Learning to let go and cook simple meals in the South of France

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The view up Avenue de la Liberté from the Hoffmans' front door. Photo courtesy of Steve and Mary Jo Hoffman.

Imagine that you spend a spell in Paris as a young person, where you decide this is who you are truly meant to be. So you spend a great part of your life creating and inhabiting a French persona with the goal of one day moving to France and starting a life there. You learn French and are rigorous about your syntax and pronunciation. Although it's a hard sell, you manage to convince your significant other and your children to take the leap with you. But when you arrive in the town where your six-month rental is located, it's nothing like you expect. There's a reason for that. You've ended up in the wrong town.

Steve Hoffman's memoir about his family's French sojourn, A Season for That: Lost and Found in the Other Southern France, is a blisteringly self-aware tale of how we perceive ourselves, what we hang onto, and what we let go of in order to grow.

Evan Kleiman: I loved your book so much. It's the perfect summer read. Many people know that I'm a person who has spent decades inhabiting the fantasy of a life in Italy, so I completely understand what drove you. But could you speak a bit about the beginnings of your fascination with France and what you thought you were looking for?

Steve Hoffman: The beginnings of my fascination with France were really, at their origin, about the French language. I took French early in sixth grade. I happened to have a facility for it, the pronunciation of it, and it was the beauty of the language, but it was also really the language as access to French culture that was the initial appeal. Then I spent nine months in Paris when I was 23 years old and really felt, at that point, as if I had found a new version of myself that I loved and that, in some sense, I liked better than the version I had been living with for 23 years. It felt as if France somehow was the location where I could be that person.

I think people who are not multilingual, people who have never come close to fluency in a second or third language, can't really understand how you are a different person in that language. 

Very much so. I was born and raised in Minnesota. I tend to be a nice guy. I assume that I'm wrong most of the time. I found living in Paris, even as a young man, that I suddenly had an authority to state my opinion and to dispute with vendors. That was not who I was yet it was who I was when I was there and when I was speaking that language.

Steve Hoffman documents relocating his family to a winemaking village in southern France in his memoir, "A Season for That." Photo courtesy of Crown Publishing.

Tell us a bit about your family, who also went on this ride with you — your wife, Mary Jo, and your children, Eva and Joseph. How old were they when you took them to France? 

When we took them to France, Joseph was nine and Eva was 14. Mary Jo and I were in our mid-40s. We'd been married since our early 20s. Mary Jo and I have had a long and collaborative marriage in which we have handed the reins of having to earn income back and forth between ourselves. She was an aeronautical and astronautical engineer for basically the first half of our marriage. Then, she sort of slapped my hand and jumped out of the ring and decided to stay home for a while to raise children. But we both always had this really deep calling to do something creative with our time and with our lives.

The Hoffman family in Autignac, circa 2012. Photo courtesy of Steve and Mary Jo Hoffman.

What were you imagining this village, in which your six-month rental was located, would be, what it would look and feel like? And what did you find instead?

Well, we chose the Languedoc region of southern France rather than Provence, primarily because it was more affordable for us. We're a middle class family. We don't have independent wealth. Provence is very, very touristed and very, very expensive. Yet, I think my idea of what a Southern French village was going to look like was informed very much by Provence and by the flowers in the flower boxes, the perfectly maintained cobbled walls, the narrow streets, and probably a view of the sea somewhere, if not the sea, then the mountains of the Vaucluse. 

Instead, we got to Languedoc, which was much lower and flatter. We were on the Mediterranean plane, so there were no hills. The Mediterranean was a suspicion in the air but it wasn't really a presence at first. Then the village itself was very working class. The beauty of the village really was that it was still a winemaker's village. In other words, it wasn't prettied up for tourists and it could still exist into the 21st century as a place whose livelihood primarily derived from making wine, of all things. But that meant that the walls weren't painted, and it was very, very hot, and our neighbors were not in any way glamorous. They walked around the streets in laborer's overalls and drove tractors up and down the street. It was a somewhat shocking entry into this part of the world for us although it should have been expected.

Wine flowing down the street during harvest season. Photo courtesy of Steve and Mary Jo Hoffman.

You were so lucky you picked that spot.

In retrospect, it was exactly where we needed to be. It was perfect in the end and yet, at first it was… it was a  bit of a disappointment, honestly. 

So you send your children off to school where they're surrounded with teachers and classmates of a different culture speaking a different language, which must have been very hard despite their having attended a lycée back in the U.S. They're kids who have to make new friends, everything new. I found the choice that you made to feed your family by cooking your way through the classic French dishes of the region, instead of anchoring them at home and comfort foods, admirable, but perhaps a bit clumsy.

Entirely misguided. Yes, entirely misguided.

Can you take us through one of the meals you made for them at the beginning and their reaction? 

