Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Of Embassies and Napoleons
No, not that napoleon. This napoleon:
Otherwise known as a mille-feuille.
And there are no embassies involved in this story either, only a consulate. The Chinese Consulate in Marseille, to be precise.
I was an exchange student at the Université d'Aix-Marseille III in Aix-en-Provence. It was autumn. The consulate was hosting a dinner party on its grounds to celebrate the Chinese national holiday and all the Chinese students in surrounding universities were invited.
I'd never been to a party in a consulate before. It sounded like a posh affair. I put on a prim, neat dress that was various shades of very pastel mauve, and a pair of white stiletto-heeled sandals. (Come to think of it, this was back in 1994, it was somewhat fashion forward to wear strappy sandals with dresses--I was certainly alone in it. And that was probably the last time I was ever fashion forward.)
We drove 30 kilometers to Marseille. But no sooner did we arrived than it started to rain. To pour. The garden was out of the question. The dinner, a buffet-style affair, would now be served inside.
We milled around and chatted and waited. And waited. And waited. After a while my stomach began to cave in on itself. The conversation, too, reduced in scope to the dinner and only the dinner. What was going on in the kitchen? Would we have been fed already had the buffet been laid outside? And when, oh, when was food going to be served?
And then there came urgent news, dinner was in sight! We rushed to the small dining room, which was crammed like the Avenue des Champs-Élysées on parade day. There were two doors leading into the dining room, one by which we stood, unable to push our way in further because of the sheer population density inside (3 per every square foot, by my estimate), another one at the opposite end of the room.
The first two platters of food arrived. I don't remember what they were. All I remember was the astonishing speed with which the platters emptied as soon as they reached the dining table--around which the guests were piled four thick.
We soon perceived our severe error in not coming sooner to the dining room to lie in wait. Because the other door was the one by which food was being introduced from the kitchen. The people squashed in that corner were as far from dining table as we were, but food must pass through them in order to arrive at the table.
And so they turned to plunder.
I watched, agape, as hands descended upon a steaming platter of dumplings. By the time the food-bearer arrived at the table, the dumplings were all gone. On the plundering went, with me drooling and desperate, and dinner might as well be on the other side of the Channel.
Now I wonder, had the party actually taken place on the other side of the Channel, whether the British stiff upper lip would have prevailed and some sort of more equitable pecking order imposed. But we were a gathering half French, half Chinese, both known for their fanatic devotion to dining. If any civil society was three meals away from unraveling, the undoing of ours required probably only one and a half.
I don't remember much of what happened immediately next, not when I finally got my shaking paws on some edibles, and no idea at all what they were either. What I do remember was a little something from later that evening when I was in a different part of the consulate. I was no longer starving, but I was still hungry and my mind still in piranha mode, when a plate of mini desserts strayed close to me.
I fell upon it, and the first thing I picked up, I swallowed whole, not caring what it was or how it tasted, intent only on getting more stuff down my gullet. As I swallowed, however, I suddenly realized that whatever it was, it was the most amazing thing I'd ever eaten. But by then I'd already swallowed it.
When I recovered somewhat from my stupefaction, I went after the dessert tray again. But since I was I was hardly alone in my abdomenal unfulfillment, the contents of the tray was long gone.
I'm not sure whether I've ever fallen for any man so hard and fast, but oh that little mille-feuille, that marvelously little mille-feuille. That was the beginning of my love affair with French pastry, or rather, my love affair with pastry cream in any incarnation. And I can't think of a better memory with which to launch a book called Delicious. :-)
And now I'll have to go eat something.
P.S. The Romance Reader has awarded Delicious a five-heart review. According to them, "Readers who are worried that Sherry Thomas is a one-book wonder should be assured. If anything, her second novel tops her outstanding debut." Hehe.