Soup du Jour
The reputation of French food as the best in the world was born in the development of haute cuisine in France.
‘What is the “Soup du jour?”’
‘That’s the soup of the day.’
‘Mmmmm, that sounds good. I’ll have that.’
– Lloyd Christmas, from the film Dumb and Dumber.
I am taking a girl out to a nice restaurant. Multiple certificates and awards hang in the window. The lights are dim, one wall is stacked from top to bottom with wine bottles as if in a library, and delicate lace curtains reach halfway up the windows and provide us with some privacy from passers-by on the street. Her name is Ayan Youssouf. She speaks English with a subtle accent. Her parents are from Djibouti, she speaks some Korean, she grew up in Germany and she now lives in Switzerland. Yet never has she lost her love of the food of her homeland: France.
The menu offers an enticing terrine to start, and a dacquoise for dessert will be hard to pass up. Wait staff are immaculately dressed. Apparently the cauliflower gratin is delicious as a side, and the entire meal can be rounded off nicely with a chunk of smooth Brie de meaux or sharp Roquefort cheese. If we cannot decide what to eat, we can trust the chef’s judgement and order the plat du jour. But we are not in France. We are in Dunedin, New Zealand.
In fact, we could be at a restaurant just about anywhere in the world. Because there is one feature of the hospitality industry which is hard to disprove in practice: French food sells. At a tearoom in Glasgow you could pick up a ham and cheese toasted sandwich for a pound, or for eight times the price you could sit down to a croque monsieur at a cafe just around the corner. In Riga, Latvia, where you can fill up on dumplings and stuffed cabbage for a few Euros, why not join the young people gathered at Cafe Paris and get half a croissant for the same price? For generations French cuisine has been seen as the most exquisite. French restaurants always attracted the greatest reputations and the largest bills. For the present generation, however, this has changed slightly. The reputation is still there. But there need not be any direct relationship to French cooking or restaurants. The product is enough. Putting a croissant up for sale is enough. People still make the association with quality – yet the quality, and I take Cafe Paris as an example, need not be there. French food is assumed to be the best, so if something appears French then it appears to be the best. There is seldom a need to prove it; people will buy it anyway.
Back to Ayan and our restaurant in Dunedin. Some of the other groups of diners are probably celebrating a special occasion. Bluff oysters are served au naturele. Local potatoes and New Zealand tasty cheese are used to make dauphinoise potatoes. When I spoke to the chef they were quick to assure me, almost aggressively, that they are not a French restaurant, nor do they try to be. Given the decor and the menu, this insistence was quite a surprise. However, it helps to elucidate what French food in some way has come to be: not always a deliberate marketing tool, but instead a market convention to which some establishments have to adhere in order to survive. The rest of the menu features wonderful Asian dishes, New Zealand specialties and experimental fusions. Yet to most people this is the closest thing to a ‘French’ restaurant in town. To most people, it is also one of the ‘best’ restaurants in town. Perhaps the two are subliminally linked. Maybe we, as customers, assume French food to be better because we have been told that it is. One thing seems certain – we are more willing to pay for food if it is French.
The couple who own this restaurant started with a dream of creating a place where people could get good, quick food in a casual environment. But, as one of them said to me while pointing through the curtained windows to people walking past on the street, ‘nine times out of ten those guys decide what you get to do.’ Good food costs money. Money to buy good produce, money to pay good chefs to prepare it. People will pay more for a croque monsieur than a toasted sandwich, or a plat du jour over a dish of the day. As always, money talks. And in the hospitality world it speaks French.
The most obvious indication of the relationship between French food and inflated prices are so-called ‘fine-dining’ establishments. For a professional chef to be ‘classically trained’ is effectively a synonym for being trained ‘in the French methods of bourgeois hotel restaurants in the late-nineteenth century.’ If you are a ‘chef’ you are really a chef de cuisine, or head of the kitchen. Some everyday words have never found a usable English equivalent to the French: restaurant, omelette, café and mayonnaise, to name a few. But these terms and practices are not confined to fine-dining or fancy restaurants. Pubs, cafés and fast-food chains use them. But they are not even confined to the food industry. We use them in our own cooking and eating. We use them in conversation. We see them everywhere. Yet knowing how this specific set of terms and practices came to dominate the food world remains as much a mystery to most people as does mastering the perfect omelette.
Rats and Aristocrats
‘Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs -everything is a pretext for a good dinner.’
– Jean Anouilh.
