Author: Amy Finley
Publisher: Clarkson Potter : A Division of Random House
05/02/2011 The narrative line of this memoir of a family's 180-day stay in France seems at first pretty straightforward. The Finleys, Amy, Greg and their children, Scarlett, two, and Indiana, five, decide to live in France, explore the country, taste all the foods, region by region, dish by dish.
They move around on forays out from their rented farmhouse in rural Brianny, in Burgundy, experiencing, with pleasure usually, but not always, the meals that characterize French regional cooking.
They delight in the chicken in Bresse, the frogs' legs in Arbois. They have tete de veau, (baby calf's head), escargot, a staggering number of cheeses and wines.
In Marseilles, however, they gorge on bouillabaisse, the rich fish soup with rouille, a sauce of garlic, olive oil, red pepper, egg yolk and seasoning including cayenne. It is superb. The bill is 120 euros, wine and dessert extra. Greg and the kids get very sick on the overly rich fare.
In Lyon they try the powerful pig's intestine sausage andouillette complete with "rosettes"—don't even ask. In Rouen they eat some very disappointing duck.
There is some exploration of the proper relationship to the food one eats in the very first chapter. The family decides they will, themselves, kill and dress a rabbit to be prepared as lapin a la moutarde. They manage. It is not as easy as shopping in the supermarche but they achieve, as people do in this situation, a much more authentic relationship with the world of the living things that end up on their plates.
"How to Eat a Small Country" is many things at once, however. It is a travel book and a book about food and food history. The meals are described, course by course, and very well indeed—Finley had been a contributor to "Bon Appetit"—but it is not a cookbook. There are no actual recipes.
As the story of the Finleys' six months in France gets told we learn, in bits, WHY they are there.
A couple of years earlier, in 2007, Amy, a Paris-trained cook, had, more or less on a whim, submitted an audition tape to a contest on the Food Network. To her delight, she is chosen as a finalist.
Amy flies to New York and competes, and after a near-miss and the disqualification of another contestant, wins and actually tapes several episodes of her very own TV show: "The Gourmet Next Door."
All this sounds exciting and wonderful, magical, a dream come true, and it is, for Amy.
Greg, on the other hand, a solid, reliable, orderly fellow, steadily objects. He asserts "the mother is the cornerstone of the family." She should have gotten this kind of thing out of her system before they were married with children. He treasures his privacy and does not "want to be married to Rachel Ray." Amy will move to New York over his dead body.
Amy moves forward anyway and Greg asks for a divorce.
The marriage is in crisis; the family's future is severely threatened. Amy resentfully gives up her show and comes home.
But the healing is not going well when they decide to take six months in France, explore the food together, and try to mend their marriage and restore their intimacy.
A memoir by a young person is always problematical. Some readers will find Greg sensible. Some will see him as controlling and conventional.
Finley strives, obviously, to be fair and objective while the entire narrative is alive with her emotions of anxiety, resentment, and sometimes anger. But to get his side of the story in its entirety would require a memoir by Greg.
Did the six months eating in France heal the marriage? So far so good.