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Entries by Janet Hubbard (29)


writing what you don't know--in my case, wine

2 December, 2014. I woke up this morning thinking about the axiom, "Write what you know." (Don't forget, I teach writing seminars.) I say in my brief bio that I write about what I love: France, wine, and food. Some people could read that and assume I have a deeper understanding about those three things than most, which is not true (though I wish it were). 

I grew up in the south (South Hill, Virginia, on the North Carolina line), where both sets of grandparents owned large tobacco farms. My family  lived in my grandmother's house until I was four, at which time we moved to "town," eight miles away. My maternal grandfather, who never learned to drive, created an industry of sorts on his thousand acres. He had a country store, where my grandmother ran the post office. He was a logger and had his own sawmill. And there were many acrees of tobacco to be tended to, along with farm animals. The farm hands would show up at their back door at noon, where my grandmother had spent the morning preparing the midday meal for an average of fifteen. The biscuits that she rolled out at five in the morning were lighter than clouds. Out came the fried chicken, or pork roast, and overcooked vegetables. It was delicious fare. 

I moved to Manhattan in my early 20s and it was there that I began to develop a passion for ethnic foods. And wine! At 22 I went traveling to Spain, but somehow landed in Paris first, and stayed to work as an au pair for a four-year-old boy, Charles. It was no ordinary arrangment. The couple, American, fluent in French, each had a lover, and so le petit Charles and I were often alone in the apartment on rue des Ecoles. I only saw the mother eat cheese sandwiches--granted, extraordinary bread and cheese, but still. As for the father, I'm not sure what he ate. Eventually the boy and I moved to our own apartment, after the mother announced she was going traveling to India with her boyfriend. I found a fifth-floor walk-up, which was dream come true.

I made friends and we liked to sit around drinking wine, which was incredibly cheap. When I returned to New York, I became friends with Wayne Ensrud, a marvelous artist (see my links), who knew more about wine than anyone I had met. My education has been ongoing ever since, but I have rarely had a wine priced over a thousand dollars. Maybe never.  One that stands out is a 1986 Le Pin Pomerol. I was in Vermont at a friend's house. She had a beautiful wine cellar, with some extraordinary wines. We could even dine in the cellar, and often did. Her husband had no interest in wine.  I was there for lunch and she said, "Let's open something lovely."  We went to the cellar and she pulled out the Le Pin. I said, "Maybe we should make sure we're not going overboard here," but she laughed. There we sat, at one in the afternoon, savoring this wine that danced in my mouth. I kept the bottle.

When it was time to write the chapter in BORDEAUX, when Max and Olivier at at the fabulous Manhattan restaurant, Veritas, that is known for its wine menu (I was there once and saw the critic Robert Parker, and rushed out when he was leaving to ask him to sign my menu. I still have it.). I realized that I had no clue how to write about food in any meaningful way. I went to Dawn Land, who is a buyer at Sherry-Lehmann's on Madison Avenue, the famous wine shop, and asked her to help. OMG!  She made that chapter come to life!  I want to get her to write a blog for me about food and wine.

As for knowing French, I can manage a simple conversation, but am sad that I can't do better. It has to do with knowledge, but also with being self-conscious. As is the case with many Americans who do speak some French, the French reply to a question in French in English. I am planning to immerse myself in French SOON. My friends Astrid and Coco keep me from making a fool of myself in written French. My editor, Barbara Peters, is also fluent.

So, do I write what I know when it comes to France, food, and wine?  On one level I can say yes, as I have spent a great deal of time in France and know a little about the wine and food. But not enough! I do quite a lot of research. I ask for help when I need it, and I read a lot.