Auguste Escoffier. A name without which any history on the development of modern French cuisine is incomplete. To some, Escoffier is the deity of whom the high reputation of French cuisine was a creation. To others he is an arrogant egotist. The fact that he is a necessary inclusion in the history of modern French cuisine stems from neither of these. He is necessary because he is a hinge between what had come before him and what has come since. A balance between his influences and his influence.
The reputation of French food as the best in the world was born in the development of haute cuisine in France. Despite the historical importance of peasant food and local traditions on French cuisine, it was the ultra refinement of cuisine in aristocratic French kitchens, and overblown elegance of bourgeois restaurants, that defined what ‘French food’ came to mean to the world.
Two factors contributed massively to the development of haute cuisine. One was the role played by professional kitchens both before and after the French Revolution. The other was the codification of the techniques used in those kitchens. From the Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century, French chefs were confined to employment in private homes and kitchens of the aristocracy. However, this exclusive, restricted existence of the chef allowed for a uniform system of techniques to be refined, and certain dishes and procedures became standard throughout these upper-class households. Following the French Revolution, and the end of the ancient regime, everything changed. Chefs’ former employers were gone, and their traditional stage – aristocratic kitchens – had disappeared. They needed a new place to perform. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had it.
Somewhere between the bloody years following 1789 and the pendulum-swinging social upheaval of the next century, a new elite emerged in France: the bourgeoisie. Boosted by industrialisation, the decline of the monarchy, increased material wealth and the growth of large commercial cities, bourgeois society blossomed in nineteenth century France. Especially in Paris, members of the bourgeoisie indulged an interest in sophisticated, urban culture. Part of that culture was fine food. In place of their aristocratic masters, who ate privately in their homes, chefs now obeyed the desires of wealthy citizens who frequented public restaurants.
In this new society the status of chefs changed. They were able to create their own menus, and strove throughout the century to establish the chef in society as both a bona fide professional and a true artist. This desire for professionalism saw a number of professional culinary academies set up in France at this time. In terms of art, Joseph Berchoux, a French poet who invented the word ‘gastronomy’ in its culinary context, insisted: ‘A poem is never worth a dinner.’
One menu from 1870 shows how French chefs adapted traditional techniques to suit the times. During the Siege of Paris by the Prussian army, Paris was in a state of turmoil, and cut off from the outside world. Yet some Parisian chefs refused to compromise the quality they strove for. They were not even perturbed by a lack of usual ingredients. Livestock could not enter the city. So chefs had to turn to meat already in the city. Horse meat was the most obvious and popular choice. Numbers of rats, cats and dogs from the street quickly dwindled. And, famously, the meaty animals of the city zoo and museum were too much for hungry Parisians to resist. Chez Voisin’s menu from Christmas Day 1870 presents such dishes as ‘clarified soup of elephant,’ ‘cat flanked by rats,’ and ‘roast camel English style,’ along with dessert, cheeses and two different services of vintage wines. One restaurateur apparently, after earning 600 francs in only thirty minutes from selling elephant meat he had resorted to, sold dishes made of horse meat as ‘elephant’ at exorbitant prices for the next two weeks.
Therefore it appears that the bourgeoisie had the curiosity and money to allow chefs to establish their profession as part of mainstream French society in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, however, although French chefs forged a new identity for themselves in society after the Revolution, one element from the old regime remained central to their work: the standard set of traditional rules, techniques and practices refined in the years of cooking for the aristocracy. One major reason for this was that these rules were written down.
The codification of cuisine classique in France kept the scope of haute cuisine very narrow. Once recipes, ingredients and techniques were written down, rather than transmitted orally, they were less susceptible to change and variation. Several books about food were written in France before the seventeenth century that had a notable influence on modern cuisine. However, it was not until 1651 that the first true epistle of haute cuisine appeared with Francois Pierre la Varenne’s Le Cuisinier françois. This book documented a change occurring in French cuisine over the seventeenth century: in peasant households, and from there into noble households, heavily spiced foods were replaced by more simple dishes flavoured with fresh local herbs and home-made sauces. In other words, the fundamental characteristics of modern French cuisine were laid. Over the 1700s cookbooks grew in popularity and number in France, but it was not until 1833 that the next landmark literary work appeared, by Marie-Antoine Carême. Carême cooked among the highest echelons of society, including for Napoleon, at the English court, and being headhunted by the Russian Tsar. His L’Art de la Cuisine Française put in writing many of the practices consolidated in traditional haute cuisine before the Revolution. The methods he codified, particularly those of preparing stocks and sauces, became gospel for the next generation of haute cuisine chefs. This is where Escoffier comes back into our story.
