by Eileeen Cunniffe
Dining in France is always a unique experience, with or without the butter.
Visions of French food danced through my mind, prompted no doubt by my growling stomach, as the train pulled into Chartres. We were stopping there to rendezvous with the other half of our six-person traveling party and to move our body clocks ahead by six hours. The next day we would begin the real adventure—bicycling through the Loire Valley, staying in chateaux and dining like royalty. Today we needed only to stay awake long enough to eat a meal that would compensate for the insults of airplane food and railway coffee.
A short taxi ride delivered us to the hotel, where our three fellow travelers already had checked in. They emerged from the dining room just as we arrived, looking fresher and better fed than us. We three had come from Philadelphia, while they had traveled from Detroit. Our noisy blend of reunions and introductions—some of us had never met before—created a stir in the lobby.
As has frequently been my experience in France, we arrived in town just moments after the clock struck two, thereby forfeiting any chance at a freshly prepared midday meal. While the Detroit contingent lounged in their rooms, we strolled to the town center and settled for café au lait and pre-fab Croque Monsieur sandwiches, which tasted like the plastic they were wrapped in. Our dinner plans began to take on greater urgency—we’d been in France since dawn and had yet to experience the least little thrill over what we’d ingested.
Revived by the caffeine, if not the food, we set off to explore Chartres. After gawking at the majestic Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres from every possible angle on the outside, we tiptoed into the 800-year-old Gothic structure, awed by its history and scale. We explored the dimly lit cathedral, then emerged through a side door into dazzling sunlight and a rowdy procession of locals in brightly colored medieval garb. We followed jesters, clerics, ladies of the court and musicians through narrow side streets to the town hall, where a small-scale carnival was in full bloom. Competing strains of music drifted from a bandstand and a carousel, and the inevitable smell of frites wafted over the crowd. As the medieval costumes melted into a sea of shorts and sundresses, we collapsed on a nearby lawn, laughing at the small part we had played in the festivities.
The French playwright Jean Anouilh once said, “Everything in France is a pretext for a good dinner.” We’d seen Chartres in less than three hours—hardly enough time for this gem of a town, but surely enough pretext for a day that began where a red-eye flight left off. We walked back to the hotel to rendezvous with our friends and revive ourselves for the evening.
At 7 p.m., all six of us set off in search of an early dinner. We needed a menu we could understand, since I was the only one in the group who spoke French, and my skills were limited. We needed a restaurant that did not require reservations and would feed us sooner, not later. We wandered for a few blocks, scanning menus for words we recognized, peering into windows, checking opening times. In the end, we did not so much select a restaurant as it selected us, by virtue of being the first one we happened upon that was open.
Madame , in crisp white blouse and dark calf-length skirt, greeted us formally inside the foyer and led us down a short flight of stairs into the small dining room. A bar with a large mirror for a backdrop dominated one wall. There were no more than twelve tables, each set neatly with silver and glassware for parties of two or four. The only natural light came from small, high windows, nicely dressed in lace. The room had a homey feel, which was unmatched by the business-like demeanor of our prim, sixty-ish hostess, who was still trying to decide where to seat us.
We were the first guests that evening. Apparently parties of six were unusual here, necessitating the rearrangement of several pieces of furniture by Monsieur , the bartender. And while there was no reason—at least up to this point—for our hosts to consider us “ugly Americans,” we clearly were Americans on holiday, which made us somewhat suspect. From the brief exchange required to request a table for six, it was clear only French was spoken here. We sat at the newly configured table, as close as possible to the stairs. Important ground rules and subtle warnings were being telegraphed.
I was perhaps more sensitive to the signals than my companions. I could already see the six of us through Madame’ s eyes, and I understood why she might not have chosen to start her Saturday evening custom this way. I was keenly aware that it would fall to me to establish rapport and demonstrate that, American or not, we were capable of ordering a French meal in a dignified manner with only a modicum of assistance. I sensed from Madame’ s glances down the full length of her Gallic nose, as she distributed cartes and placed a wine list on the table, that nothing less than an all-out diplomatic effort would be required. She sighed audibly when we collectively declined a round of aperitifs .
