Literary Eats: 13, Rue Thérèse

Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13, rue Thérèse is totally captivating, and it has pictures. This is so my kind of book. And, taking place in France, of course it has great food.

This day (still Tuesday) Louise has spent all afternoon working hard to prepare a beautiful meal. She serves it to three men, all mustached jewelers: her father, her husband, and their friend Pierre Cleper. The first course is fennel soup. They sip from their spoons and chat…

“She is a pistol, that one!” Pierre says to Henri, pointing to Louise with his trigger finger, as she gets up and clears the emptied soup bowls from the table. As she walks to the kitchen, she hears her husband declare, with pleasure and pride “That’s why I married her.”

In the kitchen, she readies the next course by putting it in serving dishes. It is a boeuf bourguignon with potatoes, Henri’s favorite. She likes the three men together; her father and Henri and Pierre have a certain chemistry. When they come together, they always laugh a lot and have conversations that border on the improper…

She brings out the potatoes first in a big bowl and then comes back with the stew in a large white tureen ornamented with painted blue curlicues, the serving spoon planted firmly inside.

“Ah,” Henri sighs contentedly. “Darling, it smells delicious.”

She smiles and puts her culinary opus in the middle of the table. The men wait for her to sit, and Henri begins to serve everyone: first Pierre, then his father-in-law, then Louise, and last himself.

For a minute, they eat silently. Everything is precisely the correct texture: the peeled potatoes split apart under the pressure of the fork; the beef shreds in the mouth, from the mere wiggling of the tongue. The vegetables are soft, but not flaccidly overcooked.

“This dish is wonderful. It warms the heart,” Louise’s father says. She blushes at his florid compliment.

“Yes, a toast to the cook,” Pierre says, and raises his glass. The other two men repeat his gesture, and they all sip from their wine. It is a deep, rich Burgundy, naturally, to match the main course.

The conversation begins to flow again but is more subdued: the main dish demands a greater portion of everyone’s attention than the soup. They thoroughly devour the contents of the tureen, and Louise is surprised: she had counted on having some for her lunch tomorrow. She will have to think of something else to eat.

They sit in a satisfied haze until her father asks if there is any cheese.

“I have a Camembert,” Louise says, “but are you sure you want some? I made a custard for dessert. Do you have room for all this?”

“Oh, I will not spoil my appetite for your custard, dear girl – I just want a tiny sliver of your Camembert, please.”

She clears everything and comes back with the cheese and a small basket of baguette slices. Her father is the only one who eats. The rest of them are saving room for dessert.

The dessert is a heavy chocolate custard, a marvel of cream and eggs and decadence. A little of its smoothness goes a long way, a good long way. They savor this sweet in complete silence, and sigh in abject surrender when they are done. “Oh, Louise, your custard has finished me off,” Pierre announces drowsily, dabbing his mouth with his napkin. “You’re going to kill us all with deliciousness.”

“Why, thank you. That makes me glad.”

“I know! You are a corrupted woman like that.”

After Pierre utters this, he smiles wickedly at her, and once again she blushes. Henri shoots Pierre a sideways glance of faint disapproval: his friend is often unchecked this way when he is sated after a good meal. Being full loosens him.

Louise leaves the men to digest at the table and smoke cigarettes while she does the dishes. She is happy that she has given them all such pleasure with this lovely meal she crafted so carefully; it took her a good six hours to put everything together. This is all right, as truly this is her primary duty in life – the feeding of men. There is also housecleaning, but cleaning is very dull…

—13 rue Thérèse, by Elena Mauli Shapiro, Reagan Arthur Books, New York, 2011