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A Coffee Éclair: Personal Indulgences No. 9

I am in Paris with my husband. I have convinced him that he wants to accompany me to one of the city’s legendary flea markets. It is way, way out on the edge of town, a lengthy pilgrimage on the Métro, past stops with names like La Fourche (the fork, as in a road, which it is), Montparnasse-Bienvenüe, Gaîté, Plaisance. Eventually we arrive.
I shop; he watches. After nearly two hours of this, even I–the indefatigable seeker after the old and unusual–get tired. We exit and collapse onto the low, narrow concrete ledge in which the hefty chain-link fence that separates the market from ordinary life has been embedded.
We are both exhausted and the sun is turning brutal. What’s more, we’re both hungry, a state that can lead to cranky in a matter of minutes. (Has anyone ever studied the effect of low blood sugar on intimate human relationships?) The two of us sit there gathering strength for our next move, which should be lunch–a croque monsieur and a beer, say, if we can find a café that’s not too seedy. Meanwhile, my husband has closed his eyes and retreated into the semi-comatose state of men haplessly extended beyond their tolerance.
Suddenly, some 200 yards away, I see a woman walking toward the market. She’s nibbling on something she holds in her hand. If we were in the States, I’d assume, from the look of the thing, that it was a hotdog roll. But we are not in the States. We are in the land called Delicious.
As the woman comes nearer, I realize that it’s pastry she’s holding. Even nearer: Pastry of a lightness and flakiness that are the province of French baking. Very close, just about to pass us: The sublime pastry is coated on top with a gleaming stripe of icing the color of café au lait and filled with a silky-looking cream a shade paler.
“Come on, come on,” I say to rouse my somnolent husband. I’m standing now, tugging at his hand, pulling him to his feet. “A coffee éclair! It looked fabulous! We’ll just walk in the direction she came from,” I urge, pointing to the woman now visible to us only from the back. “The bakery can’t be far away.” And it isn’t. Just about two and half blocks.
“How do you know these things?” my husband asks wearily, as if his question were rhetorical.
“I know everything about things like coffee éclairs,” I reply with considerable–if somewhat defensive–dignity. I may not know much about math or science, but I do know literature and dancing and coffee éclairs.” (I choose not to reveal to my husband that, as an Agatha Christie addict, I’ve deduced that the point of purchase must have been close enough for the pastry not to have been fully consumed when the woman passed us.) My husband just shakes his head as we enter the fragrant shop.
Since I’m in charge of French in our marriage, I do the ordering: a coffee éclair for me, a chocolate éclair for him. He dislikes coffee, but I knew chocolate would be available, it being the default mode for éclairs. He pays. He understands foreign money. When I’m alone, I just cross my own palm abundantly with silver and extend it to the seller, hoping he’s honest.
Not surprisingly, this is the most delectable éclair I have ever tasted. And it continues, in memory, to hold first place to this day, despite the passing of so many tastings and so many decades.

© 2008 Tobi Tobias


  1. Lois Schaffer says

    This was an absolutely charming story.
    I can relate to it because my husband and I had almost the same experience except that the genders were reversed.
    My husband will attempt to “track down” food that he particularly wants and is the “shopper” in our family. Examples: We were on board a ship for the overnight crossing from Oslo to Copenhagen several years ago. There was a smorgasbord of delectable food and outrageous desserts. We finished a marvelous dinner and headed for the dessert table. I recall that my husband chose an enormous, but delicate piece of cake with apricots, nuts and some sort of icing drizzled on the edges. He took one bite, became speechless, grinned like a Cheshire cat as he savored every morsel. He said, “I think I’ll splurge for another piece,” when he finished the first.
    He returned to our table quickly and said, “D_ _n, gone, no more.” He spun on his heels and several minutes later returned with another large piece. “I went into the kitchen with the server,” he explained.
    Another instance: We were vacationing in Florence about two years ago. My husband wanted a particular style of leather jacket. We had hired a guide but spent a few days on our own beforehand, sightseeing and shopping. Many jackets, but not what he wanted.
    During one of our excursions with the guide, my husband mentioned to him that he was looking for a very specific kind of leather jacket. The guide listened, immediately took us to a leather shop, and there it was!
    I look forward to more of your reviews, “personal indulgences,” and, most important, wish that you and your husband will have the opportunity to share many more joyful experiences together whether it be here or abroad. [Sent June 29, 2008. –Ed.]

  2. Leigh Witchel says

    Ooooh, French bakeries! My loves are more prosaic. Pain au chocolat, croissant aux amandes, chausson aux pommes. And the meal staple of every tourist on a budget (nowadays, that’s just about everyone) the delicious sandwiches on baguettes at most boulangeries.
    When you go to any of the Chinatowns (I just went to the one in Flushing last week, which is worth the trip for the shock of a huge, vibrant commercial center that couldn’t care less about Manhattan) the Asian bakeries (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) do the similar pastries. They’re nowhere near as delicate, but there is the weird amusement of seeing them filled with red bean and green tea fillings. [Sent June 26, 2008. –Ed.]

  3. Michelle Kamhi says

    I’m on husband #2 but have yet to find one who would tolerate two hours
    of flea-market browsing! —though I suspect that either one might
    have succumbed to the promise of a chocolate eclair as reward. [Sent June 25, 2008. –Ed.]

  4. Ellizabeth Zimmer says

    Lovely. I’ve just returned from spending a week in a French hotel in Washington, DC–not Paris, but close–where I was served excellent pain au chocolat every morning. You can see them on my hips even now, but it was worth every bite. (Sent June 25, 2008. –Ed.)

  5. Mindy Aloff says

    Oh, what a tasty treat from the “Land of Delicious”! I gobbled it up as soon as it arrived.

  6. Nancy Dalva says

    How delish. (Sent June 25, 2008. –Ed.)

  7. Martha Ullman West says

    Completement formidable, Madame. Mille mercis pour cette memoire.
    To lapse into my native tongue, I could write a huge volume on the effect of low blood sugar on intimate relationships based on mine with my husband, who was a complete bastard when he was hungry. Fortunately he explained that to me when we’d been married about four days and were traveling across the country by car. [Sent June 25, 2008. –Ed.)

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