My first meal this summer in Aix-en-Provence, France, was a soupe de poisson with all the fixings (garlicky rouille, grated gruyère and croutons) and a glass of local rosé served on the terrace of the brasserie Les Deux Garçons. I felt as if I were dining in heaven with the ghosts of Émile Zola, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and the crème de la crème of French culture who have enjoyed this magical spot for more than 200 years.
Sitting at the Les Deux Garçons, or 2 Gs, as it’s known locally, with residents and tourists flowing endlessly by on Aix’s Renaissance-perfect main street, the Cours Mirabeau, I could almost taste the history of this town of “one thousand fountains” built on top of ancient Roman springs.
Add M.F.K. Fisher, America’s premier culinary raconteuse, to the pantheon of glorious ghosts at Les Deux Garçons, her favorite café when she lived in Aix for much of the decade of the 1950s. In the book she wrote about Aix, “Map of Another Town” (1964), which I devoured during my recent stay, Fisher chronicles her deep appreciation for a town that hardly knew she existed — and still doesn’t nearly 20 years after her death.
Fisher portrays in “Map” her alienated but ultimately self-fortifying years in Aix with existential words like “stranger,” “outlander” and, most often, “ghost.” As she wrote:
All this was good for me. It made me accustom myself to acceptance of my slow evolution as an invisible thing, a ghost.
By the time she found her way to Aix, Fisher had established her reputation in America and Great Britain with books like “Serve It Forth” (1937) and “An Alphabet for Gourmets” (1949). But this reputation did not precede her. At a dinner party soon after her arrival in 1954, an Aixois asked Fisher to explain “how one can dare to call herself a writer on gastronomy in the United States, where, from everything we hear, gastronomy does not yet exist.”
“Map of Another Town” is, surprisingly at first, more a literary memoir and survival guide than a gastronomer’s homage, and it put a ghostly shadow across my own stay in Aix as a solo outlander.
Following in the footsteps of a ghost
This was my third consecutive summer visit to Aix, and once checked into my hotel, Le Pigonnet, I ventured eagerly forth into Aix’s charmingly narrow and curving streets. I carried with me my “Map of Another Town” and plunged into it each time I stopped at cafés for coffee or snacks. My flâneuring brought me to the Four Dolphins fountain, Fisher’s favorite in Aix, at the base of Rue Cardinale. This is the street, I had just read, where Fisher lived for most of her years in Aix — No. 17 Rue Cardinale.
As if led by Fisher herself, or her ghost, a nurturing spirit guide always at my side, I walked up Rue Cardinale, past the Lycée Mignet where Cezanne and Zola had met, toward the Musée Granet, site of an amazing show the previous summer featuring side-by-side works by Cezanne and Picasso.
Just before reaching the museum at the top of Rue Cardinale, I came to No. 17, a beautiful 18th-century town house. As I began taking photographs, a car pulled up and parked. The fellow who emerged asked me what I was doing, and I explained as best I could in French. He of course had never heard of M.F.K. Fisher, but was happy to meet an American food writer and artist because, he explained, his wife was a painter and his daughter a cook at a nearby restaurant.
When Monsieur Dufour invited me to meet Madame Dufour in their third-floor apartment, which was, I later calculated, two floors below Fisher’s chambre de bonne, I could not believe my lucky stars. It was as if the whole thing was a set up — by a ghost!
As I left No.17 Rue Cardinale, I invited my hosts to come to a book talk and signing for my just-published collection of food cartoons and texts at the nearby Anglo bookstore and café, Book in Bar. When they enthusiastically accepted, I joked that at least two people would attend my talk.
My big day in Aix arrived and the joke was on me! The Dufours didn’t show, and of the four souls who did, one left before I finished my talk on California cuisine’s debt to Provence. Only one book was sold, to a woman I overheard saying, “I feel badly for the fellow and should at least buy his book.”
Last supper in Aix
Feeling badly for myself, but strengthened by a growing awareness of my own inner ghost, I walked to the 2 Gs for a farewell glass of rosé, and then on to a restaurant, the Carton Rouge. I was hoping to end my low-spirited last day in Aix on a high gastronomic note.
The mom-and-pop-operated Carton Rouge offered several Provençal entrées and plats along with, to my surprise, a retro tête de veau. More a Parisian novelty than a local specialty, I could not resist the exotic allure of a dish made from a calf’s head — an admittedly ghoulish creation with medieval symbolism compatible with my mood.
The first course was pure Provençal joy — baked squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and fresh herbs. The tête de veau was another story: The skinless head was wrapped around the tongue and brain, simmered with herbs and vegetables and served with a tomato-red vinaigrette. I found the soft white chunks of brain served alongside the tasty tongue, jaw and cheek meat hard to swallow.
My last day (and meal) in Aix was gastronomically dramatic and emotionally complex. Aix is an awesome town that can be daunting, if not outright rejecting, for artistic souls searching for deep connection. But it can also be deliciously and hauntingly transformative, especially when M.F.K. Fisher and the glorious ghosts of Provence are by one’s side.
Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (www.foodoodles.com)
Images, from top:
Soupe de poisson at Les Deux Garçons, Aix-en-Provence.
Proposed M.F.K. Fisher memorial plaque at No.17 Rue Cardinale.
Tête-à-tête de veau.
Credits: L. John Harris