Thursday, February 23, 2012

the french dinner party


When we moved to Paris, I had visions of someday making friends with actual French people but knew it was more likely that the ex-pat community would be the first to embrace us. 

We chose to immerse Annabelle in a French school in order to delve right into the culture and were fortunate enough to find a traditional French school with a very international student population.  In fact, three of Annabelle’s classmates speak fluent English and have done their fair share of translating on her behalf. 

The  director of the school previously lived in New York and the office administrator is a former English teacher.  This unexpected gift has gone a long way in bridging the communication gap.  On the flipside, Annabelle’s teachers speak very little English and I understand about fifty percent of what they say, on a good day.  Few parents have made a point of reaching out to us, not out of rudeness, but due to a lack of English language skills.  We simply cannot converse.  It turns out my conversational French is more of the “I’d like a bunch of carrots and a bottle of wine” variety.

It’s not that I don’t have a fair amount of French under my belt.  I use it almost exclusively in daily interactions; but conversations between mothers are more intimate in nature and I have a lot to learn. 

Fortunately, several kind and welcoming English-speaking mothers have offered their friendship.  One in particular is French but spent several years in New York and moved back just over a year ago.  Her oldest daughter is in Annabelle’s class and the two became fast friends.  With her knowledge of American culture and French sensibility, this mother embodies the best of both worlds.  Her willingness to demystify the nuances of French life has been my salvation.

Not long after we enrolled Annabelle in school, said French mama extended a dinner invitation.  The dinner was slated for the very night Naud was slated to return from his business trip in Seattle.  I convinced him that all he had to do was stay awake.  No one would expect witty banter from a weary, jetlagged business traveler.  He was off the hook.  I, on the other hand, had to put my best foot forward. 

The evening was filled with surprises even before it began.  The first came when our host graciously informed me that it was customary to secure a babysitter for such affairs.  Dinner parties begin at eight or later and are generally adult gatherings.  An exception was made because we didn’t have a sitter lined up and so we fed Annabelle in advance and brought her along.  The girls played together beautifully while the adults communed in the next room. 

We arrived fashionably late, which is the cultural norm in France.  Anyone who knows me knows it is my norm wherever I live, but French etiquette is quite firm on the subject.  They even have an expression to go along with it: ‘le quart d’heure de politesse’ or the quarter hour of politeness.  Seriously.  I love this country. 

Once situated, we discovered we were one of three couples invited, rounding the total headcount to eight.  All but two guests spoke English and made a point of including us in conversation.  We started in the living room with appertifs, including champagne and a little tray with nuts, cherry tomatoes and olives.  Seating was arranged around the coffee table and the tray was passed in a circular motion until all the nibbles were consumed.  Next came wine and little rounds of boudin sausage speared with toothpicks.  Wine and conversation flowed in this manner for quite some time. 

The guests were all parents which gave us immediate common ground.  One woman was a fellow blogger and her proud husband divulged that her literary blog has been voted as one of the best by French Elle magazine readers.  Her husband was dressed to impress in a velvet suit, while she personified Ralph Lauren Polo in her brightly striped rugby shirt, jeans and hot pink lipstick.  I noticed that, although I was appropriately attired in a casual navy silk dress, tights and dark green booties, Naud’s ensemble was lacking the necessary sport jacket to spruce up his button down shirt and slacks.  Who knew men would steal the show on the fashion front?

Eventually, our hosts ushered us into the dining room where we were shown to our assigned seats.  The starter was a composed mélange of  salmon, asparagus, peas and carrots, perfectly molded in the shape of a hockey puck and garnished with blanched asparagus and thinly sliced lemon rounds.  Before sitting down to eat, I tucked Annabelle in for her semi-sleepover and kissed her good night. 

During the meal, I did my best to keep up and was grateful for the frequent transitions from French to English.  As the evening (and the drinking) progressed, the French guests naturally subsided in their efforts to speak English.  Our hostess did an impeccable job of maintaining conversations in both languages whilst simultaneously translating as needed.  It was an impressive show of hospitality that I will not soon forget.

Next came the main course, pork roast with caramelized onions and two types of beans, flageolets cooked with the pork and lentils slowly simmered with sausage, served family-style.  A bowl of large lettuce leaves accompanied the beans and meat and there was plenty of poilane bread for sopping up the juices.

The cheese course came next with four divine cheeses, each distinctly different in texture and flavor but all complementary.  The cheeses were passed much like the little tray with nuts and tomatoes.  Each guest took the portion of their choosing and passed the cheeseboard around the table.  Although I have heard that it is impolite to have a second helping, several guests unabashedly debunked this myth.

The meal was punctuated by a very rich, flourless chocolate cake, served tableside from an adorable pink and white gingham cake pan.  There was dessert wine, of course.  In fact, sometime around the cheese course, our host admitted to storing a whopping 80-plus bottles of wine in his office at work, where the temperature happened to be the next best thing to a wine cellar.  Needless to say, all of the wines served  throughout the course of the evening were stellar and perfectly paired with the cuisine. 

We adjourned to the living room for one last round of drinks from which I wisely abstained.  I intended to make it home standing up.   The mood was mellow as guests lounged about, making small talk and allowing the evening to run its course.  We spent a good half hour securing a cab to take us and our sleeping child back to our flat.  It was after one o’clock when someone congratulated Naud for holding up as well as he had.

Back at home, we transferred Annabelle to her bed, tucked her in and gave her a kiss for the second time that night.  It was Saturday which meant it was time to either join the crowd at the bar below us or drag the mattress into the kitchen for a good night’s sleep.  We opted for the latter.

Our first French dinner party was a beautiful thing to behold.  It was structured but never fussy.  Our hosts seamlessly collaborated to prepare a delicious meal, from start to finish.  A great deal of thought went into every one of their decisions, from guest list to seating to wine pairings and cheeses.  No stone was left unturned. 

We all slept in until after ten on Sunday morning and awoke on the kitchen floor with splitting headaches and fond memories of the previous night’s revelries.  The hangover was totally worth it. 


  1. what a wonderful experience! perhaps someday you will host a dinner party for newly arrived Americans in Paris - or Parisians in Seattle! Who knows!
    Also I must agree that ‘le quart d’heure de politesse’ is a quite charming and civilized custom.

  2. it was wonderful. i would love to host a dinner of that caliber. the attention to detail was impeccable. when i thanked the hosts and told them how special it was, they shrugged it off and said, oh it was nothing. i do think they have been exposed to these rituals since birth. still, it is impressive.