Présentation de notre Grand Chef: Francine Black
High in the mountains above Bally, where the dense groves of treetops seem to touch the sky, is Francine Black, Boyertown’s own version of chef Julia Child. Her daily activities reflect the things she most values: family and friends, music, and lovingly prepared food.
A long time vocal music teacher in the Boyertown Area School District, Francine has been retired for many years, but she continues to make beautiful music with the students who come to her home for voice lessons. These students leave with not only improved vocal skills, but also with improved feelings of self-esteem. Sometimes they also leave with a delicious baked treat, certain to renew their lagging energy after a long school day.
These are the music lessons to which parents do not mind chauffeuring their children. For tired parents, Francine’s friendly warmth, the beautiful music, and the delicious scents wafting from her kitchen quickly provide escape from the pressures and chaos of the just completed workday.
Francine peppers her conversation with useful and clever wisdom related to food: “One medium size pumpkin is enough to make two recipes of soup”; “Noodles cover a multitude of sins.” As she uncovers a large plate with a perfectly symmetrical heap of chicken salad that contains avocados, cabbage, and other ingredients not usually found in chicken salad, she observes, “You have to use what you have. Better in the pot than in the garbage.” The chicken salad is delicious.
The roots of Francine’s passion for cooking and baking, like the roots of her identity, begin in the Alsace Lorraine region of France. Her parents – a French woman and a Serbian man—met during a chance encounter at the height of the Nazi occupation of France. Francine’s family gave him temporary refuge along an “underground railroad,” thereby helping him to evade the authorities. Though their introduction was brief, it left a lasting impression on the man who would eventually become Francine's father.
Although he was subsequently captured by the Germans and sent to a work camp, when the war was in its final weeks and he was able, he set out to locate the French woman who had previously saved him . He found her in a separate work camp in Germany, to which she had been sent after a neighbor in her small French town reported her to officials for aiding a downed American pilot.
Liberated and reunited, they married and returned to Alsace to begin the task of rebuilding their lives. Suspicions back home were running high. The town’s residents were committed to ensuring justice and accountability with regard to those people who had aided and abetted the Nazis. It quickly became known to Francine’s family which neighbor had betrayed her mother: a woman with several children who had no money and no husband, and so she was vulnerable to threats and intimidation by the Nazis. However Francine’s uncle Rene, whom she idolized, declared, “This is enough. The hatred ends with me.” Rather than seeking reparation, her parents cast their attention to the future and starting a family.
In 1952, the small family made the momentous decision to immigrate to America, and eventually settle outside of Trenton, New Jersey. Francine’s father spoke no English, but soon became employed helping to construct a new mill for U.S. Steel.
In addition to being the bread-earner, Francine’s father also provided his family with another essential ingredient that ultimately would become the foundation for her career and life: the gift of song. Thinking back, Francine remembers her father purchasing a piano for $5 and pushing it down streets to get it home in Trenton. Kind people he encountered helped him and when he finally arrived at his home he happily declared, “Now will we have music!” In addition to the piano, he played an array of string instruments and also liked to sing.
As Francine’s father fed his growing family’s soul with music, her mother focused on feeding their stomachs. From her mother, Francine learned that “To be a mother or a wife, you must be a worthy chef.”
Using What You Have
Much of France was decimated by the war. Money was scarce, and food rationing remained in place for years after the fighting was over. “All women strived to be frugal while fulfilling their mission to provide food for their family. They used seasonally available ingredients and avoided waste. Their food was naturally grown and they followed the seasons,” says Francine. They mostly used legumes like potatoes and onions. Francine remembers the family receiving a six inch piece of bacon and using it to flavor their stews for a month. “We were grateful to have that,” she recalls.
Even now, though thankful for the bounty of produce, meats, and spices available only miles from her home, Francine still embraces this cooking philosophy.
As a starter, she serves a rich Pumpkin soup. It is made from a fresh pumpkin purchased at a local farm stand, homemade broth brought to life from the simmering carcass of the chicken that Francine transformed into our main course, and water from some green beans that she had cooked the night before. “It's for additional flavor,” explains Francine’s husband Richard, who rightly enjoys helping and sampling all of Francine’s culinary creations.
The chicken salad reveals a delightful combination of tastes and textures, accompanied by homemade bread that is, well, absolutely wonderful.
And the best saved for last, homemade Apple dumplings appear. They are made from locally grown apples smothered in cinnamon and wrapped in a homemade flaky French pastry. It is a dessert that pays further homage to our area’s fall bounty.
Francine expresses her delight about the local availability of fresh produce at farm stands like Stouffers on Rte. 663 and Echo Hill Country Store and its nearby neighbor, Shady Mountain Market. All of this was made without a recipe, but instead guided by Francine’s instinct, her long time apprenticeship with her mother, and the values and tastes instilled during her childhood.
Sharing Her Culinary Wisdom With our Loyal Readers
For years, Francine has shared her delicious and wholesome cooking, and her culinary wisdom, with her friends on Facebook. Beginning shortly, Francine will expand her audience to include Boyertown Area Expression readers. Join us in developing an appreciation for Francine's way of thinking about and preparing food, as she shares her wisdom and creativity, tips and cultural insights – and maybe even a recipe or two.
If you wish to duplicate it, here is the menu for the lunch we enjoyed with Francine:
Chicken Salad with avocado, over a bed of red cabbage
Apple Dumpling drizzled with almond slices
French Bread with Apricot Jam
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