Housebound cooks: I’ve had a revelation in the last few weeks in the kitchen. After decades at the stove, making dishes from a broad range of cuisines, I’m not intimidated by having to make-do because of the present crisis. I’ve settled into a pattern I’ve been inching toward for years.
I’ve morphed into the kind of cook the French call “bonne femme.” The literal translation — “good wife” — doesn’t really do the phrase justice. A bonne femme (bun fahm) is a thrifty home cook whose skill in the kitchen involves bringing every scrap of flavor and nutrition in the larder to the pot and eventually to the table. Her food is regional, grown around her village, some collected in the wild, cooked the slow way. Things aren’t just thrown in the pot, but skillfully prepared to get the best out of whatever is available in the market or the cupboard.
She (let's ignore the gender stereotyping for the moment) isn't haphazard about food shopping, prep, or cooking. She's as wise and careful in the marketplace as she is about everything else.
You often hear accomplished French chefs talking about their mothers in the kitchen. Jacques Pepin is one. At the end of World War II, when food was still being rationed, his maman, who had no professional cooking experience but had been a waitress, opened a restaurant and put the family to work. Some chefs who have Michelin-starred restaurants in France open more casual places next door to serve the bistro fare their mothers inspired.
One of the most famous bonnes femmes is Clementine from “Clementine in the Kitchen,” written and illustrated by Samuel Chamberlain (1943). Chamberlain wrote books and travel articles with his wife, Narcissa; they lived for a decade in France and settled in Marblehead before World War II.
Clementine cooked for the family for many years, in France and later in Massachusetts. Chamberlain, who studied architecture at MIT, wrote under the pseudonym Phineas Beck. He introduced Clementine to Americans in 1941 in a series of articles in the newly launched Gourmet magazine.
The Beck family bonne femme, born in Burgundy, made omelets and souffles, mussels and scallops, leg of lamb, pot-au-feu, saucissons, and, of course, the famous Burgundian snails. Those she found and collected in the garden, a thrifty cook’s dream. Stories of the Becks’ table, Clementine’s food, and her culinary adventures will make you fall hard for this family and its cook.
I realized that I might qualify as a bonne femme when I was slicing a leek recently for vegetable soup. I had a single leek. Use the light green and white parts only, read the recipe instructions (I wrote them myself). The dark green is too tough and who wants to eat the hairy root?
But along with soup that day, I was also making corned beef and cabbage. The corned beef had to cook for several hours before the vegetables went in. It called for an onion. I wasn't wasting an onion when I had the discarded dark green leek and root. When they were very tender after their long stay in the corned beef pot, I pulled them out, chopped them, and added them to the soup. And what a soup it was!
A bonne femme takes onion skins and drops them into chicken broth to give it a beautiful color. She lifts the roast chicken out of its pan, pours a cup or two of boiling water on all the stuck bits that were under the bird to dislodge them, and uses that broth to make soup.
She also finds a home for all the little containers of things we all have in our fridges. Three weeks ago, visiting friends in Vermont, before anyone heard of social distancing, I found a small container of something marked "meatloaf sauce" in the freezer. It went into that day's soup, along with the flesh of a roasted butternut squash, cauliflower begging to be used before its last gasp, and a few other oddments. Another hit.
Years ago, I wrote a story for the Globe in which I went to four households in one town and cooked whatever was on hand. Families were told not to go shopping or plan to have special items on hand. I would cook dinner with whatever I found. The first three meals were a breeze, but the last house I went to had such a forlorn larder that I stood there staring into the fridge and cupboard wondering what to do.
Then I heard the most beautiful sounds coming from the living room. The mom in the family was a pianist and she was playing something for a student she was teaching. I calmed right down, starting pulling bits and bobs from the fridge, and made them dinner.
I can't remember what it was. But I do recall her coming in after the second student left. "You made something from nothing," she said, obviously delighted.
So you see, my bonne femme credentials were years in the making.