I think the most indicative is probably the first time I tried to cook rabbit for them, which I should have known already, except that it sounded terribly romantic to cook a rabbit in my French kitchen. I got a rabbit from the local épicerie in town. There was actually an abattoir just outside of town, and so we could get fresh protein — rabbits and ducks and guinea fowl and so on at any time — and in very high quality. I thought, "Well, I'm gonna cook rabbit!" Then I had this rabbit in front of me with its blue tongue sticking out the side of its mouth, and I had to suddenly do something with this. I just realized, or had the first inkling of a realization, of what cooking really means, which is that you have skills, and you've done it for a long time, and you've tried it multiple ways, and you have repeatable skill sets. 

Here I was, at this moment of truth, trying to cook a rabbit for my family, which should have been a beautiful moment, and it was an utter disaster. Our cookware was terrible. It was, you know, the thin-sided, stainless steel pots that you can imagine. The browning [of] the rabbit turned into charring the rabbit at various parts of its body and having it stick to the bottom of the pan. I didn't piece it up. So I ended up serving it just the way I'd found it, which was whole. It kind of lay and my daughter literally said, "That looks like a Chihuahua," and refused to eat a single bite, as did my son, as did my wife, Mary Jo, and I ended up picking at it and in an embarrassed way, sort of, you know, kind of tossing most of it in the end. 

Joe Hoffman's First Oyster.jpeg
Joe Hoffman trying his first oyster. Photo courtesy of Steve and Mary Jo Hoffman.

One of my favorite threads through the book is how your daughter, Eva, in an attempt to feed herself and have a backstop from your experiments, goes out early every day to find a baguette.

Yes, she was impossible to wake up except every single morning before school, because she knew if she got up at 5:30 in the morning and made it to the bakery right as they opened, then she could pick her food for the day. She would stuff her pockets with gummy candy, come home with two baguettes. She would sit down, plunge her hand and forearm all the way into half a baguette, pull all the white mei, you know, the soft center out, and basically pop bread balls into her mouth for breakfast with a little bit of honey. Eva's very much a character in the book, as I think both kids [are], but she's a strong character in a good way and in a frustrating way. This was her way of saying, "Dad, you can't make me do this. Sorry, I know what I think you're trying to do, but you can't make me do it. I'm going to do what I need to do."

A visit from the fishmonger. Photo courtesy of Steve and Mary Jo Hoffman.

Tell me about Maman from Le Jardin de Marie. She kind of became your culinary mentor and made suggestions. She put you on the right track to cook at home. I'm thinking in terms of something that was embraced by the family – the macaronis. 

Very much so. I considered her not just a sort of a culinary coach and mentor, but by the end of the book, really a life mentor, or at least somebody who mentored me in understanding how cooking should fit into life. One of the turning points in the book, she recommends to me that I make something called a macaronade, which is from the town of Sète and on the coast of southern France, a very unromantic, still working fishing village now, somewhat industrial. But there's a cuisine Sètoise, which is similar to the cuisine Niçoise that would be associated with the city of Nice

The macaronade was something that Italian fishermen brought to Sète with them from Naples, primarily. It's a beautiful, simple, baked dish of macaroni, not surprisingly, in a tomato and garlic and onion sauce, like you might imagine, sort of slow-braised in the oven. She recommended, which Evan I think you might recognize, in French they're called brageoles but I think they're braciole in Italian. They're this thin strip of chuck steak that is then seasoned with parsley and garlic and salt, then rolled into a kind of sleeping bag that then gets braised in this bubbling macaroni stew of sorts. I was so not ready, as what I thought of as a lover of French cuisine, to be taking seriously a slow cooked dish of macaroni and tomato sauce. 

At that moment, I had this insight. She would talk about her family and cooking for her family, and she would always use this phrase, "ils se régale," which means "they regale themselves." It suddenly came clear to me that that's what the reward was for her. It was really the turning point in the book for me as well, and a turning point in my life.

Rather than thinking of a cuisine as something that is a bunch of precepts handed down from mostly male experts who have perfected things that they are now going to instruct us in how best to prepare, what she was teaching me was that a cuisine really is, or should be, in a much more pleasurable way, just a handing up these treasure maps from generations of cooks in family kitchens, who have had what grows around them as their raw ingredients, and they've worked to make that taste as good as possible. Generation after generation, those dishes become standards or classics. 

It's a more satisfying way of thinking of inheriting a cuisine for me. I call it "the clamor at the hearth." You have this family that wants to eat your cooking because you care about them and you want to give them something that tastes good. And by the end of the book, I had realized that trying to master the elevated techniques of, the mostly masculine realm of haute cuisine in France was not only almost impossible for me, given the time I had to devote to it, but it was so much less satisfying than making three very specific people happy, because you listened to them and let them tell you what they wanted. Then, you provided that to them in a way that they loved and that they responded to, and that made them want to sit at the table and have those conversations and be a family together. It was really, really an amazing moment for me and an amazing turning point.