Bien que non considéré son beau-fils "préféré", je suis dans haut assez d'estime avec ma belle-mère qu'elle crée subliment des tourtières pour moi régulièrement. That is to say, I am often the recipient, or was I should say, of one of the world's great French meat pies by way of the kindness of ma belle-mère who tolerates my raison d'etre barely. When I say this, I mean that she has never mentioned either implicitly or explicitly the fact that I am a mime. It is not as though I remain mute around my extended family, or that I am overly gesticulatory or anything that would indicate what I do for a living. Although, a few times, my wife has managed to wipe off a bit of white grease paint from some overlooked crevice of my countenance before anyone else noticed. It is, however, no secret amongst my non-consanguineous family that I am a street performer of pantomime practicing one of the earth's ancient and nearly lost arts in a mercilessly urbane city. The lovely daughter of ma belle-mère, my beautiful wife, is an attorney, a partner actually, in one of the city's most prestigious law firms. That we met at university, she an undergrad matriculating in pre-law liberal arts and I, a graduate student in anthropology, perhaps had instilled a sense of joie de vivre that would eventually be extinguished by my unrestrained proclivity toward pantomime, mimos, the Greeks called it. Pantomime in Greece, also called "the art of interpretive dancing," often took the form of mimetic dances, or military pantomimes such as Pyrrhic dances. The art of gesture was called orchesis, from which we get the word orchestra, the Greek term for a dancing place.
The Romans were especially fond of pantomime, mounting subjects from myth and legend in movement, sometimes accompanied by narration or song. The sketches were often played as afterpieces to the written plays, or even between the acts. Two famous players - both freed slaves - were Pylades, who excelled in tragic style, and Bathyllus, known for his comic style. The Empress Theodora of Byzantium, a ruler remarkable for her concern with the welfare of women and performers, was a pantomime player from her childhood until shortly before her marriage to Emperor Justinian. To tell a story in movement and gesture was called pantomime; often short comic, topical, satirical one-acts. Only once did I embark upon any of this explanation to my in-laws, since the clenched fists of Michelle's father and the quivering lower lip and puddled eyes of her mother tacitly spoke volumes of abject disappointment. Over the years I have been a kind and attentive husband, and for this reason alone I am loved. The wonderful tourtières, I believe, have become a generous bestowal upon me because ma belle-mère thinks I am too skinny; le clown maigrichon she calls me. And so, like a clock in a bell tower of l'église in Provençe, ma belle-mère and Mr. Tartine ring our doorbell every Sunday morning precisely at 9 AM to deliver a piping hot tourtières. And every Sunday, we offer them fresh coffee from our French press, which they summarily decline, wish us a wonderful day off, at which point they both very subtly glance in my direction, and bid adieu. The olfactory memory of those spicy meat pies yet makes my mouth water in a Pavlovian response. How could I have imagined what would transpire that final Sunday?
The piquant pie sat on our stove top, filling the anterior rooms of the house with the complex gastronomic aroma of Gallic spices and seasoned meat, as comforting as the purring fat cat sleeping upon the sunny hearth in the parlor. A knock at the back door some few moments past 11 AM gave both Michelle and me a start, having been engrossed in the Sunday newspapers and our second press-pot of café au laits. M. went to the back kitchen door, and from my perch on the window seat in the parlor I could hear the booming voice of Mr. David and the high pitched giggle of his wife Marissa. I made my way to the kitchen before M. could invite the Davids to settle into the parlor. As it happened, we offered them coffee and commandeered them into the dining room.
"What is that wonderful aroma?" asked Marissa.
The Davids, it so happened, had just dropped off their daughters at Hebrew school, and had a bit of time on their hands. Marissa, although brought up Catholic, had semi-converted to Judaism, and despite being from Rutland, Vermont, sounded like a native Lawng I-lunduh.
"That," I answered "is the world's best tourtière, known in these parts as French meat pie."
"It does smell divine," Iggy, as Mr. David was known to his friends, and being the senior partner at M.'s law firm, we were considered acquaintances of sufficient import to call him by this moniker.
Of course, M. had no choice but to offer some of the sublime pie to our guests. Marissa followed M. into the kitchen to help serve. Mr. David lost no time inquiring,
"What is it you do again Philip?"
