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In 2012, food writer Steve Hoffman and his Minnesota family spent an extended fall semester in a tiny winemaking village in the Languedoc region of southern France. His daughter, Eva (14 at the time), and his son, Joseph (nine), attended local schools, while Steve and his wife, Mary Jo, “practiced for retirement.” In her case, this meant a daily photography project called STILL, which resulted in her recently published book: STILL: The Art of Noticing. For his part, Steve tried teaching himself to cook French food, mostly unsuccessfully, and returned to an early love of exploring languages and writing. Here, Hoffman shares an exclusive excerpt of his new memoir A Season for That: Lost and Found in The Other Southern France (Crown Publishing), which chronicles that time.

By renting a house in the 800-person village of Autignac — seated just on the crease where the Mediterranean coastal plain folded up into the first dark foothills of the Massif Central — our family had landed smack in the epicenter of one of the world’s great cuisines. Trucks delivered fish and seafood weekly from the Mediterranean to our south. Duck, lamb, beef, pork and poultry found their way down from the hills to our north. Fruit and vegetables seemed to come from everywhere. And despite all of this, my first efforts to contend with Mediterranean cooking had so displeased, if not outright disgusted, my two children and even my quite open-minded wife, that I had begun consulting French cookbooks and culinary blogs in hopes of redeeming myself in my family’s eyes and in my own.

Photography provided by Crown Publishing

To this end, I had spent several mornings now seated on a chaise on the terrace with an iPad in my lap, swiping through a blog called La Marmite de Gaston, or Gaston’s Kettle. Gaston had just the other evening held my hand through a pan-roasted magret de canard — the thickly fat-capped breasts produced specifically by ducks raised to make foie gras. He advised me to crosshatch the fatty side with cuts that sliced to the meat, but not into it, then render the duck fat on that side of the breast before browning the opposite side in the clear fat. His astuce du chef, or chef’s tip, suggested testing for doneness not by stabbing the poor magret with a thermometer and spilling its tasty blood, but by prodding the breast with an index finger and comparing its consistency with the meat of my thumb in various positions.

Touch tip of thumb to index finger, and feel, in the muscle where the thumb joins the palm, the mushy elasticity of a rare steak. Touch thumb to pinky, on the other hand, and feel the flexed muscle of a well done steak. I had aimed for rosé, or medium rare, by gently touching my thumb to middle finger and testing the magret as it tightened to a similar pneumatic firmness. Ten minutes later, after the meat had rested, a dozen perfectly medium-rare slices fell onto the cutting board like medallions of seared venison. We almost wept.

I liked to cook, and I liked the way that knowing how to cook sorted me into that subset of men I particularly admired — those whose masculinity tended to express itself as a by-product of gentleness and assurance.

This morning Gaston was proposing mackerel filets served on a tomato concassé. Which was fortunate because at 9 a.m. sharp, the town loudspeaker belted out another “Allô? Allô!” before announcing that the fisherman of Valras was installed in the promenade.

Mary Jo and I arrived to a softly buzzing congregation of villagers and the pleasant sea smell of extremely fresh seafood. The fisherman had improvised a market stall, and trays full of ice and fish dripped in the rising heat of the morning. Ahead of us in line, a diminutive matron in a housecoat leaned toward her neighbor and said, in a voice loud enough for the fishmonger to hear, “Again, his prices have climbed. It is not possible.”

This prompted the fishmonger to retreat to the back of his van, return with a pack of laminated price tags, and silently deal them onto the top of each tray of fish with a wrist flick and a bit of a Vegas spin. “Voilà, today’s official prices, which you will see are more than I am charging you. When it is your turn, you can thank me.”

Photography by Mary Jo Hoffman

He glanced a little grimly in our direction, appearing to pick us out as strangers in town, before returning his attention to a bird-like elderly customer who was lecturing him about the size of the squid she wanted. “I said medium!” the woman scolded, slapping the back of his hand. “Not énorme!” He let more catcalls and abuse bounce off his stout form while he made change from a black leather fanny pack tucked under the medicine ball of his belly.

I had done a lot of fishing and eaten a lot of fish, but I could make almost nothing of what I was seeing. Little red fish the size of goldfish called rougets appeared to be a great favorite, as did a tray of fleshy, headless tails shaped like drumsticks called queues de lotte, or monkfish tails. There was a pile of pinkish, cartilaginous triangles labeled ailes de raie, or skate wings. There were tiny chromium minnows — jols — no bigger than the size of my pinky. I couldn’t imagine what one might do with a minnow that was not swimming in a bait bucket.

