Jacqueline in Paris
A few years ago, I went to Paris to retrace the footsteps of Jacqueline Bouvier for a travel story in the New York Times. I knew she had spent a college year abroad in Paris from 1949 to 1950—living with a widowed countess who was a former Resistance spy, studying paintings at the Louvre, and making weekend visits to the châteaux of family friends—and I relished recreating some of her adventures. I sipped cocktails at the Ritz Bar, went horseback riding in the bois de Boulogne, and even interviewed her host sister, who told me that she and Jacqueline never spoke a word of English together. I found this last detail especially touching, for it illustrated how deeply Jacqueline cared about learning the French language.
As I read more about life in postwar Paris—the damage still scarring the city, the country's political instability—I realized that the story of Jacqueline's year abroad reached far beyond the scope of a travel story. I began to understand the qualities of adventure, courage, and independence needed by a young American student living in Paris during that time. Letters from home took weeks to arrive, polio lingered in boarding houses, and deception and betrayal lurked in the shadows. It was all darker and more fascinating than I had first imagined, and to my surprise I found myself imagining the emotional life of this famously private and guarded woman. Jacqueline called her student days in Paris the happiest and most carefree of her life, and above all this book is the story of her passionate love affair with the city.
I hope you enjoy Jacqueline in Paris—take it home over the weekend, read it with a tiny bitter cup of coffee, and imagine, as Jacqueline so often did, that you're in a Left Bank café.
The Lost Vintage
READING GROUP GUIDE
1. At one point in the book, Uncle Philippe confronts Kate about her investigating and tells her to stop looking into Hélène and the family’s history. Though Kate refuses to do so, do you think Uncle Philippe had a point? Are there ever circumstances when it is best to let the past lie?
2. How might Kate’s life have been different if she’d stayed in France all those years ago? How did her years away affect her in positive and negative ways?
3. What do Madame’s actions say about her character? Did you find her sympathetic?
4. What do we owe the past? At the end of the book, Heather is determined to teach her family about Hélène and the family’s deeds during World War II. Is it our duty to pass on family history to the next generation?
5. The Lost Vintage shows that though there were many French résistants acting during the war, there were also many French people who essentially supported the Nazis through complicity, often for survival’s sake. As Rose says at one point, “It’s much safer to do nothing.” Do you think these actions are wartime phenomena, or are there ways in which we can show courage or remain complicit in a similar way in day to day life?
6. Walker and Jean-Luc emerge as Kate’s opposing love interests in the book. In what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different? What do they stand for in Kate’s life?
7. Over the course of the book, Jean-Luc transforms from a man attached to his vineyard and its obligations to one who is willing to give it all up for Kate. What prompted this change? How does his decision compare with Heather’s decision to stay in France and Kate’s decision to return to the States?
8. How would your experience of the book been different if Hélène’s diary wasn’t included and merely shared by proxy through Kate? How did Hélène’s diary add to the narrative?
9. The similarities in appearance between Kate and Hélène are striking from the moment the first photos of Hélène are found. In what other ways are Kate and Hélène similar and different? What is it about them that connects them throughout the mystery?
10. Were you surprised by where Uncle Albert, Uncle Benoît, and Hélène end up ultimately? How were their futures affected by the war, and what do their ultimate fates say about them?
Mastering the Art of French Eating
READING GROUP GUIDE
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?
READING GROUP GUIDE
1. Have you ever considered uprooting your life and moving to another country? If so, where would you go and why?
2. Early in the book, Isabelle defines the term "kitchen Chinese" as the pidgin Chinese that she speaks, and she struggles with her rudimentary language skills throughout the story. Why do you think the author chose this as the title? What role does language play in the books?
3. Why does Isabelle initially resist the idea of moving to China? Do you sympathize with her reluctance?
4. In what ways does the relationship between Isabelle and Claire evolve throughout the course of the story?
5. Isabelle is the younger of the two sisters. Do you think it is true that the youngest has to live up to the perfection of the elder, or that the younger gets to do what the elder wishes she could do?
6. How does Isabelle's discovery of Chinese cuisine affect her perceptions of China? In your opinion, what is the best way to learn about or understand a foreign place or culture?
7. Have you ever felt like a fish out of water, culturally, socially, or otherwise? How did you adapt?
8. Isabelle discovers that dating in Beijing is equally—if not more—challenging and confusing than dating in New York. In what ways do cultural differences and/or similarities affect her romantic life?
9. Claire and Isabelle both feel challenged by their mother to achieve professional and romantic success. How does each sister respond to her mother's pressure? Are their feelings of frustration justified? Or does their mother really just want the best for them?
10. As Isabelle learns, many Chinese believe that "all Americans have yellow hair and big noses." In your experience, is this a widespread stereotype? How do you think people in other countries form their opinions of Americans? How do you form your opinions of other countries?
Chicken in Red Wine Sauce / Coq au vin
While this old-fashioned country recipe traditionally uses an entire chicken—preferably a tough old bird—here I use chicken thighs, which braise beautifully in the pressure cooker. For the braising liquid, I like to use an inexpensive (don't spend more than $10), medium-bodied red wine like a Beaujolais-Villages. Buttered bread noodles are a traditional accompaniment.
1 to 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
3 or 4 slices bacon (about 3 ounces / 85 grams), cut crosswise into 1/2-inch (1.25 cm) lardons
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 5 ounces (140 grams) each, trimmed of excess fat
1 cup (250 ml) red wine, such as Beaujolais-Villages
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Fine salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons (45 grams) unsalted butter
1/2 pound (250 grams) button mushrooms, quartered if large
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 to 1/2 cup (60 to 120 ml) low-sodium chicken stock
Buttered broad noodles for serving
1. Using the Sauté function, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in the pressure cooker. Add the bacon and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a plate. You should have about 3 tablespoons of rendered fat left in the pressure cooker—if necessary, add an additional 1 tablespoon olive oil
2. Dry the chicken thighs thoroughly with paper towels and add them to the pressure cooker. (You may need to do this in batches.) Cook until golden on all sides, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate. Turn off the Sauté function.
3. Add the wine and stir, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Add the garlic, tomato paste, thyme, and bay leaf. Season lightly with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Return the bacon and the chicken thighs to the pot, along with any juices from the plate, arranging the chicken skin-side down to absorb more color from the wine. Cook on high pressure for 25 minutes.
4. While the chicken cooks, in a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of the butter over medium-high heat until foamy. When the foam has started to subside, add the mushrooms and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until the mushrooms are tender and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
5. In a small bowl, mash the flour into the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 grams) butter until it forms a smooth paste (this is the beurre manié).
6. When the chicken has finished cooking, manually release the steam. Transfer the chicken to a plate, leaving the liquid in the pot. Discard the bay leaf.
7. Using the Sauté function, bring the cooking liquid to a simmer. With a wire whisk, beat in the beurre manié until the sauce becomes glossy and coats the back of a spoon. If the sauce becomes too thick, add the stock, starting with 1 tablespoon. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt and pepper as desired.
8. Return the chicken, along with any juices from the plate, and mushrooms to the pressure cooker and heat them through in the sauce. Serve with buttered broad noodles.