Caveman Foodies

Adjusting to France, French Food

I remember going to a French restaurant once, back when I was living in D.C. This place was pretty fancy and all the staff was actually French, so when I ordered my steak “rare” the friends I was with spoke up.

“Oh, you don’t want to do that here,” they told me. “If you get it ‘rare’ here then it will be fully raw in the middle. You should ask for ‘medium’ and that will be like a normal ‘rare.’”

“What?” I asked. “No, I’m pretty sure I want it ‘rare.’”

The waiter smiled, silently waiting for confirmation from me. I nodded up towards him, “rare,” I said again. My friends went on to order their steaks, both “medium-well.”

“You know,” I say to them, after they ordered. “When you ask for it prepared like that, they give you the worst cut of meat in the kitchen.”

They rolled their eyes at me.

“Whatever, Vampira,” my friend had said. “Just, don’t complain to us when yours comes out bloody.”

I definitely did not. When that filet mignon (this is filet de boeuf for les Francais) came and I cut into it and the middle was blue and cold, I couldn’t have been happier. My friends looked at it and shook their heads, ready to give me the “I told you so speech” but it was too late, I had already taken a huge bite.

“OH my god,” they said. “You are so gross, it isn’t even cooked.”

“I know,” I said, delighted. “It’s perfect!”

For years, I had been struggling to fully explain that when I say “rare” I mean “rare” – as in, wave a flame towards its general direction and then bring that sucker to me. Unfortunately, no one in the U.S. seemed to believe me (even my Father will argue this point with me…”you don’t want it that ‘rare,’” he’ll tell me as I ask him to pull my steak off the grill after 15 seconds…yeah Dad, I TOTES do).

The thing is, that essentially, I think it is a pity to cook meat at all, really; my friend was right, I am a bit of a Vampira and like my meat to just about talk to me. Luckily, my raw meat fixation seems to be something that France and I agree on. There is a plethora of raw meat options here, ranging from tartars to saucisson…you can even double your raw pleasure by adding raw eggs.

In the United States, it seems like the raw meat trend has just started taking off in recent years, due to the (super-awesome-I’m-so-excited-about-it) Foodie Revolution. When I was growing up, and even when I was at University, people were just not ingesting much raw meat. In fact, the only time in my U.S. life when I regularly ate it was at home. My Mother would pinch off a piece of ground beef*, salt it lightly and then hand it to us to eat. This was something that her Mother had done when she was little and, to me, it seemed perfectly normal, once I got older I realized it definitely wasn’t.

“Oh my god,” my friends would shriek. “What did you just do? Did you just eat a piece of raw ground beef? You. Are. Going. To. Die.”

It was always said very matter-of-factly. Raw meat = death. I mean, OBVI.

However, after a few more times of me doing this and, well…not-dying, my friends started to become curious and soon started trying it themselves (in fact, there is one friend who got obsessed and became as bad as me…you know who you are).

I pretty much think this is how a lot of the food we eat came about. Some dude would look at an artichoke or walnut and think, “I’m gonna eat that thing” and then everyone else would wait around to see whether or not it killed him. I even imagine, Cavemen foodies…something like this:

Two Cavemen enter an already crowded cave.

Caveman 1: Oh my, must we stay? It is so crowded.

Caveman 2: That is because it is the best. They do an amazing “hunk o’ meat over fire.”

Caveman 1 sighs.

Caveman 1: I still like mine raw, that’s all I’m saying.

Caveman 2: Oh come off it! We’ve finally gotten fire, we might as well use it! Live a little, old sport.

They sit down in an obliging corner and wait for their server.

Caveman 1: My goodness, they’re very bold, aren’t they?

He is looking at a group squatting next to them, eating mixed berries just as the Server arrives.

Caveman Server: Ah yes, a discerning eye you have, that is our “mass of mixed berries” that is new on the menu tonight.

Caveman 1: Isn’t that a little risky? I mean, shouldn’t they all be “checked.”

Caveman Server: Sir, I assure you, that everything in our establishment passes “the death test.” However…

He leans down and lowers his voice.

Caveman Server: If something a bit more “exotic” interests you, we have come across some new items that we are trying out this evening…something called a “rutabaga?”

Caveman 2: Are you saying you can get me stuff that hasn’t passed the “death test” yet?

The Caveman Server winks surreptitiously.

Caveman 2: Pally, come on, we gotta do it, please!

Caveman 1: No way! I only jive with “death test” approved cuisine.

Caveman 2: Oh, how you bore me. You have no appreciation for food, it is utterly wasted on you.

Caveman 1: That is not what you said when I took down a Mammoth 3 days ago.

Caveman 2: And then ate it raw, like some philistine!

Caveman 1: What is a philistine?

Caveman 2: I don’t know, they don’t exist yet but it is, most certainly, what you are.

Caveman 2 sighs and turns towards the Server with a knowing look that says, “Some people, you can’t take anywhere.” The Server smiles back.

Caveman Server: And what will Sirs be having?

