Lucy & Herbert Go to Paris: A 1970’s Travel Adventure and a Recipe

Bonjour and bon appetit dear kitcheners! This week the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020 takes us to France via the kitchen.

This is one of the countries I know best in the Recipe Tour since I spent so much time there as a little girl. Originally, for this post, I was going to write about a child’s perspective of Paris and fill it full of all the things my sister and I loved most about the city when we were small explorers.  But since a little bit of that was already touched on in the Parisian hot chocolate post last December, this time I thought it would be fun to introduce some new tour guides to the blog. I’m so pleased to present my grandparents and your travel escorts for the day, Lucy and Herbert…

Unlike me, who first visited Paris when I was six months old, Lucy and Herbert were in their 60’s when they first set sights on the City of Light. They were both born in the first decade of the 20th century and both had a hard start to life. Had you asked either one of them when they were young if they would ever be walking around the streets of Paris one day they wouldn’t have guessed it.

Lucy grew up in Buffalo, New York, the daughter of German immigrants who worked in the garment industry.  Her childhood was defined by a family tragedy. When she was 7, her mom burned to death in a house fire while cooking dinner in the kitchen. Lucy’s dad in a complete state of grief and guilt put Lucy and her seven brothers and sisters in a local city orphanage.

Immaculate Heart of Mary. Photo courtesy of poloniatrail.com

It was meant to be just a temporary course of action. The orphanage was run by Catholic nuns and her dad told everyone, nuns and kids included, that he would be right back for his family. That he just needed a little bit of time to figure things out. That was the Spring of 1918. The kids didn’t know exactly what temporary meant. A few days passed, a few weeks passed and then a  few months. They waited in the orphanage for their dad to return. Five months in, the Spanish Influenza blanketed the city in fear and death and anxiety. A pandemic ensued but her dad did not come to collect his kids. Thanksgiving and Christmas came. There was no big family meal and no Christmas gifts. There was no sign of dad. A year passed. A second year passed. Lucy remained in the care of the nuns.  The third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth year passed. By that point, Lucy was 13. The orphanage only educated girls up until the 8th grade, so school was over for her. No dreams of high school. No college.  During year seven of life in the orphanage, her dad got remarried, yet he still didn’t come to collect his kids.

There are fuzzy family stories that the children were retrieved one by one in order of age, (the oldest ones first) and placed with various members of the family. The boys were taken out first because they could earn a living and contribute financially to whatever household they ended up in. Lucy was 5th in line, a girl, with limited education and an inability to earn an income in the same way as her brothers. Lucy remained in the orphanage until she was 16 years old. That’s when her aunt Martha in Chicago sent for her so that Lucy could help take care of Martha’s two kids. At last, after nine years, Lucy left the orphanage, taking her two younger sisters and brother with her to Illinois.

Herbert’s dad, Joseph, working in his teamster days delivery hay and coal. This photo was taken around 1905.

Herbert grew up in a working class family in the city of Chicago. His parents were both natives of the city  and his grandparents  were both immigrants from Germany. His dad was a teamster for hay and coal in the city when Herbert was born. Money was always tight and there were days when food was scarce or even non-existent. The family never had enough to eat. There were nights when Herbert went to bed with a rumbly belly and no idea when it would be filled again. When Herbert was 10, his  dad landed a job as a fireman for the City of Chicago. It was a much more dangerous line of work than being a teamster, but it offered a steady paycheck and a future pension upon retirement – both very attractive incentives for someone who struggled to feed their family.

Herbert’s parents, Joseph (in his fireman uniform!) and Mary Katharine.

Herbert had a younger brother, Charles, who died when he was a baby, a sad event in his family that that no one ever talked about. Herbert didn’t believe in rehashing stuff, especially the difficult, hardscrabble years of his growing up. Herbert liked to say that the important part of life began when he met Lucy.

Sparks flew for the two of them when they met at a party in Chicago, just a few years after Lucy had moved to the city. They were both in their late teens/early 20’s at that point. Herbert took one look at Lucy and was dazzled by her pretty smile. Lucy fell in love with Herbert’s kind eyes, a distinguishing feature that everyone responded to.

