New York, NY — Last spring my partner and I planned to go on vacation with friends to Provence. To minimize the jet lag, we decided to spend two days walking on the 37 bridges of Paris (about 13 km), before taking the TGV to Avignon. Ever since Covid-19 ruined those plans, we have been living vicariously on our memories of France, dining on meals inspired by my career as a professional cook and food writer.
Ironically, no one in my family even dreamed of becoming a foodie. My mother was not an enthusiastic cook and I was the most picky eater of her five children. Yet when my family moved to Paris at 16, I was surprised how delicious even a simple roast chicken and green salad could be.
At university, alongside English, Art History and French lessons, I started cooking thanks to mastering the art of French cuisine. Even though my friends and I ate well on my growing repertoire, after graduation my future was a big question mark.
Although I loved our trip to Paris, going alone seemed like a pipe dream until I saw the movie “Sabrina” in which my idol Audrey Hepburn studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. Suddenly I had a plan. Always an impractical romantic, I worked as a junior assistant in an advertising agency long enough to buy a cheap one-way plane ticket.
I was drawn to less touristy areas like the centuries-old Aligre market near the Bastille, where the food stalls were teeming with exotic ingredients and pungent aromas. The market was buzzing with locals shopping for their daily groceries, and I found the noise and camaraderie magnetic.
At Les Halles, now demolished, I chatted with charcuterie butchers at 3 am around cups of hot chocolate. And in pursuit of perfect golden palm trees, I visited so many pastry shops that I added a few pounds before mastering the puff pastry myself.
I later described myself as Rolanda Rotunda who drove to Rome.
While learning the basics of classic French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu, I experienced foreign ingredients and non-traditional methods on my own. Some dishes were memorable; others went in the trash. Years before the French fell in love with Mexican cuisine, I served guests a dark chocolate mousse flavored with chili powder.
When a friend suggested that I visit the couscous restaurants and leather wholesalers in the Marais, I was impatient. I loved Moroccan cuisine and having sewn clothes in high school, I dreamed of making a suede coat.
Somewhere in the maze of small workshops, a benevolent tailor helped me make a long Dick Tracy-style trench coat. Cutting and sewing the skins with his tips made me dizzy.
To my surprise, people asked me where they can buy it when I was wearing it. Back in New York, this coat helped launch my fashion career. Like my recipes, some of my creations featured combinations that were unusual for the time, such as suede with jersey or muslin, or a tunic with small studs at the neck and cuffs.
Like a fairy tale, within a few years, photos of my clothes worn by famous women appeared in the designers section of American Vogue and in store windows on Fifth Avenue.
Another first experience in the Marais was also part of my life. When I first saw Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris, it looked sadly abandoned. The red brick mansions and arched arcades along the gardens were once the aristocratic center of Paris. But on the untimely death of Henri II, the court moved first to the Louvre and then to Versailles.
These stately homes were abandoned and then carelessly divided by less and less well-off residents who settled there. Preservation of monuments and sites.
After the group’s first meeting in Venice, Helen Burgess, the US delegate, came to Rome to write her report.
Coincidentally, I was there and one of her friends whom I had met on my train ride suggested that I help her.
On paper, my work sounded like I was a “go-for”. In fact, it was memorable. In addition to shopping, I researched architectural details for restoration and learned how important and complicated historic preservation is. In a conversation, Ms Burgess mentioned that she was Alexander Hamilton’s great-great-granddaughter.
Inspired by her knowledge and passion, I began to learn how meals in historical settings reflect a certain time and place.
Since then, I have created many events that demonstrate this. One, in honor of George Washington’s first presidential cabinet dinner, was held on July 10, 2016. It was held at the same location, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan, on the same date as 1790.
A colleague and I presented a show on the culinary heritage of this period. The menu, based on historical recipes, included some from Martha Washington’s own cookbook. One of the attendees at this first inaugural dinner was the new Secretary of the Treasury, the great-great-grandfather of my former boss, Alexander Hamilton.
As for that cheap plane ticket? Over the next seven years, I returned to Paris on several occasions for business (both food and fashion) and pleasure trips, often crossing some of the city’s many bridges. In a post-pandemic world, I hope to walk through them all and make another visit to the Marais where much of my career began.
Joanna prussia is an award-winning food and travel writer who has written extensively on food for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, and more. She has lectured on food and cultural anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, The New School, Morris-Jumel Mansion, aboard Crystal Cruises, across the United States, as well as in Istanbul and Izmir, Turkey.
His 15 cookbooks include Cast-Iron Cooking for Two; Soup for two: small batch recipes for one, two or a few; and Seduced by Bacon: Recipes and Traditions on America’s Favorite Indulgence. For over 30 years, Pruess has developed recipes for gourmet retailers and fine markets across the country.
Pruess established and was the first director of Cookingstudio, a cooking school within Kings Super Market, New Jersey, where she and her 30 instructors have hosted approximately 15,000 students over five years. Among its unique courses were those for visually and hearing impaired students and people with learning disabilities, as well as historic dinners.
She has also taught in underserved schools and the prison system. Pruess was honored by NYU’s School of Foodservice as Woman of the Year in Foodservice, Merchandising and Promotion. She resides in New York. The food tastes of her three adult children range from picky to omnivorous to eclectic creativity.