The meals we grow up with are the ones that remain close to our hearts. It’s not just about the foods we ate, but the people we shared them with and the experiences and rituals that surrounded them.
For Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington, childhood summers were spent traveling through France with their families, from truck stops and markets to bistros and bakeries. Their new cookbook Paris to Provence: Childhood Memories of Food & France (our July Cookbook Club pick!) features original recipes inspired by their personal histories. You’ll find the sandwiches filled with ham and pate they snacked on during long road trips through the country; the fresh fig tart inspired by the fruits that grew on a neighbor’s tree in Aix-en-Provence; and the sweet and savory crepes mastered on the streets of Paris.
In the Q&A below, we asked Ethel and Sara all about what French food means to them, what they learned from the French way of life, and some of their most powerful childhood memories. Read on for their responses (and a favorite recipe!) and scroll to the bottom of this post to learn more about our Cookbook Club.
Tell us about spending time in Europe as kids. How did living in France shape your love of food?
Ethel: Every summer, from the time I was about 6 years old, my family traveled to France, with the occasional pit stop in England, Germany, Belgium or Holland. We always ended up in France. My strongest memories are of the goat cheese vendors at the open markets. I don’t think I ate goat cheese in California until I was in my twenties. As a child I was exposed to simple foods and fresh, farm-grown and -raised ingredients. This exposure became the foundation for my own love and appreciation for food, farming and an overall lifestyle that connects my family and me to what we eat and where it comes from.
Sara: I wouldn’t say I necessarily “lived” in France; my family and I traveled throughout France during my childhood summertime. There were, however, moments where I felt I lived there, or perhaps was French in another life. The most simple tastes and smells shaped my love of eating and photographing food. The romance of freshly baked bread first thing in the morning on the streets of Paris is so familiar and happy. The smell of whole chickens on the rotisserie at the farmers’ market is not just that, but a unique mixture of smoke, chicken, bread, chilly air, and a bit of diesel fuel from trucks on the busy streets that made me fall in love with exactly where I was at that moment. It was a culinary education to witness the French valuing their time eating, which has become more and more foreign in our country. They take the time to sit with family, enjoy company, digest, and revel in the ingredients; there is nothing more simple and beautiful as that.
What are some of your most powerful food memories from that time?
Ethel: Family friends of ours who lived across the way from our farmhouse had a huge garden, a small farm by many San Francisco Bay Area standards. All summer long we, as kids, were allowed to pick beans, melons, peaches, strawberries, basil, eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes. I have been eating summer vegetable stew, ratatouille, since I was five or six.
Sara: What resonated throughout the years were the very, very traditional French dishes, specifically what we ate on the street or at a long, multi-course dinner. Those dishes, as I was eating, would bring a giant smile to my face, re-creating stories in my head of what it was like to try them for the first time. For street food: Crepes Au Sucre and Candied Peanuts. For family dinners: Melon With Prosciutto, Roast Pork Loin with Rosemary, or a roast chicken with amazingly crispy, succulent skin. And, as I mentioned before, the power of a very traditional loaf of French bread is undeniable. That absolutely has to be had at least once a day.
What sort of things would you eat on a typical day, and how did you enjoy them?
Ethel: As the summers in Provence were (and are still) hot, we spent many afternoons at surrounding lakes. Picnics were essential and savored; salami, cornichon pickles, fresh fruit, pate and baguette sandwiches, fruit tarts, quiches and of course salty squares of pizza from the bakeries were common fare.
Sara: The four of us – mom, dad, my sister and I – would usually gather a few things from the farmers’ market and supermarket and picnic in the center of a small town, in a large park, or (my favorite while we were in Paris) on the Seine overlooking Notre Dame. Cheese, meat, bread, ham, cornichons, yogurt, apricots, bottle of wine and a small dessert would be a typical picnic day. We would set down a small blanket or sheet, and eat everything in the wrappers and paper they came in!
While eating at a table with friends of family, it would be a longer affair, with melon and ham, salad with goat cheese, pork or roast chicken, the cheese course, then dessert. By the end of the main course, I was squirming in my seat, ready to get up and run around the house with the other kids.
