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Credit: Jessie Wong
personal essay

The Best Food Lessons I Learned from My French Mother-in-Law

published Jul 11, 2021
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As an American who grew up with a very nonchalant attitude towards mealtimes, I didn’t know what to expect when I first accompanied my now-husband on a trip to his family home in southwest France. Even though it was a decade ago, I remember the trip vividly: It was a cultural immersion that included going on trips to the open markets, nervously helping with meal preparation, and getting sideways glances for my New World table manners (a story for another time).

I came away from that trip with a greater understanding of the importance of food in my husband’s home country. From rules around certain foods to a surprisingly relaxed approach to recipes, these are four lessons from my French mother-in-law that I’ve adopted in my Californian kitchen.

French cooking isn’t always about precision. I was once tasked with making a quiche for the family, a dish I’ve made many times at home (but almost always followed a recipe for, save for the shortcrust pastry I can make by heart). My mother-in-law guided me with these broad guidelines: Half a dozen eggs, sautéed lardons, a handful of grated Emmental, salt and pepper, and “two glou-glous” of milk (a perfectly valid unit of measure in a French kitchen). Pop it into the oven at 350°F degrees until it looks done, which translates to slightly golden on top and firm but not overcooked in the center. It was delicious.

While there are some solid recipes out there when it comes to classic dishes, like beef bourguignon or cassoulet, family recipes in France are often adjusted by taste or sight and can vary each time. I definitely feel more comfortable cooking “au pif”— at random — and have fun trying to recreate dishes I’ve tasted elsewhere, although it can take some time to perfect. Case in point: I’ve been trying to nail down my mother-in-law’s ethereal crepe recipe for seven years and I still haven’t quite figured it out! 

Whether you’re cooking food or eating it, slow is best. In the French countryside, you won’t see much in the way of pre-packed or frozen foods, since getting farm-fresh goods is often easier than going to a large supermarket in the suburbs. My mother-in-law typically prepares a light lunch, like chevre chaud (toasted baguette topped with warm goat cheese) alongside a salad. For dinner, she makes things like her famous blanquette de veau, which takes at least an hour or so to prepare.

“Slow” also means eating at a leisurely pace, something we had to re-learn when arriving in France from the U.S. after years of rushing through 30-minute lunch breaks taken at our desks. Typical workday lunches in France are at least an hour, and can go on for longer depending on how much wine and conversation is involved! While my husband and I both have busy, scattered schedules during the day, I try to make dinner every weeknight, setting the table, putting on music, taking the time to enjoy our food, as well as each other’s company — it sets a relaxing tone for the rest of our evening.

Cheese (and butter) are best served at room temperature. As someone who always thought cheese should be kept very cold to prevent spoilage, I was curious as to why my mother-in-law stored hunks of Camembert or Comte on the counter in the cool, lower part of the house instead of in the refrigerator. As it turns out, cheese is at its tastiest when served at room temperature, between 60°F to 70°F. At room temp your artfully crafted fromage can express its full flavor and texture — serving it cold mutes its character, and might be considered by some as disrespectful to the cheese. (For best results, take the cheese out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you plan to serve it, and put it back in the fridge after three to four hours to avoid spoilage.) 

While we’re at it, butter should ideally be served at room temperature, too, so that it glides onto your bread without ripping through the delicate crumb. We purchased a butter bell for this reason, and keep it on the counter to make sure soft, spreadable butter is always within reach.

Bread is sacred and there are rules that must be followed. Call it baguettiquette, if you will. Bread is usually purchased daily. When served, it is placed next to your plate, directly on the table. It is present at nearly every meal and is also used to mop any sauce off your plate. Most importantly, it is never wasted. Once, while clearing the table, I was about to throw away the bits of bread left on the plates and received a gentle reprimand from my mother-in-law: “We don’t throw away bread!” 

Leftover bread is usually repurposed as bread crumbs and herbed croutons, made into vanilla-scented pain perdu (which literally translates to “lost bread” aka French toast) or bread pudding, or floated on French onion soup under a healthy amount of melted Gruyère. I think my belle-mère would be pleased to know that nary a crumb gets wasted in my kitchen since we met.