Marie taught me to savor a simple meal

Marie taught me how to eat avocados. "Comme ça," she'd say, cupping the fruit in her hand and sinking a knife deep into its yellow-green flesh. She would slice carefully all the way around, prying two soft ovals apart.

We'd sit at her plastic-covered table. Out the window, beyond Nice International Airport, the Mediterranean sparkled.

I was 21 that year, a teaching assistant in a lycée in downtown Nice, struggling to teach English to teenagers eager to translate Bob Marley, but less eager to apply themselves to the rigors of the present continuous tense. The salary wasn't great, but Marie showed me you didn't need money to eat well. The mother of one of my colleagues at the school, Marie had decided to take la petite anglaise (the English girl) under her wing. She remembered what it was like to be lonely and far from home.

Marie was well past retirement age, a Corsican widow living in public housing on the French Riviera. Her 11th-floor apartment in a concrete high-rise wasn't the glamorous Nice of the tourist brochures, but she'd made it her home.

She would select a teaspoon and carefully lever out the avocado pit. It was moist and softly furred. Marie always knew exactly when her avocados were ripe.

If they're just a tiny bit unripe, the pits leave slivers of brown shell in the flesh that must be scraped away before you can enjoy a mouthful of avocado. Marie's pits popped out clean and clear.

She'd reach for a bottle of olive oil and dribble a thin golden stream across her plate. On the island of Corsica, olive oil is precious. Marie had grown up in the hilltop village of Zoza, several hours' cart-ride from the fishing port of Propriano. She didn't see the sea until she was 13. Her father was a farmer, there were two girls and two boys, and times were often hard.

As we sprinkled our avocados with salt, Marie told me how her parents had managed to feed their hungry brood.

Like many islanders in the first half of the 20th century, they operated an informal barter system. They traded pats of goat cheese wrapped in fig leaves for olives from a neighbor's trees, chestnut flour for eggs when their hens weren't laying, and cups of eucalyptus honey for dried meat.

Dipping my spoon into my avocado, I would be transported to the rich smells of a dark country kitchen across the sea.

Childhood in Corsica taught Marie a valuable lesson: how to savor her food. It was a gift she brought with her to mainland France as a young bride.

"Chaque repas est une fête" (Each meal is an occasion) she'd tell me, folding squares of paper towel into triangles and placing one by each plate. Marie did her own ironing, and washable napkins were far too much work.

A lunch consisting only of half an avocado can be a sophisticated event, Marie insisted. Since we were in France, there was always a fresh baguette on her table. I copied Marie as she tore - never cut - a hunk of bread and used it to sop up the traces of olive oil.

We didn't just eat avocados. Sometimes Marie made a salad with cubed tomatoes, onions, anchovies, and canned sweet corn. When cold mistral breezes blew, there were quenelles - thick dumplings filled with chopped meat, a traditional dish from France's culinary capital of Lyon.

But 10 years later, it's Marie's simple avocado lunches that I remember best.

I think about Marie now, as I contemplate my latest avocados. Marie bought hers a bus ride away from her apartment at the Super U; I bargain for mine with a street vendor in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.

"They're good for the kid, Madam," the hawker urges, as I select a couple I think Marie might have approved of. The newspapers here say mashed avocado is the new margarine, healthier and much cheaper than traditional sandwich spread.

This morning's purchases sit in my blue clay fruit bowl. They're plump and tantalizing, but something tells me they're not quite ready to eat. I resist the urge to sink my knife into their polished purple skins. Tomorrow they'll be just perfect.

Merci, Marie.

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