Meanwhile, the dynamics of our newly assembled traveling party were beginning to emerge and, unfortunately, were leaning decidedly toward Madame ’s low expectations. Perhaps it was hunger, perhaps the day’s heat, or perhaps we all had reached that dangerous, giddy, got-my-second-wind stage of jet lag. Whatever factors were at play, we were louder and bolder than we meant to be—or at least, than we ought to have been. This is not to say we were either very loud or very bold—but some of us had just met, others were catching up, and this was the official beginning of a trip we’d been planning for months. The energy level was high.
I nervously fingered my trusty French-English travel dictionary under the skirt of the starched white damask tablecloth, concerned the situation might slip out of control. I was relying on the handy vocabulary section on dining to get us through the critical ordering of the meal, after which I assumed things would settle down at our table even as new guests arrived to distract Madame .
The wine list presented the first challenge. We agreed one red and one white would serve us well. However, my dictionary was no help in understanding the extensive (and expensive) list. In France, wines are listed by terroir —the region where the grapes are grown—not by the type of grape. We were clueless. We also were in the first blush of a trip to a foreign country, when the currency conversions don’t come easily. Madame eavesdropped as we simultaneously did the math out loud and demonstrated our ignorance of French wines.
One of my new acquaintances, Allison, expressed her frustration over the lack of California vintages. Madame may not have spoken English, but she clearly recognized the word “California” in this context, and her back stiffened noticeably. Eventually we settled on our two bottles, hovering just above the least expensive offerings in each category. Madame looked relieved when we signaled her over to order du vin . Anticipating the next set of challenges, I flipped frantically through the phrase book to decipher the many unfamiliar terms on the menu.
When in France, I have learned to trust the judgment of those who serve me food. I grasp at any scraps of advice offered by the garçons and serveuses who cringe as I mispronounce offerings from the carte du jour . Although this advice almost never comes in the form of an actual recommendation, the (frequent) indifferent shrug of a shoulder or the (rare) congratulatory smile has more than once determined my menu selections. I was fairly certain I would not be getting any helpful signals here.
Overhead, feet shuffled by the window. Occasionally two or more sets of feet stopped as their owners scanned the menu, not realizing that if they moved quickly, they could get dinner and a show here this evening. As we waited for our wine, we heard the door open, followed by footsteps as two new diners appeared. Madame , apparently delighted to see familiar (or at least French) faces, whisked them to the opposite corner of the room and seated them with great ceremony. They ordered aperitifs before she could proffer menus.
Soon other groups began to trickle down the stairs—mostly in twos and threes, never more than four to a party. Madame unceremoniously brought the wine to our table, leaving us to decant our own spirits. She could see we were deeply immersed in our cartes and would not be rendering verdicts any time soon. She had other guests to attend to now, guests who spoke both Français and vin fluently. She looked at me as if to say, “Bonne chance .” I resumed my efforts to handle a barrage of questions from my friends.
For me the quality of a dining experience in France tends to be inversely proportional to the number of words exchanged in the process of ordering. Questions about how the boeuf has been raised or whether the head of the poisson might be removed before serving imply mistrust on the part of the diner. Requests to translate menu items do not often lead to satisfactory explanations and can evoke signs of impatience (or worse). Better to smile humbly and point to something you think you recognize than to flaunt your ignorance and cause the garçon to mime a duck paddling across a pond.
I felt a great deal of pressure not to goof in interpreting the menu, fearing our already-strained relationship with Madame would be taxed further if I inadvertently mistook the name of an unsavory organ for an elegant sauce. I did my best to steer everyone toward safe selections— poulet, boeuf or poisson —while discouraging them from ordering anything I could not translate with absolute certainty. I passed the phrase book around so the others could look up words discreetly, rather than revealing to everyone in the now-full dining room that we were rank amateurs at eating in France. I prayed fervently to Our Lady of Chartres to spare me from having to ask questions of Madame , dreading her glare as I struggled to make sense of the menu for my friends. But it was not to be helped—there were, despite my best efforts to discourage them, questions to be asked.
