Over the Back Fence: French culture has niche in Mariposa

“Parlez-vous Français?” asked an ad in the newspaper asked in 1981. Karen Silver and the late Cori Smith hoped to start a French club in Mariposa.

Over the years the numbers and faces have changed, but the mood is always lively. Especially when JJ Gillispie is chef.

On Monday evening, the group met to celebrate Bastille Day, France’s independence holiday. More than 25 individuals gathered at Gillispie’s home, including group members and families.

Appetizers covered the counters, from deviled quail eggs and homemade, organic goat cheese to stuffed mushrooms, mussels and fruits and veggies. Red, white and blue tablecloths were spread beneath disposable red, white and blue tableware. French postcards, flags and memorabilia decorated the dining area.

As guests arrived and embraced each other, greetings were extended in French.

“At our monthly meetings we speak only French,” said Lois Moroni. “But twice a year we have dinner and speak English and French.”

Moroni’s husband, Jon Pierre, is French. He was adopted by an American family as a young teen and moved stateside. They own and operate a country inn, where breakfast includes French cuisine.

An hour and a half later, dinner was served. Gillispie’s beef Wellington starred on the buffet table, next to scalloped potatoes, herbed green beans, two kinds of homemade bread and leafy green salads. Later everyone stood at the counter to sample the variety of desserts.

Gillispie was born in Casablanca, Morocco, moved to France and Montreal, and then settled in Southern California.

Keeping with tradition, after the meal they sang the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”

In the kitchen, Gillispie’s husband, Jim, helped, and Karen Silver assisted as sous chef. Silver and her husband, Marvin, own Silver Fox Vineyards, and brought their award-winning wine for the meal.

It’s an eclectic group of retired folks, business owners, homemakers, teachers, farmers and ranchers who enjoy each other’s company. And the delicious food, of course.

Having a a French mother, Celine Rickards naturally grew up hearing wonderful things about the country, the people and the food. Rickards attended school in Belgium and learned to speak French as a teen. Shortly after moving to Mariposa, she met Silver and joined the club.

Beth Tomsick taught French at Mariposa County High School for many years. She serves as facilitator at meetings, helping members find the correct word when their memory gets stuck. Their conversations range from French politics and economics to the culture, which they all appreciate. French-English dictionaries are allowed.

Ruth Fruehauf lived in France and then worked in New York City. She often used the language in speaking to international customers. While in that position, she traveled abroad at least three times a year. She enjoys maintaining her language skills through the friendships she’s formed in the club.

A native of France, Nicole Bali teaches Latin and Greek at a private school in Los Angeles. She vacations in the foothills, and Monday’s gathering was her first visit with the group. Living in the United States for more than 40 years has Americanized her, she admitted, but she cooks French dishes when entertaining.

“My friends sort of expect it,” Bali said.

Ronan Cornec is also a French native. He and his wife, Rachel, met while she taught English in Paris. He thought he would never leave his home. But he eventually grew tired of the fast pace and moved to Mariposa. She said she misses the country’s European charm.

Christy Wall’s father is a physicist who periodically taught in Paris when she was a child. He took the family there, which opened her eyes to new cultures.

“I will never forget the smells, the fresh food in the market, and the dynamic way the shopkeepers would sell their wares,” she said.

Monday was her first time at a club gathering, but she has wanted to join for a long time.

Born in China, Meibao Nee learned French while living in Lebanon, and used it while in France and Switzerland. She brought the goat cheese. Nee barely understands the language now, but is anxious to resurrect it with the help of the other members.

Ron and Hélène Halcrow met and married in France. She’s native, and her parents still live there. Ron learned the language in school, and visited for the first time at age 17. Their draw to the club is shared interests and conversing in the Romance language.

Meetings are held one Saturday a month. For more information, contact Hélène Halcrow at (714) 974-6323.