The Coming of Quiche
(by Penelope Rowlands)
Quiche. The word, with its one, squishy syllable, seemed baffling to us. We must have first heard it in our chaotic family apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, uttered by our garrulous mother from her command post at the black Bakelite telephone in a corner of the living room. When she wasn’t at work, Mom could often be found there: chatting; shrieking with laughter; despairing; gossiping; worrying out loud; laughing some more. I can hear her still. Her joy.
At first “quiche” was just another word overheard in long melodic calls with Mom’s army of female friends. No doubt she trilled it loudly, with great cheer, as so often when she was on a fun tangent. None of us knew what it meant, at first, even though, as families go, we were sort of sophisticated. (Not that we would have thought that way, or ever used that word.) We were, in any case, a mix of cultures. My brothers and I had been born in England; our mother, who descended from an old New York family, was pure Manhattan. Our father arrived almost daily from a world far away in the form of blue aerogramme letters; our Queen—did she still belong to us?—gazed tranquilly from their upper right-hand corners.
The food at home wasn’t particularly good. Still, to us it was fine. Amazingly, fresh vegetables were hard to come by back then, even on the Upper East Side. We didn’t have a taste for them anyway. Frozen was good enough. There was white rice and bacon and who-knows-what-else. Welsh rarebit came from one box, butterscotch pudding from another. My mother—tired, exuberant—would rush in from the office just as we were sitting down to eat. It was up to our saintly grandmother, our emissary from the 19th century, to defrost and reheat. Granny had grown up in a townhouse with servants, less than a mile away. Now she took up their tasks—for us—with preternatural dignity and calm.
Then my mother remarried. A suave, faintly dubious, former advertising man moved in. A stepfather! I don’t think we’d ever imagined having such a thing. Yet there he was. Soon, something called the Cocktail Hour was introduced. In this confusing ritual, friends of the new couple would gather in our living room, ice cubes clinking, their voices ever louder as we waited for dinner to appear.
It was through one of these bons vivants—I’ll call her R.—that quiche first entered our lives. R. was the food editor at a famous magazine. It must have been from she that Mom first learned of quiche Lorraine. A dish with a female name! It sounded queenly. Fittingly, we were introduced to it with great ceremony, one evening at R.’s apartment on Madison Avenue. Out it came, cheesy and custardy— steaming!—with tiny, savory chunks of bacon. R.’s pitch-perfect pastry seemed to cradle it, almost lovingly.
We ate, we exclaimed. It slid down our gullets, heaven on a fork. In France it was usually a first course, R. told us; here in America, where we knew nothing of haute cuisine—nothing of anything, it seemed to me—it was likely to be the main one. It came in different guises; you could add onions, zucchini, anything you liked.
While this dish was new to us, it had arrived in America more than a decade before. The New York Times heralded it, approvingly: “Quiche Lorraine Is a Palatable Entree; A Glorified Custard Pie,” the headline proclaimed. Now the tart was entering the mainstream, where it remains.
On the evening of our own introductory dinner—in memory, at least—we chatted all the way home about our new discovery. It was only a walk of a block or so, but we filled it with quiche.
The next day, I headed to school armed with the ultimate status symbol for teenage girls: advance knowledge of a coming trend. For once, I could impress my classmates, some them ultra-rich. (One girl, with a robber baron’s surname, had just addressed a Friday assembly about her weekend in Bermuda.) It would be my turn to speak with authority about something no one else, I was sure, had ever experienced.