What do you do if you find yourself lugging your luggage up three flights of stairs, only to discover that your rooms are drafty and cold, the bath water rusty and tepid? Do you complain and demand your money back? If you’re Carole Bumpus, you join the hostess at the dinner table and listen to her story. Never mind that the paté tastes like it came straight from a can.
In early 2002, Bumpus and her French-born friend, Josianne, set off to tour France by car. The trip was originally planned to take Josianne’s mother, Marcelle, back to the village where she grew up. Marcelle never knew her father and feared that she was illegitimate, so the trip was also a detective mission. But travel was postponed, first by 9/11 and then by Marcelle’s illness. She died a month after 9/11, and the trip became a memorial to her.
This is both the story of a journey and a culinary memoir, recounting the foods they were served. Bumpus narrates, Josianne drives and translates, and Marcelle’s spirit hovers over Bumpus and Josianne, inspiring them as they explore.
Bumpus has friends in France, and Josianne has family scattered throughout the country, so the women are always renewing friendships and reminiscing. Sometimes they are welcomed into the homes of family and friends; other times they stay in bed-and-breakfast establishments. Seeking haute cuisine, Bumpus finds herself enjoying cuisine pauvre, traditional dishes and recipes passed down from generation to generation.
The French eat a lot of fish—in stews and soups—and a lot of rabbit, everything from roasted to rillettes, where the meat is shredded and mixed with fat. They raise rabbit for meat and are remarkably unsentimental about their bunnies. One of the most interesting side trips is to a truffle farm where the hostess explains the history and difficulties of cultivating truffles. (Forget what you’ve heard about pigs—this farm uses dogs to dig for truffles.) Bumpus and Josianne come away with instructions for making truffle-infused scrambled eggs.
Over cups of tea or glasses of wine, talk of food at the table almost always turns to what for Bumpus is the burning question: What was it like during WWII? What did you eat? A few families, usually on a farm, did not suffer, but there are many stories of hardship. One woman recalls how good pork belly tasted in those days. When you have little, she says, what you have becomes a treat. Marcelle had once said, “We did not need to diet” and went on to remember evenings when there was one potato for a family of five. Many families today had unusually well-stocked larders, a reaction, Bumpus surmises, to having gone without during the war.
Often, the stories are about families torn apart during the war—fathers and husbands either staying in Paris to support their families or fleeing the Germans because they were part of the resistance. Josianne’s brother, Martial, tells of being separated at a very young age from their mother, Marcelle, to keep him safe from the bombing. He lived in dormitory-like quarters with other lonely children. Although cheerful by nature, he was overcome when talking about his past. Martial’s son, Christian, had done genealogical research and was able to identify Marcelle’s missing father. A newspaper clipping verified that her parents were legally married. The reason for their separation remains a mystery, although the father lived into his seventies in Paris. Partially solving that mystery provides a satisfying ending to the trip—and the book.
The story was typical of stories Bumpus heard across France, balancing family and tradition against hardship and economic reality. The food is delicious, of course. Recipes are loosely woven into conversation, but there is a good selection in standard recipe form in an appendix. Also most helpful were maps of each region and an overall map of France, though I wished the latter had been marked into regions. The book has no index, so I found it difficult to return to passages that I wanted to check.
If this trip took place shortly after 9/11/2001 and the book was published in 2020, Bumpus probably reconstructed many of the incidents. In her zeal to put a positive spin on every experience, she sometimes creates a narrative that seems self-conscious, smothered in adjectives and happy attitudes. But her conversational style easily draws the reader into the experience. An enjoyable book for those interested in France, WWII, and French food.