Before Herbert became a fireman  he worked at the Chicago Tribune in the circulation department. This was where he worked at the time he met Lucy.

On a summer Saturday in 1933, just before my grandfather’s 25th birthday, Lucy and Herbert were married in a Catholic church in Chicago.

Herbert left his newspaper job and became a fireman like his father.  This was during the Great Depression, and like his father experienced, the firehouse offered  a steady paycheck, and a pension for retirement.  Haunted by his hunger years as a child, all Herbert wanted was to provide a safe, satiated and comfortable life for his new bride, full to the brim with happiness and adoration that she deserved.

Because she grew up in the orphanage without any guidance or training in the domestic arts, Lucy was not a typical, traditional wife of the 1930’s. As an adult, she loved clothes and fashion and following the latest trends. She loved to socialize and play cards and spend time with her sisters.  No one taught her how to cook, care for a home or drive a car. But all this was okay with Herbert because he loved to cook, was fine with housecleaning and loved to drive.  All he wanted to do was to protect his family, make sure there was always enough food on the table  and enough money left over at the end of the day to afford a few small niceties. For eight years, Herbert and Lucy tried to have a baby. After several miscarriages, my dad was finally born alive and healthy just after they celebrated their 9th wedding anniversary. Finally their family felt complete.

When my dad was a few years into his airline executive career, he arranged a four week European tour for his parents that would take them to England, France, Italy  and Germany. This was the Autumn of 1970, and it was an extravagant trip to say the least. My grandparents had never traveled outside of the United States before, and Europe at that time was a cosmopolitan wonderland of glamour and sophistication.

My dad used all of his perks and called in all sorts of favors so that it would feel like a trip of lifetime for Herbert and Lucy. He wanted to give them all the bells and whistles he could manage – a taste of luxury and decadence that they had never known before. It was his way of spoiling them – a thank you  of sorts for all the wonderful love and affection they spoiled him with as a child.

The plan was to spend a week in each country with home base stays in London, Paris, Rome and Munich. In London, Herb and Lucy stayed at the Lancaster Hotel, had dinner with the royal tailor to Prince Phillip and went sightseeing all around town.

Meet family friend and royal tailor to Prince Phillip, Edward “Teddy” Watson, who charmed the socks off my grandmother:)

The French portion of their trip involved side excursions to Nice and Monte Carlo, but the bulk of their time was spent in Paris where Herbert fell in love with the food and the history and Lucy fell in love with the shopping and the culture. They both really enjoyed walking around the city too and did almost all sightseeing on foot,  even though my dad had arranged a car and driver for them each day.

Thanks to their collection of travel photographs we can head back in time and take a little sightseeing trip right along with them as we all discover what Paris looked like in 1970.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

The tour starts with a bird’s eye view of the city as seen from the top of the most iconic structure in all of France – the Eiffel Tower.  I’m not sure who the photographer was on this trip, Herb or Lucy, but some shots had a little Vivian Maier-esque quality to them. That’s the Tower’s shadow reaching towards the bridge there in the photo. Vivian style photography makes a return at the flower market one morning too…

In addition to first time sky views of the city, another great vantage point and an interesting perspective of Paris are the views from the River Seine. From there, Lucy and Herbert marveled at a whole host of  buildings steeped in history.

The Belle Jardiniere is the oldest clothing store in Paris, dating to 1824. They were the first to offer ready made clothes off the rack, ushering in a whole new way to conveniently build up your wardrobe.

Another historic gem on the river is the Palais Bourbon, designed in 1722 for the daughter of King Louis the XIV, who was the longest reigning monarch (72 years!) in all of French history. It was designed in country house fashion with gardens modeled from particular sections at Versailles. The site for the house was found by the lover of the King’s daughter who built his own palace next door (how convenient!). Like most of the old buildings of Paris, as it passed through time, many inhabitants and influencers including Napolean,  added their own enhancements or improvements to the building. In the late 1700’s, the exterior facade of Palais Bourbon was changed to reflect ancient Greek architecture. By the time the French Revolution occurred the residence left private hands and served as a government building, which it still remains to this day as you can see from this 2019 photo…

50 years later, and it still looks exactly the same!

