This story is part of our H E I R L O O M issue.
A month into their love, she was still nervous around him three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. He was French, see, and an expert not just on food but on feeding in general. Two decades of smoking had done nothing to obstruct his tender palate. He could taste the trickle of milk in a bistro meatball. He found the speck of flour in the banana pancakes “overpowering”. And how he ate that little quail! With such abandon, such animal appetite and using all six senses. That’s how he lived; he licked his fingers, he scooped up coffee with his croissant, he shivered at her touch—he was sensuality.
She was Russian, but really just by birth and recipes. Her grandma fed and taught her the essentials: chicken fried in garlic mayonnaise, Olivier salad with cooked sausage, eggs and peas in a mayo dressing, charlotka apple pie, sirniki—fried cottage cheese cakes, and piroshki—sweet dumplings filled with curd. Love lives in the stomach, she was taught young. A man must always be full. The aphorisms called it: a good marriage needs lots of dough.
But she soon moved countries as an expat child. Her Russian side made room for more, and she composed her own hybrid culture. At international schools, she chose friends from Pakistan, Romania, Ecuador, Iran. She was exposed to sweet rice dyed all sorts of colours and ciabatta with mint & feta and shrimp ceviche with popcorn and "calf’s brain in paper bag".
And now she’d moved to Paris for love and this love was primal. The way he kissed her head before work that morning circled all the way back to the warmth of childhood. This comfort, this familiarity… Yes, tonight she would cook for him for the first time. Slightly nervous but emboldened nonetheless, she hurried over to the butcher’s for a bag of chicken thighs. She slathered them in Heinz and squeezed a whole head of garlic onto the glossy mound. This was a Russian meal, a family meal, regressive, symbolic—so simple, it was sure to withstand commentary. He smiled and crooned but then he gasped.
“My love! How much mayo are you putting?”
She snapped out of her rapt massaging and really saw her hands. She’d emptied the whole tube and her palms were glowing gold.
“Oh,” she laughed. “That’ll cook right down!”
He wasn’t convinced and brought it up again, huffing and tutting and going “ah-lala-lala”.
Oh, how the thighs were right! But he, alas, couldn’t take off his mayo-tainted glasses, even as he sliced into the fragrant, juicy meat. Right, she surrendered, mayo’s off the table.
And so it came as a surprise when the following weekend he declared that he would make his own mayonnaise, for with the prawns. His auntie’s recipe: two egg yolks, a spoon of Dijon, salt, pepper, rapeseed oil to blend and half a clove of garlic as an afterthought. She swiftly understood: he had no problem with the condiment itself, no; he was reclaiming what he thought was his.
Mayonnaise, after all, came to Moscow by way of Franco-Belgian chef (Lucien) Olivier—yes, the one from the eponymous salad—who owned the ritzy Hermitage restaurant in the 1860s. Russia’s elite swooned over this velvet cream, and the next logical step was to steal the recipe and try to emulate it. It didn’t quite turn out the same, which only enhanced its allure. It continued into the Soviet era food shortages. Mayonnaise was a miracle food. No matter how old or rank the base foods underneath, a coat of mayo made everything taste richer.
Russia remained the sauce’s most passionate consumer. Imported, of course, was more prestigious than home-bred. And why on earth would you waste money making it yourself? Efficiency in a jar outclassed sweat and toil. And, anyway, who wants to eat raw egg? But in today’s Paris, elbow grease was chic. Real mayo needed stray bits of egg shell and spit from the tasting spoon, not EDTA. Plus, of course, the purity of the meat had to be respected, not smothered. He’d teach her. He’d pull out his roots to see whose were longer. So she sulked at his mayo in return. And thus, they witnessed the closing of the circle at their table.
From then on, to preserve solidarity and friendship between the nations at their home, she steered clear of mayonnaise and called upon her mixed identity instead. She made sea bream tartare with mango and watermelon and trout roe and yuzu and mint. Amazingly, he found no fault with this concoction. In fact, he soon started to explore the continents himself, her Captain Cook. It was then, though, that a longing for her Russian recipes crept back in. Maybe next week, she’d introduce some dough.