For those of us who are fond of cooking, there was likely a recipe or two that we witnessed in action that became a jumping-off point, a tap to the shoulder, a “Hey, try this.” For me, this was something that sparked a change in way I thought about how people prepared food at home, as well as something that began to crack my food palate wide open. A basic salad dressing was the culprit, and I have a college trip to thank for it.
I visited Paris to take a theater class during my senior year at Mary Baldwin College (now University), right before graduation. It was a mini-semester we called “May Term.” There were eleven of us on the trip, and we were all assigned to stay with host families. Three of us gals stayed with a petite woman named Madame Senailhac and her son Vincent in the center of Paris.
To reach the flat, we were faced with a several-story walk up a wide, winding marble staircase, or we had the option of taking an ancient elevator that slowly climbed the core of the building. The apartment itself was spartan, with a basic living room furnished with a college-dorm-lobby-style boxy couch and matching chairs, industrial-looking grey large-tiled floors, a tiny separate kitchen with a little Formica-topped breakfast table wedged next to the wall. There were two small spare bedrooms my classmates and I inhabited during our month-long stay.
We would venture into the city for theater classes and group visits to museums and other cultural locales during the day, but at night, we dined at the apartment (as part of the contract, I assume). The small wooden dining table had a single drawer where our hostess kept a waxy-textured floral tablecloth. Before dinner every night, her ritual was to spread the tablecloth on the table, set down a modest bottle of wine and summon us to come eat by announcing, “À table!”
She usually served a salad and/or some kind of main dish, and a little fruit for dessert. The salads that were set out in the evenings for us were always coated with a light vinaigrette that she quickly mixed in a glass bowl and drizzled over the greens right before tossing and serving. I was astounded by this, being accustomed to bottled Zesty Italian from the grocery store. Who knew you could actually make your own salad dressing?
A salade niçoise was one of our first dinners, and I had never tasted anything like that before. It was weirdly savory and surprisingly delicious. The 22-year-old me was certain up to that point that I despised olives, but the wrinkly black darkly bitter kind she served in the salad with boiled potatoes, anchovies and tomatoes combined with all those flavors and her vinaigrette to produce a salty, tangy luscious taste that I couldn’t get enough of. A couple of weeks later, I would scour the local farmer’s markets for those olives and discover a whole host of others I had never seen or tasted. Another home dinner featured a whipped fish mousse, my first experience with such a dish, and on yet another evening, we were served frites (French fries) as a main course, I kid you not. That seemed so incredibly decadent and cool at the time.
I was smart enough to ask how to make the vinaigrette before I left Paris, one of those last nights. She used just white wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard and salt. I promptly mixed up a batch at home when back in the States and never went back to bottled dressings after that. I’ve since adapted a standard vinaigrette framework:
I tend to vary the vinegars depending on the salad ingredients, sometimes using balsamic, sherry, apple cider or red wine vinegar. I compose the mixture to my taste, dribbling vinegar and oil into a jar until it just looks right, with a good spoon of Dijon mustard and salt, cracked pepper, fresh herbs and sometimes raw garlic if I so fancy. It never lets me down. Madame Senailhac would be fière de moi (proud of me), I think.