Caveman 1: I would like the hunk ‘o meat…raw, please.

Caveman Server: The Chef does recommend this particular cut “a feu,” if you will.

Caveman 1: Thank you, but no. I like my meat the old fashioned way, raw, the way we were meant to eat it.

Caveman 2 rolls his eyes and then orders before turning back to his friend.

Caveman 2: You know, when you order it prepared like that they give you the worst cut in the kitchen.

 

* I am not recommending this practice with bargain basement, meat on sale. If you are going to eat raw meat, you should either grind it yourself at home or watch the butcher freshly grind it.

 

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A Simple Dimple: My Ode to Cellulite

French Food

I am standing in the kitchen at a friend’s house watching as he prepares a huge pot of fondue.

“Ehermergerd,” I say, “It looks SO good.”

“Yeah,” my friend responds glumly.  “But not exactly fat free, huh?”

“Oauis,” I reply.  “I don’t even care anymore.  In fact, I think I’ve kind of grown to like my cellulite.”

“Quoi?!”  A female friend jumps in, having overheard our conversation.

“I don’t know,” I say.  “I guess I’ve started feeling attached to it.”

She is looking at me like I am crazy…which is fair enough.

“Like, years from now if I don’t live here anymore I can look at my thigh and think “ah yes, that is my French cellulite.”

She laughs but it is in the “you are being weird so I will humor you” way.  I shrug – what can I say?  I’ve become zen with my dimples.

***

I like to eat which works well in France since the French are a people who also like to eat (I know this is a lot of new information to handle at once).  I am always comfortable and welcomed (the French version of being welcomed so, you know…toned down) when I enter a party or arrive for dinner ready to try everything and “ooh” and “ahh” over the food.  It is my primary “in” with French society – they love anyone who is enthusiastic about their cuisine.  However, there are some drawbacks as I have discussed before.

These days, I have figured out how to manage my FFFC (French Fatty Food Consumption).  I’ve realized that “um, I live here and I don’t need to eat everything all at once and constantly” which has been great for the waistline; however, recently I have noticed that some damage just can’t be undone.  There are some things in the FFFC repertoire (foie gras, pate, cheese) that one’s body simply can’t ignore no matter how moderate the intake.  At first, these noticeable changes really bothered me:  “Cellulite, Quelle Horreur!”  But now, I have come to realize that really my cellulite is like a sexy badge of honor, I mean, I feel a little romantic about it.

“Heeeeey Cellulite, how you doin’?”

“Oh you know,” Cellulite says, coyly, flashing me a dimple.  “Just hanging around.”

“Why don’t you let me take you out?  We’ll go to the beach where I can show you off, guuurl!”

A note:  I have no idea why me talking to my cellulite sounds like an early 90’s white rapper.  Apparently the world and my fellow women should all be happy I wasn’t born a dude because my game is sounding pretty sad.

Okay – so it goes something like that.

Point being, I’ve just decided that my cellulite (and other various body issues…don’t even get me started on stretch marks) just isn’t that big of a deal.  I mean, did you know that somewhere between 80-90% of post-pubescent women have it?  (No, I don’t know who those 10% who don’t are, I pretty sure they are like Rainbow Unicorns…I’ve certainly never seen one)  That means that it should be like a rite of passage, proof that you have had a life, that you survived teenage years – I mean, my god, who on earth would trade in cellulite for having to been a teen?  Dimples are definitely the better end of that bargain (apologies to any teenage readers but don’t worry, you’ll get it in about 10 years).  Basically, it is the visible evidence that you have lived some life and are interesting (people who never indulge in yummy food are boring – BAM –truth gun).

So, today, I embrace my cellulite, it kind of makes me smile and remember all the great food that I’ve eaten with great friends during great moments in my life – it is a mark upon my body…but a mark doesn’t necessarily mean a blemish, does it?

So Cellulite, this one’s for you:

An Ode to Cellulite

Rippling waves of dimpled flesh can leave me feeling quite bereft,

Squeezing, pulling, squats galore and still, each day, I find some more.

Yet as I sit and contemplate this state…suddenly, my heart inflates.

Perhaps this unsightly mark against beauty should be embraced by any true foodie.

A swath of fat above my knees to remind me of a Burgundian cheese,

A Parisian dinner caressing my thigh and taking me back to a night gone by,

A plumped buttocks from cassoulet…the evening we met and talked the night away,

Foie gras with confit and magret canard, raclette in winter and pommes de terres in lard,

Memories of moments mapped out on my skin, why should I fight it, perhaps they should win?

It could be inner thighs that flop with vigor indeed present a nicer figure

Than those that stay in shapely place, never rubbing or losing face…

For never having known glorious taste.

***

Apologies for the extra-long sabbatical.  Bread is Pain should be back up and running with normal posts from now on.  I hope that all of you had a glorious New Year! Cheers!

