Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 12: Hunting Mushrooms, Snails and Prostitutes

February 5, 2015

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“And what do you do, Madame?” 

“I write and produce advertising for American newspapers, magazines, radio and television.”

“Oh my, how interesting and exciting!”

So proudly prepared.  So carefully rehearsed in French. So utterly useless. Even after I straightened out the “matrimonial agent” rumor, nobody ever asked me what I did for a living.

Now that I was apparently doing nothing, I guessed I was off the hook.

My last remaining pipeline was shut off. My longtime client put another writer on the building-association account. She had to. “Damage control,” she said. “Your head isn’t in it anyway. Now you can have time to enjoy being in France.”

You bet I’d have time. Un-billable time. Hours that had brought me a hundred dollars each were now worthless as far as my livelihood was concerned.

Time to think.”  Yeah, right. Time to think about how poor I am. Time to think about how I got into yet another situation where I’m the breadwinner—and then lost it. The single woman’s nightmare of a derelict old age loomed just around the corner, where the Bag Lady Banana Peel lay in wait for me.

Andrew was convinced that the break from my former work was inevitable anyway, and with it all behind me now, I could concentrate on the researching and writing that I really wanted to do. With a little money coming in from room rentals and painting sales, he thought we’d be fine.

Fine for him—Mr. Spanish Moss-can-grow-anywhere-and-exist-on-air.

“One guest room,” I said. “Eight weeks a year. And sell paintings where?  You need an art gallery for that.”  That was a sore point. I’d helped him put a presentation together and lined him up with a couple of gallery owners in the States, but he had never followed up. I got frustrated and quit as his agent.

“Something will come up,” he said. Here was a man who had only to say “je suis artiste-peintre” and people swooned. Artists are revered in this country. They even have famous artists on their money—but would the French spend it on paintings? Absolutely not. That was for American and English tourists.

There was a substantial amount of family money, and some of my own, in investments looked over by my brother’s financial manager in Houston, a confident guy with slicked-back hair who wore suspenders and candy-colored shirts with white collars and cuffs. This would be our inheritance, divided three ways, when Mom died. I could consider the money in my own account available, and I could write a check to myself and deposit it in my French account when I absolutely needed to. But that meant that I was taking it away from my poor old future self. You know, the Bag Lady.

At least I’d finally bought a car, after paying ridiculous thousands on rentals. Andrew paid for his half with a market painting featuring me with Mo receiving a sample at the olive vendor’s stall. He had portrayed us both as slim and elegant, and I loved it.

The car was a Renault Kangoo, a boxy high-top truck-like car that, painted white instead of blue, would ordinarily take dogs to the hunt and bring home the game, or deliver pizzas or lawnmowers. The cargo area would hold Andrew’s largest canvases, in case he found somewhere to sell them, or something as big as an antique chest of drawers if I found one at a nice price. The car was not chic, but it was paid for. Now I could worry about gas prices.

I’d had a poor period after my second divorce, when a dip in client revenue and a swell in expenses sent me into Ben’s piggy bank for Happy Hour. I complained to my boyfriend, the blaster, but he would have none of it.

“Poor, Marcia,” he said sarcastically. “Poor in Chevy Chase. A family of four could live off your garbage.”

So I’d been Chevy Chase poor, and I’d been student poor. That was in Boston, when I worked for a hundred and thirty a week in cash while my first husband was a titan-in-training in Harvard Business School. Back in the Woodstock days, our future was so assured we thought nothing of spending the five hundred dollars my parents sent us for books on a motorcycle and a pair of helmets.

That’s somehow an honorable poor, while you’re gaining riches in knowledge. It’s a brick-and-board-bookcase poor, with cheap Chianti on weekends, other people’s reefer and free concerts on the Common.  But could I live like a poor student now? Would it be as honorable? And if I could, would it unlock that rush of new experience and knowledge that makes you feel rich on life alone?

And a serious question regarding the ethereal philosophies Andrew preached: Should I really be taking seriously a man who leaves the lid open on the garbage pail so he can make shots with wadded wastepaper from across the room?

I wrung my hands and bit my nails and decided to stash some vodka for the inevitable panic attacks.

