Now Serving: Memories of a Convent Girl

There’s a frightening episode of the old Outer Limits TV show where, if memory serves me correctly, a few people enter an innocent-looking house. The rooms turn out to comprise a maze and by the time they figure out how to escape, 100 years have elapsed. Perfectly preserved while they remained within the confines of the house, as soon as they set foot outdoors they turn to dust.

Maybe I remember the episode so vividly because it reminded me of my time served at the Browning School for boys. I attended the East 62nd Street school for 13 years, from kindergarten through 12th grade. And at times it seemed I’d never get out. In fact, some of the faculty didn’t. There are people teaching there today who were teaching there when I graduated in 1971.

As much as I received a good education at Browning, I suspect the school’s cramped quarters-there were 250 of us in a building not much larger than a brownstone (the school is more spacious today)-may have permanently affected my psyche. Shortly after I graduated from college, I had a nightmare in which I was forced to attend graduate school at Browning and sit at the same tiny desk I occupied in kindergarten.

Perhaps it’s because of such fears that I’ve admired from afar the career of Colette Rossant, the author of eight cookbooks and a recently published memoir, Memories of a Lost Egypt (Clarkson Potter).

Madame Rossant, as she was known to us, is living proof that there’s life after Browning. She taught French at the school for five years during the 1960’s. She was 23 when she arrived, a redheaded, small-boned beauty with attitude, and her impact on Browning’s female-starved male population was dramatic.

“It was very nice to have all these young boys like you,” Colette reminisced when we got together in the garden of her SoHo town house a couple of weeks ago, the first time I’d seen her in more than three decades. I’d picked up a copy of her memoir, was frankly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and gave her a call.

“They were 17,” she continued, speaking of a class she taught that her love-struck students nicknamed “Nirvana.” “I looked 19. The seniors used to write me essays in French and, ‘by mistake,’ put a love note in their homework.”

She enjoyed Browning’s overprivileged parents as much as their children. Madame Rossant recalled the time a student, a Rockefeller she tutored, became so attached to her that his dad, the governor of Arkansas, offered to send a plane if Madame Rossant would spend Christmas vacation with the family. “I became the glorified baby sitter for something like $100 an hour,” she remembers. “However, I was married and had a child so I wasn’t going to go.”

One of her favorite students was Timothy Crouse, who went on to write The Boys on the Bus , a seminal work of journalism about the press corps during the 1972 Presidential campaign. “His mother was very nice,” Colette recalled, “and also his love notes were the most interesting.”

I was in the lower school at the time and my memories of my French teacher are less passionate. I remember her red hair, her delicate features, which often seemed to be arranged in a disapproving sneer, and my own utter helplessness in the face of the French language. I suspect Madame Rossant would have flunked me were it not for my mother, who spoke French and did my homework for me. My family wasn’t big on self-reliance, so I’d give her the assignment before I went to bed and find it completed the next morning, waiting only for me to transcribe it into my own handwriting.

The elaborate gifts I handed out to the faculty at Christmastime also didn’t hurt my grade-point average. Apparently, we weren’t the only family who resorted to graft. “When Christmas came,” Colette remembered fondly, “I came home with six shopping bags. I got so much stationery from Tiffany’s I returned them all for a silver bracelet.”

Memories of a Lost Egypt , recipes included, is the beautifully told story of Colette’s childhood and of her relationship with her self-involved, widowed, French Catholic mother who abandoned her in Egypt during World War II with her wealthy Jewish in-laws. Colette was 6 at the time.

The little girl quickly adapted to her exotic new surroundings, spending a lot of time in the kitchen with Ahmet the cook, where she apparently picked up the fundamentals of her future career. Her grandparents’ mansion, their elaborate Egyptian dinners that featured dishes such as stuffed squab, babaghanouj, marrowbones with onion confit and apricot pudding (recipes all included), the trips to Cairo’s teeming markets with servants in tow, and summers spent on the banks of the Nile, are recounted in loving detail.

Unfortunately, Colette’s briefly charmed life was cut short when her mother returned unannounced to Cairo one day, after another of her typically long absences, decided she was ready to resume raising her daughter, quickly got bored, and put her in a convent school. The book doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of Madame Rossant’s mother.

“The anger is still there,” her daughter admitted. “I wrote the book to get rid of the anger, to understand my relationship to Catholicism and Judaism, and because I felt my children should understand why I am such a hands-on mother. I thought the book would be an exorcism.”

Perhaps even more surprising to me-and, I suspect, to my fellow Browning Boys-than our French teacher’s troubled childhood is the fact that she was married and making babies the entire time she taught at Browning. The book ends with her meeting and falling in love with James Rossant, a young American architect. In fact, Colette told me she got fired from Browning for being pregnant once too often. She has four children, the oldest of whom is now 40.

Her career as a food writer started when she met Alice Trillin, the wife of writer Calvin Trillin, after Madame Rossant left Browning and went to teach French at Hofstra University, where Ms. Trillin was a member of the English faculty. Calvin praised Colette’s cooking in his book Alice, Let’s Eat and she started receiving queries from publishers asking whether she could write.

Her cookbooks include The After-Five Gourmet and Cooking With Colette for Children , which was turned into a TV series on PBS. She also did a stint as New York magazine’s Underground Gourmet during the 70’s, and writes a food advice column for the Daily News , Ask Colette.

Memories of a Lost Egypt has gone into a second printing and Ms. Rossant is writing the second installment of her memoir, which starts when she arrives in the United States. “Which means the Browning School is in it,” she promised.

Undoubtedly, it will become a best seller among Browning Boys of a certain age and their teachers. She recalled an incident when she returned for a reunion a few years ago and a love-struck and slightly intoxicated fellow former faculty member approached her.

“He made me a whole speech that I was this sex symbol in the school,” she recalled. “However, I was so uppity-duppity, as he put it, that I was a disgrace, so unapproachable.”

As delicately as possible, I asked whether she ever did anything intentional to beguile her students. “No,” she stated firmly. “I’m a convent girl.”