 

 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Cultural Differences, French Food

“What tha…why is there a potato on that tombstone,” I turn, looking at MB questioningly.  We are on a tour of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

“Quoi,” he asks, looking towards the grave, apparently he doesn’t know why either.

“Ah,” our tour guide walks over and joins us, bringing the rest of the group.  “This is the grave of Parmentier, the man who introduced potatoes into French cuisine.”

As always, I am amazed at thinking about how much cuisine changed after the discovery of the Americas (I still have trouble handling the idea of Italian food without tomatoes).

“In Parmentier’s time,” he continues, “the late 18th century, it was thought in France that the potato was poisonous to humans and it was used solely for feeding livestock.  However, after a stint in a Prussian prison, Parmentier came to realize that it was not poisonous and became determined to bring the potato to French tables.”

“Was that difficult,” I am incredulous.  I mean, at this point in time, the Irish were eating them, the (P)Russians* (clearly) were eating them, the Americans were eating them…what was there to prove?  They obviously were not poisonous to human beings.

The tour guide looks at me like I understand nothing.  “Of course,” he says.

“But why,” I press on, “if so many people in other countries were already eating them?”

He chooses to ignore this question and instead turns to address the entire group.  “Actually, it is a very good story.  Apparently,” he says, walking over and placing his hand on the grave.  “He met with such opposition that he had to manufacture a trap to get people to change their minds.”

I look over at MB, “a trap,” I mouth the words to him as dramatically as possible.

“He set guards up at his storage facilities but allowed them to accept bribes for the potatoes, hefty bribes.  Then, at night, he would send the guards home so that people could steal them.”

I burst out laughing and the guide gives me a stern look, then turns and leads our tour towards another tomb.

***

This story, to me, is so quintessentially French, stubbornness mixed with the inherent desire to break rules.   I can just imagine the conversations of people over the potato:

“But non, it is disgusting, it will kill you. It is for the pigs, not for us,” one man says, looking at this friend.

“OH really,” his friend responds.  “I just had some the other night and they were delicious, a revelation, really.”  He shrugs and takes a sip of his wine nonchalantly as though it were no big deal.

“QUOI,” the first man exclaims.  “How is it that you tried them?  They are not for sale,” the health hazards are suddenly no longer the priority.

His friend leans in across the table, conspiratorially.  “I bribed a guard,” he sits back in his chair, satisfied, for no Frenchman can resist pulling one over on “the man.”

“Non!”

“Oui!”

“Non!”

“OUI!”

“Ben bah, we must do it again tonight – I must try these potatoes!”

The French are a people who have been heavily stereotyped.

There are books, articles, heaps of Mark Twain quotes (that dude did not like the French) which all discuss the subject.  One stereotype that is often brought up is their irritability towards change (…stubbornness, I was trying to make it sound nice).  And I suppose there is some truth to it, they do, indeed, like a lot of things to remain the same (Sundays) and are happy to protest change vehemently…especially when the weather is nice.  I mean, heck, even the French Bulldog (quite possibly one of the cutest dogs of all time) is considered by breeders to be a particularly stubborn breed – that’s right, even their dog is stubborn. But is it really an inherently French thing or is it just an inherently human thing?  Are they really any more stubborn or change-resistant than the rest of us?

I mean, what American over thirty doesn’t remember the “New Coke” debacle?  I’m pretty sure even Parmentier’s trick wouldn’t have changed our minds about that wretched marketing failure.  There are few of us that run screaming with excitement towards the unknown…towards big changes, the French are no exception but also, I’m not convinced they are the rule.  Just like everywhere else change is accepted slowly here, over time, as people become acquainted with it.

So, in reality, the French really aren’t any more stubborn than the rest of us.

***

MB and I hurry and catch up with our group.  As we approach the guide he is in a conversation with one of the French tourists.

“But Monsieur,” says the French man to our guide.  “Actually, the toxicity of the potato has been proved by multiple research and… well, so, in fact, the French were correct to ban it, the potato is poisonous!”

MB and I turn back to each other and exchange a look of bemusement.

***

…Okay, so maybe just little a bit.

* For those of you unfamiliar with Prussia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussia

 

 

 

 

For the Love of Food

Adjusting to France, Life in General, Uncategorized

“Look what I have!!!!!!!!!”  I come bouncing into the kitchen with my grocery sacks.

MB turns around to see what I have brought him, no doubt expecting cheese or a spreadable meat or, at the very least, some sort of internal organ like gesiers.  He looks very excited, anticipating whatever delightful thing I have found at the store.  We are food people – food makes us happy.

“BAM,” I say with satisfaction as I hold out the small white paper package.

MB deflates.

“What is this?” He takes the package from me and looks at it, confused and slightly disgusted.  “I don’t understand, is this fish flavored crackers?”  He makes a face.

I laugh…silly Frenchman.  “No, they are goldfish crackers.  They have different flavors, like cheese or pizza, or sometimes they can come as pretzel goldfish.”

He seems comforted to know they are not fish flavored but still confused.  “But then, why are they shaped like fish?”

