No one would guess that the thing Rebekah Peppler loves most about French food isn’t the food itself. According to the James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author, it’s “the connections that are made around the table, and the intimacy that’s cultivated over food rather than the actual eating.” Her goal, as she tells it, is to take the “elegant, sexy, sparkling charm that is a French evening,” and give readers the tools to gather that way in their own homes.
From Alice B. Toklas to Julia Child to David Lebovitz, each generation has its expat Americans who distill French cuisine, as it stands, for the folks back home. The skill lies in transatlantic straddling – simultaneously tapping into la culture on one side of the pond while reading the market on the other. In the seven years since moving to Paris, Peppler has penned two cookbooks on French food and drinks – Apéritif and À Table – and a third is in the works. The New York Times contributor might not be the voice of her generation, but she’s one of them.
“My intent with all the books is to bring people into the scene and understand a little bit more of the culture,” said the author on a recent Sunday morning. Seated in a craft coffee shop near her apartment in Montmartre, she looks like a page from À Table – white-on-white cotton t-shirt and trousers, an ankle-length, wool-blend black coat, Champagne-tinged eyeglass frames, and her signature curly bangs. She speaks thoughtfully, leaning in so none of her words are lost to the café’s hubbub.
“I didn’t want to fall into that trope of ‘white girl moves to Paris to write about French food,’” she continues. “In a way, that’s exactly who I am – I’m white, I moved to Paris, and I write about food. But I’m interested in delving into the history and the cultural context of what I’m writing about and demystifying the fantasy that it’s all baguettes walking down the street.”
As it happens, the first photograph from À Table is of Peppler on the streets of Paris, her black bag overflowing with a bouquet of green herbs and a fresh-baked baguette. She’s not immune to the clichés. But she’s also pictured sidled up to the Canal Saint-Martin, a Tunisian sandwich in one hand, a BAPBAP artisanal beer in the other. The pages are filled with images of women, Peppler’s close friends, who appear as chic as they are diverse. And there’s plenty of whimsy: glossy apple tarts on mismatched plates with short pours of Calvados; the author leaned against her wrought-iron terrace balcony, thin-stemmed wineglass in hand, sweeping views of the City of Light. She’s peddling a certain Paris fantasy, but it’s not the one most Americans are used to.
Born in the Midwest, Made on the Coasts
Though she was raised in Wisconsin, Peppler spent her formative twenties between New York and Los Angeles, studying pastry at the French Culinary Institute and working as a food stylist and recipe developer. In À Table, she mentions her midwestern upbringing only in passing, like in her comments on fromage (“I’m from Wisconsin and I live in Paris, so I’m genetically and contractually obligated to have strong opinions on cheese”), or preceding an eggplant confit recipe, where she references childhood summers in a family cabin “up north.” The Gatsby-esque excerpt reads: “There I spent countless hours of my young, only-child life wrapped in a life jacket on a pontoon boat in the middle of a lake, staring at a hazy shoreline and pretending that the blurry expanse across the way was Europe and that I was a chic, important woman in the middle of the ocean headed east.”
Back in the coffee shop, she smiles, a shade bashful, when she shares that her first job was at OshKosh B’gosh, a Wisconsin-born children’s apparel company. But mostly, she’s untethered to her midwestern roots. “My mom grew up on a farm [in Wisconsin] so I grew up appreciating food that comes from the land rather than the supermarket,” says Peppler. “But my sense of home is more where I am in the world rather than where I’m from.”
A Writer First
Peppler began splitting her time between Brooklyn and Paris in 2015. With no French skills or friends to speak of, the apéro ritual helped her to find her bearings. “For someone with some social anxiety, it’s easy to meet someone for thirty minutes, have a drink, and not feel obligated to do anything else.” She continues, “In the U.S., you don’t have that same coming together of people and gathering around a drink. I wanted to find a way to translate that to the English-speaking community.”
Peppler’s first cookbook, Apéritif, a primer on the French art of l’apéro, received a James Beard Award nomination as well as a nod from The New York Times as one of the best cookbooks of 2018. It whetted the appetite for her second book, À Table, a more robust examination of French cooking and food culture. The volume features a collection of recipes developed through on-the-ground research – Peppler tasted her way through France and took careful stove-side notes as French friends’ family members whipped up hearty cassoulets and slowly simmered lamb tagines. In it, she also shows a keen understanding of her readership. Some of the recipes may be elaborate but the tone is rarely precious and at times, a touch gossipy – as if Peppler is letting you in on her secrets. She writes, “Maintaining a small collection of house wine takes care of apéros and dinners, not to mention third dates that turn into 72 hours of not leaving the house (strong recommend).”
Including her particular experience was also important. “I wanted to write from a queer woman’s perspective, which is often missing, especially within the cookbook world.” More generally, she says, voices have been left out of cookbooks. “They’re like, here’s the recipe, here’s the photo – go live your life and cook these things. I wasn’t interested in just writing a cookbook. I was interested in writing, first and foremost, and the recipes are part of it.” Indeed, Peppler joins a wave of modern cookbook authors who dip into the memoir genre.
Quiet, Decadent Holidays
Today, you could say Peppler has become a version of the woman that she daydreamed about in her youth. Her adopted country has played no small part in it. She was living in Paris when she came out publicly, in her words, “spurred on by the need to be and be seen as fully myself” – a moment she celebrates annually on Instagram. Her tone has evolved from fledging arrival testing out captions en français to self-assured Parisienne with nothing to prove. Even her style has undergone a notable transformation. (The chic bangs arrived after she did, in Paris.) She’s become an authority on French cuisine. For all of the pain points of being an American abroad – visa headaches, language struggles, loneliness – it allows for the possibility of reinvention; of fully coming into one’s own. Peppler has capitalized on that and brought her readers along for the ride.
As the holidays approach and Peppler enters the final stages of drafting the manuscript for her third book, Le Sud, a love letter to the country’s southern cuisine, she plans to hole up in her apartment. The holidays, she says, will likely be in Paris with her partner, likely an intimate gathering, if at all. Having battled long Covid, she’s wary of planning anything too far in advance. “I had a reality check of what my mortality looks like and how good health can disappear quickly,” she says. Nonetheless, there will be oysters and there will be raclette. It will be no less decadent. “All the delicious things will still be on the table,” says Peppler. “It just might be a table of two.”