Escoffier did nothing new. Well, practically nothing. On one hand, he is a continuation of the line of celebrated masters who codified the traditions of haute cuisine. On the other, he is a revolutionary who simplified the classical French principles and made them adaptable and malleable to chefs around France, Europe and the world. Whichever way you look at it, Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire is undoubtedly the most influential book on French cuisine over the past century. Escoffier took a lot of his techniques straight from Carême, but managed to simplify and organise them more clearly. Maybe for this reason, or maybe simply because he was at the right place at the right time, it was Escoffier’s brand of cuisine classique which was to spread beyond France’s borders over the course of the twentieth century.
The New French Empire
‘How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?’
– Julia Child
James, in a white chef’s jacket in the kitchen of Dunedin cafe Nectar, explains that the sauce he is making for a chicken and leek pie is now a velouté because he has added stock to the roux, rather than milk, in which case it would have been a béchamel. He asks me if I can make a cartouche while he is stirring the sauce, so he can put it over the sauce and leave it without going bad while he talks to me. I begin to feel that the talk is hardly necessary. I have already seen what I came to find out. Within two minutes it already feels like I am in a play written by Auguste Escoffier. Cartouche, roux, béchamel, velouté. James has never been to France. Nectar is a very typical New Zealand cafe. So how did it come to this? How did France come to invade industrial kitchens of the western world? Food is something every single person on the planet needs. The French hardly invented it. Escoffier hardly invented it. But if anybody could lay claim to its patent, it is him.
After the publication of Escoffier’s book at the start of the twentieth century it became the textbook and bible of every serious haute-cuisine restaurant in Paris. In other words, it was the backbone of one of the most famous industries in the most fashionable city in the world. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Paris was unmatched by any city in the world for its cultural and social activity. Parisian boutiques and designers set the trends for European fashion. From the city’s Left Bank artists chopped between Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism and changed the course of modern art. On the other side of the river intellectuals and social activists argued over socialism, society and the future of the modern world. Such activity attracted all types of public figures, from Pablo Picasso to Ernest Hemingway. In short, Paris was the place to be.
Alongside this burgeoning culture Parisian restaurants and cafes thrived. The haute cuisine restaurants grew and grew in reputation and international stature. Typical Parisian cafe or bistro food became associated with the city’s culture and sophistication. The croissant, which had only appeared in Paris a century earlier from Budapest-via-Vienna, became as much a symbol of France as the Eiffel Tower. The Michelin Guide first appeared in 1900, and rose to prominence as its system of rating restaurants against one another forced chefs to adhere to its criteria in order to outdo one another in the eyes of the public. So, Paris was the centre of the world’s attention. But then the Second World War came. Post-war Paris was a much different place. Years of Nazi occupation, crippled industry, immense wartime casualties, and uncertainty over the future. It was time for French cuisine to move on.
Through several important figures, it did just that. French cuisine began to put down strong roots outside of France. In one way, therefore, this is the point at which ‘French cuisine’ lost its relevancy to France. This strand of French food stopped moving. Instead, it was exported from Paris as a time capsule, an anachronistic reflection of Escoffier and interwar Paris which was set in stone. Two names arguably have more to do with this exportation and globalisation of French cuisine than anybody. Roux and Child.
Julia Child moved to Paris in 1948 because her husband was stationed there with the United States Foreign Service. She instantly fell in love with French food, and went to train at the famous Cordon Bleu academy. She wished that America had such good food. Instead of championing a strong American food culture or creating a new American way of cooking, her mission explicitly became taking French cooking and planting it in America. The result was Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which fifty years after its publication is still one of the most popular cookbooks in the United States), an Emmy-winning television show, and an altered culinary landscape of America. In 1903 Escoffier claimed that “stock is everything in cooking, at least in French cooking.” Julia Child stated in 1961 that “the wonderful flavour of good French food is the result, more often than not, of the stock used.” Child’s book is nothing revolutionary. It is simply a further codification of the classical French methods. The Americans may have been first to the atomic bomb, but the French beat the United States to Hollandaise sauce by at least three-hundred years.