“What?”

“Why they are shaped like fish if they don’t taste like fish?”

I ponder this for a moment.  “I don’t know, they just—UGH—I’m not sharing any!”  I snatch the package back from him in a huff…he has ruined my goldfish cracker moment by pointing out that it is totally bizarre that they even exist.

“No, I’m sorry,” he begins.  “I want to try them!”  He seems desperate now that he realizes he may be about to miss something incredible (like the Kraft Mac and Cheese experience…I will always regret letting him try it since now I always have to share).

“We’ll see,” I say with a smile, clutching them to my chest.  “This is the first time I’ve ever found them here!”

***

Okay, now let me be clear, I am not obsessed with goldfish crackers or anything.  I mean, I like them, they are a tasty treat but it’s not like my favorite cracker of all time (that would be Triscuits…obviously, is there even another option?), but there is something thrilling about finding a home product when you are overseas.  It’s like getting a high five from your native land.

“What’s up, USA – appreciate the shout-out!”

“Word,” responds USA, slapping my palm. 

(This is how USA and I talk.)

When you are expat, you will get excited even about home products that you aren’t really into.  For instance, I don’t like Dr. Pepper (or any soft drinks actually) but it still makes me happy when I see it and I will tell every American expat about where I found it. Another example is the friend of mine who left an exuberant post on Facebook about finding cottage cheese.  That’s right, you just read the word “exuberant” in reference to cottage cheese.  I was so stoked that I ran right out to the store she mentioned and then called her in a panic when I couldn’t find it.

“What does it look like,” I demand into the telephone.  “I’m standing with the cheeses.”

“It’s green,” she says, “It’s Jockey brand.  It is with the yogurts.”

“The YOGURTS,” dread creeps over me.  “I’ll never find it on the yogurt aisle!”  The yogurt aisle in France is epic (salty dogs chocolate frogs).

After a few minutes of her talking me through it I find the outrageously priced cottage cheese and feel a surge of energy course through me.  “Victory is mine!  Cottage Cheese for dinner tonight, muhahahahahaha!”

I have never before or since had quite such an emotional reaction to cottage cheese.

But I have had many emotional reactions to food before.   During our honeymoon in Italy, I remember sitting at a particularly fantastic meal and telling MB that the food made me feel even more in love with him…and it was the truth.  There was some portal of emotion inside of me that the meal opened up, just as tasting an old recipe of your Grandmother’s might bring a tear to your eye or how the first bite of something deliciously sinful can make you grin (or moan if you are that type…you know who you are, you sexy food-moaners).  And it doesn’t have to just be in the eating, I love cooking for people as well, taking the time and effort to put together a creative and delicious meal to share with friends around the table is one of the great joys in life.

I know there are the “fuel for the body” people but I will just never understand that.  In fact, I remember the first time someone told me that food was just fuel for the body…I never invited them to dinner again.  Why would I want to share a meal with someone who doesn’t appreciate the beauty, the majesty, and the soul’s connection with food?

Food, whether it is typical grocery store fare that allows you to time-travel to your childhood or a 5 star meal that makes your senses dance – is emotion.

***

And so, with that being said, starting next week I will be rolling out the Bread is Pain Food blog sharing some of my favorite recipes and dinner party ideas.  Everything from the simplest party dip to the menu for a 7 course dinners.  I hope you will come and check it out!

Here is a clip from the penultimate food movie: “Babette’s Feast” (in a close 2nd is “Like Water for Chocolate”). It is a long clip but perfectly elucidates the “fuel for the body” people vs. the “food is emotion” people. Enjoy!

No Flowery Dirt

French Food

My Mother is in town visiting and we are in the kitchen on her first night.  I’ve prepared some French treats and bought some of my favorite cheeses for her to try.  The first one I give her to taste is Brillat-Savarin à la Truffe (Brillat-Savarin with Truffles).

“What’s it like,” she asks me before trying it.

“Hmmm…” I ponder the best way to describe it.  “Well, Brillat-Savarin is like a breath away from being butter so it’s kind of like the best butter you’ve ever eaten with truffles in it.”

“What are the truffles like?”

She’s had truffles on multiple occasions but wants to know what these truffles are like.

“I don’t know,” I say, I can’t think of the right way to describe them.  “…truffles!”

This is a conversation that I have often and continue to fail miserably at; whether it is friends from overseas wanting to know what something tastes like or someone visiting who wants a description about what to order, I am often at a loss.  I mean, how do you describe a food to someone who has never tasted it?

You can go the literal route but that usually doesn’t get you very far:

What does fromage de tete (aka head cheese) taste like?  Pieces of skull meat in gelatin.

Not helpful?  So surprising!

There is the rico-suave way to do it where you try to sound very sophisticated…and are usually annoying and give no helpful details:

Horse meat?  Well, it’s similar to beef but with more depth of character while also having a playfulness.

Huh?  Is this horse wine we are talking about?

There is the literal comparison route:

So, frog legs do taste like chicken but then not like chicken.

