Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.
There’s a modern art gallery on a corner of Dinard, a town on the northwestern coast of France, where my great-uncle and aunt’s épicerie (a specialty goods grocery) used to be. As an emblem of my familial connection to this region of Brittany, it’s apt: a little posh, hazily recalled, pasted over and refashioned with some original tile.
Walk down two blocks to arrive at the beach boardwalk, where the oysters are priced up for the view but freshly harvested on the coast. From there you can glance backward for little old ladies in floral dresses carrying their daily baguettes from the market, forward for bronzed windsurfers set in relief against iconic blue-and-white striped tents and crisply burnt English tourists. (French locals call them “roastbeef.”)
If the beach-side oysters aren’t filling, then saunter over to the nearby crêperie for a galette complète with ham, cheese, and a runny egg. This is the galette de sarrasin, a quintessentially Breton buckwheat take on the pancake, savory and slim, and it gives me my most Proustian food moments. I’ll often make a complète for lunch at our little farmhouse a few miles down in the countryside, that sacred trifecta folded into a store-bought galette and thrown with butter into a skillet.
It is easy to forget, idling blissfully at one of Dinard’s boardwalk cafes, Brittany’s image as a traditionalist, rustic region that for much of the 20th century was an economic backwater of France. This was among the reasons my grandfather immigrated from here to California. Like so many of that era, he sought opportunity and education in America, his own grandmother’s recipes in tow—and in metric.
My grandfather passed when I was five and my grandmother before I was even born. Their California-born daughters, my mom and aunt, had early acquaintance with their French cousins in childhood and then grew into their adulthood and professional lives in the United States with little further contact. Both are excellent cooks, but Breton food did not have a particular place in our homes. They never spoke much with me about my grandparents, and so an entire family history, recipes and all, remained untold.
It might’ve easily stayed that way. Until I went browsing through my grandfather’s recipes a few years ago, stashed away at my aunt’s on faded index cards, and found the galette.
This much I know now: Brieuc Bouché, Grandpère to us, was born in 1904 in the town of Rostrenen at the very heart of Brittany. He and his siblings came of age when France was reeling from World War I. Two sisters went to New York (perhaps because marriage prospects were better there), while he enjoyed a childhood of hellion fun with brothers. After apprenticing as a woodworker in the historic fortified town of Dinan, he crossed the Atlantic in 1928. This was nominally to visit his sisters, but once in the States he took up odd jobs and decided to stay (postwar work prospects were poor in Brittany).
One sister, Suzanne, married a psychologist who went on to work on the Manhattan Project in Oakridge, Tennessee. The other made the papers: “Yvonne Bouché, 32, spurned the marriage proposals of Mauro Sallisi, 35. Both are dead today. Sallisi killed Miss Bouché and then leaped five stories to his death from a window in her apartment.” At Suzanne’s prompting he went west in the mid-30s to California, where he could get a college degree in crafts at the tuition-free UCLA.
Grandpère had just finished his bachelor’s when Pearl Harbor was bombed. War broke out, and he found work teaching high school shop at the Manzanar Japanese internment camp. There he met and married my grandmother Lucile, born to an old Californian family, who had also just finished college and was teaching in the Manzanar elementary school. Lucile had emerged from the Great Depression an educated working woman with a passion for wildlife, natural history, and science.
Mom tells me that the appeal was obvious: Grandpère was a bon vivant, the life of the party and a practical joker with the cutest French accent. He proudly kept a traditional Breton costume and adapted his family recipes to U.S. measurements. Lucile was whip-smart, the extroverted leader of family fossil excursions, and a legendary teacher in her community. They were staunch progressives and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. Their New Year’s party was the best in town, but only regulars knew to stay on after midnight for French onion soup. To build a dollhouse for my aunt, he made the structure and Lucile the tiny furnishings. She packed his work lunches with a candy bar; he’d leave it in the fridge for later, she’d come home and eat it from under him. Once, in retaliation, he substituted the candy bar with an uncanny mimic in the form of an unsweetened chocolate-coated, sliced-to-size potato.
One of Grandpère’s projects as shop teacher at the Manzanar camp had been "How a Barracks Becomes a Home," where he taught the interned Japanese high schoolers to make furnishings for greater comfort in the drab wooden huts. It was in parallel that my grandfather and grandmother made a home together off the currents of a generation in upheaval. After the war, they built a house in Lafayette and lived out happy lives; Grandpère taught woodworking at a school in Oakland, Lucile the fifth grade.
Of all this, what remained were the artifacts: Grandpère’s wood carvings on our walls, those recipe cards tucked away in boxes, collected minerals and shells from Lucile—so many items decorative or cached in an attic as though the travails of that generation had been theirs to conquer and bury and ours to move past.
When Grandpère died, my parents bought a little house on a countryside farm near extended family along the northern coast, and over summer school breaks we began to reconnect with them. All these months in ancestral land, separated from “normal” life in the States, brought into focus an identity conundrum I've only vaguely sensed before. Insofar as we were connected to Brittany, it felt like an arbitrary fact of family and not a cultural upbringing, and yet there we were summer after summer, year after year. Saying we were “part Breton” felt hollow, or at least incomplete, on these grounds alone.
