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My French Mother-in-Law's Guide to Success in Food (& Life)

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Photo by Jessie Kanelos Weiner

When I was a 22-year old au pair living in Paris, thinking more about my Audrey Hepburn–inspired fantasy than my liberal arts school loans, I met my first French boyfriend. The meet-cute happened in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, while I was furiously scribbling away in my journal about unrequited love and all the sensory pleasures of Paris. He chatted me up and I was instantly charmed by his sense of adventure, like the time he suggested we steal kayaks at a boat club (we could just barely paddle our way upstream to return them).

But there were...issues. Every evening, he stopped by McMommy (as he coined it) to pick up his 3-course dinner to-go. Since she also had a key to his apartment, so he would ask me to hide discreetly in the courtyard until I got a signal—a wave from 6 floors up—that we were safe to proceed.

That relationship didn't last. But a few weeks later, I met someone new—not at an iconic Parisian landmark, but a grungy dive bar. Given my previous experience, when I got an invitation to meet his mother, I was a ball of nerves. I anticipated the Deneuvian iciness of the Parisian femme fatale.

Instead, I was warmly greeted with two kisses on the cheek. A retired primary school teacher, my future mother-in-law spoke warmly, staring deeply into my eyes. Like any young, entitled American in Paris, I thought I was fluent in French, though I’ve since been reminded that I responded to yes and no questions with “OK!” She was one of my first conversation partners, and we quickly connected over pots of tea and her homemade orange-scented biscuits as we traded stories on where we came from (me Chicago; her Oran, a coastal city in Algeria).

Ten years later, I've married her son, become fluent in French, and written an illustrated guidebook to Paris. But when I first met her, I was young and nervous. She practiced French with me until I reached the professional level, and encouraged me when I wasn’t getting the magazine assignments I wanted. Her wicked letter-writing skills once got me out of a 700 Euro fine for jumping the Metro. She has dispensed excellent advice on entertaining friends, and supported me when my family felt worlds away.

Here are just some of the tips on living life—and living it well—that I learned from her, ones I absolutely swear by:


Cook what you know best.

Without fail, every time we visit my belle-mere, she serves her famous braised meatballs with spring peas and a touch of ras-el-hanout, a fragrant nod to her upbringing. It’s a reminder to me that when I entertain, I should make the time-honored recipes I know best—especially if those recipes share a little bit of my personal backstory. So when I entertain, I might make a peach cobbler or frozen yogurt pie, tried-and-true dishes of mine that nod to my American-ness.

Keep a minimalist's kitchen...

Most French kitchens are surprisingly minimal, considering the hallowed status it holds in French culinary imagination. My mother-in-law doesn’t even have a cutting board; she prefers to slice and dice on a plastic tray. It taught me how to be resourceful—for example, I used the nearby washing machine as a countertop because my first Paris kitchen was that tiny. I was able to create wonderful food with the basic utensils I had, like my family’s moussaka recipe and Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, a rite of passage for any aspiring cook.

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...but maximalist's dining table.

My belle-mere always pulls out an ironed lace tablecloth, crystal wine glasses, and separate plates for each course when she entertains. She even has a silver foie-gras platter with two ducks on each end to guard the good stuff. Food is not just fuel in France, and the table is sacred, where conversations are shared and life is lived, as any good 3-hour lunch can attest. A beautiful tablescape frames the importance of this ceremonious moment.

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Thyme is tea.

The kind of Dionysian feasting that France is known for—a holiday meal might consist of Champagne, oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, yule log, chocolates and candied fruit, for example—leads to big belly aches and severely weakened immune systems. My mother-in-law's cure is to steep some fresh thyme or sage leaves in hot water for 15 minutes. Strain the leaves, drink, and feel instantly energized.

Be exacting.

My belle-mere doesn’t skimp on expressing her opinions and distaste, which is radical to ever-polite Midwestern ears like mine. If we arrive at a restaurant and the table isn’t in a location to her liking, she will always ask if another can be offered. I was so used to trying my best to make people like me, but the more I'm influenced by her, the more I'm learning to speak up when something doesn't feel right, and ultimately get the most out of any experience.

“Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.”

Immigrating to a new country with no network or job prospects isn’t for the weak at heart, especially with the ambitions of becoming a professional artist. But my belle-mere always reminded me to take it easy and slowly with this classic French idiom: “Little by little, the bird makes its nest.”

Another Tip From a Another French Genius

What are some life lessons you picked up from your mother-in-law, French or otherwise? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: Entertaining, Culture