What does that even mean?  Have you gleaned any greater understanding of the flavor of frog legs from this?

Then you can go the hard-core route in which you really break it down:

For example, when my sister was visiting last year, she commented on one of the cheeses we were about to try.

“Is this one of those cheeses that they like to say is “reminiscent of the farm?”  She asks this while sniffing the soft white round.  (This is the type of description that would be “rico-suave”)

“Yeah, probably, it is a super farmy one.”  I turn up my nose and she gives me a questioning look.  “MB likes them but I can’t handle it if they are too farmy.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know; if it is too farmy I feel like I’m licking a sheep that has been rolling around in hay and poo.”

Hardcore route.

So I never know exactly what to tell people.  If it is something I love I want to use the most flowery and delicious-sounding language to try to entice them to try it; I want to make them desperately excited to experience this new and exquisite flavor.  I want to impress upon them the utter amazing-ness that they are about to discover.  But is it necessary to try so hard?

I once had a friend tell me that his foie-gras tasted like buttered popcorn.  I remember looking at him and thinking “ACK – PHILISTINE!”  How could he describe the rich and magnificent flavors of foie-gras in such a pedestrian way?  …And then I tasted it.  I had to smile to myself; he had absolutely nailed it.  This particular preparation of foie-gras was definitely “reminiscent of the movie theatre”; however, my inner food-snob had been working so hard to make it sound impressive that I had missed the obvious.

Sometimes it is best to just describe things as what they are instead of trying to make them sound more sophisticated.  At the end of the day, everything comes from the same place anyway.  Why try to over-complicate it?

I turn back to my Mother in the kitchen, still struggling to think of the words to describe the majesty and the beauty of the flavor of Brillat-Savarin à la Truffe.  Words like “earthy” and “terroir” are running through my head when she takes her bite.

She turns to me with a look of excitement on her face.

“Ooooh,” she exclaims.  “It’s like really good dirt!”

I nod to myself and smile.  She is exactly right…and that sounds pretty damn tasty to me.

Freaking Out Frenchie

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences

So the other night MB and I were sitting watching an episode of French Masterchef.  The contestants were in the middle of a challenge in which they had to create a thin hollow ball made of out sugar (not exactly like the BBQ challenges of US Masterchef).  In one part of the challenge it was necessary to roll out and work the hot sugar “dough” which is at a dangerously high temperature, they have to wear special gloves.  One contestant is working his dough and talking about how hot it is and how you must be very careful.  The contestant next to him then accidentally sticks her naked elbow into the dough and lets out a scream.

His response…without so much as an eyebrow flutter:  “Mais…voila.”  As the girl next to him clutches her burned flesh he shrugs and returns to his work.

It is hard to fluster a French person.

The French are not big reactors when unusual things occur but instead just take them as though they were the most normal thing in the world.  When walking home in last weekend’s bizarre snow storm we saw a man in a car that was stuck.  MB went to go and help him and within moments the next few people who walked by did the same.  There were no introductions or laughs or camaraderie…no one ever said “woah, what happened?”  They just calmly set down their grocery bags and walked over and did it before continuing on their way.

“Quoi?”

In the US it would have been a conversation, hands would have been shaken, huge thanks would have been given and later that night the guys who helped would have told their families.  It wouldn’t have been a big deal or anything but a mini-event, something interesting and noteworthy in an otherwise standard day.

The uber blasé-ness of the French is something that I have noticed for a while now and that I get no small amount of amusement from.  I mean, I love it when something bizarre happens on the street and no one reacts.  Am I the only one seeing this?  And not to give to many plugs to Masterchef but it provides another excellent example.  In the US or Australia version, when people find out that they have made it past auditions there is great excitement and enthusiasm – sometimes awkward and rambunctious hugs.  In the French version there will be a nice dignified smile and a “thank-you”, luke-warm excitement at best.  Wait?  Where is the lady who falls to her knees and praises Jesus?  NOT in France.

Recently, however, I have discovered the Achilles’ heel of the French blasé.

In French class last week, our professor was asking us questions about daily routine and life.  The question came up of what do you have for breakfast.  Two of the students answered that they didn’t have breakfast.  Instead of shrugging (“ouais”) and continuing on with the lesson, he stopped…horrified.

“Wait, you understand what I asked, yes?  What is it that you eat for your breakfast today?”

“I didn’t have breakfast today.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I never have breakfast.”

“Never?!?!?”

“No, don’t like it.”

“But…I…what?”

This conversation went on for about 15 minutes while the teacher continued to flip out about lack of breakfast eating.

Later that week, MB and I started discussing how different life will be if we ever decide to have children.  We were talking about an upcoming dinner party and considering how different entertaining would be with children in the house (different, terrifying…however you want to describe it).  I mentioned that instead of a long aperitif before dinner we would need to try to have the dinner more quickly and then have drinks afterwards so the kids could go off to play, sleep, what have you.

