My French host mother was tall, trim, and proper, with a sing-song voice and a name that skipped and chimed and rang off the tongue. She moved through the house as though on pointe—softly but decisively—and she wore silver bracelets that clicked delicately against each other when she lifted her hand to secure the barrettes in her long brown hair. She was also very Catholic, with four children, ages 9 to 17; a Labrador puppy; and a husband who’d gone—or rather, all but moved—to Canada to find work. It was complicated and exhausting. She did an admirable job, and she often fell asleep in the bathtub after dinner. But most importantly, dear reader, my host mother was the French equivalent of a Tupperware saleswoman. She tested, cooked in, and sold Flexipan and Silpat products, those fantastic (and fantastically expensive) silicone baking pans, molds, and sheets. I was lucky enough to live under her roof—and within close proximity to her kitchen—for six months. You can well imagine the glory that might have been, had I not taken down the crucifix she’d hung on my bedroom wall.
I arrived that fall, barely twenty-one, deep in my smoky-black eye makeup phase—an era that hasn’t yet ended, actually—and with the short, spiky hair I wore throughout college. I was also a pseudo vegetarian, which threw more than a few grains of sand into the gears of her well-oiled kitchen routine. But she sensed that I was only slightly heretical and very eager to please—still my greatest weakness, I’ll freely admit—and so she took me on, gently correcting my French, delivering clean sheets to my door with admirable regularity, and teaching me how to eat. I arrived a somewhat calculating eater, well-schooled in nutrition and suspecting that butterfat was the devil’s work, and I left smuggling aged chèvres and mimolette in my suitcase.
Each weeknight at eight I’d climb the stairs to the second-floor kitchen and join my squealing pre-teen host brothers (Ta gueule! Casse-toi! (Shut up! Get the hell out of here!)) and catty teenage host sisters (Ta jupe est moche, tu sais? (Your skirt is ugly, you know?)) at the table. We’d begin with a simple grated carrot or beet salad, or half a grapefruit. The boys might argue over the warm steamed leeks with vinaigrette, each wanting the sweet white part closest to the root. Then, depending on the season, we’d move on to a gruyère soufflé; pasta with a sauce of tuna, chopped tomatoes, and sautéed onions; or tartiflette, a wintery baked casserole of potatoes, lardons (absent from my half of the dish, merci), and rich Reblochon cheese from Savoie. It was at that table that I first ate sauerkraut and learned of the nightly cheese plate, stinky and irresistible, with hunks of baguette from the boulangerie next door. And of course there was always dessert: homemade applesauce, a grandmother-style apple or pear cake, or in January, a galette des rois.
At least one night each week we’d have a “Flexipan dinner,” a meal centered on a recipe that my host mother was testing in her silicone molds. Her individual tartlets of caramelized endive with goat cheese were staggeringly good, as was the almost-flourless chocolate cake, which quickly became a staple. But my favorite were the squatty, ugly, and completely delicious bouchons au thon (literally, tuna corks), a mixture of canned tuna, tomato paste, crème fraîche, gruyère, and eggs, baked in muffin molds.
With a texture somewhere between the filling of a quiche and freshly-made country paté, the bouchons tamed the flat, fishy pungency of canned tuna with the smooth richness of dairy and the sweetness of tomato. I gave thanks daily for all that Flexipan brought to my life, but mainly for bouchons au thon.
And as luck would have it, that spring, when my host mother went to visit her husband in Canada, she left me and my youngest host sister alone with a freezer blessedly full of bouchons. Seizing the opportunity, I invited my brand-new French boyfriend over for a dinner of the little tuna corks, roasted vegetables, carefully selected cheeses, crispy-crusted baguettes, and oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies. It was a pure, starry-eyed triumph all around, right through to the next morning, and frankly, I credit the bouchons. I also credit them with earning me, upon my host mother’s return, my first and only “Molly, ce n’est pas un hôtel!” (Molly, this is not a hotel!) speech. I was almost as horrified as she was; apparently I was more heretical than even I’d known.