, as I’m talking away, I may commit an infidelity to loyalty and not realise it or realise it too late, and I know that vanity, in this case the temptation to impress by revealing some secret, lies in wait for me with every sentence I speak, I know it well, it’s very hard.

I’m feeling my way, I’m not sure of anything, I want the Cheffe to be thought an admirable woman.

Horrified by that idea?

Yes, she certainly would have been, but she would have been wrong, that’s the conviction I’ve come to.

I can go on talking to you about the Cheffe as long as I feel certain that she would have been wrong to fight it with her old resistance to anyone taking an interest in her.

Because I realised that had become a reflex for her, and I also realised she didn’t dare ask herself if it was really so impossible to feel happy or curious about the many requests she got, at the end, from journalists eager to meet her.

She’d long since convinced herself that she couldn’t.

It was like a sin to her, that idea of meeting, of telling, but it was a sin she’d made up, and she didn’t know it.

The Cheffe would have found that misstep far less grave if she’d realised no-one else saw it, I’m almost sure.

She was proud, but there was no vanity in her pride.

She admitted her lapses in judgment, the illusions her untamed heart sometimes dreamt up, she knew she was strong-headed, too quick to accuse herself, punish herself, too quick to feel guilty.

I myself make plain honesty my watchword, and I put my love for her after that, because I know the Cheffe valued honesty over love, she thought people could do terrible things in the name of love, but never in the name of honesty.

The love between a man and a woman never interested her much.

Long before I met her, cooking had commandeered all her capacity for loving, for giving of herself, for suffering, for hoping, both the act of cooking and especially the thinking behind it, and the little capacity for love that managed to slip free of cooking went to her daughter, the Cheffe’s daughter, you may already have met her, if you ask me she didn’t deserve that love.

But it was a love heavy with despair, so maybe it wasn’t really love at all.

I’ve often thought my feelings for the Cheffe kept me from becoming a great cook, but I don’t regret it.

Every day I get something from what my love made of me, and if I can live my life on good terms with myself it’s only because my exclusive, absolute, imperishable love transformed the boy I was, conventionally eager to succeed, ordinary, pragmatic, into a young man capable of marvelling and sacrificing.

How could I regret becoming a far better man, morally and spiritually, than the man I would have been had that love not caught hold of me?

I can’t regret that.

Forget my dreams of becoming a chef, for me it will be enough to have practised my trade decently, and made from it only what I need, which is very little.

I can’t regret the swelling of my courage, the blossoming of my cramped heart, no-one would regret that, man or woman, no-one.

Once you’ve seen that elevation of your consciousness, even at the expense of more concrete ambitions, then you can only be grateful, and you’ll set aside disappointment and frustration for all time.

That’s why I can’t regret devoting my talents to loving and serving the Cheffe instead of myself, I can’t regret that.

 

 

This is an excerpt from The Cheffe by Marie NDiayetranslated from the French by Jordan Stump, and published by MacLehose in the UK and Knopf in the US.

Image © danzil raines

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On Tastelessness