Michel and Albert Roux moved from France to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Apparently disgusted by the poor quality of restaurant food, they opened Le Gavroche in London. Here they served classic French haute cuisine dishes, based on many of Escoffier’s principles and techniques. The restaurant, along with their second The Waterside Inn, soon became favourites of the Queen, and picked up three Michelin stars each. Those who have been trained under the Roux brothers include celebrity chefs and household names Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and James Martin. More than half of the chefs in Britain who have been awarded Michelin stars were trained either under Michel, Albert or their disciples. The Roux brothers have been called ‘the Beatles of gastronomy’ and credited with starting a food revolution in Great Britain.
Revolution? It seems more like an invasion. A conquest. The French Empire, almost two centuries after its demise, has reappeared in the guise of gastronomy. Pre-war Parisian chic has remained fashionable in post-war Britain and America. From there it has been carried around the world. McDonald’s. Hollywood. The Beatles. Coca-Cola. Apple. David Beckham. Globalisation has pushed Anglo-American society to most corners of the world. In Tokyo it is no surprise to see a local youth wearing a Rolling Stones tee-shirt. Just like it is no surprise to find a croissant at a bakery in Mexico City or on a street corner in Delhi. Globalisation has tended to mean that if something is popular in London or New York, chances are it will become popular in Auckland, Dubai or Hong Kong. Perhaps the global obsession with the image of French cuisine is down to Britain and the United States, rather than France. Since the end of the Second World War, ‘French cuisine’ has become less and less French. This begs the question: what has France been doing since Britain and the United States ran away with her old cuisine?
A Fresh Taste
‘I cannot prevent the French from being French.’
– Charles de Gaulle.
The supermarket feels like a supermarket. Rows of tinned food, dried pasta, soft drinks. Kids and the irritating screech of a sterile floor. Selma explains that she just has to buy some cheese, wine and tomatoes. After ten minutes in the cheese aisle we leave with a small mould-covered wheel of goats’ cheese, or chèvre.
Selma’s parents moved to France from Morocco two years before she was born. She moved to Paris with her mother and twin sister, Kenza, after their father died when they were three years old. Selma is currently completing a PhD in Primatology at the grandiose Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in the centre of Paris. The sisters share an apartment on a heavily trafficked road beside the Seine in Charenton-le-Pont. There is a distant view of the Eiffel Tower largely obscured by a concrete housing block. As Selma unpacks the groceries she apologises in her sweet, richly French voice that Kenza is not here for the dinner party.
‘I am really sorry, because you say you like French food, and she is really the expert’ – Kenza runs occasional French cooking classes for tourists at their apartment – ‘I am no expert.’
‘That’s okay, you don’t have to be,’ I assure her, ‘you just have to be French.’ She smiles.
After this I spent the afternoon with Selma in the kitchen. She casually explained the dinner to me as we worked. The centrepiece of it was a chicken and apricot tagine, cooked in her mother’s old earthenware tagine which she brought over from Morocco. To go with it there would be tomatoes à la Provence, with their seeds removed ‘because it helps with, um,’ Selma pauses as she rubs her stomach to jog her memory, ‘the digestion.’ Underneath will be couscous with garlic, thyme and lemon. Variations of fried potatoes with parsley are found all over France, and ‘in the southwest they use duck fat to fry them.’ The final condiment was an aubergine caviar which Selma prefers when it is infused with a special mix of Moroccan spices that her mother taught her. Around 5pm she opened two bottles of wine to breathe.
Of course, not all restaurants in France adhere to the haute cuisine traditions. There have been numerous periods where chefs have attempted to distance themselves from traditions and advocate nouvelle cuisine within the haute cuisine system. Albert Roux claimed to be doing this, and at the end of the nineteenth century the term was often applied to Escoffier’s cooking. However, most of the time these ‘breaks’ with the past have ended up being assimilated back into the canon of classical haute cuisine. However, there have been some more genuine attempts to change the stuffy traditional system.
Perhaps the best example of people consciously trying to alter their archaic food identity in contemporary France is Le Fooding. This movement is based on a French restaurant guide which appeared in 2000 to rival the Michelin Guide. Its name comes from a mix of two English words – “food” and “feeling.” As this suggests, the philosophy of the movement is to feel more attached to food. Rather than enjoying the same classic that bourgeois socialites ate in the nineteenth century, advocates of Le Fooding want the food we eat to reflect our own time. Alexandre Cammas, who co-founded the guide, states that ‘the classic French cuisine was dying. Everyone knew it outside of France, but it had to be said within. And it had to be said with joy—not as something to mourn but as something to celebrate, the beginning of a new taste.’ Exponents of Le Fooding want restaurants and menus to change as fast as our daily lives do, and to embrace whatever influences we are exposed to, not just the influences of the past. The movement has grown steadily and may be starting to change things. But some people have opted for the less stressful approach of simply running away from the old system altogether.