ME: Yeah, I mean, god, do you remember being like 4 or 5 years old and stuck at your parents parties?  Horror!

MB: Yes, but I mean you don’t need to get rid of aperitif.

ME:  Well, I don’t mean get rid of it but just you know…like a half hour instead of an hour or hour and half and then just hang for drinks after.  It would just be easier for little ones’ attention spans.

MB: You can’t just change your life for your child!

ME:  Um…dude, a child is going to change your life.

MB:  But you have to set some boundaries, no?

ME: Of course, but I’m talking about shortening aperitif not getting them ten puppies.

MB: I don’t think it would be necessary; the kids would be fine for an hour beforehand.

ME: SERIOUSLY?  Do you really not remember being a kid stuck with boring adult conversations, and oh my god, an HOUR?  Think about how long an hour is when you are 5…it is FOREVER!  (I can feel a panic attack washing over me as post-traumatic stress from childhood comes back)

MB:  But they need to learn.

ME:  Remember that they wouldn’t be having drinks during that hour.  It’s not even fair.

This gives him pause.

The conversation continued for about 10 minutes with increased vigor until we realized that we were talking about a completely made up situation involving non-existent children (yes, it took us 15 minutes to realize it was a pointless disagreement to be having).  But I was struck afterwards about how vehemently MB protected his aperitif…even against all reason and practicality.  He was…flustered.

“You may take my life but you will never take my aperitif!”

Just like my French professor he was irrationally unnerved by the idea of food/beverage/dining protocol being disrupted.  Park sideways on the middle of a sidewalk?  No one will bat an eyelash.  But dare to upset the “naturel” state of drinking and eating and you will definitely freak out a Frenchie.

Life and Foie Gras

French Food, Uncategorized

“So what do you think?”

MB and I are whispering in the kitchen.

“I mean, I guess we could,” he says.

“Is it too much?  Maybe it is too much.”  I am feeling doubtful as I look over at my guests.

“Well, it is probably too much but who cares?”

This seems like a good point and I grab the jar of foie gras out of the cupboard.  A friend of mine from the U.S. is staying with is for one night with two of his ski buddies that I have just met.  Even though they are not hungry and we are going to fondue later that evening, I cannot resist the urge to ply them with French goodies.  I have already put out a cheese plate and now I am pulling out a bottle of sauterne and onion confit for the foie gras.

“Wait!  We don’t have baguette!”  MB says.

“That’s okay,” I say, throwing on my coat.  “I will go and buy some!”

MB looks at me incredulously.

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s totally fine, you stay here and drink wine.  I’ll be right back.”

MB can’t believe his luck; this never happens.

Normally, to get me to leave the house at night time when it is about -10˚C (7˚F) there would need to be some sort of disaster, maybe there is a burglar or a fire…even then, it is possible I would choose death over being cold (depending on how much wine I have consumed).  However, the mere notion of being able to serve foie gras for the first time to two people I’ve never met has me shooting out of the house like some sort of weird food-oriented super hero (maybe with an “FG” logo on my unitard…and a slight pot belly).

Upon return from the bakery, I crack open the foie gras and pour the wine.  I watch, expectantly as our two guests try their first ever bit of foie gras.  Casually I take a sip of my wine, acting as though I don’t care at all whether or not they think it is totally amazing.

Slowly, one of them begins to speak.  “It’s-,” he breaks off and takes another bite.  “It’s not what I expected.”

“Not what you expected good or not what you expected bad?”  My voice sounds tense as I desperately try to keep my cool disinterest.

“Definitely, definitely not what I expected in a good way.”

MUHAHAHAHA!  SUCCESS!

I’m thrilled.

Throughout my entire life, I have cherished the moments when I’ve been able to watch someone else enjoy something that I, too, have enjoyed.  It’s like sharing a wonderful secret.  Once, in a book store a lady exclaimed loudly at me in excited terms about a book that I was considering buying, her family looked at her aghast at her show of enthusiasm towards a completely random individual; but I totally got it.  One of the most wonderful gifts of our existence is to share the things that give us joy.  It’s the reason your neighbor comes to make you fondue, or why you take your parents to your favorite spot in a new town, it’s why you sit through a movie you’ve seen a million times just so someone else can see it for the first, and it’s why, with a migraine headache in -10˚ weather, you will run out to buy baguette for two brand new acquaintances.

Fromage Part III: Satisfaction

French Food

“Oh, I’ve had fondue.  I don’t really like it that much…all that melted cheese, phew, sort of makes me sick.”

MB and our Savoyard neighbor (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Savoyard) look at me strangely.  They are not shocked or saddened by this statement…just thoroughly confused.   MB doesn’t comprehend anyone who doesn’t like to eat cheese…basically all the time, and for a Savoyard, fondue is essential to existence.  I can see their minds turning, “surely, she just doesn’t know what it is that she is saying!”  After a few awkward moments, our (rather shy) neighbor pipes up.

“You have not had it right.”

“I made it for her once,” says MB.