Even though he lived centuries ago, there are nods to King Louis XIV all over town. At Versailles, he’s depicted in an equestrian statue which was completed in 1838, which also happened to be seventy years before Herbert was born.

Herbert especially loved admiring all the statues around Paris. The city boasts over 1000,  so he didn’t have to look far for something exciting to see. They turned out to be his gateway into learning more about French history, which in turn led to learning more about other country’s histories too.

The Luxor Obelisk statue (located in the Place de la Concorde) for example spurned a whole new curiosity for him in ancient Egypt, which is where this statue came from. It was an exchange of gifts between France and Egypt in the 1800’s. France gave Egypt a clock and Egypt gave France the Obelisk. In 1936, just three years after Lucy and Herbert were married, the Obelisk was given historic monument status in France. Herbert loved little fun facts like that.

Lucy liked the statues too and learning all about their history from Herbert, but when it came to street sights, what really turned her head were things more at eye – level (a.k.a. the shops). While in London, she purchased a classic trench coat, which looked very chic on the streets of Paris. In France, she purchased a batch of silk scarves. She wore the scarves and the trench continuously for the rest of her life back in the States, reminders of her fun glamour days spent in Europe.

Other iconic sights and sounds topped their best memories list too. There was the famed Paris Opera House which first opened in 1875…

The gardens at Versailles…

It was such an elegant place, Herbert wore a suit!

The domed roof of Sacre-Coeur (also known as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart), is the second most visited site in Paris. It was a must-see for Herbert and Lucy too, who were devoted to the Catholic faith their whole lives. It stands in the Montmarte section of Paris where all the famous artists and writers lived in the 19th and 20th century.

Likewise, the Cathedral of Notre Dame (or what I thought it was) held equal charm.

But upon closer inspection via window shapes and entry doors I think this is another church in Paris altogether. Can anyone identify it? Whether you are religious or not, everyone can appreciate a Parisian church for all their architectural details and built-in statues. Herbert and Lucy visited a new Catholic church every Sunday while they were in Europe, which was a true testament to their faith since most masses were said in Latin and lasted hours.

The beautiful angles and proportions of the Pantheon hover over part of the city and tell quite a story of architectural design. The dome, which fascinated Lucy in particular is actually three domes in one and made entirely of stone. Originally it was going to be topped with a statue of Saint Genevieve but a cross was selected instead. Genevieve was the patron saint of Paris,  and also happened to be Lucy’s middle name. Genevieve is also known as one of the patron saints of generosity, a characteristic Lucy herself contained, and is often depicted carrying a loaf of bread. Followers of Genevieve’s work created an institution in her name in the 1600’s  to care for the infirm and to educate young women. I wonder now if Lucy felt a special kinship to Genevieve because of all she went through at the orphanage.

When Herbert and Lucy passed by and under the Arc de Triomph they were viewing it in all it’s glory, as it had just been thoroughly cleaned and bleached five years before from a century’s worth of soot and grime. Herbert gave it a thumbs up in the cleaning department!

In between all those photos of grand buildings and popular sites I was hoping to find a cafe shot of Herbert and Lucy dining street-side with a glass of wine or a coffee. The only one I found among the mix though was this one very blurry photo of my dad (who met up with his parents at various points in the trip while on break from business meetings) and Lucy.

Even though it’s blurry, I still like the charm of this scene, with the cafe’s egg yolk yellow awning and shutters and the tomato red chairs.  I suspect this was taken in a little country town near Nice on their drive from Paris to Monte Carlo for Part Two of the French adventure.   I like to imagine that they ate something simple yet delicious that day at that cafe. Something not unlike the French recipe we are making to accompany this post today.