Happily, I had underestimated Madame in this regard. She was a professional and, more importantly, the sort of French person who awards points for effort to foreigners who attempt to speak French. I spoke haltingly, sometimes resorting to a lame “Qu’est-ce que? ” accompanied by a finger stabbing at the mystery words. With far more patience than she had exhibited thus far, she responded. Soon six orders were placed for first courses and entrées. Madame actually smiled as she collected our menus, no doubt pleased we had refrained from asking if the chef could make a cheeseburger.
I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. For me, the evening now revolved around the delicate international relations campaign I was waging on behalf of my friends and my country, and I felt I’d just successfully negotiated an important treaty. Lulled into a false sense of security, I stashed the phrase book, sipped my wine, relaxed into my chair and began to fantasize about that first tasty morsel of French cuisine.
I studied the workings of the small restaurant. It appeared to be a two-person operation, starring Madame and, of course, Monsieur , the bartending, furniture-moving gentleman we’d already encountered. Monsieur was more than the bartender, as his absences from that post revealed. He may or may not have been the chef; at the least, he oversaw the kitchen. He disappeared through a swinging door for longer stretches as the dining room filled and orders were placed. Madame clearly was the front man in this operation. She greeted and seated each guest, took the orders, did all of the serving. She was responsible for public relations, and as we were about to learn, she also was the designated disciplinarian, responsible for making and enforcing the rules of the establishment.
A few minutes after our orders were placed, Madame rewarded us with a heaping basket of bread. With all the fuss over the wine and menus, we hadn’t even noticed we were breadless. The thick slices of crusty baguette were still warm. Oh, joy! We were in France, the wine was good, the bread was good, dinner surely would be good; in fact, life was good. What more could a girl ask for?
Well, for starters, a little butter. Allison was the first to notice there was none on the table. She must have been feeling sorry for me by then, because instead of asking me to ask Madame for butter, she asked me how to make the request herself. Delighted someone else was willing to converse with Madame , and confident this would advance our diplomatic cause, I offered up this simple phrase for Allison to try: “Du beurre, s’il vous plait? ” She practiced a couple times, then managed to politely signal for Madame ’s attention. I sensed we were on the verge of a breakthrough.
When Madame approached, Allison spoke her line perfectly. Madame , a proud trustee of the French culinary tradition, hardly known for its stinginess with le beurre , offered a monosyllabic response: “Non .” As she turned to walk away, Allison repeated her request, looking at me for assurance that she was saying the words correctly. She was. “Non ,” came the reply once again. Madame looked at me as if to say, “Would you please translate ‘non ’ for your friend? She does not seem to understand.” I wasn’t sure I understood either, but I could see I was about to get stuck in the middle of a debate. I’d only met Allison a few hours earlier, but I already knew she was not accustomed to taking “non ” for an answer. My acquaintance with Madame was even briefer, but I was equally certain she would hold her ground. I tried to intercede on Allison’s behalf, justifying her request with the weak phrase “pour le pain, s’il vous plait, ” my voice reaching for just the right inflection to suggest I was pleading for mercy.
Madame then launched into a lecturette I shall never forget. She looked at me the whole while, her eyes commanding me to translate her verdict and its explanation for Allison and the rest of my friends. Her tone was polite, but firm. Her voice was perhaps a bit louder than she realized. I don’t pretend I caught every word of her dissertation, but I got enough to understand that Madame wished me to explain two important points to mes amies : First, the bread was perfectly good in its natural, unbuttered state. And second, du beurre would only fill us up prematurely, thereby detracting from our enjoyment of the sumptuous meals being prepared for us at this very moment.
By the end of the discourse, I was on her side. Madame and I had sort of bonded during our question-and-answer session over the menu. Plus, she had a point—the bread was perfectly good sans beurre .