Other than some handsome silver-gray sea bass, the other trays contained such a collection of spiny, ugly and bulbous creatures — sole, turbot, merlu (hake), capelan (called “poor cod” in English), squid, cuttlefish, eel, anchovy, sardine, a spotted shark labeled roussette — that I could have believed a joke was being played on me, and that soon enough, Monsieur Sauzet would disappear again into his van, and bring out the attractive pillows of fish he actually intended to sell.

It was my turn. “I’d like four mackerel,” I told him.

“They are very good, the mackerel,” he said, sorting the teal and silver missiles by size with his blunt fingers. “How big?”

“Rather small,” I said.

Mary Jo had been photographing the trays of fish and when she tried to sneak a photo of Monsieur Sauzet, he caught her, folded his arms and posed in three-quarter profile, looking not a little Napoleonic.

“Ask him how to cook them,” Mary Jo said.

“I already have a recipe,” I said.

“Ask him anyway.”

Feeling as if I could not refuse her even one more time, yet also feeling as if I were about to ask a cattleman out on the open range how one went about preparing a beefsteak, I said, “Do you have a favorite way to prepare them?”

A gesticulating crowd of villagers instantly surrounded me, everyone simultaneously either giving advice or contradicting the advice that had just been given. Individual words — lemon, skin, grill — leaped out from the general confusion, then fell back into the roaring linguistic rapids from which I could discern a few other meaningful syllables of my supposed second language.

Monsieur Sauzet, apparently charmed at being considered worthy of a portrait, lifted a handful of the jols and dropped them in a second bag, instructing us to flour and fry them.

“One eats them how?” I asked. Monsieur Sauzet tilted his head back and imitated eating a french fry.

“Entiers,” he said. Whole.

Photography by Mary Jo Hoffman

I fried them in flour and olive oil. They did, indeed, come out of the oil crisped like french fries. I salted them and brought them to the table where Mary Jo and the kids sat peacefully together, journals open, borrowing and returning markers and colored pencils from the communal pile. Joe was inventing fanciful new species of insects, giving them names and describing their defenses — an old form of self-soothing dating back to toddlerhood when he would bring us plastic dinosaurs and debate with us exactly what weapons each dinosaur possessed, and what each “did for danger.”

“This one uses his tail like a baseball bat and knocks other dinos way up into the sky,” we would say. And he would correct us, pointing out the creature’s massive armored cranium and arguing that he actually used his head like a hammer and crushed his enemies flat.

I set the fried jols on the table, and it was as if I had blown my nose onto the plate.

“Dad!” said Eva. “No!”

I tried one, popping it in my mouth and chewing. It tasted just like a fried fish and crunched like a potato chip. I was accused of belonging to that outcast tribe of humanity who eat fish brains and poop and was asked to return to the kitchen and take my minnows with me.

As I prepared the mackerel, I divided my attention between my new friend Gaston and the scene across the room. Mary Jo was so good at this. Less than a week ago, I had watched her stir up Eva’s wrath, and while I would have spent the intervening days trying somehow to atone, Mary Jo had simply gotten on with things and never let it appear that her criticism was in any way related to her fundamental love and respect for Eva. And now here they were, giggling about Dad, consulting about color and sharing the progress of their improvised artwork.

I gutted and fileted the mackerel, sautéed the onions and garlic, peeled and diced the tomatoes, and boiled them down with a bay leaf and some dried thyme. On each plate, comparing my composition carefully with Gaston’s, I leaned a glistening mackerel filet against a short berm of tomato concassé, and the iridescent mackerel against the red tomato sauce flecked with specks of thyme was quite beautiful.

Mackerel has a strong sea flavor. Not fishy in the way old salmon is fishy, but strong and dark. Despite the complaints of our neighbors in line at the promenade, it was some of the least expensive fish we could remember buying. But it was strong fish, from a strongly flavored region. In the end, nearly half of Monsieur Sauzet’s beautiful fish lay in vivid waste on our plates. I ate more than my share in a sort of guilty penance, popping minnows into my mouth until I couldn’t anymore.

We were a long way from the slate-gray waves of Minnesota lakes and the mild, white-fleshed walleyes that hover deep below them. We were a long way from the reserved exchange of Nordic platitudes at Minnesota grocery checkouts. What we had taken on here, what I had agreed to, was taking shape. Bullet-shaped and beautiful, and tasting like mackerel.

From the book A Season for That: Lost and Found in the Other Southern France by Steve Hoffman. Copyright © 2024 by Steve Hoffman. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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