Like the cafe, this is a sunny, simple dish that is easy to make and requires little time to prepare. It is called Eggs in Sauce Gribiche.  Like some of the buildings in this post and even our tour guides themselves, this sauce aspect of this recipe dates all the way back to the early 1900’s when famous French chef Auguste Escoffier deemed it an important and versatile companion to hard-boiled eggs.  Age-old yet timeless, it is a new favorite in my kitchen and I hope it will be one in yours too.

The French section of the New York Times International Cook Book which we are following for this Recipe Tour, was one of the largest chapters in the book containing over 113 pages of traditional dishes from France. I chose this one because it is so representative of Herbert and Lucy. It’s simple and accessible, peppered with fresh goodness, and easily enjoyable in a bevy of dining situations. At their core, Lucy and Herbert were ideal characters. Ones who despite early hardships and traumatic events, chose to nourish relationships and radiate nothing but love and affection. At the same time, they also knew how to add a little splash to life to make it colorful and interesting. In the case of this recipe, they are both the comforting, reliable hard-boiled eggs and also the attractive and inventive sauce that is drizzled over.

So many French recipes combine rich, buttery flavors that simmer or saute for lengthy amounts of time. This one is lighter and brighter on the palate and works for several kinds of meals from brunch to lunch to appetizers, or even serves purpose as an afternoon snack or a light dinner.  When making it, I recommend sourcing the freshest ingredients possible, which might mean avoiding the grocery store altogether if you can help it. Home grown garden herbs, farmers market tomatoes, and local eggs will by far surpass anything you could find at the regular grocery store when it comes to bringing out the beautiful flavors of this dish.

Eggs with Sauce Gribiche

Serves 6

1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon finely chopped onion

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1 clove garlic

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 egg yolk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

1 1/2 cups olive oil

3/4 cup seeded, peeled, diced tomatoes

6 hard boiled eggs, peeled and halved

2 tablespoons finely chopped chives or scallion greens

Chop the parsley, onion, thyme and garlic. Add the chopped mixture to a small mixing bowl along the mustard, vinegar , egg yolk, salt and pepper.

Begin beating all ingrediants together with a whisk and gradually start adding the oil. Add it a little at a time, beating rapidly until the sauce begins to thicken. When mixture is thickened and smooth it is ready.

Crack and peel the hard-boiled eggs and cut them length-wise in half.

When you are ready to serve, stir the tomatoes into the sauce and then spoon the sauce over the egg halves. Sprinkle with chives or finely sliced scallions.

Served at room temperature, this a great dish for a hot summer day or an impromptu picnic, as it can be whipped up in a matter of minutes. It is also a lovely alternative to deviled eggs, lemon vinaigrette dressing or its close cousin – Hollandaise Sauce.

My most favorite photo of my grandparents first time-time trip to France is this one taken on two park chairs with the Eiffel Tower in back. My grandmother reminds me of Julia Child here…  smiling, carefree, lighthearted. And I love my grandfather’s hand on her knee. They were married for 37 years when this photo was taken. It’s really nice to see that things hadn’t changed that much since the day they met. Lucy was still flashing that pretty smile and Herbert was still protecting her with kindness and affection.

Ten years and two months later, Lucy died unexpectedly in a hospital in Florida. Her cause of death was an enlarged heart. That seems pretty fitting.  Her and Herbert shared a big love.  For a life that started out with so much neglect and abandonment I’m glad that Lucy got to finish it with so much joy and comfort. And I’m glad she got to experience Paris and all the magic the city holds.

Cheers to love that lasts through thick and thin. And cheers to France for playing such a big, wonderful, important role in the life and love of my family. And cheers to Grandma Lucy and Grandpa Herbert. It’s been a tough week in the world these past few days. I hope we can carry forth, in the true spirit of Herbert and Lucy, with nothing but kindness and generosity for all.

Join me next time for Week 18 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020 as we head to Germany to make the biggest meal of the Tour so far! It’s three days of preparation for this cooking adventure, so rest up! See you soon.

 

Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.