Benoît’s Master Plan: Fatten Up The Foreigner

Emily Monaco
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“Emily, would you fill the bottles, please?” I take the two glass carafes to the sink to fill them with water. It feels like a strange sort of dream, déjà vu in the true sense of the word: It’s been almost six years since I was last in this house. Six years since I packed my bags and flew to France as an American foreign exchange student. I’m back now, studying in Cannes for four months.

I’ve taken two trains and a bus from the South to reach the Rhône-Alpes again, to the Masurels’ house overlooking Lac Leman, the source of Evian bottled water. I remember thinking how strange it was that Evian ran from the taps here, and yet now it seems second nature to fill these glass bottles with the cool spring water. I bring them over to the table and place them on either end. The table is set for 10, and my nerves start fluttering all over again: Benoît is coming for dinner.

Benoît is M. Masurel’s older brother, but although I vouvois the younger Masurel (use the formal version of “you”), Benoît has demanded that I use the informal tu with him. When he arrives with his wife, he swoops on us, forcefully doling out bises (European-style kisses) to all the girls and giving Paul-Eric, the youngest of the family, a playful smack. His first words are a decree: “I will sit next to Emily.”

Benoît likes to treat me as though I’ve never been to France, explaining everything they do and say. I’m fluent and have been living here for months, so people who do this usually bother me… but not Benoît.

“You take a radish,” he says, illustrating as he draws one of the tiny pink vegetables from their basket on the table. “Dip it in the butter, then the salt… ” He takes a bite and makes an exaggerated face showing his enjoyment, resting his hands on the shelf that is formed by his ample midsection. He then leans down and whispers in my ear, “The butter is the best part.”

Benoît pours me a drink: rum with grenadine and water. I would have preferred pastis, like the men, but I know better than to ask. The last time I ordered the anise-flavored liquor in a bar, the waiters made a big deal over the girl who was drinking a man’s drink. I don’t like rum, but apéro is not about the drink.

“A table!” The call that became so familiar to me in my months in France echoes out to the terrace, and we go in to the table, where shrimp are arranged over platters in bright pink swirls. Mme Masurel passes homemade aioli, and, as usual, I wait to see how others will serve themselves. But Benoît notices and grabs the large plate at our end of the table.

“Eat!”

I try to do some quick division… how many shrimp am I supposed to take? I quickly slide about eight onto my plate and then reach to take the platter so that he can serve himself. “What? Are you on a diet?” Benoît asks, incredulous as he serves himself a large dollop of aioli. “All these American girls, always on a diet.”

He tilts the platter, giving me about 20 more shrimp, and then taking double that for himself.

“Bon appétit!” he bellows, digging into his first shrimp. I watch out of the corner of my eye as he almost barbarically rips the head off, pulls the meat out of the shell, dunks it in the aioli and pops the whole thing in his mouth. I copy him, trying not to spray shrimp juice all over the table. After a few more minutes and another helping of shrimp, he turns to me.

“I am much smarter than my brother, don’t you think?”

My eyes go back and forth between the brothers, trying to guess which one is joking, but their eyes tell me nothing except for the fact that they want an answer.

“Pardon?” is the best I can come up with.

Benoît tries to ask me again, but he cannot help breaking into a smile. He shakes his head at his own joke and continues to eat. I am nursing my rum and juice, watching the rest of the family interact. New platters of shrimp arrive—these ones rubbed with spices and grilled. I don’t know if I can eat anymore, but Benoît doesn’t give me a choice. He scoots several grilled shrimp onto my plate and then serves himself, pouring all of us more wine. It’s then that he notices I’m still drinking my apéro.

“It’s not possible! You’re drinking juice with your meal?”

Guiltily, I tip back the rest of my glass and try not to outwardly shudder as the rum slides down my throat. He pours a small amount of water into the bottom of my glass, which I know to swirl and drink to rinse, and then he tops me off with wine. I taste the new shrimp: They are full of spice, hot off the grill.

When the shrimp are gone, we prepare for the salad course, wiping down our plates with bread. We then serve ourselves hearts of palm, crab, Gruyère cheese, corn, and tomatoes on a bed of lettuce. I heap my plate with salad, and Benoît looks on with approval. “Good,” he says.

After dinner and coffee, Mme brings out a bottle of cherry eau de vie. It’s red and viscous, served in a small glass with one bright red cherry in the bottom. It smells of rubbing alcohol. Capucine, one of the daughters, sees my expression. “You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to,” she assures me.

“No, you don’t have to,” M Masurel says, “but I would be honored if you did.”

How can I say no to that? Bottoms up, and the contents of the glass flood my mouth. It tastes as I expected it would, like the burning of liquor. All that’s left in my mouth is the candied fruit, and when I bite into it, the sugar is laced with even more fire. I try as best I can to look pleased and smile as I swallow the barely chewed cherry.

“Delicious.”

Benoît laughs. I don’t know what he’s laughing at, but I don’t mind.
 

Comments

Posted on 4/20/2009 by

Ali Goldstein

Ali Goldstein

I just got back from studying in France, and I miss how much of a ritual was made out of eating. Thanks for bringing back wonderful memories!

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