Reading Elizabeth Bard’s New Book PICNIC IN PROVENCE

Elizabeth Bard

Photo by Cindi de Channes

I may be a “millennial”, but I am old enough to remember a time that in order to make a friend, you had to be in the same room as her — at least once.

I am not a typical blogger.  I love writing about food, and sharing it, but it’s not in my nature to broadcast myself.  I am, I admit it, intensely shy.  Hence, my “Internet friends” are few.  And I can’t believe Elizabeth Bard is one of them.

I can’t remember exactly how we met.  I think it was around her first book, Lunch in Paris.  If you haven’t read it, you must.  I had thought it might be flippant, a chouquette-light, cavalier telling of a happy romance between an American girl and a French boy that ends in profiteroles and a balloon bouquet on the Eiffel Tower.  It was not that.  Elizabeth is a great capturer of the way things are.  Her books are poignant remembrances of her recent past.  Lunch in Paris is her love story with her husband, Gwendal, the love of her life (as you’ll find out in tomorrow’ interview).

But it was not all profiteroles and balloons.  She captures the difficulty of falling in love with an ocean between your passports, and only a handful of common words between you.  And as that love deepens, and you begin to come closer, losing part of your old self only to find a new self that is marvelous but unexpected, and going through the true trials of life (like the loss of Gwendal’s father to cancer and discovering one’s calling and career).  Anyone who has been deeply in love and lived a real life feels the reverberation of her stories, like a bell struck true.

Her new book, Picnic in Provence, which comes out on April 7th, picks up the story.  The happy couple is married and in Paris.  But even after professional success, getting everything that you worked your whole twenties for, the thirty-something couple can’t help but ask each other — what’s next?  Off to Provence, to a whole new adventure: a child, a tiny village, and a little ice cream shop recently voted one of the best in all France.

Again, Elizabeth’s frankness makes her stories intensely relatable.  She questions herself over whether and how to be a mother.  She stumbles at losing family income to pursue the family ice cream shop.  She struggles with an Americanness she at times describes as nearly gauche in a sea of seemingly effortless French perfection.  And through it all, is the view of village life from a city girl who always pictured success in the city, life in the city, love in the city.  And the picture left with the reader is one of aching nostalgia, the opposite of my friendship with Elizabeth, where neighbors become friends simply BECAUSE they are in the same room as each other, people harvest together, people gather.  Reading it, I felt galaxies away from my apartment in the sky over New York City, and began to wonder myself — what’s next?

Let me share my favorite metaphor, as she discusses the raising of her son:

“A baby is a wishing well.  We walk by, every day, and throw our pennies in.  Most are bright and shiny, full of smiles and possibility.  Some are tarnished with bad memories, unlucky genes.  Others have been hiding under the couch cushions all these years, just waiting for someone to dig them out.  A baby is a wishing well.  Everyone puts their hopes, their fears, their past, their two cents, in.”  Excerpted from Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard, 2015.

And through it all, she eats.  Like me, and I am sure like you, she is a Prufrock, measuring out her life in coffee spoons and other meal-related metrics.  So each chapter contains the recipes that recollect the life described therein.  I still remember the bistro ribs from Lunch in Paris, shared at a lovers’ corner table, cozily tucked away from the street.  Mr. English and I are passionate Provence picnickers.  It is so ceremonial for us that we revisit the same markets each summer, have a Laguiole pocket knife and (I’m not kidding) weightless cutlery expressly for our Provençal picnics, and know to have the proprietor select our fruit for “today, tomorrow, and the day after”.  Elizabeth captures the sweet juiciness of Provençal produce perfectly.  The melons that weep.  The white peaches that explode with perfume.  The tomatoes!  I have to stop.  Again, as I stared at the sad city produce in my fridge I wondered what on Earth I was doing here.  Because Elizabeth writes not only to take you there visually, but also gustatorily, and you just cannot help being swept away.  And Haute Provence is DEFINITELY a place to which you want to be swept away.

And they are both memoirs with recipes.  Who doesn’t love that as a genre!?

PinP Cover

Picnic in Provence

Both books are ultimately about taking a chance — a big leap.  Doing something you didn’t expect to do — something no one around you expects you to do.  Cracking through the plaster mold you had for your life, going off piste, and come out through the anxiety of it, the work of it, the pain of it in a far better place than you could ever have imagined.  Better than profiteroles and a balloon bouquet at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  And in that, her books are inspiring.  Because she is real, she has fears — fears that I have too.  And she leaps anyway. And suddenly, as a reader, I question how much more I can push myself, how much more faith I should have, and how much more stake I should put in getting to that place just beyond comfortable.

After years of email back-and-forth, I finally met Elizabeth in New York a couple of months ago.  I was nervous — as I said, I can be shy.  Both online, and in analog.  But she is just like she is on the page — honest, open, razor smart, perceptive, generous, and kind.  I found so much in common with her.  A New York-area girl who loves books and food and her husband.  Just reading her interview, I realized that we both live for celery root and Ottolenghi and have the same culinary mantra.  But there was more — we spoke of real issues in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, of motherhood for type-A women in the twenty-first century, of careers in writing.  And I realized that in meeting her, I had taken one of the leaps that her books are always beckoning me to take.  That little chance to extend myself that results in something so terrific, I marveled that I ever hesitated, ever wanted to be shy.  Think of all I could have missed.  That is what Elizabeth’s books are.  Glimpses at all you could miss if you don’t follow that joie de vivre and take a chance at life.


Other reading: French Revolution’s Review of Lunch in Paris from 2011; The French Revolution Lunch in Paris Giveaway

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Categories: Finds, People