Mastering the Art of French Cooking

by Art Taylor

Coq au Vin

1 onion
2 carrots
2 stalks celery
6 whole peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, pureed
1 sprig parsley
1 bay leaf
¼ tsp thyme
3 bottles Burgundy (two inexpensive, one not)
2 Tbsp white arsenic (from the hardware store)
2 Tbsp sugar
1 whole chicken
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 Tbsp butter, divided
1 Tbsp flour
1 ripe red tomato
¼ lb lardons (or thick bacon, cut into small strips)
½ pound mushrooms

With a sharp knife, dice onions and slice carrot and celery into small discs. Avoid cutting yourself. Combine onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns and garlic into a large bowl. Tie parsley, bay leaf and thyme into a small cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni; add to mixture. Douse with one bottle of wine, reserving approximately one swallow. Stir gently.

Look at the mixture. Slug the rest of the wine from the bottle.

Add the arsenic.

Then add the sugar, to ease the bitterness.

Reflect on that word bitterness.

With a sharp knife, gut the chicken, trim away the neckbone and wing tips, and carve it into manageable pieces: breasts, legs, thighs, etc. Admire the sharpness of the knife, how easily it slides through the meat. See how it gleams. Feel your grip tighten. Listen to the sound of the television in the next room. Consider for a moment the alternatives. You’ve considered them before.

Submerge the chicken in the bowl of vegetables and seasonings. Hold it down tight.

The preceding stage of the recipe may be completed a day in advance. In fact, such a delay is preferred for superior taste and enriched texture. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Overnight and throughout the next day, reflect on the art of French cooking, a mix of sophistication and heartiness, style and romance. Consider how Julia Child brought these qualities into the early ’60s suburban home — a sense of wonder at the wider world, a hint of possibility, as if anybody could do it.

Question why French Women Don’t Get Fat.

Browse the internet for photos of Emmanuelle Béart, Isabelle Adjani, Marion Cottilard, Sophie Marceau, Audrey Tautou. While on the computer, scan your husband’s email once or twice more, searching for the name Monique. Look at the picture she sent him, the high cheekbones, the creamy complexion, the glimpses of skin.

Reflect once more on that word bitterness.

Browse through several of the other words in this recipe: ripe, bouquet, leg, thigh, breast, stalk. Know that coq simply means chicken, but laugh inwardly at what it sounds like. Think about it: coq in wine. Understand where drunkenness can lead.

Open the second bottle of wine and have a couple of glasses, since you’ll only use a cup of it later.

Ponder the word lardons. Regret your love of bacon. Glance down at your own thighs.

Two hours in advance of dinner, remove the chicken from the vegetable marinade and put aside. Strain the marinade, separating liquids and solids, and reserve each. Set aside the bouquet garni.

Heat oil and half the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the chicken. Sear quickly and evenly until brown. Look at how the skin sizzles. Consider for a moment the alternatives. Remove from heat and set aside.

Add the reserved vegetables to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned. Sprinkle with flour, mix gently, then add reserved marinade. Return chicken to the pot. Dice and add the tomatoes. Toss in the bouquet garni. Remember tossing the bouquet at your own wedding. Remember an earlier wedding when you caught it yourself and gave a sly glance at the man you’d ultimately marry. Recall how happy you were. Resist sampling this mixture, no matter how appetizing it seems.

Cook over low heat for an hour and a half. Have more of that second bottle of wine, careful to reserve at least a cup for later. Watch the clock.

Lardons! You almost forgot! Conveniently, yes? As if. (Look at your thighs again.)

Cook the lardons in a small skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove them to a plate lined with paper towels, reserving bacon fat. Add mushrooms and cook until browned. Gauge the weight of the skillet. Gauge the heat of the grease. Consider for a moment more alternatives. Add the reserved cup of wine to the bacon fat and deglaze the pan. Set the skillet aside.

When the chicken is tender and cooked through, add the bacon, mushrooms, and red wine glaze to the Dutch oven. Swirl in the remaining butter. Season with more salt and pepper — but not to taste, no matter how tempting a taste might be and for so many reasons. Resist dramatic exits, overt melodrama, sentimentalizing. A single tear? Well, if you insist. There’s loss here, after all, for everyone. Just stir it in quickly, so no one sees.

Hear your husband say, “Something smells good” as he comes through the door. Watch him smile guilelessly. Ask how his day was. Don’t believe anything he tells you.

Serve coq au vin warm over noodles or rice along with crusty French bread and the third bottle of Burgundy, the one your husband picked up for “some special occasion.” When he sees it and asks if this is indeed a special occasion, try to muster something witty, such as, “Isn’t every day a special occasion with me?” or “If one’s going to enjoy a French meal, one simply must go all the way,” or perhaps even a jaunty “Vive la France!” Try not to lace your words with sarcasm.

Consider that word lace. Picture the frilly underthings you assembled as a surprise for your honeymoon. Hear your mother calling it a trousseau and remember savoring the word. Imagine Monique in a push-up bra and a g-string. Consider the purpose of a corset. Consider the phrase merry widow.

At the last moment, beg off eating yourself. He knows how you’ve been lately about saturated fats. Or maybe a sudden headache and you’ve lost your appetite. It’s more important that he enjoy it. Really any excuse will do. But yes, you’ll sit with him and have some wine.

Then discover why you went to all this trouble. Hear him tell you how delicious it is. Hear him say, “What a long way from chicken and dumplings, isn’t it, hon?” Hide your surprise that he remembers the first meal you made for him. Hide your surprise when he shakes his head and laughs and admits, “Good as this is, it just can’t compete with those dumplings.” See him recognize what he’s saying.

Remember how he carried you across the threshold. Picture dancing in the living room, just the two of you, alone on a Saturday night, head on shoulder, hand on hip. Examine the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.

In the middle of all that, change your mind.

Serve yourself a plate too.

Because marriage is about being in it together, isn’t it? For better or worse?

And perhaps this isn’t a melodramatic exit, but a stylish one — sophisticated even, romantic in its own way.

Toast him graciously.

Smile warmly, sincerely.

Pick up your fork and knife.

Take that first bite.∎

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a short story from Art Taylor’s latest collection, The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74 And Other Tales of Suspense.