The visiting sous-chef from southwest France eyed the overcooked carrots I had tried to salvage by whipping them into a purée that resembled baby food
Did I have crème fraîche in the refrigerator? he asked. Not only has my fridge never housed crème fraîche, it hasn't even seen whole milk for years. But that's not what I said in the ragged French I spoke for the better part of eight days. Instead, I told my houseguests that the carrots had been cooked with brisket and the dinner we were about to share was a traditional Jewish one, so crème fraîche wouldn't be appropriate. How about fresh herbs?
They understood. Jean-François went out to my garden to fetch some marjoram.
But that wasn't the end of my culinary and linguistic challenges. One was how to say "matzah ball soup" in French to people who had never heard of matzahs. Another was how to explain Jewish cuisine, Passover and the Exodus to half-a-dozen members of a visiting chorale from a small city near the Pyrenees, who were convinced I was about to serve them home-made chicken soup laden with wobbly hunks of a very strange légume.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est?" they wondered. "Chou-fleur?"
No, it wasn't cauliflower, I said, bringing out the matzah meal box to explain what my French could not.
They eyed the soup with suspicion, but they gobbled it up. They asked for seconds on the brisket, a favorite recipe from Joan Nathan's "Jewish Holiday Kitchen." And they even liked the carrot purée and the pumpkin pie. The meal was pronounced formidable — by those who could pronounce it very well. I was kvelling.
Then after the meal, while talking about Shabbat, Séverine, a second soprano and a beautician, said she knew what Shabbat was. She described a comic French film about a down-and-out man who is mistaken for Jewish by Tunisian Jews in Paris' garment district, and suddenly given a job and invited to Shabbat dinner, where he has no idea what's going on. His friends tell him to say he's Ashkenazi.
I smiled. It seems we had more in common with our guests than our love of music and food. My husband and I had loved the film — "Would I Lie to You?" or "La vérité si je mens" — which we had seen in last year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
So how did I wind up with three French houseguests in October, four English ones in September and a few Americans in between?
When I married Allen Podell a year and a half ago, I became a working partner in "the Podell Hotel." No, we don't take paying guests, but with the children grown, there are a couple of empty bedrooms, and visitors have a way of showing up.
Sometimes it's visiting family members. Sometimes it's old friends. Sometimes it's new in-laws, like the English visitors who came for my husband's daughter's wedding on Sept. 8 and wound up staying an extra week, when flights were canceled after the terror attacks. And sometimes it's people with a purely serendipitous connection.
More than a year ago, our own chorale, the Aurora Singers, agreed to do an exchange with the Chorale Assou-Lézert from Albi, Palo Alto's sister city near Toulouse. Not only did we share meals, outings and parties, but we also experienced the joy of singing together during a sold-out concert, followed by a last-minute gathering at our house with close to 100 in attendance. It was so crowded that to get from one end of the living room to the other, we had to exit the house.
No, we do not live in a palace. In fact, it's a rather modest three-bedroom house. Nor are we wealthy. But like Abraham, who made sure his tent was open to visitors, we believe in hospitality. When we give out the message, "Let all who are hungry come in and eat," they do.
As my husband, Allen, says, "It isn't an inconvenience to have guests. It's a mitzvah."
Allen enjoys telling the story of opening the door to the mythical stranger at a Passover seder and finding an unexpected friend on his doorstep at that very moment. "Come on in," he said.
Seeing an empty place at the table — set for Elijah — the friend sat down, scratching his head and apologizing for having forgotten about the invitation and arriving late. Nobody ever told him the truth.
What does it mean to open up your home to the stranger and to share your table with visitors, including unexpected guests? In a sense, it's opening up your life and your soul. Allen says, "I believe the way you become immortal is by sharing the lives of many people." In truth, our visitors have given us gifts of the spirit that we could never buy.
Both of us grew up in households where our mothers hosted the lion's share of the holiday dinners in our extended families, and both of us have kept up the tradition. Like my own mother, I sometimes kvetch, wondering why this friend or that relative doesn't have time to cook or host or invite us. But as a wise animal in the movie "Babe" says, "That's the way things are."
Besides, it really isn't about time or paybacks; it's about values. And I've come to the conclusion that while it's great to get invited back, I don't expect those who enjoy my hospitality to reciprocate. And when they do, it's an unexpected gift, an extra. For in truth, the joy of hosting lies in making other people feel happy and welcome — and that is my ulterior motive. Of course, if they like my cooking too, there is no better reward.
On that final Sunday morning, following bagels and cream cheese, we gathered with our choir's 48 guests as they departed by bus for the airport. Tears flowed freely as everybody kissed on both cheeks. It was like the last day of summer camp.
Nadine, the mother of Laure, a 14-year-old soprano who stayed at our house with Jean-François and Séverine, gave me a gift the night before, a cucumber-scented candle made by a company called Parfums de Coeur (perfumes of the heart). She let me know how touched everybody was by the hospitality at the homes of members of the choir and Friends Abroad, the sister city organization. I became choked up, wondering how to say ferklempt in French. I struggled with gestures and facial expressions.
"Émue," Nadine said, using the feminine form of the word for "moved."
As I write, 10 days after my French visitors left, I am still émue. My house feels slightly empty and our cuisine has become a little simpler. I've been playing the concert CD and I've taken to listening to Edith Piaf recordings. Today I had coffee in the Cafe de la Presse in San Francisco because I hungered to hear French again.
Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to being a guest in Albi this summer, when the Aurora Singers will perform with the Chorale Assou-Lézert.
And maybe, just maybe, I'll bring a box of matzah meal with me along with my recipe for brisket. You never know.