MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH EATING

From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love

Ann Mah

As a travel writer and a diplomat’s wife, Ann Mah has led a globetrotting life: moving from city to city every few years, learning languages, making new friends and leaving old ones behind. When her husband Calvin gets a three-year assignment in Paris, Ann can’t believe her luck; since childhood, she has dreamed of living in the City of Light. She adores French culture, the French language, and—most of all—French food, and together, Ann and Calvin plan an itinerary filled with charming cafés and sophisticated bistros. But just as they are settling into their new home, Calvin is assigned a last-minute,

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As a travel writer and a diplomat’s wife, Ann Mah has led a globetrotting life: moving from city to city every few years, learning languages, making new friends and leaving old ones behind. When her husband Calvin gets a three-year assignment in Paris, Ann can’t believe her luck; since childhood, she has dreamed of living in the City of Light. She adores French culture, the French language, and—most of all—French food, and together, Ann and Calvin plan an itinerary filled with charming cafés and sophisticated bistros. But just as they are settling into their new home, Calvin is assigned a last-minute, one-year post in Baghdad without her, and suddenly Ann is all alone in the most romantic city in the world.

Mastering the Art of French Eating is the story of Ann’s year on her own, combatting loneliness and exploring what it means to truly live and eat in France. Full of French recipes and sophisticated insider travel tips, this memoir is divided by region, with each area’s signature dish as the star of the chapter. Ann explores the dish’s history, cultural context, and technique, frequently guided by a colorful local expert, ending with the recipe and her own helpful notes. But Ann discusses more than simply food. Mastering the Art of French Eatingis also a moving exploration of identity, marriage, and independence. Ann faces the challenges of establishing herself socially and professionally alone in a foreign city, while simultaneously maintaining a long-distance relationship in the face of loneliness and anxiety. It’s a delicate, difficult balance, and though there is the occasional stumble, Ann’s love for her husband and for the unique life they have built together always shines through.

A warm and witty narrator, Ann happily shares both her setbacks and successes. Whether she’s sampling the peculiarly pungent andouillette sausage oreating her buckwheat crêpes with graisse saleé (a savorypreserved pork fat) like a Brittany native, she describes each experience with honesty and gusto. Ann champions French cuisine in its earthiest form—not the haute cuisine of food magazines, but the traditional dishes made by grandmothers, farmers, and local restaurateurs.

As the year draws to a close and Calvin is set to return home, Ann finds that her time alone in Paris has changed her. Her understanding of French culture and cuisine has been strengthened, but more important, so has her sense of self—what she is capable of, what she has accomplished, and what she wants to tackle next. Ultimately, the end of Mastering the Art of French Eating is in fact a series of new beginnings—the purchase of an apartment in Paris, a post in Washington, D.C., and the possibility of parenthood—one can only hope that Ann will bring her readers along on her next adventure.

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  • Penguin Books
  • Paperback
  • October 2014
  • 288 Pages
  • 9780143125921

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About Ann Mah

Ann Mah is a food and travel writer who has published work in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune, and other notable publications. In 2005, she was awarded a James Beard Foundation culinary scholarship to study in Bologna, Italy. Born in California, she currently divides her time between Paris and New York City.

Praise

“Mastering the Art of French Eating makes you want to be in Paris as [Mah] describes the delight of crusty baguettes spread with butter and jam, surprise glimpses of Notre Dame caught from the bus, nursing a glass of red wine in a cafe that has mirrored columns and a zinc bar. . . . the book has appealing honesty and vulnerability, overlaid as it is with the pain of her husband’s absence. It will also make you very hungry.”

—Wall Street Journal

Mah admirably fits her research into easily digested bites, the reader’s enthusiasm mirroring her own.”

—The New York Times Book Review

Our readers were enraptured by [Mah’s] luscious and detailed descriptions of the meals that became the rich medium for a lonely wife’s tentative socializing in a strange land.”

—Elle

The author’s investigations into the importance of each dish to the people she meets are beautifully woven together with her reflections on culture, identity, love, and marriage, resulting in an enjoyable and thoughtful read that sparkles with humor. . . . This honest, funny, and eloquent memoir is sure to delight lovers of France, food, or travel.”

—Library Journal

Discussion Questions

How does the quotation from Brillat-Savarin at the beginning of Mastering the Art of French Eating reflect Ann’s experience in France?

Does the idea of Ann and Calvin’s foreign service life—moving constantly, learning languages, adjusting to new cultures—fill you with excitement or with anxiety? What would be the most challenging part of this kind of life? The most enjoyable?

Were you familiar with Julia Child’s life story? In what ways does her experience parallel Ann’s?

Is there anywhere in the world where you’ve always dreamed of living or traveling to? What draws you to this place?

There are numerous French stereotypes in American culture. Did you have any opinions—positive or negative—about France before you read the book? How, if at all, have they changed?

Ann’s love for Paris began when she was young and carried through to adulthood. How did the reality of living in the city measure up to her expectations?

Could you ever imagine writing your own memoir? What would the title be?

What does the French expression “il faut profiter” (p. 59) mean? In what ways does Ann take this expression to heart?

If you were to describe Ann in three words, what would they be?

While many people find the idea of French cooking intimidating, the recipes that Ann shares are easy to understand and straightforward in their technique. Have you tried to make any of the dishes? If you did, how did that enrich your experience of the book?