It’s been a whole year since I quit my job teaching French cooking to teenagers in a tech school in northeastern Paris. A whole year without hearing insults bantered about the kitchen all day long, with the incessant drone of the ventilation hood for background music. A year without knife fights (as in chef’s knife fights), and a year without students begging me to give them another dose of Cognac so they could flambé just one more time.
Michael Jackson style
And those insults! All day long I’d hear their favorite, “Je m’en bats les couilles.” Literally translated, it means “I wave my balls at that.” Charming, right? I’d go to sleep at night with their rough suburban accents filling my head, and the vision of them gesturing wildly to the other students when they uttered their favorite expression, sometimes even grabbing themselves where it counts, Michael Jackson-style (if they thought I wasn’t looking).
A polite person would say Ça m’est égal or Je m’en fiche - both mean “I don’t care.” Slightly less polite is Je m’en fous or “I don’t give a f…” But those guys never varied from their preferred phrase, so all day long, if I understood correctly, they were waving them around to show how much they didn’t care. When I mentioned the problem to a colleague, a well-seasoned teacher, she gave me a one-liner to use next time the kids started up: “If you keep on waving them like that, they’re going to fall off!”
I used that in the kitchen one morning when a student had already repeated the phrase, oh, about fifteen times before the 10 o’clock coffee break. The guy’s mouth fell open, and then he said “Madaaaaame!” in an incredulous way, as if I myself had just used the waving phrase. After all, I did hear other females use it. When I told my girl student that it was anatomically incorrect, she asked me if I would prefer hearing “I wave my ovaries at that.” Couldn’t any of them let me win, just once?
But by the time that guy was finishing his long “Madaaaaame!” I was already turned back to the task at hand, which actually had something to do with why I was in a kitchen with all those teenage boys and one girl: teaching them French cooking, and more specifically, how to brown-glaze pearl onions. And you know what? That guy never repeated the phrase, and neither did anyone else. Until the next day, of course.
Another expression I heard pretty often, and which is common among teenagers in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, was bande de bâtards or band of bastards. Well, it’s true that in 2013, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, 57% of French babies were born to unmarried parents. The attitude here in France is: so what? I guess most of the kids I was teaching were in all probability bastards. So what?
Usually the guys were calling each other bands of bastards amongst themselves after their various surreptitious exploits. Although after a couple of years on the job, I figured them out fairly easily: one of their most common stunts included scarfing down another student’s chicken chasseur or veal blanquette while hiding in the walk-in. The guilty students would come out with their mouths full, and they always tried to give me the “What did I do?” look - which was kind of tough to do when their cheeks were bulging with food.
Then the others would cry out, “Oh, la bande de bâtards!” It’s true, they were bastards, in the figurative sense, eating other people’s culinary creations on the sly. I’d have to console the students whose food was eaten, saying that those other guys had to eat someone else’s food, because they knew it was better-tasting than what they’d made themselves. Having shamed the guys into uttering apologies to the students whose food was pillaged, I could get back to those now well-browned onions. It’s a miracle anyone learned anything about French cooking in that kitchen.
After having heard the phrase repeated many times daily, once - just once in six years - it was used to my advantage. Sort of. A group of three guys had returned to the kitchen after taking out the trash - a job they loved to do because it gave them permission to roam freely all over the school’s extensive (by Parisian standards) courtyards, checking out the few girls there, putting a student’s left-behind pair of dress shoes into the compost bin, uprooting the tarragon, and basically wreaking havoc wherever they could.
But these three guys had wreaked the kind of havoc even they didn’t wish for, because they knew what kind of clean-up it would involve: one of the trash bags had a hole, and had leaked a trail of who-knows-what from the kitchen all the way to the main trash bins. When they came back into the kitchen, I hardly had time to open my mouth when a student gleefully cried out, “Hey! You band of bastards! Your bag had a hole, so YOU get to clean it up, all the way to the trash bins!” And then the others, because they knew they wouldn’t have to do the job, were beside themselves with euphoria, and chimed in all at once, “Oh, là là - la bande de bâtaaaaards!”
So this entire story about bastards came up because I was dreaming about tabbouleh a couple of weeks ago. Not chicken chasseur, or veal blanquette, and not just any old tabbouleh - I didn’t even want the authentic and delicious version with an overload of parsley, season-ripened tomatoes, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, and the tiny bit of bulgur wheat that make up real Lebanese tabbouleh.
No, I was dreaming about a bastard tabbouleh that I’d had at a party recently. Besides the above-mentioned ingredients, the salad had lots of other flavors and colors, ones that are probably unauthorized by Lebanese authorities. Or at least authorities on Lebanese food.
So my salad is basically the love-child between a traditional Lebanese tabbouleh and my favorite maraîcher, or market vegetable seller, who pushes radishes like my former students pushed hash outside the metro station near the French cooking school where I worked.
If you’re a purist and you believe in a harmonious, traditional marriage of ingredients, and only legitimate recipes, then this tabbouleh isn’t for you! But if you feel euphoric at the prospect of a delicious, colorful variation on a theme, packed with piquant arugula and crunchy-sweet with pomegranate seeds, try this salad.