I dreaded Friday lunch in Mme. Roncaret's salle a manger . It was invariably grilled sardines which, to my certain knowledge, had been pawned off on her when, at the end of a third or fourth day of unrefrigeration the fishmonger could not otherwise dispose of them. In short, they possessed a most unlikely perfume that deadened the appetite. Other days we dined on white sausages that contained more cereal than meat. These were alternated with viande hache , generally grilled and undercooked and a bit gristly. That is why to this day if someone asks me if I have ever dined on horse meat, I give them a tentative, "I'm not sure."
After lunch I would walk back to the Left Bank, always choosing a different route, a different bridge to cross, and generally indulged in my one great extravagance. I would stop at a pastry shop, spending minutes surveying the pastries--great cakes with butter-cream frosting, puff-pastry fantasies like Napoleons with pastry cream fillings, and \o7 palmiers\f7 , which are given the dreadful name in English, pigs' ears. I would generally settle for one small fruit tart, a \o7 barquette\f7 perhaps, the cherries, gooseberries or plums symmetrically posed atop a small cushion of pastry cream flavored with an \o7 eau-de-vie\f7 . Those were joyous days, many of them spent at Les Invalides, the Louvre, and twice I indulged myself in tours, once to Versailles, another to Malmaison. I was drunk with love for Paris; the smell of Gauloise cigarettes; the taste of \o7 cafe noir\f7 with croissants each morning, the odor of anisette at nearby tables. In those days I did not care for the taste of Pernod, but it sure smelled like Paris as much as Marseilles, and that smelled good.
Today I look back ruefully and with a certain consternation to think that I did not allow myself to visit more than a meager handful of restaurants. But then I remember that I literally thought twice, and I counted my sous before taking the Metro. On the rare occasions that I did go to restaurants, it was generally a \o7 steak-pommes frites\f7 establishment. It was in my first fortnight in Paris that I tasted what was, I presume, my first sampling of French cuisine, the food of North Africa notwithstanding. One late afternoon I walked along the banks of the Seine alone, feeling like generations of young Americans before me--like the original \o7 flaneur\f7 . I crossed Pont Sully and found myself in front of a small restaurant called Le Bossu, which, sadly, no longer exists.
I studied the menu posted in front, and my eyes rested on the least expensive dish, \o7 les oeufs brouilles a l'estragon\f7 . I entered the restaurant and sat down. I ordered that dish and a glass of white wine. The dish was of course, scrambled eggs with tarragon. I was consummately happy. I had never tasted such heavenly food. Since that couscous in Casablanca, I know full well that it was my first encounter with tarragon. I walked out of the place with a great desire to kiss the good lady who had welcomed me in the first place.
During that stay in Paris I was once taken to Brasserie Lipp, where I ate my first \o7 choucroute a l'alsacienne\f7 and again ached with the glory of knowing for the first time the grand heights to which sauerkraut could be elevated.
I also dined once at a small Arab restaurant and, for sentiment's sake, ordered couscous, which wasn't as good as I had remembered it in Morocco. I nonetheless reveled in it as I always have and always will.
And one Sunday that is indelible in my memory, I took the train to the suburb of St. Germain-en-Laye and dined at the Pavillon Henry IV. On this occasion I really splurged. I ate tournedos Henri IV, the grilled slice of beef filet with its garnish of bearnaise, plus souffle potatoes and a watercress salad. I went into my usual and ecstatic trance-like state at that first sampling of bearnaise sauce (again with tarragon flavor). That \o7 plus\f7 an initial biting-into of crisp, puffed souffle potatoes were almost more joy than one body could contain.
There soon came, regrettably, an end to these frugal but magnificent pleasures, a far less elevating side to the nights and days as I passed them in Paris.
There is an old canard that if you sit long enough at the Cafe de Paris, Place de l'Opera, sooner or later everyone you have ever known will pass by. The same could be said of the Alliance Francaise on the Boulevard Raspail on the Left Bank. If Paris is where all good Americans go when they die, the Alliance Francaise was, it seemed to me in those days, where they went while they were alive. That is, if they wanted to speak French. And that is where I enrolled on arrival in Paris.
During my years in Chicago, I had been much taken by a tall, well-educated and fascinating brunette who worked in the Midwest bureau of Time-Life. Her name was Zelda, to select a name at random. She was the daughter of a nationally known politician, and my association with her had been polite and purely professional.