“Baptiste” was born near Versailles, just outside Paris. From the age of fifteen he spent twenty years completing chef and pastry chef apprenticeships and working in Michelin-starred kitchens. Then he got out. ‘It is not healthy. It is all about what is on the plate, not how it got there.’ He moved with his young family to New Zealand. After being disgusted by the poor quality and amount of processed food while working at supposedly the ‘best French pastry shop in Auckland,’ he turned away from food completely. Within five years he had gravitated back towards it, in the form of a small crêpe-making venture which turned into a full-time occupation.
‘I enjoy it because the people can feel the love that I put into the food, they can watch me make it and I can see them enjoy it.’
His menu is in English and he hardly seems to be using the French factor as a marketing tool. He also grows all his own salad greens at his home, makes every sauce at home, uses organic and free-range eggs and ham, and cheese from local suppliers.
‘Really? Wow, how come you do not advertise that information?’
He cracked a small smile, laid his hands flat on the table and slowed his voice down as he replied: ‘I want the food to say that to people. If the food says it, then I do not need to.’
After dinner, Ayan proposed taking our drinks to the seats outside the restaurant to have a cigarette. Reading over the dessert menu, I said ‘I wonder if they make a “real” dacquoise, you should get one and be the judge.’ Upon hearing this, Ayan laughed, lit a cigarette, swung her legs back under the table, leaned slightly forward, and began to tell me about an episode she had recently experienced in Auckland.
At a very popular French cafe and bakery in Mt. Eden she asked the chef, out of curiosity, why they did not sell vanilla éclairs. She shifted slightly closer to me, and raised both her hands in order to emphasize the next part of her story: ‘the chef went crazy! He began to complain with frustration about why he cannot sell genuine French food to New Zealanders.’ He used to buy these rich, 70% cocoa chocolate bars to make his pain au chocolat, but people complained that there was no real chocolate in them. ‘So to adapt to the market, he had to put bars made from Fonterra – which do not contain chocolate at all, but mostly sugar!’ Ayan smiled, pulled out another cigarette from its pack and held it, unlit, in her fingers, as she finished her story: ‘once he did this people started to compliment him about the rich flavour of cocoa in there!’
After telling her this the chef ushered Ayan out to the kitchen, sat her down and, ‘relieved by my empathy,’ made her an éclair à la vanille from scratch. ‘But it was a kiwi one, with chocolate glazing on top. Delicious. You do not get those in France!’
When a Hollandaise sauce splits, most people throw it away and start again. But it is possible to re-emulsify it by carefully adding drops of boiling water and whisking. It may not be as rich, but it will still be good. To some people it may even taste better.
Book Review: My Father Left Me Ireland – An American Son’s Search For Home
My Father Left Me Ireland should be read widely and thoughtfully, as both an example of outstanding memoir and as a political intervention.
Among those who think themselves wise, few words in our political vocabulary seem more likely to elicit a derisive scoff than nationalism. Little, as ever, do they know, as it is an idea whose importance, in our time of Brexit, Trump, and pandemic, has been somewhat rescued from neglect and disfavour. Nationalism, as any fair-minded thinker would allow, has both benign and pathological forms, and it isn’t inevitably guided or condemned to take one path over the other.
After pointing this out, one notices, with annoyance, more scoffs, the volume and contempt of which are calculated by the gender of the accused, the toxicity of his masculinity, his alleged racism, and, well, you know the list by now.
Perhaps such unthinking responses are best ignored, useless as they are, perhaps now more than ever. This almost seems to be the approach of Michael Brendan Dougherty in his memoir My Father Left Me Ireland, a serious and affecting reflection on fathers and sons, the nation and its survival.
Dougherty is, first of all, a masterly writer, and he so carefully interposes his personal narrative between the larger political, cultural and historical questions that one hardly notices the transitions. He writes:
“All nations are in some way dissolving, we’re told, and that the dissolution is a good thing. Ireland’s national pride is a font of violence, a spur to extremism and superstition. And besides, Ireland is a failure. It has always been a failure. After all, my ancestors left. James Joyce left. Ireland’s children still leave. They send back selfies from Bondi Beach in Sydney. They send back money from Vancouver . . . I have to laugh. They all leave, but you stayed.”
The addressee here is the father in the title, whose staying in Ireland left his son fatherless in America, loved at a distance. Now, the arrival of Dougherty’s first child prompts the collection of letters to his father which makes up the memoir.
