Did you hear the one about a New Zealand woman, living in Paris whose son had married a Jewish girl and who wanted to invite the in-laws to lunch on Sunday? No? OK this is how it goes:
Episode 1: The Order
She wanted to bring together her son’s French-German relatives with his new parents-in-law and she wanted the food to be Kosher. She set the date and found out too late that her husband had agreed to babysit his 2 year old granddaughter that same weekend. In order to gain some time and avoid any potential stress she decided to buy ready-made albeit authentic so she asked the advice of a close Jewish friend who guided her to a top quality Jewish caterer in the 17th arrondissement. Her son informed her that the 17th district had the third biggest Jewish population of any city in the world after New York and somewhere else. When she arrived at the caterers to put in her order for Sunday’s lunch they were all there at the same time and it was Friday. Utterly bewildered by the frenzied purchasing and totally lost as to what constituted an entrée and a main course but still reassured that it was the best in town she tried to catch someone’s – anyone’s – attention. She was hustled up to a little man sitting tall behind the cash register. He thrust a list at her and issued her with a monosyllabic order “choose”! In desperation she called her daughter-in-law who appreciated her plight but couldn’t help. “Call my mother,” she said, “she’s the expert.” It didn’t seem quite right to be calling the guests to sort out the lunch menu but panic can provoke a loss of scruples so call she did. Her son’s mother-in-law was sympathetic and extremely open to providing advice but 3 minutes into their food decoding conversation the mother-in-law gets a call from Tel Aviv.
Not having a clue what is going on but knowing that lunch as well as her sanity is depending on the outcome of the call the woman clings desperately to her mobile phone and holds the line while it beeps for another eternal 5 minutes. While her life line is dealing with hospitalizing her mother who has pneumonia in Israel, time is going by in the best-Jewish-caterers –in-town in Paris. It is bucketing down outside. Shabbat is approaching by the minute. The stress inside the shop is mounting by the second. If the store closes before she orders, lunch is lost. She queues for a third time in front of the cash register, clutching the long list of Jewish fare available for purchase, in a sweaty hand. She convinces the little man still sitting rock like on his high stool that the raw vege going at 120€ ($NZ340) a basket is OK for the multitude but not for her Sunday lunch for 8. As she struggles with the idea of smoked salmon, chicken on skewers and Cantonese rice for a Sunday lunch, a mountain of impatience erupts behind her.
“What is this?”
“The checkout counter or what?”
“You payin’ or havin’ lunch?”
She’s got this far; she’s not letting go now; she holds her ground. The men with their Shabbat loaves upright in their fists continue to jostle and grumble behind her. The little man smiles sheepishly, his first concession to service, ticks a few boxes and orders her to come back at 12 sharp on Sunday.
“How much?” she queries lamely.
“We see that on Sunday,” he replies.
She leaves the best-Jewish-caterers-in-town wondering what she’s ordered, how much it will cost and how on earth she can be there to pick it up at 12 sharp on Sunday when her guests are arriving at 12h30.
“Inshallah,” she murmurs stepping out into foul Parisian weather.
“Oops,” she pulls herself up short, “wrong register!”
Come Saturday, she heads for the Christmas markets on Champs Elysées and buys 8 Christmas candles as deflect-the-attention-from-what-is-on-the-table devices and thinks if all else fails at least everyone will go home with a memento of a momentous moment.
Episode 2: The Lunch
She awoke very early on the Sunday morning with a nasty feeling at the pit of her stomach and the nightmarish thought “the store is closed – no food for the table”. Despite the morbid beginning to the day, the morning passed by quietly enough with dishes, plates and granddaughter remaining under perfect control. She set out for the caterers a little earlier than strictly necessary with a view to forcing her hand on the designated delivery hour.
She finds a car park right outside the store and gives thanks for Sunday mornings in Paris. The same little man is still behind his till but he is holding phones in both hands and shouting “ullo!” “ullo!” at the top of his voice. He sees her; his face collapses; he fixes her with a doleful stare, “Vous êtes, Madame X?” (The author reserves the right to protect the names of all characters appearing in this story).
There is only one other customer in the shop and he is not Madame X. She knows instantly that the little man has bad news to impart.
“There are no raw vege available.”
She thinks rapidly, “Well at 120€ a basket, waddaya expect?!”
“And no salmon.”
Her eyes slowly widen in dawning disbelief. She thinks in slow motion, “This is not actually happening to me because I dreamt it already.”
He starts shouting again at his 2 phones, “ullo!” “ullo!” (The TV series is a lot funnier). His staff of 6 bob back ‘n’ forth behind the 3 counters throwing embarrassed glances in her direction and muttering in Yiddish. The cameras continue to roll and it comes to pass that there are no vege, no salmon, no chicken and no cake which all add up to no lunch.
The guests are arriving in 30 minutes and there is NOLUNCHTOPUTONTHE TABLE!
Faced with one of those true Shakespearean moments in life, the woman opts for tragedy and gives it her best shot. Her face breaks down; she wrings her hands; her voice wobbles.
“Monsieur, my son is Jewish but I am not. His in-laws are coming to lunch for the first time. I MUST serve Kosher food. What am I to do? (repeated 5 times) What has happened? (repeated 3 times) Why is there no food for my table? (repeated twice) Why have you done this to me? (once is enough)
Then he is wailing that his fax machine broke down, that the delivery people have changed, that you can’t rely on anyone these days, that he is building a new storage room, that…………..
The entire staff plus the additional innocent customer who wandered into the shop for his morning bread is engaged in the drama of The-Woman-Who-Has-No-Food-For-Her-Table.
Suddenly an angel in a pinny emerges from behind one of the counters.
“I will help you,” she says.
She tells her how long the pizza pieces should stay in the oven for (odd to serve pizza for Sunday lunch but it is not the time to be picky). She advises on beef, chicken and duck; rice types, bread and cashew nuts. She finds her a nice cake that won’t clash with the beef.
“It’s all Kosher isn’t it?” the woman smiles weakly pushing aside any qualms she may have about having a kitchen big enough to accommodate all the dishes she is going to have to reheat when she finally gets home.
It is all done at super human speed and it is time to pay the bill. The little man behind the till puts his hand to his heart and begins a litany of deep and sincere apologies. She sees the price she is to pay and reaches for her heart as well. With their hands on their hearts they enter into mutual sorrow and regret. They both vow that all is well that ends well. She empties her purse and he slips her a bottle of his best Saint Estephe.
“It has been a pleasure – c’est la vie – au revoir – à bientôt (maybe not)………….. »
She leaves the-best-Jewish-caterers-in-town and makes it back in time to greet the guests who display their quintessential best French manners by arriving late.
The food was excellent and the wine, exceptional. The guests were happy. The granddaughter slept through it all. The only slight glitch was when the pizza pieces slid off the dish as she was serving them: one hit the table, one got caught mid air and one flopped, splat, on the lap. She explained between hysterical giggles that it was just an ice breaking technique that she always used at first time lunches especially Kosher ones.