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Le canard à l’orange: three generations of French home cooking
An essay and recipe for canard à l'orange. Words and photographs by Orphée You.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our twentieth writer for Cooking from Life is Orphée You. You can read our archive of recipes and essays here.
Le canard à l’orange: three generations of French home cooking
An essay and recipe for canard à l’orange. Words and photographs by Orphée You.
1937, Loire region of France: my great-grandmother is twelve years old, working as a housemaid for a bourgeois family in the countryside. Her name is Esther. Born in a house with a single room, she has been raised surrounded by her five brothers and sisters. Her father works in a factory; her mother takes care of the kids. For the first time in her life, she’s eating something different to potatoes and soup.
I started thinking about this when I was twenty-three years old myself, living in the Paris suburbs and rendered unable to taste thanks to Covid-19. I realised my sense of taste wasn’t just a functioning tongue. It was old, older than me, like an object that each generation of women before me had adjusted to suit their ideals.
The story starts with Esther, who had two daughters; one of them (my grandmother) had two of her own. One of those children had one daughter: me. Easy pattern to follow. Needless to say, France had certain ways of raising working- and middle-class women in the twentieth century; for instance, their obsession with commensalité – the idea of sharing a meal around a table. In my family, as was common, this would take place at 8pm. No matter how tired we may have been, no matter how irritated we were by one another, this rule was completely inflexible. France, as I mentioned, has certain ways – full stop.
Esther was born in 1925. I was lucky enough to get to know her for the first ten years of my life. She was smart. Her first husband was a factory worker whom she had married for love. He was crushed by a machine and died just after their wedding. She remarried the son of the village delicatessen, probably the biggest bon vivant in western France. He was a giant man with very wide shoulders and a limitless love of food.
As a young boy growing up between the wars, he had never known hunger. Esther liked to describe him as a ‘spoiled kid’, but she pretty well spoiled him too: meals were a luxurious chain of several starters, mains, and desserts. As a maid, she cooked every single sauce, every fish, every kind of meat: beurre blanc, blanquette de veau, canard à l’orange. As a wife, she did exactly the same. She spent hours cooking each day, with dinner always served at 8pm precisely. There wasn’t one recipe she’d mess up, and she knew them all by heart. Even after supermarkets became the norm in France, she never went to one – all her food was homemade, so buying pre-prepared stuff would have been an insult to her skills. Vegetables would come from the garden; dairy, fish and meat from tiny local shops.
As a mother and a grandmother, Esther embodied a kind of perfection. Cooking was her capital: her education started when she was a housemaid and that was all she had. She copied everything she saw – how her employers spoke, dressed, styled their hair – and decided she’d be like them. She never had another job, nor did she ever employ a maid. Cooking was one of the precious few aspects of family life that was truly hers – it was how she expressed her own formidable personality so it could be appreciated by others.
Esther’s daughter Claude was born in 1947. Like many post-war children, her ideals were grounded in trends imported from America: supermarkets, industry and relentless work culture. Even today, she uses the word ‘modernity’ as a mark of quality and distinction. She married at nineteen, but decided to work with her husband in order to grow their business. She worked like hell establishing the family’s home-fixtures trade. Having kids in the 1970s seemed more a duty than an aspiration, and maybe having such an ideal housewife-mum – so hard to equal – helped her to imagine something different for herself.
Modern as she was, she believed every dinner should be at 8pm, even though there was almost no time for her to cook. Her daughters had to sit down and eat at the table with her and her husband, no matter how exhausted and fed up they were.
So, what kind of food did she make for her children? It was the 1970s and 80s. Supermarkets had started to sell industrial foods. Claude fed my mother canned raviolis; cassoulet; the first frozen pizzas or lasagnes, every single day of the week. Plastic charcuterie plates. Industrial sauces. Industrial starter-main-dessert. Most vegetables were tinned. Nothing was homemade, except on Sundays, birthdays, and big family occasions.
The quality of the food was forever a secondary concern. But every canned or frozen meal would still be ritualised as a seated dinner around the kitchen table, with silent kids sometimes asked about school, her grumpy husband talking about the business. In this way, they looked like a normal family, and could still act out the stereotypical roles to which they aspired.
My mum was born in 1968, the year France erupted in revolt. The protests that took place deeply shook many traditional assumptions and attitudes. As far as my mother’s generation was concerned, the spirit of 68 meant acting in direct opposition to what they had been told. My mum never did drugs and never killed anyone. But she did leave her tiny country village for Paris when she was eighteen, in 1986. (No one else in the family did.) She had one ultimate goal: putting her upbringing as far behind her as she could.
