In general, my French lessons follow a fairly standard format. After a session in which we catch up on the French news and on any important student news, our teacher goes round the table asking each of us in turn if we have a presentation to offer. Most of us will have prepared something and, if not, we will offer an excuse with a tinge of guilt.
A few weeks ago, after I had talked about the French regional elections, the spotlight fell on Sophia, the student to my right, who had not prepared anything. She had, she said, been too busy. On Tuesday night it was a meeting, on Wednesday a party, on Thursday a dinner, and so on. When she had finished I pointed out that she had a choice, she could have said ‘no’ to any of these and worked on something for the class. Sophia repeated her list of engagements and I repeated my comment adding that as a human being, she always had, as Sartre observed, a choice. As I was talking, rumblings from the class made it clear that I should desist! Which I did.
On the phone next day a classmate told me that I had been unnecessarily demanding, even rude to Sophia and at the next lesson I would be well advised to ‘eat humble pie’. As luck would have it, the last hour of the next lesson was to be taken up by our annual pre-Christmas buffet, to which we each bring some dish or drink. I had already offered to bring a Pavlova and to this I would now add a venison pie – a complicated dish which I realised I would have to buy.
After making local enquiries and searching by phone and Internet, it soon emerged that neither our local shops, nor grander grocers such as those at Harrods or Fortnum and Mason, sold venison pie. Nor could I persuade our local butcher and Turner’s, a nationally renowned pie maker from Sussex, to make one for me. Undeterred, I asked a local French restaurant if they could oblige. I know the restaurant well and soon I was negotiating with the chef. We agreed the ingredients, the size of the pie and the date of collection. After confessing he had never made a Venison pie before, he agreed. There was just one condition – I must provide him with the baking dish.
The baking dish was duly delivered and in four days I collected it – now resplendent with a golden, pastry-topped venison pie. I arrived at the French class the following day laden with my pie and the Pavlova. The layered meringue, cream and fruit dessert was warmly received and needed no explanation. The appearance of a venison pie was altogether different and an explanation, given in particularly demanding French, followed.
Explaining the meaning of the English expression ‘to eat humble pie’ was relatively easy, as was the story of how I was prompted to do just this as a way of apologising for my rudeness to Sophia the week before. Much more difficult was an explanation of the origin of the expression, of the most unexpected association between the pie and a now defunct word in the French language, and of my consequent choice of venison as a filler. But here roughly is what I said, all based on Internet searches.
Years ago, our forebears, when showing remorse for some misdeed, would be expected to eat food made not of fine meats but of chopped offal – such as the heart, liver, lungs or kidneys, particularly of deer. In those days, these minced parts were referred to in French as the ‘nomble’. In English this became ‘omble’ and later ‘humble’. Humble pie was thus made from deer meat, and to make this dish more palatable, I referred to it as venison pie, the dish served to my French class.
This explanation for the name, and my most tortuous way of apologising, were accepted by the class. My humble pie was eaten enthusiastically, with some self-proclaimed gourmets in the group praising it warmly. But there was one problem. Although she had promised to attend, Sophia, the inadvertent inspiration for the dish, had failed to arrive. So it seems she does exercise her right to chose after all!