We recall being about twelve years old, at a fondue restaurant in Tahoe City with our mother and younger brother. It was, perhaps, ten o'clock in the evening and he and I were desperately hungry, as was often the case because our mother did not really like to cook and did like to dine late. It may be that the service was a bit slow for her liking. She began to pull the wooden skewers meant to be tools for dipping bread into the fondue pot, whenever it would arrive, from a cup of them on the table. Each skewer was about 20 centimeters long. She began to build a structure of them. We and our brother looked at one another. We always wondered how she managed to do it. She must have had half a bottle of Jack Daniels in her by then, yet her hands were perfectly steady and the structure she was building on the table was a thing of beauty. It was an intricate, square tower that looked like scaffolding with diagonal supports; no Lincoln log stack, it was airy and elegant. Where had she learned these things? We were so hungry that we began to eat salt from the packets. She sat back to admire her creation and to take a gulp from her cocktail. Still, our dinner was not served. "I've had it with this place!" she said and lit a match. "No!" we both said at once. "Kate, no. Please. We're really hungry." She ignored us and put the match to her tower. It did not burst into flame. The single skewer she had lit turned red and the small flame it produced raced from one skewer to another, like a madman in a maze, until, for a second, it was a tower of embers and ash, wavering in the air, and then it collapsed onto the table. The restaurant owner rushed over. "Kate, I'm going to have to ask you to leave. NOW."
That was not the only time we were thrown out of a restaurant. In fact, it happened fairly often. We do not know why the local restaurants allowed us back in, except that business must have been bad in the off season. The skewer tower was possible only in the fondue restaurant so her methods were different in others. Kate was one for grand entrances and for being greeted with adoration; woe to anyone who did not acknowledge her arrival. As we would be seated at our table, she would smile and wave to acquaintances, or go over to their tables and chat while we and our brother lunged at the bread basket. Restaurants were her element. "I grew up under the table of the original, the only real Trader Vic's. Daddy and Vic were great friends." Why she courted being thrown out of so many remains a mystery. When some friend did not notice her, or did not want to do so, she would return to our table, take a long drink from her cocktail and begin to fume, then to fiddle with her paper napkin. She folded it into a paper airplane, then struck a match and lit it, and sent the flaming rocket sailing across the room toward the person who had offended her. People shrieked. That one got us thrown out every time.
We did not develop a distaste for fire but remain as fascinated by the beauty of flame as much as are the rest of us indebted to Prometheus. Fire has been crucial to civilization, for warmth, for defense, for firing pots, for cooking. There are theories that cooking food and eating cooked food have contributed to human beings having such large brains. The French, with their haute cuisine, (and who invented matches, by the way) would certainly agree. Food traditions are a crucial part of cultural identity. Recently, Gena Philibert-Ortega offered an online course on making a family recipe book, from a genealogical as well as culinary point of view, and with the intention of preserving family food traditions. (As Kate taught us only how to torch a restaurant and to make a perfect Jack Daniel's Old Fashioned, à la Trader Vic, a Frenchman by the way, we did not enroll in Ms. Philibert-Ortega's enticing course, sad to say.)
In France at least, cooking traditions are much more local than national, which is why we have written about them so often here, in the hope that a family food tradition might be of aid in identifying your French ancestor's place of origin within France.
- Of Recipes and Regions
- Carnival, Beignets and Your French Roots
- Easter Roots Hunt
- The Family Liqueur Recipe as a Regional Clue
- Tracing Ancestral Bakers and Pastry Chefs
The last in the above list alters the search a bit. Instead of using food traditions to find an ancestor, one uses an ancestor's known culinary skills to know more about his or her life and movements. On this theme, we are very pleased to present in our next post the start of a series of guest posts about one genealogist's pursuit of an emigrant ancestor with remarkable culinary skills.
©2020 Anne Morddel