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At the end of the summer, villages like ours, in Provence and Languedoc, held fêtes votivesoriginally patron saint festivities, with food and wine, games and music and dancing. We got to experience it up close. The big night happened under our noses in the Place de l’Horloge. The communal orange folding tables and chairs were arranged around the Place; stations for fries, wine,  sausages and a pan of paella as big around as a truck wheel were set up at one end, arranged to serve people in orderly lines and destined to disintegrate into a full-court press with the first surge of veteran locals. The DJ started spinning the mild first selections of favorites and a few people ambled around in various forms of dance steps. Apart from them, nearer the stage and veiled by thick sausage smoke, a gray-haired lady in a rumpled housedress boogied all by herself.

While this was not free fun, it was cheap. We bought a couple of platefuls and joined the party. I’ve never been good at small talk, even in my own language, and I needed a few refills of the red wine they pumped out of a box before I felt I could mingle. I stuck by Andrew because he had picked up a colloquial vocabulary from his easy-going bavardage with villagers. People were comfortable with the artiste. They didn’t know what to think about me, his mother, the matrimonial agent, or whoever I was.

After a couple of hours of grooving on the steps of the boutique, shouting the words to American favorites among the French, we called it a night. But the party went on until the wee hours of the morning, attracting waves of generational groups, with the twenty-somethings last, loudest and least discerning in their response to song selections.

“Here comes the Macarena again,” warned Andrew, his face smushed on his pillow.

“Oh god, how do you know?”

“It has followed ‘Y-M-C-A’ every cycle.”

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I especially liked Saturday mornings. That was the one day of the week I could wake up to a job in marketing. The Saturday market in Apt, just downhill from our village, was one of the biggest in the region, and probably the most seriously dedicated to food instead of tourist items. There I learned the ropes from the French housewife. Not any one in particular—I’d just pick one who had that official air and follow her.

Let the well-heeled travelers follow restaurants with Michelin stars. As far as I knew, it was Madame who reigns supreme over the home table, where any Frenchman will tell you the food is better and, especially dear to his heart, cheaper. Jealously guarding recipes handed down from no less authority than their grand-méres, she knew the art of marrying the goût (taste) of the royal classes with the thrift and resourcefulness of her peasant ancestors.

She is at the market when it opens, fiercely prowling the stalls with her straw basket slung over her shoulder. She terrorizes the butcher and greengrocer to get the best quality at the lowest price: (“Pffffft! You call that a turnip, Monsieur?”) She peers suspiciously into the cavity of a roasting chicken, pokes a flounder, sniffs the melons and compares the redness of tomatoes. She holds up a carrot, a mushroom, an egg, a stalk of celery, bringing each specimen up to her trained nose, her dubious eyes. Finally, after driving a hard bargain, she reluctantly goes for her purse (you’d swear it creaks when it opens). As the vendor counts her money, she waits expectantly for the extra carrot or the bunch of parsley he will offer her if he knows what’s good for him.

I imagine her back at home, squeezing every tasty bite, every nourishing drop, every last crumb of sustenance from the carefully considered contents of her market basket. Nothing–I repeat, nothing–will be wasted. When she puts out the family trash at the end of the week, it could fit into a coffee can.

I was embarrassed to be caught with our trash bags, which were the size of full-grown pigs, so I had gotten Andrew to take over that job.

To people raised in small-town America, this devotion to thrift is nothing unusual, and such smart efficiency is no secret in restaurant kitchens. But after my years of cosmopolitan gourmandizing, I was inspired by the respect our Provençal neighbors had for even the smallest edible morsel.

Like the French kitchens I’d seen, mine was small and basic—nothing like the cooking cathedrals fitted with top-of-the-line appliances that were currently fashionable among women I knew.

The window in my kitchen framed the ruins of the mediaeval château. After the fall of the nobility, the people dismantled the castle and used its chiseled stones to make their own houses. To this day, those stones are still being recycled in our neighbors’ renovations. This mentality was not going to stand around and let a perfectly good beef bone or chicken skin go to waste.

I learned to use dandelion greens and celery leaves in salads, to use last night’s meat and vegetables over pasta, and purée the last of yesterday’s vegetable soup to sauce a chicken. I learned to use orange rinds to flavor stews, parsley stems for cooking broth, duck skin fried up as “crackling” to top salads or omelets, and the rendered fat to transform simple potatoes.

