The MIL, when she's expecting guests, would do her food shopping a day or two before. And on the actual day, one would normally see something on the stove or in the oven late afternoon. Yesterday at six, the kitchen was quiet and empty: no soft whistling from the pressure cooker, no simmering sound, no ticking of her mini timer, and the biggest red flag (for me, at least) - no smell of cooking.
Out of curiosity, I took a peek in the kitchen only to see her sitting at the table, reading Le Canard enchaîné. You may recognize the word canard as duck, but Le Canard enchaîné is anything but a cookbook. Ten minutes later, she was solving a Sudoku in one of her weekly magazines. Yes, yes, yes... I know about her Boy Scouts-style readiness and Zen-like calmness in the kitchen. But there is really nothing in the kitchen! Not the slightest hint at dinner for seven adults. All I knew was she wanted to try her friend's recipe for a lemon tiramisu, no coffee, no cocoa.
So we - they - caught up with each other over the latest happenings: their married sons, photos of the newborn grandson, property tax, Angela (Merkel!), diabetes... everything and anything under the sun over crisps, nuts, vegetable chips, wines and pastis. At 8:10pm, the FIL started putting away the munchies to set the table for dinner, in between discussions on bank cards. That's what I love about dinner with family friends: it is so relaxed and there's much to talk about, things move so seamlessly. Just don't get me started on the multi-simultaneous conversations.
I was onto my second glass of sweet white wine, looking into the kitchen to see what the MIL was up to. She had individual plates on the table, distributing watercress on one side of each plate, a large blini on the other, and topping it with dressed french beans, prawns and crab sticks. That, ladies and gentlemen, was our first course.
While quietly stuffing watercress into my mouth, I also heard something cooking on the stove. It took a while more before I could smell something familiar... fish? But the MIL doesn't normally do fish. I could even count in one hand the times we had fish in the past two years. She finished her salad very quickly as the conversation moved on to Ségolène blaming Valérie. Hey, I never fully understand what the folks say - they're too fast for my elementary French - but I'm at the stage where I can roughly tell what they're talking about and their (dis)pleasure. And I know which names I must never, ever, christen my children.
"Bravo!" I thought when she brought the fish gratin to the table followed by a large bowl of yellow rice. It was that simple: large fillets of white fish baked with shredded carrot, chopped leek, a little curry powder (!!!) and crème fraîche. No wonder she didn't cook anything in advance. All she had to do (by deduction) was prepare the vegetables in the gratin dish ahead, store it in the fridge until needed. She must have cooked the buttered rice using absorption method before coming back for her salad just now.
Then came the cheese platter with more bread, which JL and I usually decline (yes, my Frenchloaf isn't that French in this sense). And the rest, I can't remember the sequence thanks to my third glass of rose wine, came J's petits fours, the MIL's tiramisu au citron, and strawberries from the FIL's garden. By the time our guests took their leave, it was nearly eleven and we quickly washed up before lights off.
At this point, if you're still reading, I could only guess you must be my mother (Hi, Mum, what's for dinner?), or you are curious about French home dinners. Or if I am indeed lucky, that you are as appreciative as I am of what goes on in the home kitchen. Sure, one can enjoy such spectacles of food preparation and serving in fancy (read: pay) restaurants. But to watch every move and anticipate what is to come in someone's home kitchen and being fed while at it - that, money can never buy.
That is, if it survives tea-time.