Recipe: Tarte á l'oignon
Roots: Deauville, France
Cooking in Nashville since 1992
“A farmer during the day and a grand lady at night.” That’s how Dody Jenkins describes her French grandmother who, with her grandfather, bought a roofless manor house near Deauville in Normandy not long after the end of World War II—a house once occupied by German soldiers who all but destroyed the building at the war’s end. The young couple rebuilt it and bought the surrounding land, and before long Dody’s grandmother had acquired a cow, some chickens, and a donkey to take her to town. She planted a hectare of flowers (that’s almost two and a half acres). She was a constant at the Normandy bridge club. She reupholstered furniture. She painted. And she cooked every day, adjusting and adapting French classics like coq au vin as she fed and hosted the friends and visitors who always filled the house.
Dody was primarily raised by her grandparents, and she has a simple label for the cooking and recipes of her Normandy upbringing. “It’s the cow,” she says. “It’s all about the cream, the butter, the milk, the cheese. Everything is pretty rich, but very flavorful and not heavy when you eat it.” And the tarte à l'oignon was a staple of her grandmother’s table: made-from-scratch pastry dough, with a filling of cream, cheese, eggs and ample onions simmered in butter, equally delicious served hot or cold.
The hardest part of the tarte for Dody is cutting all those onions. “I cry like a baby,” she says. She’s made it so many times now, there’s no need for the recipe. But the one she shares here is as basic as they come, printed in a paper pamphlet that probably came in the box of a French Moulinex machine, the forerunner to the modern food processor.
Dody’s first trip to Nashville (technically Brentwood) was 30 years ago. She came to improve her English. Why Nashville? Her brother had been an exchange student here—and that, recalls Dody, was connection enough. She returned in 1992 and has been a Nashvillian ever since. But those early years were a cooking challenge for the young woman from that northern region of France renowned for its butter, cream and cheese.
“I just had a hard time getting used to the flavor here. Everything tasted very sugary and very heavy. I’d never really ate any fast food, and I was not about to start that. I was having a hard time finding ingredients. Every time I would want to make my recipes, they would turn out not tasting good or not looking good. I’m a huge baker. I would have major flops on my cakes. The butter was not the same. The eggs were not the same.
“So I had to adapt. I had to adapt my own little wheel of cooking with whatever ingredients I could find. I stated going to little ethnic markets and could find products that resemble more of what I was used to…and had to be creative with what I was doing.”
Like anyone who’s been in Nashville a couple of decades, Dody has watched the evolution of our city’s food scene and food sources. Now, there’s European-style butter in grocery stores, and restaurants that while not her “ideal French,” still make Dody’s “palate happy.“ And there’s a bakery that makes an artisan bread she calls “pretty much an exact replica of what I had growing up.”
Even greater than the recent food changes in Nashville, however, have been the transformations in Dody’s cooking. Her daughter, a vivacious and outgoing five-year-old, was born with a very rare syndrome called Prader-Willi, a complex genetic disorder that results in a constant feeling of being hungry. “I’ve basically had to re-learn from scratch what food is really about because of her really strict diet,” says Dody.
But the same ingenuity and adaptability Dody learned in her grandmother’s kitchen and brought to the challenges of cooking in a new country are now the foundation of the disciplined creativity she brings to planning meals for her daughter. And it’s led her to flavors and techniques far beyond those of her native France.
Think about being French and not cooking with butter…
“With my daughter, I had to learn to replace all the fat with something that would still give good taste,” says Dody. “My heritage of being a really true French person is now seeking flavors from India, from China, from all these other countries.”
But she can still make that tarte à l'oignon without a recipe.