Food Essay / recipe

The French Girl’s Vinaigrette

A series of young French women moved through my grandmother’s house in the ’70s. They had American boyfriends who made them sad, they had yeast infections and abortions and STDs they couldn’t pronounce in English. They were lonely and young and lost in a large house on a hill with no way to town that didn’t involve Grandmother’s tipsy driving.

They were there to teach her French, and she to teach them English, but mostly they taught us how to tie scarves and how to survive yeast infections and abortions and STDs with style.

One of grandmama’s “girls”—une jeune fille named Marielle—didn’t have a bad American boyfriend and didn’t, to our knowledge, catch any nasty diseases or make a baby she couldn’t raise. Marielle was tall and pockmarked and glamorous, smoked with the breathy haste of Simone Signoret, and could never keep the blonde in her hair in check. Her black greasy roots and the smog around her face somehow made her even more perfect to my adoring young eyes.

I don’t remember another thing about Marielle except this: Her vinaigrette, taught to us all one smoky August afternoon in my grandmother’s kitchen. I still make it, my mother still makes it, my sister still makes it, and our grandmother would were she still alive. (My youngest sister, born long after Marielle decamped back to France and presumably grew even more lovely and certainly more happy, doesn’t bother with it. “I know how to buy a bottle,” she explains.)

Marielle’s Dressing is best if there’s fresh dill or basil available, but dried dill works fine. I have no exact measurements because it’s French, but defer rather to luster and thickness and other sensual descriptors from the Romance language.

1 clove of fresh garlic
5 leaves of fresh basil
1 small spoonful of Dijon mustard
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
1 part balsamic vinegar
3 parts extra virgin olive oil

Perhaps it’s apocryphal, but the manner in which you make Marielle’s Dressing seems (to us) to be important:
Chop the basil and the garlic together until they are finely minced and married together.
Place in a small bowl and add the dollop of mustard. (If using dried dill, chop the garlic and add the dill to the bowl with it before the mustard.)
Salt and pepper generously.
Add a pour of balsamic vinegar and, with a fork, whisk the mixture together.
Add the oil in a steady stream, still whisking with the fork, until the ingredients thicken and the vinaigrette achieves a thick luster and sheen, holding together darkly. It’s nearly yolky in its composition.

Given the generous raw garlic, a little goes a long way; the dressing is fine covered in the fridge for a day. It’s wonderful to guiltily dredge bread through and I often make a bowl and put poached, chopped chicken in to soak up the flavors. To which Marielle would probably reply, Mon dieu.


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