There are a host of terrible chichi French bakeries in NYC, prissily decorated and with no inkling that cholesterol is in fact a virtue. But as with many eating establishments in the city, the smallest and least known is the best. My local French patisserie is a hole-in-the-wall on 70th street, a regular stop for my choir every Sunday en route to rehearsal. Though buttery croissants and pains au chocolat constitute my normal purchase, today was different. It’s Epiphany, which means only one thing: galette des rois.
Being neither French nor a fluent Francophone, my attachment to this fatty flaky almond surprise is derived only from my obsession with marzipan (no, really, it’s a problem) and out of nostalgia for a trip I made to France in 2011. Early that year, I went and visited my snobby Parisian friend N, a resident of a small village outside Saint Germain-En-Laye. She’s Franco-American in all senses of the term, simultaneously liberal as a Bay Area hippie, but with a penchant for cheese, champagne and foie gras (which she has been known to eat straight up with a spoon) that would be at odds with mainstream radical politics.
Anything with N is always a hoot, and this trip to visit her and her family was no different. On the afternoon of January 6th, having spent the day buying perfume on the Champs- Élysées, drinking tea at the George V and puttering around the Louvre, our trip to Saint-Germain-En-Laye required a detour. We spent a good 30 minutes wandering through the shopping center at Gare de Lyon, in search of an inexplicable pastry or cake which had to be bought and consumed that night. If one was not found, I was informed that the dinner planned by N’s mother would be ruined and Epiphany would not actually take place. We had to find a freaking “galeckhdehyrwah” (whatever the the hell that was).
Thankfully one was procured, and we proceeded to get on the train to the suburbs and get to her house. It took a while – apparently there was a train strike in Paris (I just love France). After an hour or so, we get home. Stepping into the centuries old structure in a historic village, I felt like I had stepped into a scene from Les Choristes or some other gray film set in post-war France. N’s house isn’t great – it’s incredible. Dinner was exquisite, and all were very grateful to have the cake. And yet, the evening still apparently went amiss. Following the salad and beef course, the cheese was served. No sooner I had taken my first bite, N started yelling furiously in French, wearing the face of someone who had just eaten dog excrement. Disaster had struck. The cheese was pasteurized (heresy, apparently). Her further dismay was expressed through the exhalation of cheese breath near her mother’s face to prove that the cheese did not smell bad enough to be “real” cheese.
N’s mother quickly took the cheese plate off the table and served the much-awaited cake. A Burger King-esque gold paper crown was also brought out, and I was informed that there would be a coin or baby somewhere inside the cake, not dissimilar to the king cake eaten in New Orleans on Mardi Gras (in fact the traditions are closely linked). If you got the baby, you got the crown (N got the baby obviously). I soon learned that the galette des rois was eaten in honor Epiphany to celebrate the Three Kings’ visitation to the manger. I was also informed that the story was basically irrelevant and that religion was “the opium of the people.” People just eat the cake these days because it’s yummy. Duh.
True to my Southern roots, I veered the dinner conversation away from Maoism and religion and asked about the history of the house. Indeed, it was very old, so old in fact that there was a Prussian soldier buried in one of the walls, killed by a group of heroic villagers in revolt during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. They said they had found this out when they heard some mysterious noises around their kitchen that could neither be expelled nor explained by their preferred South Indian witch doctor. Later, when they had their walls inspected and discovered the existence of the hidden cadaver, they concluded that the musket-wielding Kraut buried in the wall must be the source of their ghostly disturbance. I got a second slice of cake.
N’s parents soon reminisced about their days as undergrads at UC Berkeley, their various vacations around the world, and the cultural paradox of their lives as Franco-Americans. They talked about N’s brothers working in the United States and middle East, and N talked about her studies at King’s. It was extraordinary in a way; that night, French culture seemingly met a zany West Coast attitude about all things spiritual and philosophical. Mao and shamanism and pastry and cheese and history all converged at once at the dinner table, where sat a family at once at home in their lives and seemingly in a constant existence of expatriation wherever they were, being true citizens of the world.
As I finished my second slice of cake, I had a new appreciation for what home can mean when one has feet planted in different parts of the world. For me, Advent is a time when I head to Hudson Street to buy English mince pies, and Dim Sum in Queens is a must around Christmastime. But nothing reminds me so much of what it means to have lived in such vastly different places (Tennessee, Ohio, England, NYC) than in consuming a slice of galette des rois. I don’t really remember places as such, but I remember the people, particularly the fellow wanderers through life who bounce around and won’t sit still. N is one of those people, who I still see every so often and talk about how home isn’t geographical in the least. It’s about something else.
For instance, every time N visits, she comes and watches the rehearsal services go by on 69th street, reminded of the evensongs at King’s she would attend up to three or four times a week. Unsurprisingly, her favorite pieces are French. However, she always tells me how the music of Poulenc doesn’t remind her of France at all, but the sensation of being at home in Cambridge even for just a few minutes, hearing music sung and played by her friends in her native tongue.
I guess “home” in this sense really comes down to sensations of comfort, seemingly easy for some, fleeting for others. N, like me, is constantly on the move, living in her fourth city in 5 years. I’m grateful that she’s not too far from me on the East Coast now. She came up last week for New Year’s, and got Dim Sum with me in Queens, a newer tradition of mine that I was excited to share. We also hit MUJI, Stumptown, the NYPL, and then partied in Williamsburg until midnight. On January 1, she came to church and departed again for DC, and as usual I miss her. But every year, come January 6th, it feels like she’s across the table as I stuff my face full with pastry and marzipan.