I enjoyed my first Salade Niçoise in Cannes at Nellie’s table. Nellie was a legend in my childhood. My grandparents first met her in Birmigham, AL in the late 40’s or early 50’s. Nellie, a former Miss Paris, had come to America as a coat model which somehow included a stop in Birmingham. On their first trip to Paris, my grandparents looked her up and took her to dinner. They learned more about this delightful Jewish Frenchwoman that evening. At the time she worked in a perfumier on the Place de la Concorde. Nellie married later in life. “When she was young,” my grandfather told me, “the eligible Frenchmen were fighting. And after the war, well…” I never thought to ask how she, her mother and her brother survived the war in Paris, evading capture by the Nazis. Eventually Nellie met and married M. Grillot. By the time I met her, he was no longer alive.
When my dad was in the service in France he and my mom met Nellie. As the story goes, she babysat me so he and my mom could have a weekend away. More than two decades later, I was studying in France and made my way to Cannes where my mother told me Nellie had an aprtment. I had written to her at a Paris address but never heard back. It was late afternoon when my friend and I climbed the stairs to Nellie’s apartment and rang the bell.
It took more than a few minutes for her to make the time jump and understand that I was not my mother. That I was the “bébé” twenty years hence. She embraced me warmly, then my friend and insisted we stay for dinner and return for lunch the following afternoon. She was delightful. She was beautiful, smart and throughout the evening she would look at me and say as if not quite believing it, “Mais tu est le bébé?” Her chihuahua, Titine, had been trained to understand commands in Yiddish. Espé, her longtime housekeeper and companion served us my first Salade Niçoise. Here is a version I love to serve. And when I do, I think of this wonderful woman with delight. Here is Nellie’s sangria recipe saved from that visit in 1975.