In the spring of the year I lived in France, when I was 18, I hitchhiked one weekend with my six-foot-tall, blond, eccentric Swedish friend Elisabeth, a seminary student at La Mhotte, to visit a Count in a medieval northwestern French village somewhere… I can’t remember the name of the village or how Elisabeth knew the Count or what his name was or why we went, but I do remember that the Count lived in a rambling medieval house built on the road that wound through the village, the upper floor acting as a bridge, spanning it, curved on its underside so cars passed underneath an arch and between the outer stone walls of the first story, so traffic literally drove through the house.
The Count was a fat, sardonic, lonely man with a pendulous, wet lower lip like the wine connoisseur’s in the brilliant Roald Dahl story, “Taste.” He was married to a tiny, much younger Japanese woman whose name I’ve also forgotten. She confessed to Elisabeth, who had befriended her and won her trust, that he beat her and treated her cruelly. The Count confessed to me, who had befriended and perhaps charmed him by discussing novels and poetry with him, that he was in desperate need of real companionship and hoped I would come to live with them. I balked and demurred, but I was secretly, weirdly flattered. Since my own father had disappeared for good when I was nine, I’d been open to a replacement. In my early years, I’d been my father’s makeshift son, the closest thing he got to a boy (he had five daughters with his two first wives); older men often provoked in me the urge to try to replicate what I had (certainly mistakenly, I see now) taken to be a kind of male-bonding fellowship with my father.
The morning after we arrived, the Count’s little Japanese wife took Elisabeth and me to gather stinging nettles, les orties. We wore white cloth gloves and pulled weeds from the side of the road and put them into a big straw basket, being careful not to brush them against our forearms. When it was full, we carried it into the big kitchen, where the Japanese wife taught us to make nettle soup. We washed all the sand and grit off and chopped them into small pieces while a diced onion sautéed in lots of butter in a soup pot. Then we added the nettles, chopped potatoes, and enough water to cover it all and boiled it until the potatoes were soft. Then we added some cream, salt, and black pepper. We ate it that night for supper. It was surprisingly good, velvety and savory. I remember we had a plain lettuce salad and a loaf of chewy boule and a board of good cheese to go with it, and wine of course.
After supper, while Elisabeth helped the wife with the dishes, the Count took me up to his study, a book-lined room in the bridge part of the house whose two windows, on either side, looked right down at the road so headlights and taillights showed in them. He poured me a cognac, which I sipped while he had a cigar. We discussed literature. His English was much better than my French. I didn’t dislike him, but I was wary of him. Even so, I was thrilled to be drinking cognac with a Count in his library. It felt like a scene in a novel.
Hitchhiking home the following day, as we stood by the highway with our thumbs out, Elisabeth told me she was disappointed in me for flirting with the Count.
“I didn’t flirt with him,” I said.
“You did,” she said. “You should be careful.”
The Count’s crush on me, if it can be called that, which upset me greatly at the time (he kept telephoning me at la Mhotte long after I stopped taking his calls), seems tame and harmless now, by comparison, to things that happened to me later in my life, much more severe misunderstandings.
And Elisabeth’s disappointment in me likewise seems benign to me now. I should have taken what she said to heart, as a warning, instead of feeling misunderstood and miffed. Now that it no longer matters, now that I’m past making trouble, I see what she was trying to tell me.
I was a vegetarian when I first went to France, being at the age of trying things out that weren’t necessarily compatible with my character and inclinations. I was confronted one morning with a whole rabbit, sinewy and red, and was taken through the steps of turning this poor creature into a lapin a la cocotte for dinner. When it was done, I sat at the table with the family I worked for, eating buttered egg noodles with grated cheese and watching them devour the stew I’d made, and then, after I’d cleared everything away, I stood in the kitchen over the pot of leftover stew, of which there was hardly any, and forked a small chunk of rabbit into my mouth. I couldn’t help myself. Then I ate another bite, and then I finished the stew. I was never a vegetarian again.
Chop, or have the butcher chop, a rabbit into pieces.
Fry three or four cut-up slices of very thick, fatty bacon in a skillet or Dutch oven until they’re crisp and all the fat has rendered. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and munch on it as you make the rest of the stew – in the bacon fat, sauté a large chopped onion and 2 cloves of garlic. Add the rabbit pieces and sauté till they begin to turn brown-gold. Sprinkle them with three tablespoons of flour and sauté them for about five more minutes, turning.
Add a cup of beef broth, ½ cup of red or white wine, 2 teaspoons minced parsley, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, salt and pepper, and 1 bay leaf. Simmer, covered, for an hour, adding more broth as necessary. Serve over buttered egg noodles, paired with a green salad, with plenty of good table wine. Serves one svelte French family and one carnivorous fille au pair.