Andrew, who had probably considered me and my social circle to be self-regarding snobs, was delighted with the turn I’d taken, and began to show me some professional tricks—the methods they use for speed and efficiency in the relentless heat and pressure of high-volume restaurants—and he contributed some thrilling profanities in kitchen Spanish.

As I got further into the history and culture of the cuisine, I began to read recipes in French. Puzzled by measurements like “un verre,” I’d go downstairs in the morning and consult Brigitte.  She cleared up several mysteries. “One glass” in a recipe was universally understood as a glass the mustard came in. It was the same as one cup. Then there was a coffee spoon (not a spoon of coffee, as I’d thought), and there was the soup spoon (not a  spoonful of soup), corresponding to the teaspoon and the tablespoon.

My interest in cooking—her cooking—began to thaw our relationship. She told me how to make a dish she called a feuilleté, a delicious log of goat cheese rolled up in slices of cooked eggplant and sliced. She gave me a little provincial cookbook organized in seasonal menus. Most helpful was an explanation of the pits in the cherry tart. Pitting the cherries takes away the goût. Fruit, like meat, is sweetest close to the bone.

I started studying the specialties of different regions. It was fascinating to me. I pitched ideas to The Washington Post and began writing stories for the food section. I included recipes I’d pulled from local sources and adapted. The recipes would be tested in the Post’s home kitchens and would appear with the article showing the calorie count and other specifics.

You could point to that as a billable job. However, if I counted all the time I spent researching, shopping, cooking and writing, my rate would be about five dollars an hour, less expenses.

“But that’s great! ”  said Mr. Spanish Moss.

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Everybody said the days would cool off right after le quinze août, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t, right on cue. In France August 15 is a legal holiday celebrating the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into heaven when her earthly life ended. In the pagan countryside, it is the day the cuckoo loses his song and the quail takes it up. But in the practical agrarian culture around us, it was the day the heat of summer hit the wall and people would soon be harvesting the grapes and the olives.

The last tourists left, Jean-Claude closed the boutique for the season and we were still here. With no overnight guests in our building, and nobody cleaning up after them, we were free to run downstairs in towels and soak in a steaming bath. Notes on the doors of our favorite restaurants said they’d be closed until Noël, so we looked for new ones. We moved from sipping rosé outside under the plane trees to quaffing pitchers of red wine by a crackling fire.

The market in Apt was now about three-quarters its summer size, without the tourists and seasonal goods, leaving only the most serious buyers and sellers. Along with the usual meats, fish, cheeses, salads and olive oil, the stalls displayed root vegetables, chestnuts, velvet scarves, hats and hunting gear. Vendors stamped their feet and rubbed their hands together to keep warm.

Now, everyone seemed to be in foraging mode, following ancient instincts to stock up for the coming winter. It was oddly comforting to me. I felt that somehow I had company in my anxiety about the onset of hard times.

One morning, after a week of constant rain, the sun came out and Jean-Claude made good on his promise (or threat) to take us hunting. There’d be no guns for this hunt, though. The prey would be mushrooms.

According a guide I’d studied in advance, you must have a special flip-top wicker basket (no paper sack and certainly no plastic bag) that fits close to your body and has a leather strap to hang on your shoulder. You should have a special mushroom knife with a curved blade, to cut the mushroom off neatly at ground level, and a brush at the other end to clean it off. You should have boots to negotiate the mud, a hat to keep the low branches from getting into your hair, and a stick to poke at things that might be mushrooms or might be something you don’t even want to think about.  I went out and bought everything but the stick.

We picked up Jean-Claude in the Kangoo and he directed us to his “secret spot.” He had a knife, two baskets, his favorite walking/hiking/mushroom-poking stick, serious rubber boots and a jacket he inherited from his “grandfazzer.” A twenty-minute drive took us to a hillside just past an area where abandoned ochre mines had left a spectacular landscape. There were several other cars parked on the road near Jean-Claude’s secret spot.

His strategy was to go off the existing trail (where people from those parked cars would also be hunting), descend a steep drop into the densely forested valley, follow the streambed for awhile, then climb back up the opposing slope and circle back.

After sliding down the rocky incline, we found ourselves on the forest floor, which was covered in bright green moss and overhung with lacy silver branches and vines–rich darkness smelling of earth, pine, damp leaves and primordial mystery, lighted by sunbeams. Here is Mother Nature’s dining room, I thought with a shiver. You just step up to the buffet.