As I translated Madame ’s words, I watched Allison’s eyes grow large with disbelief. She was learning a tough, un-American lesson. The customer is not always right—at least not when the customer challenges the judgment of a French restauratrice . Allison’s face reddened. She looked at me as if a bad translation must be at the root of this misunderstanding. Was I certain Madame understood she simply wanted butter for her bread? Yes. Was I certain I’d understood Madame’ s reasons for denying her request? Not verbatim perhaps, but yes, well enough to know I’d captured the salient points.
Madame had been so emphatic in making her speech that everyone in the dining room now knew there was an incident brewing at the table nearest the door. I mentally calculated how many steps it would take to reach the safety of the street above. I half expected the French diners to rise as one and start singing “Le Marseillaise ,” and if they had, I swear I would have joined in.
Everyone at our table had done their best to remain polite (though incredulous) as I translated Madame ’s long version of “non .” Only Allison seemed to feel the bread was insufferable without butter. Madame obviously was in control here, and short of raiding the kitchen (which I thought Allison might just be capable of), we would not be having du beurre with our bread.
Even at that point, there might have been a graceful ending to this tense moment. But Allison, who realized no butter would be forthcoming, could not help herself. She knew a couple other words in French, a phrase far more rudimentary than “Du beurre, s’il vous plait? ” Glaring at Madame , who was in fact looking just a shade too triumphant, Allison spat out a sarcastic “Merci beaucoup .”
With that, there was an explosion of laughter at our table, an unintended affront to our fellow diners, but an inevitable response to all that had transpired. Poor Madame . Had she stopped for a moment to consider the possible outcomes of denying us du beurre before serving up her lesson in the art of bread appreciation, it’s possible she might have anticipated this disruption. It’s even just the tiniest bit possible she might have relented and brought us an ounce or two of the precious substance, possibly requiring us to sign informed consent releases. But it all happened so quickly. She simply gave the best answer she knew to a question she perceived as impertinent. My efforts at diplomacy crumbled in front of my eyes, like the dry bread between my fingers.
The rest of the evening was blessedly uneventful. Allison recovered pretty quickly, although she continued to practice saying, “Du beurre, s’il vous plait? ” throughout the meal—as we all did. Madame served our starters and then our entrées, somewhat coolly, although with no open hostility, mindful of her other patrons. We ate a very fine meal, an assortment of pleasing dishes, each of which had been prepared using more-than-ample quantities of le beurre , thereby reaffirming my belief that Madame was judicious, not stingy, with this particular staple.
After dessert and coffee, we settled our debt and sleepily made our way back to the hotel. By morning, the great butter caper of Chartres seemed even sillier, almost surreal. Had Madame really refused to serve us butter with our bread? Impossible! Weren’t we in France? Should we report this lapse to the authorities?
Not once for the rest of the trip did we need to ask for butter—it appeared at every meal save that first one. We ate breakfasts of fresh apricots, tangy yogurt and baguettes. We had picnic lunches or simple meals in cafés as we pedaled our way from one chateau to the next. We ordered aperitifs and learned enough about French terroirs to bluff our way through book-length wine lists. We had sumptuous six-course dinners in honest-to-goodness castles, preceded by champagne-soaked receptions on terraces with breathtaking views. And wherever we went, whenever there was bread, there was du beurre. Each time it seemed to be a most generous gift, an extravagance, almost superfluous, because the encounter with Madame was never far from our minds.
One phrase dominated our days and nights: “Du beurre, s’il vous plait? ” It became our rallying cry, as meaningful to us as “Allons enfants de la patrie. ” We greeted each other with it every morning. We shouted it from bicycles as we passed each other on quiet roads rimmed with sunflowers. We whispered it politely at dinners served beneath crystal chandeliers as we took turns spearing one, two, three little squares at a time to be sure not a single crumb of bread would go unslathered while we remained in France.
Eileeen Cunniffe‘s story won the Gold Award for Travel and Food in the Third Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing.
About Editors’ Choice:
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