How do you describe your best meal ever?
How do you answer that question? Oh it was that super fancy super expensive meal I had that I didn’t pay for? Obviously it was at that one restaurant with the best burger ever. Or maybe it was at a hole in the wall falafel place in Paris as you were on your way to the concert and you were so hungry and it was just right. Or maybe it was the doner kebab at 5am after a Berlin night out where you met up with Jordie with hugs and applause and bald-head rubs. For me, it was on a grey day, on a day trip away from Paris, in a small stone-lined town with a family I had never met.
We took the train to Chantilly and then the bus to Senlis because there’s no other way to get there! Laurel recently wrote to me when I asked her how the trip all went. I still can’t remember why I was in France, or why so many of my home-friends and I were there at the same time, but,there we were, and Laurel and I had decided to head to Senlis.
“Hey” shoulders raising then dropping with a scrunched up smile just below the perfect messy bun on top of her head Laurel started, “Want to come visit my family in Senlis?”
“Sure, why not?"
A lot of the day was a slow dreamy blur. We winded our way through the narrow cobbled streets with stone buildings tucked closely together that blended into the grey skies. Laurel and I had no particular goals for the day other than seeing the tiny town in whatever capacity we could. We visited the famed cathedral and meandered through the farmers market that started and stopped for no reason and I bought a notebook at the librairie, I remember.
Probably we stopped for tea at Le Comptoir, the most charming of the little cafes in town. I spent my Tuesday mornings there when I was living in Senlis for the year working as an au pair. I’m also certain we went to Le Tourmentin for a perfectly reasonable mid-day speculoos-filled crepe—another regular activity of mine in those days, Laurel wrote when I asked what we did all day.
Around 2pm or so, we headed down a stonewalled alley toward her former host family’s home. Laurel’s four little amis, Helier, Baudoin, Côme, and Vianney, ranging 3 to 9 in age, were over the moon to see her. The two youngest were dressed head-to-toe in costumes of some sort, and chatted to us in French in the living room scattered with toys. The family home was soft and subtle but perfect in that French way that I can’t describe. Quiet elegance. Sophisticated without trying. Timeless. The backyard dotted with amber and burnt caramel and mahogany leaves.
The two youngest and I played race cars and spoke a little French and English. Their mom toiled in the kitchen with no effort at all and whisked between the two attached rooms. The two oldest bounced from inside to their outside garden as Laurel asked them questions, patiently, about school and sports or how they/ve been and laughing at the opportune times.
“Hey, isn’t this great?”
“Yeah. I want to name all of my kids these names.”
“Lunch is ready, everyone,” the mom announced as she put the last plate on the table.
Ever since, the family’s kitchen itself has been emblazoned in my memory, and has made me wonder of the years: what is the perfect kitchen? In theirs, a long communal table with wooden chairs occupied a large portion of the kitchen. Just behind it was a command center of sorts, an island from which Anne-Laure, the mother, gestured to me asking if I’d like a glass of white with my fish today. I nodded and she brought over two bottles for the four adults to share over a simple meal of fish and potatoes.
We all sat at 2:30 or so and took a break from the day. A break from the playing and the traveling and the taking-in of a new town, a new language, a new family. A break from vacation and a break from anything else to sit and share. To eat simple foods and drink wine because we could. Because that’s what was important to this family: gathering together over a meal. The kids were playful and whimsical but committed to this too.
We finished lunch and thanked both the mom, the dad and all of those wonderful kids for inviting us into their home, and then set out on our return trip to Paris. But for the time in which we all sat and ate and passed plates and asked questions about living in New York or going to university or spending time abroad or what exactly did you do to that fish, we were there and nowhere else. We were gathered together.
So when someone asks me what was the best meal I have ever had, I always think about that moment. That table. That family. Those leaves falling outside. That stone-lined village. That cafe and that company. I think about how we all were still for a few moments. I can’t tell you exactly what she did to that fish, or if it even was potatoes that accompanied it, or if we drank one or seven bottles of wine or none at all, but I know that the lunch in Senlis was my best meal.