I was at my parents house sorting through some old papers when I came upon a recipe for cherry clafouti, brought back from summer camp when I was 11.The summer camp was called La Joie de Vivre (the Joy of Living!) and it was a French summer camp run by a woman who studied mime with Marcel Marceau. She believed that to learn a foreign language, one had to skip the step of translating and use your body instead. So the idea of the camp was to substitute mime gestures for English on the way to learning French. It was 1976 and the camp was in the hippy time in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I didn’t really have an opinion about mimes at the time but I did learn how to press my palms into an imaginary wall and point to objects and raise my eyebrows to ask questions. My camp buddy Rachel and I spoke French the whole time but most of the other campers hung out in the “American Embassy,” spoke English, and smoked cigarettes.
The best part of the camp was the food—every day there were homemade buttery croissants and pains au chocolat for breakfast; savory soups and croques Monsieurs for lunch. For dinner it wasn’t unusual to have a rich meaty dish like beef Bourgignon, or a Choux Croute or roast duck. Out of the kitchen came profiteroles covered in chocolate fudge sauce and madelines (all this for a bunch of bratty kids?) but my favorite dish by far was the cherry clafouti—a golden cake-like pudding filled with sour cherries.
I loved that pudding and even though I didn’t know how to cook, I wanted that recipe.
Babette, the cook, was a buxom woman with a loose blonde bun and a high booming voice. Her sous-chef Michel was also her husband and he was skinny as she was big. You could hear them swearing at each other in French at all times of the day. To go in the kitchen was to risk being yelled at but sometimes you couldn’t avoid it. One time, a camper went into the kitchen to ask for a glass of milk and Babette chased him out holding her breast while she cackled:
“Tu veux du lait? Tiens prends le!” [You want some milk, come on take it!]
Those breasts! That laugh! She terrified me but the clafouti was so good…so I sucked it up and asked her in my best French for the recipe. I remember sitting at the camp table while she yelled out the ingredients and what to do with them. Since she cooked for the camp, her recipes were already scaled for large quantities. How did I know at that time that I might one day need a recipe for 50?
Trader Joe’s sells delicious sour cherries. And they speak English—no miming required. Bon appetit!