I mostly hung around the farm driving tractors and reading books, with the periodic dinner chez much older cousins. They asked politely after my studies. I never knew anyone my own age there, except for a tennis buddy who refused to speak to me after I crushed him 6-1 in our final match of the summer. (The satisfaction may have been worth that sacrifice.)
When my French was fluent enough to keep up with dinner conversations, it became clear that we were of a different cloth than our cousins. Loving as they were, discussions of gender roles and Islam were fraught and avoided if possible, throwaway remarks about my dad’s Jewish background ignored. It was our Franco-American Thanksgiving conundrum. Coming out as gay in anticipation of a visiting boyfriend was a nonstarter (“We won’t have to talk about it,” was the curt, if tolerant, reply).
After finishing a music master’s at conservatory in New York, a few colleagues came over with me to Brittany to organize summer concerts. Our aim was to share the rich complexity of voices in contemporary and 20th-century music not reflected in general concert programming (which is notoriously dead, male, and white). The first one was, appropriately enough, in the family épicerie-turned-gallery. We ran out of chairs. The second was in a small countryside chapel, where they had to put extra benches outside and people grooved to Astor Piazzolla tangos.
As summers went on, concert seasons grew from two performances to five to seven. Bigger programming and audiences meant answering more and more the question: Why was this American composer here, doing this? Which is how I ended up in my aunt’s closet, rifling through Grandpère’s recipes, and found the galette; if I could share that, maybe the connection would make sense. And indeed, at subsequent events, among friends, to keep musicians fed, the galette became a staple.
With it, of course, came stories from my mom, my aunt, from my cousins even. How strange it was for Grandpère’s conspicuous absence to morph into a rich tapestry of place and history, buckwheat by one thread and music by another. It dawned on me that traversing that gulf to Breton as an identity meant two things: It meant showing up in Brittany as I was with what and whom I loved, but it also meant reexamining those family ties. These recipes, the vestiges of that connection, allowed me that and then some.
The concerts, through the thousands who came to listen, began changing the region as well. We often partnered with community leaders on local restoration and cultural projects, but the more powerful changes hit closer to home. I saw the cousins who couldn’t talk about my sexuality come around warmly to the gay couple their daughter had become fast friends with at that first gallery event. My father, who hadn’t seen the region for ten years since my parents divorced, came to see us perform. Truly, I came to believe, musicians huddled around music stands could bring us toward a better society.
Over spring break of April 2016, I set out in a rental car from northern Brittany, having finally received my license (city boys, you know). I drove due west to see the director of Brittany’s film archives, the Cinemathèque de Bretagne. We had met at a dinner in New York discussing concert projects; born in Dinard, she remembered the family épicerie and invited me to lunch out by her offices in Brest, an Atlantic-bordering city at the western extremity.
“You know,” the cinemathèque director told me over mussels and fries, “it happens we’re working on digitizing Bouché family films right now [from Tonton Michel, a brother of Grandpère’s]. Why don’t you come to the cinemathèque?” I was taken aback by the coincidence of timing—also, there were family films?
We went over to the archives. Alain, who was in charge of the digitizing process, said from his desk, “Come see, here’s one I just finished: Visiting family in California in the 1970s.” Before I could process what this meant, he pressed play.
In a silent flash of color they were there. Grandpère and Lucile at a picnic; he's gesticulating with pride about his paté. My teenaged aunt sports long hair and a white frock. Lucile greets the beagle with a pat at home in Lafayette. A road trip. There is snow at Big Bear and auntie has forgotten a coat. In the Mojave Desert, she and Grandpère walk toward the camera with smiles and cowboy hats. Lucile points out the fossils of giant oysters at Mount Diablo. Manzanar. Lafayette again. Big Sur. Roadside laughs. Yosemite.
After twenty minutes the film had run its course and the screen went dark. The loop had closed, time was vertical. At the windswept ends of Brittany, on a small screen, a family had reenacted their lives for a grandson they’d never know.
Only recently did I muster the courage to make Grandpère’s buckwheat galettes myself. There are endless variations in proportions and exact ingredients (milk or no, egg or no, all-purpose or no), but all have a base of buckwheat flour, salt, and water.
A proper galette has rich buckwheat flavor and a lunar, cratered surface. It’s pliable when cooled. It should be balanced with its fillings and reheated to a crisp underneath (no Mary Berry “soggy bottoms” here). Go whole hog with a regional cider; the brand I get in New York is Manoir du Kinkiz, at Le Dû’s in south Manhattan. Above all, the galette de sarrasin should be a canvas. As I got to know Brittany better, it came to encapsulate a sense of authenticity and regional connection while inviting new ideas; an ancient grain washed up in watery batter for its next taker.
I don’t do much concert organizing there now. The work is monumental, the summers long, and I want to see where else writing music can take me. But I treasure everything else these excavations in food and music have brought me, especially the sense of closeness to a family and region I had never known before. Projects on the horizon may yet bring me back, and when I go, there will be a Brittany—Grandpère’s Brittany—with ears open and stoves fired.
|2||cups buckwheat flour|
|1/4||cup all-purpose flour|
|4 1/2||cups water|
|2||cups buckwheat flour|
|1/4||cup all-purpose flour|
|4 1/2||cups water|
|Regular ol' deli ham|
|Gruyère cheese, grated|
|Regular ol' deli ham|
|Gruyère cheese, grated|
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