French Notebook: Radishes

Their green stems poking smartly over the edge of the white porcelain plate. Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

Eve sat at the wooden table tucked into the corner of the dining room. Her host parents were much older. The wife was round and looked like Mrs. Claus, blue eyes twinkling behind wire frames. The husband matched her height, in no great shape, a Frenchman from a different time. Without a doubt they both lived through the war. The wife put out a small plate of starters, tiny red radishes with their green stems poking smartly over the edge of the white porcelain plate. She also brought from the kitchen a fluted ramekin with creme fraiche, and a salt cellar. I watched Eve closely to see what to do. 

She placed her napkin in her lap; I did the same. She calmly carried on with the wife.

“Je vais toujours prendre une douche ce soir.”

I’m still going to take a shower this evening.

My mouth hung open. I heard every word she said, deliberately and slowly, twisting her brown hair around a finger, and realized with a flush how deficient my French was, living in a largely anglophone community in my résidence universitaire. Toujours can mean still! I was shocked. I understood everything, and heard a word used in a new way with which I had heretofore been wholly unfamiliar. I folded my hands under the table. 

Eve took a single radish from the plate. She held the radish in place with the fork and bisected it with the knife, then cut it again so that the pieces were now in quarters. She dollopped a bit of creme fraiche on the wedge, then pinched up some salt from the ceramic cellar and sprinkled it atop the piece of radish. I observed her carefully so that I could recreate these steps with as much confidence and panache. Prior to that I had never once considered eating a radish, in any format, raw nor cooked. 

I recreated Eve’s steps, gingerly halving the radish, then halving it again. Creme fraiche, salt. Spear it, bring it to the mouth with the silver fork. Eve continued her genteel conversation with the wife. I bit into the radish. It was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. I didn’t know horseradish then. I certainly did not know jicama, or daikon; those vegetables remained far up the road to Future Food. The radish flattened with a crunch between my molars. It was watery, with a firm base note of clean pebbles. It tasted of sunshine, and winter, and well-watered black dirt. The creme fraiche and salt were genuine improvements to the bland background palette it offered. The French of the Alsace clearly knew what they were doing with radishes. Eve had nibbled the radish down to the top of the step, then discarded the stem gently onto the plate with another quick pinch. I ate all four pieces of the first radish in this way. 

The wife came back, ready to remove the radishes in preparation for the buttered spaetzle she had just tossed into the boiling pot. I saw the steam from where I sat.

Non, non, je vous en prie, I said. Her eyebrows went up. Je les mange toujours.

Ah oui, c’est bien! She smiled with pride. Les radis, ils sont très très bon cette année.

Toujours can mean still. I am still eating them.

I always taste the radishes. I still taste them.

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