Margie Sets the Table

After their evacuation from Egypt during the Suez Canal War, my aunt and uncle settled in Washington, D.C. It was the summer after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, the first year since they met that they wouldn’t be living in a city full of bombed out buildings nor risking to their lives. It was the second year of their marriage.

They met in Berlin after World War II while serving in the Foreign Service. Margie worked in the office responsible for translating Nazi records. Frank wrote for the Voice of America and a newspaper that provided German citizens with their first source of unbias news about the world. The Kennedy administration was beginning to pivot away from Europe to the Far East and, in D.C., Frank spent his days learning Cambodian for their new assignment. Forced to resign from the Service after they married, Margie allowed Frank to win the argument about her looking for a job. He reasoned that, as the wife of an embassy communication’s officer, her diplomacy skills would be employed at official receptions and dinners. So she learned to cook.

State Department wives instructed their drivers to cross the Potomic River to Fairfax, Virginia where they enrolled in the Madame Collonna’s French/International Cooking School. A lowly Foreign Service wife, Margie took the bus and finessed her way into becoming Madame’s kitchen assistant and scullery maid. The school taught very formal, classical French cuisine and the first lesson Madame imparted to the women was an understanding that she would be bestowing a skill to them that would prove more valuable than any their husbands might possess.

Madame did not criticize. She did not praise. The only way her students knew if she approved was to gauge how long she stood behind them while they worked. If she paused for mere seconds, she did not consider a student too inept. Any longer or, worse, she retrieved the whisk, spoon, knife, or pot to yet again demonstrate her lesson, then perhaps a second thought should be given to acquiring cooking skills.

Margie listened and watched and didn’t expect anything close to friendship from Madame. In a few weeks, she was given the management of the kitchen and in the afternoon when the others were picked up in their cars, Madame gave Margie additional lessons, such as how to set a proper table (the banner is an illustration of a table decorated in the style of Louis XIV) and where to find acceptable butchers and cheeses in such a dismally provincial town as Washington, D.C. The week before Margie and Frank left for the Far East, Madame presented to her a few of her dented copper pots and a tattered copy of the 856 page French bible, the Larousse edition of Cuisine et Vins de France.

I pulled the book down yesterday after returning from a visit to Margie who’s in the hospital after a fall. The recipes are in French, a language I flunked in high school. They’re also a little scary–the photos make them more so.

But I found a recipe where Margie jotted down a few notes and bucked up the courage to make it.

I used Julia Child’s translation from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The recipe is for 16 to 20 people and cut it down for 2 people. Madère would give a nice nutty taste to the sauce and truffles a woodsy flavor but the local wine store didn’t have one and truffles are out of my league. Port and sautéing the mushrooms in truffle oil from a discount store proved fine enough for a humbler table.

The hope was that if I could follow Margie’s notes it would send some sort of healing psychic voodoo her way even over the great distance of 90 miles between us.

This is NOT what mine looked like but, on the whole, pretty easy, although messy and time consuming, dish.

Jambo au Porto ou au madère

1 cup sliced onions

1 cup carrots

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon oil

8 to 10 pound ham or picnic shoulder, skinned and trimmed of excess fat

2 cups Madère

3 cups beef stock

6 parsley sprigs

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon thyme

Powdered sugar

3 tablespoons arrowroot (pereferable to cornstach as it does not cloud the sauce)

2 tablespoons cold stock, wine, or truffle juice

2 or 3 chopped, canned truffles and their juices OR, 1/2 cup finely sliced mushrooms sautéed in truffle oil)

3 tablespoons softened butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cook the vegetables in butter and oil in a roaster until lightly browned. Place the ham in the roaster, pour in the wine, the stock, and herbs. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove, cover, and bake very slowly for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, basting every 20 minutes until tender.

Take the ham out of the oven and raise the temperature to 450 degrees. Place the ham on a baking sheet and dust the top and sides with powdered sugar. Place the sheet in the upper third of the oven and let it brown to a nice brown glaze–about 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, degrease the braising liquid and boil it down rapidly to 3 cups. Strain into a saucepan. (If you fumble at degreasing the way I do, pour the liquid into a bowl and put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes or until a layer of grease forms on top. Scrape the grease layer off, revealing perfectly degreased liquid.)

Blend the arrowroot with the cold stock and beat it it into the hot braising liquid. Stir in the truffles or mushrooms. Simmer for 5 minutes. Correct seasoning.

Right before serving, beat the butter by bits into the sauce and pour it into a warmed sauceboat.