Review: How to Eat a Small Country by Amy Finley

Friday, 19 August 2011

It was early winter, and Mme. Rillier’s kitchen was warm. Something that smelled of onions and garlic was cooking in a hissing pressure cooker on the back of the stove. A stew maybe, or dried beans, I thought. Greens freshly cut from the garden lay on the sink, along with the bucket of onions she had just brought in. A collection of succulents sat in small pots on the windowsill. On the wall, above an overstuffed brown chair covered with a crocheted afghan in shades of orange, blue, and brown, hung a shotgun.”
A Pig in Provence by Georgeanne Brennan

In early 2010, I read A Pig in Provence, Georgeanne Brennan’s delicious memoir about living and cooking in rural France. Her detailed prose introduced me to a side of France I hadn’t read about in other books or seen in movies. Instead of posh Paris, the pages oozed with anecdotal information about Brennan’s life foraging for wild mushrooms and learning to make her own chèvre in Provence.  

Travel memoirs, like A Pig in Provence, and a rolodex of ex-pat blogs, are my favourite way to explore the places I don’t have the time or budget to visit (yet), allowing me to escape into others’ experiences of cooking in France, finding adventure in Prague, and yes, even falling in love in Bali. I have an obsession with people who pack minimal belongings and board a plane toward a life in unfamiliar territory.

Lately, my reading choices have been less about exploring new places, and more about revisiting places I have already been lucky enough to explore. Last September, less than a year after I read A Pig in Provence, Jordan and I managed to save enough money to spend ten days in France. And it was bliss. While we didn’t make our own chèvre or scour the countryside for truffles, we did make and eat some incredible food in our miniature apartments in Paris and Nice.

Desperate to go back, I have been re-living my experiences of France through other peoples’ memoirs. My most recent library find was How to Eat a Small Country: A Family's Pursuit of Happiness, One Meal at a Time by Amy Finley.

Food-Network addicts will remember Amy Finley as the winner of season three of The Next Food Network Star, which landed her The Gourmet Next Door — her own show. But after just one season, Finley walked away, instead hauling her family to rural Burgundy in an attempt to rebuild her marriage, which was left crumbling in the wake of her 15 minutes of fame.

“I am fantasizing about freeing all the rabbits from the shed, experiment in old-fashioned sustainable eating be damned—am envisioning myself striding purposefully (and rather heroically) toward the door to throw it open and chase the furry creatures toward the relative safety of the green, grassy fields—when Greg and Marc come out of the house. I slink behind them, nervously nibbling my fingers, as they approach the shed discussing which rabbit to dispatch for dinner.”
How to Eat a Small Country by Amy Finley

I had great expectations as I read this excerpt from the first few pages of How to Eat a Small Country. Even the semi-vegetarian in me loves reading about people brave enough to raise and eat animals. Finley decided against rescuing the rabbits, eventually coating one in spicy mustard to create lapin à la moutarde.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few times readers experience Finley actually cooking, as the family — compromised of Finley’s two children (Indy and Scarlett) and her husband (Greg) —  seem to gain most of their memorable culinary experiences from expensive restaurants, punctuated by Finley’s rollercoaster of emotions, most notably anger and bitterness, which are mostly directed toward Greg.

I never fully understood Finley’s anger. Readers learn that Greg urged Finley to leave her show, and that the couple’s marriage splintered when he decided to leave. But the details are vague, and to the uninformed reader, Finley’s hostility is at times grating.

The book’s ending is just as vague, as Amy and Greg pack (and re-pack) their suitcases, about to return home to San Diego. Readers can assume that the couple’s trip to France — zigzagging everywhere from Marseille to Normandy and back south to Corsica — is a success, darning their unravelled relationship, but we never know for sure.

Luckily, for readers, Finley is not so vague when it comes to writing about food, a talent greatly inspired the writing of American journalist and food writer Waverly Root. I couldn’t help but relive my own gastronomic experiences in France through her detailed descriptions of aromatic cheeses, flavourful seafood, and a few dishes that made me cringe like tête de veau  — calf’s head.

Finley’s passion for food is clear, and her enthusiasm for the diverse cuisine in France is enough to make any reader want to board a plane to eat their way across the country. And for me, broke and short on time, it allowed me to revisit the same country — and the unforgettable food — that I fell in love with last September.

(It also urged me to revisit many of the photos I took of food! Here are just a few of the best.)

Wine and baguettes in Paris
Cheese platter near the Arc de Triomphe

Bakery in Arras, France.
Moules Frites in Arras
Pizza in Nice, France.
Market in Nice, France




Our bounty from Nice's market


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