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Mastering the Art of French Eating Reader’s Guide

By Ann Mah

Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

INTRODUCTION

As a travel writer and a diplomat’s wife, Ann Mah has led a globetrotting life: moving from city to city every few years, learning languages, making new friends and leaving old ones behind. When her husband Calvin gets a three-year assignment in Paris, Ann can’t believe her luck; since childhood, she has dreamed of living in the City of Light. She adores French culture, the French language, and—most of all—French food, and together, Ann and Calvin plan an itinerary filled with charming cafés and sophisticated bistros. But just as they are settling into their new home, Calvin is assigned a last-minute, one-year post in Baghdad without her, and suddenly Ann is all alone in the most romantic city in the world.

Mastering the Art of French Eating is the story of Ann’s year on her own, combatting loneliness and exploring what it means to truly live and eat in France. Full of French recipes and sophisticated insider travel tips, this memoir is divided by region, with each area’s signature dish as the star of the chapter. Ann explores the dish’s history, cultural context, and technique, frequently guided by a colorful local expert, ending with the recipe and her own helpful notes. But Ann discusses more than simply food. Mastering the Art of French Eatingis also a moving exploration of identity, marriage, and independence. Ann faces the challenges of establishing herself socially and professionally alone in a foreign city, while simultaneously maintaining a long-distance relationship in the face of loneliness and anxiety. It’s a delicate, difficult balance, and though there is the occasional stumble, Ann’s love for her husband and for the unique life they have built together always shines through.

A warm and witty narrator, Ann happily shares both her setbacks and successes. Whether she’s sampling the peculiarly pungent andouillette sausage oreating her buckwheat crêpes with graisse saleé (a savorypreserved pork fat) like a Brittany native, she describes each experience with honesty and gusto. Ann champions French cuisine in its earthiest form—not the haute cuisine of food magazines, but the traditional dishes made by grandmothers, farmers, and local restaurateurs.

As the year draws to a close and Calvin is set to return home, Ann finds that her time alone in Paris has changed her. Her understanding of French culture and cuisine has been strengthened, but more important, so has her sense of self—what she is capable of, what she has accomplished, and what she wants to tackle next. Ultimately, the end of Mastering the Art of French Eatingis in fact a series of new beginnings—the purchase of an apartment in Paris, a post in Washington, D.C., and the possibility of parenthood—one can only hope that Ann will bring her readers along on her next adventure.


ABOUT ANN MAH

Ann Mah is a food and travel writer who has published work in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune, and other notable publications. In 2005, she was awarded a James Beard Foundation culinary scholarship to study in Bologna, Italy. Born in California, she currently divides her time between Paris and New York City.


A CONVERSATION WITH ANN MAH

1. You preface Mastering the Art of French Eating with a quote by Julia Child, and her spirit influences everything from the title of your book to the purchase of your apartment. In what ways did you find that you have a kinship with Julia Child?

I think those of us who love Julia are touched by her story for different reasons, whether you’re a late bloomer, kitchen unconfident, or professionally unsatisfied. For me, I was—and am—inspired by the graceful manner with which she faced the challenges of life as a trailing spouse. I look at the loving teamwork of her marriage with Paul Child—unwavering despite personal and professional disappointments, and untimely overseas relocations—the success that bloomed from hard work and sheer will, despite the upheavals of diplomatic life. And I feel hopeful.

2. Your memoir ends with you and Calvin on the cusp of a new life. How have things changed for you since your wrote the book?

We move so often, at this point, relocating to another city has really become the status quo! Currently, we’re delighted to find ourselves in New York again, for a few years. And our biggest new adventure is that we recently welcomed a daughter. She already loves French cheese!

3. You took an intensive French course prior to moving to Paris and you mention both your anxiety and pride in speaking French with locals. Have you discovered any interesting French slang or colloquial expressions during these conversations?

Bien sûr! I learn new French phrases every day. Right now, my friends are teaching me how to abbreviate—“bon cou” for bon courage, “à t’à l’heure” for à tout à l’heure.

4. During your time in France, you delved into the history of the signature dishes of many different regions. How did you research the histories of these dishes?

Traveling and eating the dishes in their region of origin was the most useful (and fun) part of the research. I also visited local museums, collected local cookbooks, chatted with many home cooks and professional chefs, and asked a lot of questions.

5. Beyond the delicious recipes and an education in French culture, what do you hope readers will gain from your book?

I hope readers feel encouraged to travel and explore, to ask lots of questions, to embrace their curiosity, and to be flexible and open to new experiences—even when it means tucking into tripe sausage!

6. Do you have any favorite French dishes that didn’t make it into the book?

Oh, yes, too many to count! Especially desserts. Every time I tell a French person about my book, they want to know if I featured the classic dish from their region. If the answer is no, I’m always a little embarrassed. And of course I still joke that I could write a book about the least known dishes in French cuisine.

7. What is the most common misperception that the French have about Americans, and vice-versa?

France and the United States have a long history of mutual admiration and envy. I hesitate to generalize the two countries, even the misperceptions we have about one another. That being said, I continue to struggle against the French belief that Americans—“les vrais américains”—are Caucasian. And vice versa. Immigration has made both nations rich in diversity.

8. Knowing what you know now, what one piece of advice do you wish you could have given yourself before embarking on your year alone in Paris?

In the beginning, I felt awkward traveling alone—especially dining alone in restaurants, when it felt like everyone was staring at me. But after the first few trips, I started to enjoy being on my own, creating my own schedule, eating when I felt hungry, and dropping everything to, say, hunt down an obscure buckwheat farmer.

9. You’ve had a varied writing career—food and travel articles, fiction, and now memoir. Which is the most challenging?

For me, the most challenging part of writing—any form of writing—is the rejection. Every time I publish a new article or book, I feel extremely lucky. I still hear the word “no” about ninety percent of the time. You have to have a really thick skin.

10. What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a novel set in Paris and the vineyards of Burgundy—it’s a love story with a secret buried at the heart of a family wine cellar. I’m enjoying every drop of the wine research!


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  1. How does the quotation from Brillat-Savarin at the beginning of Mastering the Art of French Eating reflect Ann’s experience in France?

  2. Does the idea of Ann and Calvin’s foreign service life—moving constantly, learning languages, adjusting to new cultures—fill you with excitement or with anxiety? What would be the most challenging part of this kind of life? The most enjoyable?

  3. Were you familiar with Julia Child’s life story? In what ways does her experience parallel Ann’s?

  4. Is there anywhere in the world where you’ve always dreamed of living or traveling to? What draws you to this place?

  5. There are numerous French stereotypes in American culture. Did you have any opinions—positive or negative—about France before you read the book? How, if at all, have they changed?

  6. Ann’s love for Paris began when she was young and carried through to adulthood. How did the reality of living in the city measure up to her expectations?

  7. Could you ever imagine writing your own memoir? What would the title be?

  8. What does the French expression “il faut profiter” (p. 59) mean? In what ways does Ann take this expression to heart?

  9. If you were to describe Ann in three words, what would they be?

  10. While many people find the idea of French cooking intimidating, the recipes that Ann shares are easy to understand and straightforward in their technique. Have you tried to make any of the dishes? If you did, how did that enrich your experience of the book?

 
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