After graduating from MHC 18 months ago, Iliana Paul now lives in Brooklyn with her high school sweetheart. She works days as a paralegal at a law firm, but afterwards and otherwise, she is an avid cook and eater. She plans to attend graduate school in the not-so-distant future, but for now, Ilana says, she is “just figuring things out day by day.”
The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.–M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
“Do you want any more?” I asked tearing a bit of baguette and smearing on chevrot.
“No, I don’t want to have nightmares,” Chris replied matter-of-factly.
“Don’t you know that eating cheese late at night will give you nightmares?”
“You’re ridiculous,” I said.
At which point Chris got up and interrupted our regularly scheduled program to make Google the means of asserting his confidence in the myth. Needless to say (or perhaps necessarily, as I may be one of few who did not take Ebenezer Scrooge’s complaint of ghostly-apparition-inducing-indigestion seriously), there was no real evidence to prove my partner’s claim.
Cheese is one of my Petites Madeleines de Proust, although I can hardly say that it’s the smell of a particular cheese that whisks me to a moment of living the high life in Paris. In fact, I confess that I may not like cheese as much as I like my emotional attachment to it. You see, I like cheese because I like Paris. I love cheese because I love Paris. I take a bite and suddenly I’m going on a piquenique with friends at Buttes Chaumont or on the Pont des Artes. I like the idea of a cheese course because I can think of Rocomadour, or “Madame Tanget cheese,” as [my friend] Thomas used to call it, and I am transported somewhere else.
I like the idea of cheese because it is one of the tangible legacies of my time abroad and its presence on the table and my desire for it to be there remind me of the love, both new found and lost, that dominated my experience in France. I arrived in Paris excited but frightened, as I was leaving my family, my boyfriend, my comfortable school all behind. I had always wanted to live in France and the realization of the dream overwhelmed me. The first several weeks, I cried daily, making frantic phone calls to my mom and Chris. Later in my stay, I would make similar frantic phone calls and feel intense, nauseating homesickness, but for another reason.
As soon as I had begun to settle in, after my posse traveled to Cherbourg, but before we ventured to Amsterdam, my parents told me they were separating after 25 year of marriage. It was like a punch in the stomach that I had been anticipating for half my life. As an angsty teen, I swore off marriage and motherhood because I knew I never wanted to be like my mother. I had always sensed the void that existed between my parents, but I repressed those feelings—the expression of those feelings—because I was ashamed.
The summer before I went abroad, my mother became sick and spent several days in the hospital. Her recovery was guided by what she could not eat and what she could not do. She brought me to Paris days before she was due to have surgery. Naïvely, I thought the episode of that summer brought us together as a family. But it seemed that as soon as I went away, things fell apart.
When I found out more than six months into my stay in Paris, via email, that my parents had each filed for divorce, I was at the movie theater near Odéon, with a bag of Euro-a-pound candy from a Lebanese street vendor in my lap. We were about to watch a film about the slinky, smoky life of Serge Gainsbourg. I felt like my world was ending. I whimpered the whole time.
Part of me whimpered for months.
Time went by and aided by too much red wine, good friends, and youthful European adventures, my heart healed bit by bit.
But especially, it was the Madame Tanget Cheese, with is wrinkled rind and acrid scent, that nursed my broken heart.
She generously served it to my gang of North Americans in the South of France, in Midi. Her summer home, L’Estanque, perched only a few meters from the Mediterranean in La Seine sur Mer. Madame Tanget was my French fairy godmother, an anglophile, and a delicious hostess. She introduced us all to Rocomadour—which I soon discovered I could buy at the local supermarché—and I still look for it longingly whenever I float by a cheese counter. But am I looking for the cheese, or looking for her?
We would often forsake the dining room to eat dinner in her bedroom and watch dubbed detective shows. There was always coffee flavored Carte d’Or ice cream to top us off. No matter how I was feeling—often during Saturday sit-down lunch with her adult children and their families, I was hung over—cooking and dining with Madame Tanget was a respite. If she had not been there for me to go home to, I would have been left to wander the winding streets of Paris alone. So it was the cheese, but also her warmth and the love in her cooking, that glued my heart back together.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Perhaps the most moveable Parisian feast is the cheese course. A ritual French to its core, it feels refined, but daring, and it always catapults me to those moments of day-to-day living that are crystallized like snap shots in my mind, the good and the bad. It moves me, and moves Paris to me, and I know I am lucky.
So when I hear Chris talk about cheese nightmares, I have to laugh. I never have cheese nightmares, only cheese dreams.