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Shared birthday will always evoke memories

First We Eat: When my parents were stationed in France I was born on Dad’s birthday

I was born on my dad’s 22nd birthday while he and my mom lived in northeastern France. My dad was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and at the time he was stationed at the fighter jet station called 2 Wing, near St. Avold. Mom and Dad waited for many months for Dad’s very junior seniority to improve enough to allow them a house on the PMQs, or personnel married quarters, on the base. Meanwhile, they lived in the small French town of Berig. Mom spoke German, which was helpful in the district of Alsace-Lorraine. The area had changed hands multiple times, passing from French to German possession and back, as wars and their victors determined the area’s newest allegiance. By the time my parents arrived in the late 1950s, the region was again French, after being returned to France after the end of the Second World War. But both French and a German dialect called Alsatian were spoken by most residents, and the area’s cuisine had a distinctly Germanic flavour that underlay the French sensibility of fresh, local and seasonal.

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“Once a week a van came through the town, delivering a full case of wine, picking up the empty case, at every house,” Mom recalls. “The wine was from the Moselle district, famous for its whites. Another van came regularly too, with smoked and cured pork sausages — like salami — never fresh. Cattle were too valuable to be eaten. I remember seeing oxen in the fields, pulling plows. We got frozen chicken — flown in from Canada, probably, because England was still pretty strictly rationed back then — at the PX (the Post Exchange) on the base. But we bought our fruits and vegetables ‘on the economy’ (air force slang for the local shops), at the Friday night street market. It was lit by gaslight, and was very pretty — eggplants and peppers and spuds all in stacks, and bunches of fresh herbs.”

Dad was often away on training exercises in Sardinia, and Mom, who would have three small children by the time they returned to Canada, made friends with the locals. Their landlord made schnapps from the local yellow Mirabelle plums, and Mom would receive a small glass of schnapps each time she went downstairs to pay the rent. She recalls that local women drank it with a sugar cube between their teeth, but the men took it straight up. At the pub she would often see the publican’s son, age 12, holding a glass of wine and smoking, his big dog lounging on the floor at his feet. She remembers one evening at a birthday celebration, a group of workmen in heavy boots occupied the booth across from them in a café, a big pot of soup on their table. When Dad popped the cork from the Alsatian crémant he was opening, the cork flew and landed in their soup. Laughter ensued.

By now you are wondering — why this trail of memories? Memories are what remain of my father, who unexpectedly passed away in October. I served two kinds of soup at his wake, when my husband Dave lifted a glass of schnapps as he offered a toast to Dad’s memory. Dad’s and my joint birthday this month is my first in my life without him. So here’s a toast to fathers everywhere. First we eat, then we pop the cork. I hope the cork lands in your neighbour’s soup pot.

Carrot and Coconut Cream Soup with Anise and Ginger

For a light soup that is driven by its vegetable nature, use water or vegetable stock; chicken stock adds weight and birdlike flavour. Vary it by adding other root vegetables, and after puréeing the finished soup, garnish if desired with chopped roast pork or chicken, or add some shrimp sautéed with garlic and anise seed. Serves 4.

  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. anise seed, cracked
  • 1/2 tsp. finely grated orange zest
  • 1/4 tsp. cracked fennel seed
  • 1/2 tsp. sweet smoked paprika
  • large carrots, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 4 c. chicken or vegetable stock
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 1 c. coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp. finely minced fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 lime, juice only

Combine the onion and butter in a large heavy pot. Add the garlic, ginger, anise, orange zest, fennel and paprika. Cook over medium-high heat, adding small amounts of water as needed, until tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the carrots and stock, stir well and cook over medium heat, covered, for 30-40 minutes, stirring often, until tender. Purée. Add the salt, fish sauce, coconut milk, cilantro and lime juice. Serve hot.

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