What was the most important thing you learned about food and life from the French?
Ethel: Food is a vehicle to bring people together, as are many simple pleasures in life. Our French friends taught my family that sharing food is a cultural and creative experience, one that promotes human connection and personal histories.
Sara: Slow down, enjoy, taste, slowly enjoy, and slowly taste. This was more prevalent the further you drove away from the larger cities – country living was and still is slower and simple.
How did you come into your respective professions?
Ethel: I worked as a free stylist, chauffeur and translator for a book called Aperitifs, by Georgeanne Brennan and Kathryn Kleinman, much of which was photographed on location in France. When the project was finished, before it went to print I borrowed the color slides and had 8 by 10 copies made at Kinkos as Food and Wine magazine had contacted me for a job but needed to see a portfolio. I spent the next few years working regularly for Food and Wine as a prop and food stylist. Over the years I moved more toward prop styling and away from food, but still look for the perfect projects I can both food and prop style.
Sara: As soon as I picked up a camera at age 13, I knew I was in love. It was a love that never went away, and I was determined to make it a part of my life and my profession. There is something so meditative and rewarding to be completely focused on printing in the darkroom. I would spend hours and hours in the dark, probably too much dangerous time around the toxic stop bath and fixer chemicals, to experience that “reveal” moment when my image appeared on the paper. If I wanted to be a successful college student, I knew I had to have photography in my life, so I attended Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts with a major in photography and cinematography. Upon graduating, I wanted to get out of the cold east coast and go west, so I researched every photographer in San Francisco and Los Angeles who had work that meant something to me, and contacted each one. I believe something like 3 or 4 responded, and from there, I started my journey of assisting, working in studios, working in photography galleries, at photography labs, shooting weddings on the side. I pushed and pushed and made sure I worked as much as I could to find the lifestyle I didn’t want to narrow it down to what I did want. I made the leap in 2007 to be a full-time photographer, and shortly thereafter discovered my love and connection to food and travel photography. Ultimately, it was my love of travel, love of meeting new people, love of being active, running a business, and needing new challenges and projects that kept me in the game.
How did you first bond over French food and culture?
Ethel: Sara and I met working on a book called The Wild Table, by Connie Green. After the first or second day we discovered we had a shared past – childhood summers spent in France. After a few months we realized we wanted to turn our experiences into a photographic- and recipe-based memoir.
Sara: Ethel and I were on an assignment for another cookbook, and it was just one of those typical days where we were discussing direction, color, and light, and working together seamlessly (me photographing, Ethel prop styling). We started chatting, and instantly bonded about our individual summers in France. I knew of her mom’s (Georgeanne Brennan’s) writing, but I never heard Ethel’s side of the story. We were surprised to find out that our summer food, road trip, market and beach memories in France were so similar – almost identical. Since we had such strong, happy memories of France that had shaped us as people and professionals, we were finishing each other’s sentences by the end of the photoshoot.
What made you decide to collaborate on the book?
Ethel: The idea and outline for the book came to us very easily, and we hoped that Andrews McMeel Publishing, whom we both love and work for often, would take interest in our project. To our surprise they also thought our book idea would work, and from that point on it was just a question of meeting deadlines — the book drove itself.
Sara: After that day, we knew we had something special. We were both at a point in our careers where we successfully had many books styled and photographed under our belt, and we were salivating for something to call our own. I tried not to get ahead of myself, but there was something that told me that this collaboration was going to click and happen all the way. Most importantly, Ethel and I work really well together, and we have very similar writing styles. I don’t think this collaboration would have worked if one of us wanted to take over the other’s job; we constantly respected and enjoyed each other’s company, respected each other’s work, and didn’t force anything. We really pushed being as spontaneous as possible, and pushed having as much fun with this book as we could. You have to have a strong, respectful collaboration or it will never work. Moreover, this was the kind of book that could not necessarily be art directed by anyone but us because it was so personal; an outside art director may have spoiled the subjective esoteric nature of the book.
How would you characterize the recipes in the book?
Ethel: The recipes in the book are simple, if not in method, then in idea. These recipes are from our childhoods and are representative of a time and place in our lives when many things were simple and accessible. We wanted to share the flavors we experienced as children, not the ones we work with now as adults.