The letters combine grief, humour, anger, reconciliation, and, perhaps most importantly, recovery:
“I am suddenly alive to the idea that I could pass on this immense inheritance of imagination and passion if only I could work up the courage to claim it for myself.”
First, however, his recollections must pierce the soul: all too brief moments of visiting his father and the tears that followed; and the abandonment and broken endurance of his heroic mother. “Your curse was in being so easy to love,” Dougherty tells his father, and it is that same love that compelled his mother to try to hold on to the Irish songs and stories, the political commitments, and even the language.
Despite the real hardship and the literary risks of the letter form, Dougherty never collapses into self-pity or sentimentality; his bigger themes wouldn’t allow it, anyway. He skilfully uses his own story to tell a more important one about the culture and its degradation. His insights are remarkable and convincing.
He contemns what he calls the myth of liberation: the combination of self-absorption and self-delusion by which his generational cohort has lived and suffered. This has led to the desecration of community and family institutions and their replacement with a focus on the self, who is always right. The preferred cliché, nowadays at least, is the exhortation to speak and live your truth, which is risible at first glance and nerve-wracking at the second.
Reflecting on the death of his mother, Dougherty ties this social deformation to his own mourning and anger:
“I was furious too at the ambivalence of our culture in the face of her death. This myth of liberation was like a solvent that had slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life. It dissolved the bonds that held together past, present, and future. It dissolved the social bonds that hold together a community, and that make up a home.”
For Dougherty, one part of the solution to this crisis is a return to the nation, and he finds solace and inspiration in the thought and words of Patrick Pearse, the teacher and revolutionary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Pearse averred:
“We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.”
How easy it is to imagine such words shrivelling the tongue of some sanctimonious fool, the one who loathes the mere idea of borders, his nation, and, in the end, himself. We live in a time when speaking in defence of one’s inheritance is something like bad manners, and even the use of the word manhood is a social solecism. One easily notices a reproach in Pearse’s words, and we would do well to reflect on it.
For Dougherty, this reproach from the past means doing away with our present conception of the nation as mere administration, as a rank in terms of GDP or policy success or whatever. It means a recognition of what his father has truly left him – Ireland, with all its wonder and complexity. It means remembering that a nation has a soul, and we are haunted by its ghosts: our fathers and grandfathers from whom we inherit a tradition, as well as a responsibility to pass it on. It means that in such an act, sacrifice may be called for, and it should be given joyfully.
Some of these are old ideas, and we have forgotten them. That is why, in Dougherty’s arresting prose, they seem very much alive: “To dance up to the idea of idolatry, you might say the life of a nation proceeds from the father and the son.”
My Father Left Me Ireland should be read widely and thoughtfully, as both an example of outstanding memoir and, more importantly, as a political intervention: perhaps our etiolated debate over the nation and its soul can be brought back to life.
My Father Left Me Ireland
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
(Sentinel / Penguin Books)
My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search For Home was published in April of 2019 by Penguin Books.
Malleable memories and transcending time: An interview with Joanna Howard
Author Joanna Howard talks about her new memoir, “Rerun Era.”
How many versions of my life are there?
Did other people see what I saw?
What really happened around me?
In a mesmerizing way, author Joanna Howard’s vivid new memoir, Rerun Era, nudges us to ask ourselves these questions — and reconcile what we think we know about time and our own experiences.
Narrated by Howard’s five-year-old self, Rerun Era paints a striking portrait of her childhood in rural Oklahoma. At the cornerstone of it all is trauma — as well as a connection to television that reveals more than pop culture taste. It serves as the foundation of time and memory.
While Rerun Era is a welcome return to a time of boxy television sets, VHS tapes, and radio dials, the story is relatable beyond generations and regions. It is the story of so many of our childhoods, spent seeking solace and stability in screens and laugh tracks.
When you started to write Rerun Era, did you think that remembering things in this fashion — attaching memories to, or grounding yourself in, pop culture — was universal or kind of unusual?
Howard: It felt universal for my generation, particularly. For a lot of people who grew up in the 80s and early 90s — it was the rise of the MTV generation. I did think there would be a lot of people who shared a kind of collective memory of what they watched. And it does seem to be the case. Since the book has come out, I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people. Even if we didn’t watch the same thing, it’s triggered people’s memories of what they watched when they were a kid.
