501 Life Magazine | Love, food and fellowship
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Love, food and fellowship

The French take their cuisine quite seriously, so being asked to participate in cooking a “bona fide” Thanksgiving feast was a bit intimidating. And to add to the angst, the host would be Jean-Pierre Simon, the international senior food critic for the Michelin Guide. A prince of a man, Jean-Pierre and his wife, Peggy, were the most gracious and loving host and hostess one could ever have wished for.

Jean-Pierre and Peggy had invited 13 of their dearest friends to join us in celebrating a Thanksgiving fête of food and fellowship — fashioned in the American tradition. There were two mainstays that I knew would have to be included — buttermilk cornbread and homemade yeast rolls. Neither of these colonial delicacies is to be found on this side of the pond; but, the happy anticipation of their appearance on the Simons’ Thanksgiving table was not to be denied. The pressure was on, and I was beginning to second guess my wisdom in volunteering for such a grand cook-off.

The whole-wheat honey yeast roll recipe was retrieved from my sister-in-law, Janie Longing, and my momma’s cornbread recipe was emblazoned in my memory. All was going well, until the realization of acquiring certain ingredients — such as dry yeast, baking powder, cornmeal and buttermilk — might be impossible and truly foreign in this part of the world. Now, the real challenge was before me.

Thankfully, I was introduced to the American grocery store, Real McCoy, where I found the prized cornmeal and baking powder. The dry yeast and buttermilk were still MIA, but hope was not lost. Monoprix, France’s answer to Kroger, had an interesting milk-type carton labeled, fermented lait, so I grabbed it and hoped for the best. The dry yeast, masqueraded by some other mysterious name, was selected only after a brief and pathetic exchange with an innocent bystander, who confirmed that the white powder was indeed what I was looking for. Basking in my shopping success, I headed back to my apartment to prepare for the weekend’s big event.

When the Simons arrived at my apartment, their little car was packed to the brim with the freshest and most beautiful foods ever to behold. I jumped in the back seat with my sack of prized ingredients, and off we flew (and I mean flew!) to the French countryside.
The weather could not have been more idyllic, and the sky could not have been bluer. We motored up the narrow, winding dirt road to their charming country home (circa 1100), nestled in the picturesque beauty of Fontainebleau.

Let the cooking begin! The first morning there, I dazzled Jean-Pierre with my grandmother’s (Mamie Longing’s) famous scratch biscuits. Crisp, golden brown and steaming hot with soft delicate centers, I proudly delivered them up the stairs to Jean-Pierre’s office. His eyes lit up like those of a little boy on Christmas morn, as he graciously awarded me three stars. Dripping with real butter and Peggy’s famous homemade strawberry preserves, Jean-Pierre, was in breakfast heaven.

Much to my relief, the whole-wheat yeast rolls came together beautifully. I carefully placed them on the radiator to rise, with comfortable three hours before baking. The fermented lait was indeed buttermilk, so the cornbread was looking proper; and the Simons were excited that I was making an extra pan for the table. (I had never heard of such, but they insisted we have extra.)

The bustling country kitchen was filled with a potpourri of delectable aromas. Just as the guests were arriving, I was taking the blazing hot cornbread out of the oven. With the biggest French smiles I’ve ever seen, they exclaimed, “Maize de pain!” which is French for cornbread. I’ve never seen folks so happy and excited over cornbread in all my life. They ate and ate and ate, proclaiming the deliciousness of it all — taking seconds and thirds and asking for the recipe over and over again.

The yeast rolls never rose. However, the smell and taste were surprisingly divine. Not one was left. They asked for that recipe, too. I was dumbfounded. Flat as flitters, they were, but tasty just the same. Who knows what mysterious white powder that was; but who cares.

Three cultures – American, French and East Indian — came together that lovely Thanksgiving Day to celebrate our blessings and newfound kinship.

Personally, I declared it a three-star day, wishing that the whole world could find the peace and love that we all shared around the

Simons’ bountiful harvest of beautiful friends and warm fellowship.

Momma would have been so proud.

There are no boundaries for PEACE ON EARTH when love, food and fellowship are shared.­

 Momma’s Cornbread
(Elizabeth Katharine Longing)

3/4 cup yellow or white cornmeal
¼ cup white flour
½ teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg, slightly beaten
Buttermilk, enough to make mixture the sloppy consistency of cake batter
½ stick real butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Stir in beaten egg. Add buttermilk.
Heat butter in black iron skillet until bubbly. Pour half into batter and mix with spoon. Pour into hot skillet and bake approximately 15-20 minutes.

Janie Longing’s Honey Whole Wheat Rolls

2 packages dry yeast
2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs
½ cup olive oil
½ cup honey
5 ½ cups flour (half white and half whole wheat)

Combine yeast with warm water. Mix well. Add salt, eggs (slightly beaten), olive oil and honey. Add flour, one cup at a time.
Refrigerate overnight.
Roll out dough onto floured board and cut into desired sizes. Let rise 2-3 hours. Bake at 400 degrees/15 minutes.
(Refrigerated dough can last up to one week.)