Dans les patates

Last summer, I spent too much money on a dress that was...well, shorter than dresses I usually wear. I went to work wearing it, proudly, sassily, with a pair of leggings, but my bubble of new-dress pride was burst when my colleague said "What a cute top!" Recounting this to my housemate in an email, she replied, "Elle est dans les patates! Elle est juste jalouse." And so I learned what is now one of my favourite Quebec French phrases: "être dans les patates" -- to be wrong or misinformed. French in North America has a litany of phrases for using potatoes; to "faire patate" is to fail at something, while "Lâche pas la patate" means, essentially, "Don't give up!"

When it came time for me to choose a recipe from Le Livre de la Nouvelle Mariée, I found something with potatoes, but that I'd never heard of before -- a mashed potato pudding (page 76). I couldn't decide if it sounded appealing or disgusting. Not knowing that the cookbook was a translation of an earlier English-language cookbook, I thought that the entire book was based on French-Canadian recipes and food culture. If potatoes had such a big place in the Quebec vernacular, I told myself, what could be more appropriate for learning firsthand about Quebec cuisine during the Depression than cooking with potatoes?

Making the pudding was fairly straightforward. I appreciated that the recipe told me to boil the potatoes and then peel them -- I didn't have to get out the peeler, because a quick rinse of the boiled potatoes in cold water allowed me to slip the peels off the potatoes quickly.

I, then, mashed them with eggs, milk, butter and sugar until the potatoes were more or less smooth; stirred in flour and a whole grated nutmeg; and poured them into a baking dish. I realized, while pouring the mixture in, that I had made an egg-based dish that looked exactly like my macaroni mousse from the Betty Crocker cookbook, without the macaroni and cheese.

Le Livre de la Nouvelle Mariée, however, was not as clear as Betty Crocker had been. I was supposed to put the dish in the oven for three quarters of an hour, but I had to guess about how hot the oven had to be, what kind of dish to use, and when the pudding was done. The recipe hadn't even told me whether or not to grate the nutmeg; a nutmeg-lover myself, I figured that out, but I can see a less seasoned cook simply plopping the whole nutmeg in. It seems from the book's assumption of kitchen knowledge that the 1930s woman was not expected to need to learn to cook when she married.

Dubious about this culinary experiment, I made a little side dish of pudding as well. I didn't want to leave my housemates, who were so excited for me to make the pudding, out of the loop on the off chance that my concoction turned out to be delicious. I also wanted to taste it myself before inflicting the dessert on the other members of the Historical Cooking Project. I was less worried when I checked on the pudding; just like the macaroni mousse, it puffed up beautifully in the oven (though it had flattened by the time I got it to our meeting). It tasted like a mild flan without much potato flavour. Even with that most French-Canadian of sweet toppings, a pour of maple syrup, it was fine, but not that exciting.

Was Le Livre de la Nouvelle Mariée just a promotional collection of recipes, leading new brides to feel that they had somehow fait la patate, because their puddings didn't come out quite right? If I could go back in time to talk with women who tried to learn to cook using only this cookbook, I would tell them, "Lâche pas la patate!"

I, too, have had several culinary mishaps. I might tell them about the time I, at twelve years old, had to cook dinner for my younger brother while our mother worked late, and doctored a can of vegetable soup with so much hot sauce that he refused to eat it. Or I might recount the story of when I got back to my studio apartment in a French university residence, hungry at three in the morning, and decided to cook pasta in a cheap electric kettle (my tea tasted oddly starchy for days afterwards). Just this evening, I improvised a curry from frozen pork chops, carrots and coconut milk that I wasn't entirely happy with. I've had successes, too: the Bolognese sauce I took to a potluck that made an Italian exchange student's day, the lamb tagine that comforted friends on a rainy October night, or the vinarterta I took to my mother this weekend.

What's a vinarterta, you ask? Look for my next blog post, which will feature a bit of a diversion from Quebec cooking, to find out!