“Yes, but you are from Paris.”  Our neighbor says this matter-of-factly and with no quantifying statement; the facts speak for themselves.*

MB gives a laugh.  “This is true.  I think she just does not care for it though.”

“I don’t know,” I say.   “I mean, lots of melted cheese just isn’t my favorite thing.”  I shrug, innocently.  “What are ya gonna do?”  Obviously, my folksy charm will smooth all discomfort from the room.

“Next week, I will come over and make you a right one,” our neighbor says.

With this statement he gets up from his chair and says good night.  The sentence has been handed-down.

I look at MB, “it’s just melted cheese, how much different can it be?”

MB just smiles.

The following week, with frightening punctuality, our neighbor shows up at our door, equipment in hand.  He has brought three different cheeses, bread from the bakery, and his own fondue pot (apparently ours was not “right”).  I watch him setting up and think, “ah well, I’m sure it will be interesting”.  The next 45 minutes are spent sitting on the balcony with a glass of wine, cutting all the cheese into tiny little pieces.

“You want it to melt evenly and you can control better the amount of each cheese this way,” our neighbor explains to me.

Afterwards, he takes half a clove of garlic and rubs it along the inside of the fondue pot, before throwing it and another whole clove into the bottom.  Next he pours a moderate amount of wine into the bottom of the pan.

“Oh, so you do this differently.  When MB made it he used a lot more wine.”

The neighbor just smiles and gives himself a knowing nod.  I can sense him rolling his eyes and thinking “ah, silly Parisians!”

Finally, the cheese is added to the pot.  Creamy, oily, pungent…the slow mélange of tart, dry wine with rich, bold cheeses is awesome; it finds its way into my olfactory senses whispering the rumor of things to come.

As we sit at the table and I spear my first chunk of bread, a hush falls on our little group.  The neighbor watches nervously, not for the integrity of the dish but nervous as to whether he properly honored his regions most famous plate.  I roll my bread in the white velvet heat, slowly bringing it to my mouth.

It is a life changing moment.  The taste is indescribable in its beauty.  The serotonin rushes to my brain and I have the bizarre inclination to start laughing.

“I love it!”  I proclaim.  “It’s so…so…I don’t know.  I love it.  Wow.”  A fondue has made me speechless.

MB digs in and I go to spear my next piece of bread.  I look up and see the neighbor watching me, deep satisfaction on his face.

Once the fondue is almost completely gone we throw in a few pieces of bread and crack an egg which then forms the most delicious omelet I have ever had.  At the very end there are brown, crunchy, cooked lattices of cheese on the bottom of the pot which we scrape off and eat like spun sugar.  There is almost no clean up because we have consumed every single part of the dish.  It has been an evolution of cheese.

A love affair with food can be tempestuous.  Just as a good meal can make me elated and excited, a bad meal can bring feelings of depression and irritation.  When I cook for others, these feelings are compounded further; it is horrible to make something that you love and you know can be wonderful and not have it turn out the way you know it can.  I have spent nights awake in bed, analyzing small things that I did wrong or should have done differently when preparing a meal for others; just as I have had long peaceful nights of rest knowing that I had nourished body and soul.

As my neighbor leaves that evening he looks satisfied and happy; he has made a believer and I suspect that he will sleep very well.

 

* As a born and bred Southerner, from a particularly intense BBQ city, I fully comprehend this attitude.

The Romance of a Sale

Holidays in France

I love sales.  Love them.  I will buy things that I don’t really find attractive or things that I absolutely do not need based solely on the fact that they are on sale.  As a dear friend of mine puts it “really, by not buying it you are losing money because it is such a good deal!”  (RIGHT?!)   This statement pretty much sums up my feelings when I see something marked down.  “Why look!  It’s a goose leash!  We don’t have a goose, I know, but one day we might and come on, honey, it’s 70% off!” 

This is why the time just after Christmas is particularly dangerous for me.  In fact, if Santa really had my best interest at heart, he would drop off the gifts and steal my credit card on his way up the chimney.  But alas, year after year, I buy ill-fitting sweaters and boots that I’ll only wear once because of ridiculous post-holiday prices.  I am used to it by now; I know it is coming and I prepare as best I can.  For instance, this year, I bought things that I genuinely think that I will wear…mostly.

I was in no way, however, prepared for returning to France and what their post-holiday sales had in store.

“Woah!  What is happening?”  I am looking around the Carrefour (France’s superstore, complete with grocery and everything else you could ever want).

Quoi?”  MB seems nonplussed as he pushes the cart, fascinated, instead by reading the previous owner’s grocery list.  “Look, I think they were going to make a punch of some sort, it sounds good, no?”

He shows me the list but I am too distracted.

“Honey, look, all the groceries, everything…it’s like the whole store is on sale!”  I wave my hand across the entire front section of the Carrefour which is covered with yellow signs that have 25%, 35%, 50% printed on them.

