In the summer of 1989 my bride-to-be and I drove my battered Renault 5 through France. We chose the smaller roads, and stayed in municipal campgrounds, preferring to spend the little money we had on food instead of lodging. On arrival at one such campground I parked the car near the entrance and walked over to the office to see if there was a space available. There was, and the girl began peppering me with questions as she filled out my registration form. Finally she asked, “Do you have une canadienne in your car?” Surprised, I said, “Yes, but how did you know? She’s my fiançée.” The girl erupted in laughter. After a bit of confused explanation I understood finally that the word for a camping tent in French is une canadienne.
We found another campsite about halfway between Lyon and Geneva. A small river ran on the western edge of the campground, and across the river was a village with one street of shops not even one hundred yards long. Oddly, though, in those hundred yards were five or six decent-looking restaurants. We walked up one side of the street, and back down the other side. On a whim we chose “La Mère Bourgeois.” The interior was furnished as a simple country inn, and very pleasant. Imagine our surprise when the supper that followed turned out to be, by far, the most delicious single meal of our lives. We were in the middle of nowhere, and somehow had stumbled upon a mysterious paradise of gastronomy. And the price was very reasonable (especially when our overnight stay at the campground cost about two dollars). Ever after, “La Mère Bourgeois” remained a treasured memory. We often thought of going back, but never did.
Thirty-six years later—this past weekend, in fact—I was in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Mike Radow’s parents had left him and his sister the home they’d grown up in, a low ranch house styled like a summer cabin. The spacious living room, all wood floors and rustic wood panelling, with a long stretch of windows looking out on the trees and brambles, had its end-walls lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. They were only half-filled now, but Mike urged me to take what I wanted. He and his sister were eager to clean the place up and get it ready to sell. I looked through most of the volumes on one wall the first evening. There were many temptations, but I resisted them. The next morning I started in on the other wall. I saw a thin book by Gertrude Stein titled, Paris France. “If it’s written in comprehensible English,” I thought, “it might be interesting, and otherwise hard to find.” So I pulled it from its place and opened it at random, just to sample the language. This is what I read:
There was Madame Bourgeois in a little lost town in the centre of France. She and her husband who had been servants in one of the homes in France that still cared for cooking had inherited a little café in this little town that was not on the road to anywhere not even on a railroad. And she began to cook, nobody came except a few fishermen and the local tradesmen and every day she cooked her best dinner for them and then one day after two years of this, a man from Lyon came by accident, a lawyer, and he was pleased with his dinner and he asked her if she could undertake to cook for a dozen of them who were going to celebrate the legion of honor of one of them and she said yes, and from then on the place was famous and she always tired as she was cooked with the same perfection.
—Gertrude Stein, Paris France (1940). Pp. 52-53.
And that was all.
So I kept the book, and when I got home I searched the internet and found only a brief Wikipedia article reminding me that the name of the town is Priay, and adding that “The restaurant was established in 1923 and was awarded the prestigious 3 Michelin stars under chef Marie Bourgeois between 1933 and 1937.”
Someday, perhaps, I will go back.