“Evening in France has a distinctive kind of magic,” writes Rebekah Peppler in her new book, À Table: Recipes for Cooking and Eating the French Way, released today. “If you’ve been, you know.”
Even if you haven’t been, you likely have an idea. There’s an effervescence to the French way of gathering around food and drink, particularly as the sun sets and street lamps twinkle on, that foreigners have long traveled for—and, often, hoped to bring home.
In À Table, Peppler, a James Beard award-nominated food writer and author of Apéritif: Cocktail Hour the French Way, shares her tips for recreating that ambiance at home. Dancing across the pages are 125 recipes—everything from crème brûlée to lamb tagine—as well as tips on setting the perfect mood when hosting (like, don’t let your guests clean up; and if you do, open a bottle of Champagne or a digestif and throw on some music), and gorgeous images taken by photographer Joann Pai that show Peppler’s friends splitting drinks on her balcony and tucking into Alsatian cheesecake. In short, it’s a how-to guide for that French way of living we all aspire to.
As we transition to a post-pandemic world, that distinctive buzz of Paris at dusk is more desirable than ever. So, we caught up with Peppler, who is currently in Los Angeles before returning to her apartment in Paris, about why bánh mì and raclette are equally representative of French dining, who those fabulous people in her book are, and where she can’t wait to spend her evenings when Paris opens up again.
There’s an exciting mix of dishes and drinks in À Table. How did you go about selecting the recipes?
À Table: Recipes for Cooking and Eating the French Way
I wanted to have a balance of recipes that cooks and readers who aren’t familiar with a modern French table will recognize. So there is bouillabaisse, and there’s ratatouille, and there is French onion soup—recipes you expect to find in a French cookbook and table.
They are modern takes on those classic dishes, though. Like, the French onion soup is vegan until you add cheese on top, and that is absolutely not the classic way. But I have served it to my friends who are vegan, and they enjoy it very much. Then, there are recipes like the bánh mì and the “(almost) royal couscous” that are really indicative of the French table, not just in the personal way, but in the collective. When we talk about France, we talk about all of France, and not just Paris, and not just on one single person’s table in a single economic class. As with any country, France has a diverse community, and I wanted to make sure that I was highlighting that with the recipes in the book.
There’s a lot of intention in how you communicate with the reader—in the introduction, you talk about your choice to not italicize non-English words, a common yet othering practice in publishing, and the images only feature people who identify as female and LGBTQ+. Why were these choices important to you ?
Everything that you see in the images, from the clothing to the props to the way the food is on the plate, is very careful. Even the wine. I only included wines [in the images] that I would put on my table and actually drink—and actually did drink after we were done shooting. That extends to the people who are included. A lot of the recipes in the book stemmed from dinners that I used to throw with friends, and hope to throw again with friends soon. Everyone [who] is a regular at those dinners is featured in the book. It was important to me to highlight the people that I personally want to see in the pages of the books that I read, while also including people that are part of my life and part of my French table, who have helped me understand and translate cooking and eating the French way.
Another theme that makes its way throughout the book is the female form, in the people that are included, in the way shadows hit bodies. In the back of the book there’s a little lady-legs nutcracker. I really wanted to incorporate a sexiness into the book because to me Paris is very sexy. Dinners at home can be so sexy, and I think that sometimes that sensuality between people, whether it’s friends or lovers or any type of intimate connection, is left out.
What has it been like to work on this book, which feels designed for gathering, during a period of severe isolation?
Many of these recipes want to be shared right? You want to set down a big pot on the table and have everybody reach in. You want to have raclette with your friends. The bigger bánh mì [which makes use of two full baguettes] is not a single person size. You could think about it as being sad that the book comes out at a point where people can only engage with it on certain levels, but I think there will be a joyfulness when the world opens up more and people can gather together around the table, and I hope À Table will have a place in that.
What type of French evening are you most looking forward to when Paris reopens?
I’m missing the experience of just sitting down at any café or Tabac or bar outside and having a drink with a friend, and being jostled by the person in the wicker chair next to you, and having to aggressively wave down the waiter to get another round of drinks. Apéro can be a long experience that transitions into your entire evening, or it can be a short, quick drink to meet a friend to have a 15- to 20-minute catch up before dashing off to the next thing. I most miss that moment of transitioning between friends, of having so many connective touch points throughout one evening with people from different households, as we’ve come to think about it. I would kill to sit down and have a basket of communal potato chips set in front of me and not worry about everybody’s hands touching.
Any particular spots you’re missing most?
In Paris, it’s Le Vin au Vert, Les Arlots and Billili, my dear friends at Mokonuts, Early June, and Le Cristal-Bar in the 10th arrondissement for too many kirs [white wine with black currant liqueur] and chips. One of my favorite neighborhood wine shops is De Verre en Vers on Rue Ramey. You can also go to my favorite market, the Marché Bastille, on Sundays.
Further afield, Le Saint Hubert in Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, and the Marché Agricole de Velleron in Provence, with a pre-or post-marché stop at a favorite cheese shop Maison Moga in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is my forever favorite.
How can a traveler parachute into this type of French experience when it’s safe to visit again?
I think the most universally communal Paris experience that you can have, whether you’re a local, an expat like me, or just visiting for the weekend, is to grab a bottle and some cheese and meat, and go to the canal Saint-Martin or the Seine. There were so many haunting images of when Paris shut down, especially in the beginning. But one of them for me was seeing the canal Saint-Martin on a Friday night, without any people. It’s [usually] raucous and there’s teenagers shouting, and there’s, you know, people in their 30s having a romantic date, and huge groups of friends that are gathering and waving each other over. It’s such an accessible magic.
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