I first met Colette Rossant through another reading list, one I’d prepared for a trip to Egypt in 2002. Her Memories of a Lost Egypt (1999) recounted her childhood in Egypt with her grandparents. She was the daughter of an Egyptian father and a French mother, but her father died quite early in her life. She found solace in the kitchen with chef Ahmet, but she also very much felt warmth in her grandparents’ home even though her mother had abandoned her there. Consequently, the memoir also contained recipes of the country, which made the reading very enjoyable as it revealed ingredients of foods we were eating as travelers—and could cook ourselves upon a return home.
Retitled Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes, that memoir was followed by a second in 2003, Return to Paris, which recounts her move back to France in 1947 following the war, to yet another maternal grandparent’s residence. Colette’s brother Eddy had remained in Paris during the war and, amazingly, remained safe. Although the family is Jewish, they had changed their name many years earlier, which helped to protect them during the Occupation. Colette is understandably upset to be uprooted from her comfortable home in Cairo with a loving family to a house where she barely knows her chilly sibling and is ruled over by a stern grandmother, her mother once again escaping to pursue her own social agenda.
Colette’s education in cooking continues in her new Paris residence as she befriends the cook Georgette, and recipes are interspersed with the narrative. Chicken fricassee, for instance, is redolent of rosemary and garlic. Georgette’s Pain Perdu (French Toast, most likely, to American readers) helps to assuage Colette’s pain at being abandoned in what she views as hostile territory.
The influence of food and Colette’s deep interest in markets and kitchen permeate the narrative as she moves from child to independent young woman and eventually to wife. The family’s lifestyle is upper middle class even though much has been lost in the war; her inheritance from her Egyptian family sustains her. Unfortunately, just as Colette of age when she can gain her full inheritance, Egypt is nationalized with Nasser overthrowing the ruling family. By this time, she has met her future husband, Jimmy Rossant, the son of an American friend of the family, and although Jimmy and Colette wish to wed immediately, they are told he must first complete his degree at Harvard in architecture. After graduation, he is commissioned in the US Army and stationed at Munich, where they “live in sin,” this being the 1950s.
Julia Child would have recognized and bemoaned the spread that the officers’ wives put on the table; certainly Colette was not impressed by an appetizer of shrimp and “ketchup” (a condiment that never was to grace their kitchen according to her children); soggy stuffing in a turkey, again with some “red” type of stuff; a tasteless iceberg lettuce salad with so-called “French” dressing. When offered recipes by the hostess, she replies, “I don’t cook that much.” Her own version of turkey and stuffing includes dried apricots soaked in brandy and chestnuts. Definitely a French flair to Thanksgiving!
Colette’s adventures take her to Italy, Germany, and the USA, and this is an enjoyable read, perhaps not as charming as the previous memoir, but still worthwhile, particularly for foodies. This memoir exemplifies one reason why I find books set in the country where I’m traveling so helpful. When Colette lives in Italy, she visits the markets—a favorite activity for her no matter the location—and she discovers porchetta, a roasted, stuffed whole hog that is displayed at a stand. When anyone wants some of the porchetta, a slab that encompasses the hog, the stuffing of herbs, vegetables, perhaps salami or prosciutto is sliced from the whole hog. It may be dinner, or it may be put on bread for a sandwich to be eaten at the moment. As a result of reading this description, I knew what the porchetta stand contained when I visited a market in Bastia, Italy and later purchased some at the Assisi annual Town Fair. Rossant is a writer who has a terrific eye and ear for the culture of a place, which is so helpful to a Road Works traveler.
Rossant has a third memoir, The World in My Kitchen. But she is better known as a food critic and cookbook writer, including A Mostly French Food Processor Cookbook! I’ll be tempted at Thanksgiving to try her version of roast turkey. Although Rossant is nearing 80, she has her own website and Facebook page, truly an indomitable and inimitable spirit.