She had hated the processed food of her youth. She remembers sad textures and flavours, painful digestion of strange, unpronounceable additives. She remembers cutting weird recipes from magazines as a promise that one day things would taste like fun. She likes to remember the first time she heard about macrobiotic food. She saw people going to very tiny specialised shops to buy spirulina. When I ask her what kind of people they were, she says, ‘They were not always hippies. They looked educated. People who travelled. An open-minded kind of people. International people.’ She realised eating that kind of food was the best way to be part of this new social layer, to escape from what she liked to call ‘the mentality of the countryside’.
Though my mother might have associated industrial food consumption with ‘rural’ thinking, there is a parallel between the way she consumed food and the way her grandparents did. Like them, she rejected mainstream supermarkets and processed food completely. Was it because of Esther that she associated sophistication and social ascension with the way she ate?
I was born in 1997. My mum was single, and for the first time in our family there was no man around the table needing to be satisfied. (Even my grandmother used to buy red meat for my grandfather, but hated it herself.) My mum had no need to adjust the meals to anyone’s taste but her own. Because it was just the two of us, I was asked to talk around the table. Aged three, I was asked what I thought about alfalfa, tofu and almond spread. What about this spice – isn’t it weird with that vegetable? I was told to cook whatever I wanted. Everything could be experienced and mixed, as long as it was organic. The main differences were that, like modern urban working people, we ate a bit late, and we only ate one course, not three. But there was still a sense of ritual to it. Food was central, and meals were the most important thing we shared during the week, when she worked long hours.
Maybe it was because there was no father at the table – because the family structure was unbalanced – that the seated meal persisted, despite all of my mum’s efforts to distance herself from the customs she hated. When I ask her today, she says it was only when her mother cooked for her from scratch that she felt her love, as she felt it when she went to eat at Esther’s table. For instance, Esther would make a sweet dish composed of leftover mashed potatoes, shaped into galettes then browned in a pan with sugar and butter. Esther would always make a bit too much mashed potato, so that there was something left over to make my mother’s favourite foods. My mother said that, as a working single parent, she had to prove to me that I mattered. It was through cooking that she felt she could. It took me a lot of time to understand that what we were doing at the table was her way to prevent me from feeling neglected.
It's strange that you can sometimes guess what people eat from the way they speak, the way they dress. Because I was fed this very contemporary idea of organic, healthy food, I feel legitimate around people from higher social backgrounds. Esther brought the idea that food was a vector of class and sophistication to her daughters. My grandmother decided this was an ideal she wouldn’t try to perform, because she thought financial independence and work was the answer. My mother combined both of these values. And here I am, writing about cooking, because none of these women explained their attitude in terms of politics. They didn’t put words to what I have just described, and their silence almost fooled me.
To this end, I asked both my mother and my grandmother what the best thing their respective mothers ever cooked for them was. Both of them replied: canard à l’orange. As an homage to independence and pragmatic, little-involved cooking, here is Claude’s interpretation of the recipe.
A recipe for canard à l’orange
½ bottle cheap orange juice from the nearest supermarket
5 cheap oranges from the nearest supermarket
1 clove garlic
1 pack cheap biscottes (melba toasts, or something similar) from the nearest supermarket
If you have a husband (my grandmother’s words), whatever brown liquor they’ve left in the cupboard. Whisky, Cognac, Calvados… whatever
You need an oven pre-heated to its hottest temperature, a roasting tin, a frying pan and some matches
Take the whole duck and put it in the roasting tin, then place into a very hot oven. It shouldn’t be long until the skin starts to look a bit crispy. Meanwhile, cut the oranges into slices.
Take the duck out of the oven. Turn the oven down to 180°. Grab the liquor bottle and spread some on the duck. Light a match to the duck and let it burn for a minute.
Stuff the duck with the oranges and garlic clove. Salt it on the outside.
Pour half the bottle of orange juice around the duck.
Put the duck back in the oven for about an hour on 180°. (It takes roughly 50 minutes per kilogram.)
Put some biscottes in a pan with some butter. Make them even more golden than their industrial gold. If you burn them, forget about it: grab new ones from the pack and just put them as they are on a plate.
Ask someone to cut the duck for you.
Arrange a slice of duck and a slice of orange on the biscotte and pour over some of the cooking juices. Add black pepper.
Orphée You is a writer and musician from Montreuil, in the suburbs of Paris. She is currently studying social sciences at Paris VIII university, where she is writing a study of La Plaine Commune, an area of the Seine-Saint-Denis département. She is interested in French food and its place in relation to women’s social aspirations through history, and its place in the wider culture. She also writes music for film. You can contact her at email@example.com
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.