We’re in a tiny butcher store that my grandmother swears by. There’s a man in his 80s behind the counter who greets us without pausing from his present occupation: taking apart an entire animal. We’re in Peynier, a town only a few miles away from where my mom grew up, in the South of France. The village is tiny—it’s truly a village—complete with winding cobblestone paths. We’ve come for a rabbit to recreate a dish that my great-grandmother was known for: pâté de lapin. While the butcher wraps up the lapin, or rabbit, my mom asks me of the coming culinary ordeal, “It’s a five-day process, are you sure you want to do it? People don’t cook like this anymore.”
The whole purpose of my trip to France to rediscover my family’s culinary roots in Provence can be captured by the spirit of this very moment. Last year, I left my public relations job in Honolulu, and headed to Vancouver, Canada to attend North West Culinary Academy. Afterwards, it only made sense to continue my education where it all started, in my family’s terroir, Provence. My mother was raised here, but when she was 20, she moved to Montreal, Canada, where she met my father, who had also emigrated from France.
My older brother and I were born in Montreal. Eight months after I arrived into the world, my mom decided she couldn’t bear another frigid winter and wanted to move somewhere warm. My dad, having grown up surfing in France, chose Hawai‘i as our family’s next home, and it ended up being the perfect fit.
With roots in France, Canada, and now, O‘ahu, my mom felt it was very important to create a mini Provence in Kuli‘ou‘ou Valley, where I grew up. We only spoke French at home, and I spent my time by my mom’s side, learning our history through cooking traditional French dishes.
Photo: The writer’s great uncle in 1949 in Rousset, France at her great- grandmother’s house, where her grandmother and grandmother’s siblings were born and raised.
My mom has since moved back to Provence. It’s here, in her new home where we begin to make the pâté de lapin. As I prepare the rabbit for its multi-day marinade in wine and wild herbs, my mom explains that my great-grandmother had a lapinier, where rabbits were raised in order to feed the whole family. With this, a beehive, pigs, chickens, and a thriving vegetable patch, all needs were met. My mom grew up in a very similar environment; her first memory of going to a grocery store for produce was at the age of 20, when she moved to Canada. Back then, my mom’s was a frugal way of life, but it was also one that produced deep familial connections with food and the land.
Over the next few days, I learn how to check and turn the rabbit regularly. When it’s time to start the pâté process, my aunt comes over to help remove all the small bones and unwanted parts. We gather around a table and reminisce about the rites of passage that we all experienced while cooking. As a child visiting my mom’s family in Provence, my most vivid memories are from my grandparents’ kitchen. At the age of 4, I remember being entrusted with plucking parsley leaves for tomate provençal. As I got older, I was given more responsibility, and with each small lesson, I was being taught my southern French roots.
When the pâté de lapin is finished, we plate the dish in the same way my great-grandmother would have done, and serve it to family members who have not seen or tasted it in 30 years. Some are brought back to their childhoods, while younger kin experience a piece of history for the first time.
This is the last dish I learn to prepare, the grand finale of my three-month visit to Provence. On this journey, my heart and mind unearthed priceless culinary instincts, family secrets that I transferred to paper for the first time. Now, future generations can carry on our traditions, wherever their roots may grow.