My Patroness of Cooking

August 07, 2017
By Holly Jennings

I was searching my book shelves for a copy of The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls. Instead, I found Lives of the Saints, a relic from when I was an art history student, before I’d struck a path to editing cookbooks and writing about food. Its pagan orange edging and ecclesiastical purple binding with faux leather texture and faux gold stamping beckoned. I picked it up and discovered it is the perfect size, fitting easily in my hands.

 

I don’t believe I ever spent much time with Lives of the Saints when I was an art history student. But now, looking through it, I found a code I’d overlooked, a signpost for the turn off from art to food.

 

When you open Lives of the Saints, you come to a full title page featuring a group portrait of several saints. After that each saint is given his or her own short write-up, some with their likeness included. The book is organized chronologically: It starts on January 1 and proceeds to the end of the year, with a saint for each day.

 

 

Some of the saints are patrons or patronesses of specific professions or health conditions or categories of people, like orphans. Take St. Apollonia. She is the Patroness of Dentists. In the year 248 or 249, this Virgin and Martyr “fell prey to a howling mob venting its fury on any Christians it could find.” The mob knocked out all of her teeth. I suppose she is named the Patroness of Dentists because had she not moments after getting her teeth knocked out willingly jumped on a fire being built for her by her tormentors, she would have likely patronized a local dentist.

 

Not all the saints came to such a gruesome end. Jump ahead about 800 years and about 130 pages to the Patron Saint of Farmers, St. Isidore. He led a peaceful and tranquil life as a farm laborer in the countryside, and he had something every farmer would like: the help of angels in the fields. In the illustration, you can see an angel managing some sort of farming implement in a field.

 

 

When I got to the entry for July 29, I found the saint for me: St. Martha—Patroness of Cooking. Though St. Martha’s cooking credential is scant, she gets a major league reference: She was serving at the table when her sister Mary anointed Christ’s feet with precious nard, one of the most expensive perfumes in the world. Mary took a whole pint of it and after anointing Christ’s feet with it, she wiped his feet with her hair. Then, as it’s written, “ . . . the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” If I were Martha I would have been quite put out. Perfume is an anathema to the experience of good eating. The smells of the special dinner she’d worked hard to prepare would have been overcome by nard, and sisterly rivalry would have filled the air.

 

 

Instead of a saint (or a modern food media deity), I’d rather have my own living breathing Patroness of Cooking. She should be an excellent home cook with years of practical experience and a refined sense of taste, and she should cook, eat, and drink with gusto and a joie de vivre.

 

I’ve found my Patroness in Madame Podevin, an octogenarian French lady. Madame Podevin is a staunchly proud Parisian who for the last few decades has lived in a village in the Loire Valley. That is where our paths crossed. Over the years, my husband, Mike, and I have made several trips to the same village where Madame Podevin lives, and we’ve slowly developed a relationship with her and her husband, Monsieur Podevin, despite a huge language handicap. Last summer it became clear that the formality of Madame and Monsieur was no longer needed; in fact, it was rebuked. When I used the address of “Madame,” I was met with a stern look of disapproval, a small shaking upturned fist, and the retort “Non! Pas Madame. Odette.” After that it was simply Odette and Roger.

 

Earlier this summer Mike and I had the chance to spend several weeks in France, and during this particular trip I hoped to spend as much time with Odette as possible. When we arrived, I asked her timidly if I could spend time with her in her kitchen to learn how to cook, to be her apprentice. She speaks absolutely no English, except for three words she taught herself this summer: I love you. Since I speak French at the level of a five-year old, the most effective way for me to learn, and the least exasperating way for her to teach me, is in her kitchen where she can show me what to do.

Odette and me in her kitchen

 

From time to time, Odette, normally playful, would all of the sudden become gravely serious. This was a sign that she was about to advise me on something particularly important. One day, when she was showing me how to make tomates farcies au riz et à la chair à saucisse (tomatoes stuffed with rice and sausage), she turned to me and said with a comforting absolutism,

 

“Ne jamais mettre de tomates dans le frigo. Jamais!” (“Never put tomatoes in the fridge. Never!”)

“Jamais? Et après ils coupé? Jamais?” (“Never? And after they cut? Never?”), I said.

“Jamais.”

This warning became the mantra of our cooking exchanges during those weeks; now and again she would drop it into the middle of some other completely untomato-related discussion, just to be sure that I understood.

 

Our stay in France extended a few days beyond the Fête Nationale, or le quatorze juillet (July 14th), what Americans call Bastille Day. Part of the holiday festivities in the village included a 10€ roast pork dinner at the community center complete with a live band and dancing. Odette cajoled her husband, Roger, normally “timide” and preferring to stay at home and enjoy Odette’s superior cooking, to attend the soiree, but on the condition that we drive them. Gladly!

 

Roger and Odette Podevin in their living room, before heading out for the soiree,  for the Fête Nationale

Odette and me in front of her house, before heading out for the soiree

 

After filling four dinner trays from the buffet line with salad, bread, roast pork served with a secret signature sauce of the village (which I believe was a roasted red pepper cream sauce), flageolets, French fries, cheese (Camembert or chèvre), and a pastry with raspberry jam and crème anglais, Mike and I headed over to the refreshment area, or buvette. We bought two 2€ carafes of wine and wound our way back to the end of the long table, where we had carved out a space for ourselves in the bustling hall.

 

At one point, Odette, lost in an animated, gestural conversation with Mike, accidentally dipped her fingers into her wine glass and nearly toppled it over. She shrugged and laughed, and I made a joke about her being like a baby in a church getting baptized but with “holy” wine instead of holy water. She dipped her fingers in the wine again and made the sign of the cross and laughed, anointing herself my Patroness of Cooking.

 

I would do anything for Odette. It is because of her that I was looking for Hemmingway titles on my shelves. During one of our afternoon visits she told me she loves “Airr-nest Emmeeng-guay.” It took a few tries, then finally I understood what she meant. Mostly we talk about cooking; her literary tastes hadn’t come up in previous visits. Knowing that Odette is a fan of Ernest Hemmingway has made me want to give his novels another chance, simply so that Odette and I can discuss his books together. Like I said, I’ll do anything for Odette. Just don’t make me read Old Man and the Sea again.


4 Comments to “My Patroness of Cooking”


  1. Love, love, love! xox

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  2. Thank you for reading Lauri! You hit the nail on the head–love is what Odette is all about, and good cooking of course.

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  3. Louanne Headrick says:

    Dear Ms. Holly Jennings, What an inventive way you found to wind your story of Saints to your Patroness of Cooking. Delightfully written, interesting, charming. The photo’s bring to life your creative neighbor in my mind. Such a warm and loving story brings to mind once again that we are of One Soure, this great and special human race. Thanks for expressing that beauty………Loving your work, Louanne

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  4. Thank you Louanne for reading my writing, and enjoying it as much have you have. It makes all the difference to have thoughtful readers!

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