Sara: Simple and traditional. We didn’t try to force any high-brow or hard-to-find ingredients for the sake of being “different”; we wanted to share our memories exactly how they were prepared for us and how we experienced them. We wanted to underline tradition, and yes, took a risk in that we knew there are many, many French cookbooks out there with similar recipes. But it wasn’t about that – it was about the story, the memory, the visuals, and the tradition that put a stamp on us as children. What was also important is to keep the preparations simple and accessible for the home cook. For me, there is nothing more frustrating than spending hours on a meal, only to discover, at the end, something was not quite right.
Do you still spend time abroad today? What is your favorite place to visit?
Ethel: My husband is French, and we go to Paris and Provence every summer. We have recently discovered Portugal and try to get there for a week or two during the summers.
Sara: I do spend time abroad, but not as much as I would like on a non-work basis. When I travel abroad nowadays, 90% of the time it’s for a photography project. I know how that sounds like a dream job, but believe me, when I travel for work, I rarely experience the place that I’m trying to capture the experience of, if that makes sense. I’m recreating ideas and visuals of what I would want to experience and explore as if I didn’t have my camera. On top of which, I’m usually only in one place for a number of days, so long hours, jetlag, and huge shot lists imean my memories are a bit blurred!
When I DO travel for pleasure, I am open to visiting places that I’ve never been but know have amazing food and scenery. I’ve been in every region of Italy, but I could go back again and again just based on the food and wine. I love being outdoors and active, and would love to go back to Argentina, specifically Salta (for the wine and for the mountainous, desert terrain). Nothing better than long days of hiking, running, climbing, biking, or swimming and finishing up with an amazingly decadent meal and wine.
What’s one of your favorite recipes from the book?
Ethel: I have to recommend Fraise au Vin Rouge, strawberries in red wine. As a child I was enchanted by this fresh, beautiful summer dish of strawberries tossed in red wine and sugar, which was served up regularly throughout the summer. I so clearly remember finishing off my berries and lifting the bowl to my mouth to drink up the sweet wine syrup at the bottom.
Sara: Without a doubt, the Poulet Frites (chicken with fries). This always has to be accompanied by a very typical French bread to soak up the excess drippings of the chicken and crunchy remnants of the fries — delicious. There is nothing that screams FRANCE more than that recipe. It hits all of my senses: smell, taste, touch, the beautiful color of the chicken skin, and the sound of it cooking. There was a time when I was kind of a picky eater as a child, and sometimes I would eat this dish every day for days on end; it was an extremely powerful food memory for me.
Poulet Frites (Roast Chicken with French Fries)
4 large russet or Kennebec potatoes
Canola oil or other vegetable oil for deep frying
1 teaspoon salt
1 (3½-pound) chicken, cut into quarters
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 1 ½ tablespoons sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Rub the chicken quarters all over with the garlic. Place the pieces, skin side up, on a baking sheet. Rub them all over with olive oil followed by the salt. Bake for about 20 minutes, then using a butter knife, spread 1 tablespoon of the butter over the tops of the chicken pieces.
Continue to cook, basting once more with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Cook the chicken until the juices run clear when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the French fries. Peel the potatoes and trim them to make a rectangular block. Cut the potatoes evenly into batons or sticks ¼ inch wide by ¼ inch thick. Place in cold water and continue to change the water until it is clear. Dry the potatoes completely with a towel.
In a deep fryer or a Dutch oven fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the oil over medium heat until it reaches 325°F. Add the potatoes, only a few handfuls at a time, being sure not to overcrowd them. Increase the heat to medium-high and fry until the potatoes have formed a skin and are faintly golden, 6 to 7 minutes. Remove to a paper towel–lined platter. Repeat until all are cooked. Let rest for 15 minutes to 2 hours before the second frying.
When ready to serve, heat the oil again to 350°F. Fry the potatoes in handfuls as before until they turn a warm golden brown, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt.
From Paris to Provence: Childhood Memories of Food & France by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington; Andrews McMeel Publishing, April 2013.
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