Before I could answer the impertinent pettifogger, a cry came from the kitchen.
"Oh my Gawd!" exclaimed Marissa.
Mr. David and I simultaneously raised our eyebrows and stared perplexedly at each other, then rose to go to the kitchen to investigate the source of such an ostentatious outburst.
"What the hell's going on in here?" demanded Mr. David sounding like a bellicose barrister.
"Look, it's St. Sebastian in the crust of this pie," Marissa said pointing at the tourtière.
"What the f*** are you talking about…"
Well, actually I'd prefer to simply imply Mr. David's interrogatory.
"…and who the hell is St. Sebastian?"
His whole mise-en-scene seemed a bit overheated under the circumstances.
"You know Botticelli, and The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Piero and Antonio Del Pollaiuolo?" said Marissa with such incredulity that Mr. David was wont to respond with such fulminations, epithets, and innuendos that would make Red Foxx blush. He didn't like the condescending rhetoric from his lapsed-catholic, art major wife, and he, it was well known, could not suffer Italians. It was some kind of War of the Roses and Rosenbaums in our kitchen. M. & I just stood gape-jawed.
"Look," implored Marissa. "The upward looking and anguished eyes, the arrows in the ribs and stomach, the blood. I've got to have this pie. Please let me buy this French meat pie from you." she beseeched.
Quite frankly, we all thought she had slipped rather abruptly into the anti-matter of insanity. We told her she could have it, if only to get her out of the house before this black hole of a personality disorder began sucking the light out of the world. After they left, M. & I had to laugh, but I had a real bad feeling about losing that tourtier. It was my special tourtier, after all, given with what ever mixed messages of sentiment, which I savored weekly. My portentousness proved perspicacious.
In the very next night's newspaper, on the front page, lower right, was a picture of Marissa holding the tourtière with the heading, St. Sebastian appears on French Meat Pie.
A brief article noted that the Vatican was sending an enclave to investigate the matter. Within the week, Marissa and the pie were on Letterman, the Daily Show, and Live with (sans)Regis and Kelly. It was on Friday that ma belle-mère appeared at the front door. As I opened the door, I barely got out "Muh…" before she slapped my face, her eyes filled with enmity, after which she abruptly turned to get into the still running Buick La Sabre, Mr. Tartine clutching the steering wheel, staring straight ahead. I called M. at her office to let her know what had happened. She seemed to understand her mother's position.
"You were here too," I said. "You did not stop me from giving Marissa the tourtière."
"I am very busy; I'll talk to you later," were her perfunctory words. However, she did not return home that evening, or the evening after that, or any of the following evenings.
After a couple of months, Marissa and the famous French meat pie had fallen from constant public view. She put the tourtière on eBay and ended up selling it for over ten thousand dollars. The Vatican refused to declare the pie a miracle, however. The buyer would simply have to stare at a cracked pie crust impenetrably hoping that St. Sebastian would reveal himself.
The lapsed tourtières of my marriage and my life lingered in my mind like a Proustian Madeleine. I now live in Senegal, well the République du Sénégal, where I am writing a thesis and shooting a documentary on the diminishing Mandinka. Twice a week, in the small rural village, located not far from Ziguinchor, where I live, I perform pantomime for the village children.
When Rome fell, the theatres were closed and entertainers were reduced to wandering through the countryside, playing at fairs and markets. The Church banned them for being licentious and cruel. Yet, at the same time, the Church was producing mystery and miracle plays, first in church buildings and then later in churchyards. Performed by guilds, these plays were an important technique for teaching the Bible, because mime, mystery, miracle, and morality plays were easily adapted to biblical stories. Many of these spoken plays were easily made into pantomime versions, or included pantomime sequences. Tableaux vivants consisted of a single representative pose, or a series of sculptural poses illustrating a story. It has been conjectured that the actors of the Mysteries of Religion were mummers, a word signifying one who makes and disguises himself to play the fool without speaking. They were dressed in an antic manner, dancing, mimicking, and showing postures. The organizers of medieval festivals of mystery plays appreciated only too well the magical power of pantomime. In the French mysteries at the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth century the most moving scenes were invariably mimed.
I do not know what ever became of that tortured tourtière, or of ma belle-mère, or of Ms. M., but there will always be a place in my heart for the perfection of those tourtières.