Have you ever tasted a dish and been transported back to your childhood?
Have you tried to find the origins of a story, a relationship, a recipe that motivated you to reach out to friends whom you haven’t spoken to in years?
In writing this month’s column, I had the good fortune to speak to the creator of this recipe, one of my mother’s, Gertrude Kertscher’s, oldest and dearest friends, Jeannine Miller. I reached out to her daughter, Alice Dupas, in France, with whom I had been in touch over the years through Christmas cards. I was overjoyed to find out that Jeannine was well and living in a senior center in Davenport, Iowa.
Alice forwarded my email to her mother, and I received the loveliest response with a bit of an illustration of how they got to know each other. We were able to talk on the phone and Jeannine told me about her life these past few years.
She sounded vibrant when I spoke with her. She shared with me that she still gives French lessons and meets weekly with friends who want to practice their French at “La Table Ronde” (the round table) in a nearby restaurant.
Here are some of the details of Jeannine and Gertrude’s origin story:
My mother started college in 1968, the year I started high school. We were living at the lake then and, ironically, Gertrude chose to go to Montclair State College. (We had moved from Montclair to Lake Hopatcong when I was in elementary school.) Gertrude had inherited money from her mother’s estate and was able to attend college and become a teacher, something she had dreamed of for years.
She majored in German and minored in French and met Jeannine in one of her education courses. Being immigrants, Jeannine and Gertrude “sympathized immediately.”
Jeannine had recently arrived from France with her husband and daughter. She was curious about the education system in the United States and took some courses at Montclair State to learn more about it. Jeannine and Gertrude commuted to college together during their college career and enjoyed each other’s company on the long car rides to and from Montclair.
The Millers lived in an apartment in Dover that had stacks of books from floor to ceiling. I had never seen anything like that before. Mr. Miller was quite an avid reader and collector of books. Jeannine was very artistic; she enjoyed painting and Japanese flower arranging. She often substitute taught at Jefferson Township High School as Gertrude did, and I had her several times for French.
In addition to spending those years commuting to Montclair State, Jeannine and her daughter, Alice, would often come to the lake for picnics, study sessions, German and French lessons. They enjoyed swimming, boating and sharing meals at our house and often contributed a delicious rice salad to the Sunday afternoon picnic dinners.
Jeannine and her husband moved to Davenport, Iowa, around the same time I started college in Boulder, Colo. My brother, Frank, and I would make the 36-hour Route 80 trip twice a semester and we’d occasionally stop in Davenport to see the Millers. It was a welcome respite from traveling cross-country crammed into Frank’s Volkswagen Beetle. I recently came across a picture of Alice, me and Frank in the Millers’ Davenport living room. (See photo to left.)
I always remembered Jeannine’s rice salad and since Gertrude and I were never able to quite replicate the flavors, I asked Jeannine for the recipe during one of our stops in Davenport. She mailed it to me in Boulder: I still have the original hand-written letter archived in my cookbook.
The letter is full of gentle encouragement, hints about preparation and suggestions for variations:
“Use leftover rice, or, if you cook rice especially for a salad, then cool it a little more than normal, because it dries a little in the fridge when you cool it. (You can make the salad when rice is still a little warm. It tastes good too.)
“To the rice, add green peppers, olives, black or green, mushrooms, shrimps, etc.
As you know, I usually keep mine very simple.
“There is really no “recipe” that I know of. Best is to experiment until you make it the way you like best.
“Good luck! Although it is so simple you hardly need it.”
My mother and I annotated the recipe further. Inserted in the ingredients list on faded, brittle, yellow-lined paper there are a few notes:
Oil: (PEANUT- me)
MUSTARD: (Dijon) – “The difference is the mustard she uses!!” (two exclamation marks – Gertrude)
I love to make this salad in the summertime, and tasting it evokes such a strong memory for me.
I recall the hot summer days, running around in a wet bathing suit with friends, the smell of the lake, the sounds of the boats, excited shrieks of children playing on the dock…. I am fortunate to have had such a generous, bountiful childhood and to have been able to share our home on the lake with such wonderful friends.
I feel so blessed to have been able to reconnect with Jeannine and her daughter over these past few weeks and to reminisce about our friendship and how our lives intersected. I am grateful for their memories.
This is how Jeannine closed her email to me:
“I want you to know that whenever I feel depressed, I sit and pretend I am on your dock at Lake Hopatcong with Gertrude in the nice sun and I hear the water underneath and I feel much better.”
French Rice Salad – Jeannine Miller, 1972
3 cups cooked white rice*
⅓ cup finely minced onion
1 green bell pepper,
cut into small cubes
12 large pitted black olives, sliced
12 large stuffed green olives,
1½ stalks celery, minced
1 dill pickle, cut into a small dice
(about ⅓ cup)
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
⅔ cup peanut oil
salt and pepper
– If you have just cooked the rice, let it cool to lukewarm. Put the rice in a large bowl, top with the onion, green pepper, olives, celery and pickle.
– Stir the vinegar and mustard together in a small bowl.
– Slowly add in the oil in a steady stream, whisking constantly so that the dressing emulsifies.
– Fluff the rice and salad ingredients with a fork, breaking up any large clumps of rice. Pour the dressing over and stir to blend the ingredients together.
– Season with salt and pepper to taste.
*To make the rice: In a large saucepan, add 1½ cups white rice to 3 cups salted water. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes until all of the water is absorbed into the rice. Best served at room temperature
Published: Labor Day 2019 Vol. 11 No. 5