“Ah, they are not rising!” Marianne Tober cried, in a near panic over her gougères. They weren’t just cheese puffs; they were her Burgundian birthright, well-salted dairy fat given airy form, and her mother’s recipe had never failed her before. But it was true: The gougères in her oven were lying stubbornly flat, browning pungently into something you might call savory Gruyère cookies. Which, as you can imagine, were still pretty delicious. “But they’re not the way they’re supposed to be,” she lamented. I assured her that the tray of gougères would not survive the night. She managed a smile, then said: “You know, Americans give you credit for trying things. Everything doesn’t have to be ‘correct.’ That’s one reason French people like being here so much.”
Weeks later, it occurred to me how gratifyingly unremarkable it was that I, an Asian, embodied the American spirit for Tober. But right then, I felt just a little pang of patriotic pride and thought about the French fondness for the American Revolution, about Tocqueville’s belief in our democracy, and asked Tober why she came to this country. “I met an American man and married him,” she said. History happens big and small, I guess.
She settled in Brooklyn just over 14 years ago, gravitating toward Carroll Gardens, where hundreds of French families have gathered, many drawn over the past decade by one of the city’s first public schools to offer a French dual-language program. “Europeans hate paying for school,” Tober said, laughing. “So lots of French people live here now — there’s a holiday market at a church where you can buy boudin blanc, and you can even vote in French elections without going to the consulate.”
We were cooking in her home, a few of her French friends on their way to join us, as two pans of chicken sizzled in duck fat. She uncorked a bottle of Calvados, warmed it in a saucepan and, with a nonchalant gesture, tipped it into the stove’s flame, igniting, then holding, a fireball at the end of her arm with barely a flinch. I stared, stunned, as she poured pure fire onto the chicken, the liquor jumping out of the hot fat and sending flames well above our heads. Tober moved on to cutting some apples. The inferno raged on.
She was making a dish she called poulet à la normande — chicken in the style of Normandy, braised in yeasty, sweetly funky hard cider with fresh apples and cream. But when her friend Constance, who is in fact from Normandy, arrived, I was intrigued to hear Tober refer to it as poulet au cidre — chicken in cider. “When we talk about food as French people, we get so passionate,” Tober said to me. “Everyone, every region has such specific recipes.” In a cuisine with a canon, with commonly understood characteristics and expectations, dishes belong to places and they belong to people. So if you’re from Normandy, you don’t have to call this dish by the name outsiders know it by, because it’s a part of you, and you can just refer to it casually, by nickname, like an old neighbor.
As the chicken came to doneness in the pot, Tober finishing it with a smooth slick of crème fraîche, Constance offered to make the salad. Tober accepted, saying, “Every French person has the same recipe for vinaigrette.” Everyone then proceeded to argue for five minutes about whether there should be garlic in the vinaigrette, or what kind of mustard to use, or whether to whisk it enough to emulsify it. When it was settled, we ate that chicken, tender and infused with the beautiful flavor of fermented apples. There was that salad after the main course, there was cheese, there were baguettes. It was delicious, and all so French, performatively French. “We’re obnoxious, we’re pretentious, we know that, but we love our food shamelessly,” Tober said. “This is our identity.”
Then there were soft, milk-poached meringues for dessert, the white puffs falling apart a bit, dissolving in places where Tober meant for them to be set. She frowned, muttering another apology to her mother, but again I assured her, American-style, that they were delicious all the same.
“I don’t always cook French food,” she said. “I love Vietnamese food, I love cooking whatever comes into season in the market here. I even make peanut butter and jelly.” I laughed: Europeans may hate paying for school, but they definitely hate peanut butter and jelly. “Really! That was something I never thought possible. But New York is home to me,” she said.
“My boys, they play soccer in Queens. And every time we drive home, going down the B.Q.E. back to Brooklyn, when we see the Manhattan skyline … every time, it takes our breath away, and I think, I’m a New Yorker.”
Recipe: Poulet à la Normande