It was only dinner, a small, casual dinner, but I had a case of neophyte nerves. My husband, Michael, and I had just acquired a Paris apartment, and at this first get—together,13 years ago now, the guests we’d invited, all new friends, were French. At the last minute, I remembered the unspoken rules: Set the table French style (forks face down, tines against the tabletop) and serve the water at room temperature (anything colder is too shocking). At least I didn’t have to worry about catering to a legion of food allergies, diets and culinary quirks. If my guests had any, politesse would prevail, and they’d never say a peep.
Martine is my oldest friend in Paris—I met her on a trip there more than 30 years ago—and after my third or fourth pre-dinner SOS, she said, “Calmes-toi, it’ll be great. You’re a terrific cook, Michael’s a wonderful host, and your apartment is adorable. Besides, you're an American—nobody expects you to do things right.” I’d have been insulted if I hadn’t known she meant well.
In the end, dinner wasn’t completely terrible. The food was really good. But I served portions that were too big, offered too many side dishes and kept urging seconds on people, who probably didn’t want them but were too gracious to refuse. And there wasn’t enough wine: As the clock struck midnight, I scrambled around on hands and knees in our closet–cum–wine cellar looking for extra bottles, an embarrassment
easily avoided if I’d taken my friend Pierre’s advice: “The rule of thumb here is a bottle per person.”
All these faux pas, and I was a 50-year-old with a history of parties in my New York home and a bunch of cookbooks to my name! I was hardly a novice, but having finally realized my dream of living, cooking and writing in both New York and Paris, I came to understand that figuring out the intricacies of my new culture was going to be an adventure.
From Martine, my mentor in l’art de vivre, I learned how to get Parisians to arrive on time: Ask them to come a half hour earlier than start time. Not that the French are chronically late; it’s just that they consider it impolite to be early, and on time is considered early. So I’d invite there for 8:30 and kiss them au revoir four hours later.
In time, I learned to shop like a Frenchwoman, a skill that requires being charming, coquettish, assertive and submissive all at once. When I asked Mme. Saucisson for a dried sausage that was neither too hard nor too soft, I took the time to chat about her husband and tell her how mine was doing. Having found out the hard way that one mustn’t touch the wares—I once squeezed a plum, and the vendor scolded and refused to serve me—I now let the fruit man choose. “Is this melon for tonight?” he asks. “Yes,” I say. “What time tonight?” he queries. I know the routine now and hold up my end: “We’ll sit down at 9.” His inevitable response: “Oh, too bad, this is a lovely melon, but it won’t be at its peak until 9:30.” We both laugh, then he gives me a ripe one, no squeezing required.