Wini Moranville has been a food journalist in the Great American Midwest for 20 years. She is the author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day. She blogs at ChezBonneFemme.com and this is her (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
In 1983, I found myself, grubby and weary from a long train ride, but for one moment, incredibly happy, on the banks of the Rhône, eating a ham-and-cheese sandwich and drinking warm mineral water from a travel-battered plastic bottle.
It had been a long haul getting there.
Graduating college as a French major the year before, I tore my eyes from the words of French romantics who made me think—among other things—about how even the most tender stems of this year’s weeds can pierce their away through oldest and toughest stone-wall fortifications.
After leaving Iowa City, I looked up from my books and found myself with no true calling and nothing to do but wait tables at a country club while I saved as much of my $6.40 an hour as I could so that I could go backpacking through Europe with a man with whom I was secretly hoping to spend my life.
To save for the trip, I lived at home with my parents, where, trying to reread college books amidst the girlish-violet walls of my childhood bedroom, those French romantics didn’t seem quite as convincing.
That year, I did little except serve Shrimp Sir Edward and Caesar Salad, Prime Rib and Steak Diane, bananas foster and frozen-and-thawed cheesecake to the haute-bourgeoisie, who disappointingly, were nothing to get worked up against, as my college professors had led me to believe. Rather, the country club crowd was simply like any other group I’d ever met: Some were nice; others were not. The real trouble with them was this: Amidst serving all those Shrimp Sir Edwards and Steak Dianes, nothing happened. Nothing at all.
Nothing except one night, when a dining room captain set his sleeve on fire cooking tableside, igniting cherries jubilee (and his shirt) with brandy. He was doing his job with a gusto and aplomb that I admired but could never quite emulate—no one could make the flames dance they way he did, but that night, he had gone too far. Later, as the maitre d’ applied expired burn cream from a dusty first-aid kit, admonishing him for being so careless, I saw the injured man smirking—through the pain—at the showmanship of it all.
That night, driving home through the west suburbs of Des Moines, I asked myself, “For what would I be willing to light myself on fire?” Whatever that was, it wasn’t yet there.
After that night, my pressure to be elsewhere intensified. We’ll leave as soon as we can, we decided. We’ll take everything we have and we’ll wander until we have no more. What happens after that would not concern us now.
It took us one year to save enough to be vagabonds.
Six weeks into our travels, there we were, on that gentle, grassy slope in Avignon, where we lingered, eating a ham and cheese sandwich and drinking warm mineral water underneath a feathery tree in the warm spring sun, overlooking a wide green-gray river below.
“Quel est le nom de cette rivière?” I casually asked a group of young women nearby. They smiled at my bad foreign pronunciation, but were eager to answer. “C’est le Rhône,” they told me.
I thought of how, coming in on the train, we had seen vineyards—with their first yellow-green spring leaves—along the slopes of this river. And it suddenly came to me—this is the Rhône, and I am sitting on its slopes—and that means I am here on les Côtes du Rhône. I thought of all the bottles of Côtes du Rhône red wine I had served at the country club, and how far I had been from the joy of knowing that there’s a very specific place in the world where this wine is made, and it’s made only in this one place in the world and nowhere else.
And then I thought: Why had no one ever told me such a wondrous, matterful thing?
That night, we went out that night for a four-course 55-franc prix-fixe menu (pâté, steak au poivre verte, fromage, glace). But rather than getting our usual pichet de vin, we ordered the least expensive bottle of Côtes du Rhône on the list. It tasted … like the joy of knowing something good has settled into your soul and will be there forever.
It would take me a few more years and a couple more false starts in my career before I could rearrange my modest but sweet life around more moments like these. But the Rhône changed everything, because there I was: A little green shoot of a weed, piercing the walled fortress.