Mushrooms pop up on the sunny side of the hill in spots where the light shines through the trees. We saw plenty of them, and sneaked up on each one as if it could run away. Then I’d point it out to J-C, who would shake his finger and say “pas bon”–no good. Apparently every tasty variety of mushroom–cèpe, girolle (chanterelle), trompette de mort–has an evil twin that will fool you with its likeness and make you sick if you eat it. If you aren’t sure about your harvest, you take your basket to the local pharmacy, where they will separate the good from the bad and save you from poisoning yourself–or eating something that tastes less than wonderful, which some consider just as bad.

By the end of the morning, my basket contained about 15 pas bon mushrooms I’d found, and one big fat cèpe that J-C had showed us.

When we returned to our car, we found a note tucked under a wiper blade, telling us that our license plate had been noted and would be sent in to the mairie, fingering us as mushroom poachers, without a permit on private land. We freaked out. Now we were culprits while the man who led us here would go scot-free !  But J-C pooh-poohed the idea. “How could anyone prove you were hunting mushrooms?” he reasoned. “You just put ze mushrooms in your pocket, and you say you were making love in ze nature. ”

Now I wanted to hunt for snails. On the trail, I’d run into a little cluster of people examining weeds as if looking for something. “L’escargots,” they’d said when I asked. One man was so pleased I showed an interest that he took the time to explain how to prepare them. You put them in a bucket for three weeks while they purge themselves. (You could even feed them herbs so, in effect, they season themselves!) Then you boil them, and finally sauté them with garlic, butter and parsley—et voilà! Just like in Burgundy!

I hadn’t seen a field guide for snail hunting, nor did there seem to be any chic paraphernalia like that for mushrooming. So, after the next rain,  accessorized with only a plastic bag imprinted with a supermarket logo, I dragged Andrew out along a grassy hiking trail. The ground was muddy and droplets hung off the tips of evergreens. There were snails galore–little white ones clinging to tall weedy stalks, and big brown ones with black heads and long antennae, oozing their way across our path. They were everywhere, once you got used to looking.

Back home, we left the snails in their plastic bag on the dining table while Andrew went back to his easel and I went out to buy something I’d forgotten for this project—the bucket.

When I came back with two kinds of buckets that afternoon, I surprised the snails in the very act of escaping. I shouted for Andrew, who came tearing out of the atelier. A big brown snail was in the lead, inching his way along the back of one of the dining chairs. He was followed by his brown cohort and their little white cousins (which, we later found out, were pas bon). The snails were all in a neat and orderly file–from the open bag on the table, down the table leg to the seat of a chair, up the chair and across the top, down the other side and up the next chair—in a slow progression toward our front door.

Andrew and I looked at each other. It was clear that there was now no way we could cook and eat these snails. They had revealed their character. They were now brave individuals who had organized into a group and rallied behind one who’d shown himself to be a leader. They were making a valiant effort to save themselves.

Andrew gathered them back in the bag, took them outside to a field and let them loose. “Let’s just stick to the ones that are cooked before we get to know them,”  he said.

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After more than a hundred days devoted to eating and drinking, Andrew started complaining about getting soft and pudgy. He was speaking for himself, but there was no escaping the message of the zipper on my jeans or the flab on my upper arms. I still ran regularly, but for years I had also worked out with weights, and without the push of that routine, I felt my strength fading away, and with it my physical confidence.

I set out to find a gym, and invested in an annual membership for two at a place called “Planet Fitness” in a town on the way to Avignon. It was a twenty-minute ride on the N100, the ancient Roman Via Domitia.

It was a familial little club, run by a trainer in a renovated wing of his parents’ house, furnished now with a respected line of gym machines as well as free weights and benches. One side was entirely sliding glass doors, giving inspiring views of the mountains, and the swimming pool right outside.

The trainer/owner was happy to give us each a program to follow, ushering us into yet another new territory of vocabulary and customs. The membership seemed pretty well heeled. The women wore smart workout ensembles and substantial gold jewelry. Their coiffures were perfect.

People thought it was a long way to go for a workout, but we liked it. After driving in Washington traffic, twenty minutes seemed like nothing once we fell into the routine.

There were new vistas to discover as the seasons changed, and as our bodies shaped up, we took a proprietary interest in improvements and additions to buildings along our route. We followed the progress of farmers as they went about their sowing, irrigating, cultivating and harvesting. And then we came across our roadside prostitute.