Given how thoroughly media has changed in the past few decades — whether that’s speed, or the amount of media, or consumption habits — do you think it’s possible for late Millennials and Gen Z to experience the same type of solace and relationship to pop culture that you did?
Howard: I worry that they won’t. You know you’re getting old when you start worrying about how the youth consume culture, or whether they read or what they watch (laughs). I do think it’s hard now to watch anything we don’t feel we have complete control over. Like how we watch it, when we watch it, for what duration we watch it.
For me as a child, I knew it was time to go to dinner when one episode of M*A*S*H started, and I knew that dinner was over when another one started. That way in which television sort of cordoned off time? I just don’t think kids now can ever have that, because of streaming and downloadable platforms and binge watching.
It’s dramatically changed, that relationship with time. People can still escape into shows; it’s just a different kind of escape.
The memories that you wrote about seemed most vivid when they mimicked TV. For example, you wrote about going to an event called Frontier Days, where people were obviously dressed up and playing characters. In those types of scenes, everything seemed a bit more vibrant. Why do you think those memories were so vivid? The ones that — I don’t want to say they necessarily emulated TV, but they were obviously more character driven and almost played out like an episode of TV.
Howard: I do think if you grow up watching a lot of television, it really shapes the visual part of your memory. Like if I am reconstructing an experience in my mind or telling a story to someone out loud, I’m often sort of picturing it in my head like it’s a film or a television show, because I’ve done so much viewing as a kid. I still do this.
But that visual component is also super important to me in terms of seizing upon memories. I tend to be a person who, if I see an object, it triggers my memory much more than if I smell something or hear something, for example.
Do you think you were predisposed to having that kind of visual inclination, or was it shaped by TV? Or maybe both?
Howard: I definitely think it was shaped by TV. Movies, especially. Rerun Era focuses on television because it was in that moment right before we got a VCR. But when the VCR was introduced into my life, suddenly the longer form of stories was available . . . and I was just an obsessive watcher. I could do ten films in a row, no problem. I was really prepared for binge watching before it was a thing.
It’s all totally affected the way that I think. In my other writing, when I’ve done other types of fiction, people always say that image is the thing that unifies the style of my work. I’ve clearly been influenced by that visual culture.
In Rerun Era, television is really as much of a character as any of your family members, if not more so. At some points, it’s a caretaker. A reliable, comforting presence in your life. A window to somewhere outside of a small rural town.
Did it seem that way when you were younger, that TV was almost kind of personified? Or is it just now, in retrospect?
Howard: I really like the phrase “caregiver” that you’re using there. I was totally aware of the fact that my parents were cordoning me into this space to watch television, as their way of dealing with having a kid when they didn’t have time to deal with having a kid. The TV did absolutely feel like a babysitter.
I see it a lot with my friends who have kids now. They’re resisting putting the iPad or whatever in front of the kid, but there’s this way in which time opens up for adults when their kid goes into that zone. Even though you know it’s not a great idea, there’s something so seductive about the silence the parents get from it (laughs). That concept of “television as babysitter” or “VCR as babysitter” was my parents’ lifeline in many ways, and I was very aware of it.
But I don’t think I was worried about it, and my parents weren’t terribly worried about it either. Parents nowadays are obviously much more concerned with what screens are going to do to us in the future. My parents were not super worried (laughs).
I wonder how much of modern parents’ worry about screen time is because they themselves were babysat by screens. Which leads me to another thing I found really interesting about Rerun Era . . .I feel like, generally, people refer to latchkey kids or kids raised by TVs in a really negative light.
Howard: Oh, yes.
But you don’t do that. It’s very nostalgic. It’s very warm. TV is not, by any means, the enemy in your book.
Howard: Definitely not. If I have any kind of ethical core, it’s been partially formed by these clichés in these shows where the person does the right thing (laughs). Those shows sort of formed that tapestry for me.
But I also think it’s sad, the degree to which a parent now feels responsible for every aspect of their child’s life. I understand that comes out of seeing a lot of kids end up in very bad situations, or children who were susceptible to adults that were harmed or with bad caregivers.
For me and my friends, there wasn’t a lot of oversight into what we were doing (laughs). We were allowed to kind of run amok. My parents were working, and they didn’t have the time. And I’m kind of grateful for that. It meant I had a lot of freedom as a kid and as a teenager, and when I went to college, I didn’t freak out about the sudden freedoms you have when you become an adult.
I see it a lot with my students now, because I teach those Gen Z students, their parents have overseen just about every aspect of their lives and have been exactly what we think of as model parents. But it becomes so much harder for their kids to imagine their own independence in the world.