“Ah ouais!  The after Christmas sales, I forgot this!!”  MB seems excited too.  “Look, a vacuum on sale, we need a vacuum!”

“Only twenty-five euros?  Heck yeah, we need a vacuum!  Oooh honey, they have a hand-mixer for ten euros too.  I need a hand-mixer sometimes you know!”

MB looks at me with skeptical amusement.  “When?  When do you need a hand-mixer?”

“Um…hullo!  Don’t you remember the time we tried to beat egg whites…that was a disaster!”  This happened exactly one time and we have never needed a hand-mixer for anything else.

MB puts the hand-mixer in the cart.

I grab MB’s arm and jump up and down.  “This is so great, I love a sale!  You know I love a sale!  Woah – is that buy one, get one free?!?

I run to the smoked salmon display.

“What do you reckon?  You think we can eat two kilos of salmon?”  I am now playing a little game, pretending that I might not want to buy it.  I look at MB, waiting for the reasonable response, preparing my angle.

“I think we can,” he says resolutely.   “We can always freeze it, yes?  It is fourteen euros a kilo; we aren’t going to beat that.”

I stare at MB and realize, he is not going to be my steady voice of reason but instead my accomplice, my kindred spirit in sale-induced-insanity.   We lock eyes and share a look of mutual understanding and admiration that says “yes, we can eat two kilos of salmon in ten days for that price!”

Suddenly, my eyes are drawn towards the back of the section.

“Could that be…no, surely not…”

MB follows my gaze.  “Ouais…” he says slowly, with cautious optimism.

We advance towards the sign, clutching onto each other’s arms.

50% Reduction Foie Gras

There is front of us are two huge bins filled with all shapes and sizes of foie gras, reduced 50% in price.  I jump up and down, clapping my hands and MB and I embrace, in front of the foie gras bin, under fluorescent lights in Carrefour.  It is trés romantique!

A vacuum, a hand-mixer, two kilos of smoked salmon, two cans of gesiers, one side of beef, a whole chicken, a rabbit, and four packages of foie gras later we begin to make our way out of the grocery store, satisfied and triumphant in the knowledge of all the excellent bargains we got.

Once we arrive home, I start desperately trying to make room in the freezer and ponder the necessity of purchasing an entire rabbit seeing as how I have never cooked one before.  Squeezing the three foot long package of smoked salmon into a corner, I wonder if maybe the salmon and the rabbit are the equivalent of an ill-fitting sweater or an ugly pair of designer boots.  Has buyer’s remorse set in already?  Will we ever actually use this stuff?  Has this all been just a big waste?  Nah…

“Honey, I think we have to have a dinner party!”

MB looks up from where he is arranging cans of foie gras and gesiers in the cupboard, “I was just thinking the same thing.”

 

The France Fifteen

French Food

Apologies for being a bit late with this one…

Fall has arrived in the Rhône- Alpes.  There is a chill in the air; the mountains are changing from lush green to oranges and yellows.  Coats and scarves are being brought out of closets; and heaters are being turned on for the first time.  Now is the time when dinner tables begin to be adorned with tartiflette, raclette, and fondue (MB did manage to eat fondue twice in July).  It is the time to revel in the rich, heavy, delicious cuisine of the Savoyard region.  It is the time for…

What the F?

That can’t possibly be right.

I look down at the scale again, willing the numbers to change.  Quickly I do the math from kilos to pounds…sweet jesus.

Now is the time to go on a ridiculous Hollywood-style cleanse?

This first year in France reminds me of the first year in college when girls are destined to gain the dreaded “freshman fifteen”.  Everyone tells you it is going to happen and you nod along; but secretly you think, “not to me.”  Then the next thing you know you are zipping your jeans up with pliers and scared to squat because they might rip open.  Just like this, the “French fifteen” is a very real thing.  And now, just when things are getting cold and all I want to do is munch on fat-laden food, I find a scale.

For months now I have been skating by…knowing that I have gained weight but pretending that it is not as bad as I think it is in my head.  At first it was funny; I would stare down in the shower and think, “wow, that belly was not there before; it’s kind of cute!”  But the days of laughing at cheese babies have long gone and I have realized that it is time to get serious.

But how does one engage in un régime (diet) in the Rhône-Alpes in winter ?

I can see it now.  MB will come home to find me licking the wallpaper.

“What are you doing?” He will say.

“It’s delicious; you should have some!”   I will say this with a slur, as my tongue will not leave the wallpaper completely.

“Baby?”

I will turn back to look at him wild-eyed.  “The fondue!  It’s melting down the walls; don’t waste it!”

And then I would have to spend the rest of my life in an insane asylum (although I’m guessing that, in France, even in insane asylums they have good food).

In the meantime (pre-cheese hallucinations), I’m going to have to buckle down.  The tartiflette will have to wait; and raclette will be something I enjoy in the new year while I desperately attempt to shed some of my “France fifteen”.  So if you happen to be wandering through our region in the next couple of months and see a girl crying outside a fromagerie, you can safely assume that it is me.