She sat in a little gray car, was pulled over next to a dirt road–an angular blonde in her early forties, smoking a cigarette and waiting for someone. The third or fourth time we saw her in the same spot, it dawned on me that what she was waiting for was a customer.

“She’s a putain!” I said, thrilled to identify her as a working girl.

Her inner office must have been at the end of that little dirt road, which led into woods by the river.

“Do you really think so?” asked Andrew. As the driver, he hadn’t studied her as carefully as I could from the passenger seat. There were no grocery bags, no baby seat, no briefcase or sales paraphernalia.

Going back and forth to workouts, we got to know her routine. That winter she’d be at her post after lunch every day except Sunday, even in the bitterest weather, windows rolled up, hugging herself for warmth and pretending not to be looking for customers. Sometimes she’d have her head down as if she were reading something. I craned my neck to see. Titles flashed in my mind—Moll Flanders, Happy Hooker, Better Blowjobs.

On warm days she’d have the car door open and her dress hiked up to show a little leg. We were impressed by her daring, because she parked very close to the spot, just around the next curve, where the gendarmes liked to stake out and catch speeders. Hers was a good strategy, though. If prospects were speeding from the direction of Avignon, she would get them first! She must have done some kind of negotiating to have secured this prime location for herself. I felt curiously proud of her.

Sometimes her car would be empty. Then we’d look through the trees for a client’s car. Once we saw her sliding out of the passenger side of a truck, presumably after taking care of some business with the middle-aged driver.

I imagined the process: The client pulls up to negotiate, she gets into his vehicle, they drive the short distance down the dirt road to relative privacy beside the river. (The client would obviously rather use his car for the rendez-vous than leave it on the N100, where the passing world would see it and know what he was up to.)

“She’s the hardest-working whore in show business,” said Andrew admiringly.

In a strange way she had become a significant figure in our life—an example of persistence and self-sufficiency. When I saw her at her post, with her hard, calculated look, then everything was as it should be. She would get the job, do the job, bill the job and move on to the next.

I kept tabs on her. Andrew would slow down so I could check out her dress and haircut, watch out for bruises on her arm, or dents and scratches on her car. We speculated on her rates and calculated her weekly revenue.

“More than ours right now” was my guess.

Andrew reported seeing her driving through a neighboring village at the end of the day. Was she going home alone to her little apartment to wash up for an evening of TV and a frozen dinner? Or did she live with a sick and cranky mother who didn’t know where the money came from? Did she have a cat? A dog? Maybe even a child somewhere?

Then for a several weeks straight she wasn’t there.

What had happened to her? Was she sick? I could just imagine the bladder infections. Had she contracted a venereal disease? Did somebody beat her up? Or did authorities finally chase her away from her spot?

It made me anxious in a way I couldn’t explain. Somehow, my ability to get along had become tied up with hers.

It never occurred to me that she might have found a nice man and retired.

“Want to skip the pitcher?” Andrew suggested at lunch one day. After our workout we went to a restaurant with a 13 Euro menu that included the wine.

It irritated me that he couldn’t make a suggestion without feeling compelled to frame it as a solicitous question.

“No. We pay for it.”

Why was he beginning to quibble about lunchtime wine? Sometimes it made my day.

Spring finally came and I forgot about the putain as the flow of paying guests and visitors resumed. My cousin Sherry came with her daughter Allison, and one day I took them to the Camargue. On the way, I pointed out our missing prostitute’s vacant spot. They were carried away with the story.

“Let’s keep an eye out,” said Sherry. “I want to believe she’s okay . . . that she just found a better spot . . . with more business.”  What a Pollyanna.

But then, about ten kilometers past the fitness club, I turned south and spotted a car parked on the shoulder in a familiar position.

It was our putain!

Sherry was right. She had staked out another dirt road leading into the woods, but this spot was shadier and more private. She had the door open, smoking her usual cigarette. Her hair looked great. She was sporting a new sundress.

Sherry and Allison, both teachers and church-going ladies, whooped right along with me as we passed. They turned around in the back seat and waved. As women who worked for a living, we all believed you have to keep showing up and doing your best.

“I can’t wait till we tell Andrew!” said Sherry. “He’ll be so pleased.”

Our putain was back on the job—everything would be okay.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell

 



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