It seems like there are a lot of those types of experiences in Rerun Era that, while they’re still relatable, would be entirely foreign to later Millennials and Gen Z. Like one of the things from the book that I remember well were those uncertainties of who sang this song, who acted in that movie? That’s not an experience people can have now. Either passionately believing in a wrong answer for years, or not knowing what actor that was in that one thing. We have instant answers now.
It’s so interesting to think about how foreign the book could be to people who really aren’t that much younger.
Howard: That moment where the Internet made access to all answers possible, there was just no going back. There used to be a certain kind of charm that a person who collected trivia held in the world. If you were the guy who knew all of the records, and could identify who did that song — that person could even carve out a career from that. People would pilgrimage to try to get answers. You’d have these intense interpersonal exchanges where people would debate whether or not someone was in this particular Hitchcock film. Now you’re at a dinner party, someone asks “Who was in that?” and you Google it, and the conversation’s done (laughs).
Now, anyone can be an expert in, like, 20 minutes. There’s less of a need for people to collect up facts and learn now. Like I remember, we would play Trivial Pursuit, and whoever won was revered! (Laughs.) How amazing that this one person could answer all these questions in all these different categories? Sports, entertainment, history . . .
Oh, they were so worldly!
Howard: (Laughs.) It was amazing.
I feel like that instant access probably has something to do with why we’ve become so argumentative online. You can sit behind a screen and quickly Google things. Even if it’s something you didn’t know five seconds ago, you get so entrenched in it because you can find the answers to back up your opinions as fast as you need to.
Howard: Absolutely. And we also feel justified to call someone out for not knowing things because they should have Googled it before they posted whatever they posted. That’s a tough demand. And if you’re at all hot tempered, those things don’t go well together. (Laughs.)
To switch gears, you cover a great deal of trauma in the book. So much so that it seems as though more time lapses than the year you actually cover. How did you hone in on this specific period of your life?
Howard: You know, it just happened so quickly. I had been talking with a friend of mine, a poet from Arkansas, C.D. Wright. . . . she had been trying to get me to write about my family for a really long time. There are a lot of these parts of the world that are perceived to be backwards, and she thought that there weren’t enough stories from people who come from these parts of the world and have had a very vibrant relationship to culture and art. We didn’t necessarily grow up cut off from left-wing thinking or things like that. I set out to do this book because she was very much like, we need these voices in the world. And this book just immediately took off.
Originally, I hadn’t set out to do the voice how it is. I’ve never written anything with a child’s voice before. Once the voice was in place, it just started to write itself. The whole year came on in a tide; I’ve never had an experience like that with another book.
Did you uncover a lot of things you had forgotten about?
Howard: I sat down with my brother, who’s ten years older than me, and that helped. He was just a more fully formed thinker than me as a five-year-old. At five, I was prone to have gotten pieces confused or imagined things and my brother was very clear about things.
I found out that I had conflated some things and people. In a few instances, I allowed a bit of that fictional technique to rearrange some things.
People often write memoirs, even of their young childhood, with a great deal of certainty about details. In Rerun Era, that wasn’t really the case; you were upfront about the shifting or unsure part of your memories. Was that hard?
Howard: I definitely think it was helpful for me, that feeling of having articulated that. I didn’t go into the project thinking that’s what I was doing, because I didn’t think about my mind that way.
I think about the phrase “gaslight” a lot. We didn’t use that in the way we do now. We didn’t talk about it. My parents would often have a very different memory of something that took place than me or my brother did, and they would try to force that version on us. Because of that environment, where my memories have been challenged, I have always felt a bit vulnerable about what’s real and what’s not. It’s made me feel, at times, that I’ve needed to protect my own way of seeing things — even if it’s wrong. It can feel like your identity is being challenged.
What would you say to anyone who is struggling with that sense of being unsure of the details of what’s happened in their own life — particularly when it comes to traumatic events?
Howard: Well, I think it’s just really important to be gentle in the way that you deal with those things. I went into this book blaming my parents for a lot of things. My memory would sometimes shape things to re-emphasize that narrative of blame, or of the absentee parent. The process of writing the book really softened my view of my family, to know that we all had different ideas of what was actually going on.
Truth is really great when we’re talking about climate change, but when you’re dealing with your personal memories, that’s when we need to be gentle and a bit more lax. Those things can take time to figure out.
by Joanna Howard
Rerun Era is available for purchase at the McSweeney’s Store and Amazon.