Food Memories {Book Club}

One of the best meals I’ve ever eaten was on the island of Sicily, off the southern coast of Italy. My time working at a local preschool the summer before my senior year of college was coming to an end, and one of the teachers invited me to her home to celebrate.

Her husband did the cooking. We dined on from-scratch pasta and fresh-caught seafood and dark chocolate cake, laughter filling the cool, coastal night air. There were tears as we said goodbye, both my stomach and heart filled to the brim.

Food memories are powerful, aren’t they? In this week’s section of Mastering the Art of French Eating, Ann Mah said of her childhood visit to France, “I guarded those food memories, taking them out from time to time to give them a polish. They seemed to represent another existence, one of tradition, of history, of continuity, rooted in a small sliver of the world.”  

As Mah went through the different dishes highlighted in chapters four through six, she drew us into her experiences of cooking and savoring, learning and exploring. I couldn’t stop thinking about the vacation that she and her husband took while he was home on leave, the community experience of making soupe au pistou and eating it all together.

I enjoy cooking and do so for myself often since I live alone. But there’s something really beautiful about sharing a meal with someone, isn’t there? It doesn’t seem to matter much if it’s a simple meal of soup and salad or a seven-course feast, but the laughter and conversation shared over food is powerful.

There were some interesting cultural tidbits I picked up in this section! Other than my brief jaunt through Paris, I don’t know a lot about French culture. The first lesson was how French people eat lunch. In my working days before going to the field I wasn’t always good at taking a lunch break. It was easier to grab something quick and eat at my desk (also what my introvert personality preferred!).

But Mah found through her work at the American Library that lunch at one’s desk isn’t the way to go. She said in chapter four, “According to recent studies, 60 percent of French people enjoy their daily midday meal in a restaurant. Compare this with almost 60 percent of Americans, who eat at their desks while continuing to work.”

How does the culture you are living in or come from handle the midday meal? What did you think of Mah’s experiences around lunch in France?

I also enjoyed what Mah learned about the value of vacation. I’m all for taking regular time off! It can be a challenge as cross-cultural workers who raise support to justify using those funds for a vacation, yet time to rest and play feeds our souls and bodies. It helps us to keep going for the long haul in the midst of some of the challenges that come with cross-cultural life.

Do you have a favorite food memory? How do you handle vacations while on the field? Have you tried salad lyonnaise, soupe au pistou, or cassoulet? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the book:

November 16: Chapters 7-8

November 23: Chapters 9-10, Epilogue

November 30: Giving Tuesday

Photo by Celine Ylmz on Unsplash


  1. Bayta Schwarz November 9, 2021

    I loved the chapter on Provence! Probably because I love that part of France and actually spent a couple of weeks in that same village one summer. There are perks to living in Europe your whole life 😉 I could just picture the characters and the amazing markets, smell the lavender, feel the heat…
    One thing that always amazes me about French food culture is that from a very young age, kids will learn to appreciate those leisurely meals shard with family and friends. Obviously I have not been in that many homes but you do see it in restaurants and I’ve asked people about it as well. I love how that value is instilled in the next generation!
    And her comments on our life choices impacting those we love, and the cost even in our own lives that comes with these choices (as well as amazing gifts!) really struck a chord.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann November 10, 2021

      How fun that you know that area of France, Bayta! 🙂 There are definitely perks to living in Europe.
      We talk more in this community about the personal costs to our work, but not always about the costs and sacrifices of our friends and family. I know the Father meets them and cares for them too but they sacrifice so much too. It’s important to remember!

  2. JoyH November 10, 2021

    One of the best meals I every had was the first date with my now-husband. He took me for Indian which I had never had before. Lamb korma: tender meat (was it really goat?–I’ve never been served lamb here in Nepal, but goat many times, and they call both mutton) in a creamy, mildly but amazingly spiced gravy with Basmati rice and garlic naan, and then a mango lassi. Extremely delightful, and korma is still my favorite Indian dish.

    I miss regularly eating rice when we are in the US now. My husband raised an eyebrow and then just smiled when he saw that I packed a pretty-good-sized bag of rice in our tubs when we went to the US for an unexpected trip in the summer. “We have extra space,” I protested. “And, there isn’t good rice in the US….and it might get buggy before we get back.”

    My husband’s mom does make a delicious cassoulet with sausage, ham, and white beans. When I make it in Nepal, where ham and pork for the sausage are more expensive, I stretch it by using more beans, and as the family grew, stretched it a little more and a little more each year. When we were back in the US once, we were all pleasantly surprised at how meaty my mother-in-law’s cassoulet actually was…and how delicious all that sausage and ham was!

    In chapter 6 the author mentions a cookbook she enjoyed, and it reminded me of a book that I’d loved, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, set in the Middle East and India. It was very interesting to learn how ancient and medieval man traveled so many places and borrowed new dishes and vegetables and spices from those places. It sounded like all the really good things–potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, came from South America, if I remember right. And the story of tea becoming spicy chai was delightful.

    As far as eating lunch, when I worked as a nurse before I was married, we ate as quickly as we could in the small break room (food was not allowed in the nurse’s station) and were back at giving care as soon as we could. We took about 15 minutes, and anyone who was gone much longer got sideways looks from the other nurses. How lovely it would be to have an hour’s lunch at a cafe with friends!

    1. Sarah Hilkemann November 10, 2021

      So many delightful things in this comment, Joy, I love it! 🙂 I must agree, Indian food is pretty special (although I’ve never had it in India). How fun that your mother-in-law makes cassoulet! This was one of the dishes I felt like I could actually try and replicate with ingredients that would be available. 😉

  3. Rachel Kahindi November 14, 2021

    I have never tried any of the foods in these chapters. But so fun to learn about them!

    When my husband and I were dating, he bought a Betty Crocker cookbook. We would flip through and choose a recipe that looked good, go buy the ingredients, and cook together. Our favorite was peanut chicken.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann November 16, 2021

      What a fun way to spend time together!!

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