Monday, November 26, 2007

Things I Never Knew Until I Moved to France*

I never knew about a Raclette, which Liam's sister introduced us to last weekend- not just a cheese, but an entire dinner of fun (above)! Underneath that plate that's cooking our endives and tomates and pommes de terre and courgettes there are little slices of cheese just melting away into a gooey delicious mess that YOU choose to drizzle onto your aforementioned cooked veggies (or meat) when they're ready. Fondue for germa-phobes. And delicious.

I never knew that you could get tablets for the washing machine come in small squares even when your machine doesn't call for tablets, or that the water here is so hard that white shirts become gray like in a detergent commercial before-hand and the toilet needs to get scrubbed every week and let's not even talk about what's probably happening to my tea drinking teeth ....

I never knew that patisseries are lined along the walls with confitures and compotes and often chocolates and other sweets as well, or that if you walk outside and decide your croissant is so delectable that you'd like to eat it while you walk that you will be scorned by passersby.

I never really imagined that my small kitchen would welcome small pans, small pots, small bags of lentils and pasta and that you CAN get popcorn here, it's just suggested on the back that you grate emmental or gruyere over it while it's hot.

I also can't really get straight the idea that ordering du the (some tea) = a tea, or that if I say une the (a tea) it doesn't work because really it's un the (masculine, not feminine) and really, I never knew that I would constantly get stuck ordering deux the (two teas) which mostly is the mistake when someone else is around to accept the other glass.

I knew my butter and yogurt sections of my grocery would be huge, but I never knew that it would be difficult to find natural, with acidophilus, large tubs of yogurt rather than tiny, delectable, environmentally dangerous ones.

I never knew how much I absolutely adored caramel de beurre sale whether it's in a jar from the market or in a crepe from a new crepe place that came highly recommended with chantilly on top or in an eclair at Aoki or macaron at Pierre Herme, it's most definitely my new favorite.

*alternately, things I may have known but didn't truly understand until I moved to France

Des Creoles

Part I: Last October, on our first full day in Valbonne (outside of Nice) visiting Liam's family, we walked this gorgeous, forested walk from their house into the village of Valbonne. We went straightaway to the boulangerie, looking for our first real croissant of the trip. We walked in, looked right down into the case and saw this pastry to the left, in a line of 6 - la negresse. I stopped full on in my tracks, pulled Liam close to me, and pointed wildly.

The next day, we returned with a camera. There was only one left.

Liam did the sleuthing, I began a tirade of revolution within the bakery - how I would start to work there, change them from the inside out, take whatever made this pastry so delicious and turn it into something a little less upsetting, like, say, a potato? We waxed poetic in our theories about what was behind this, we quizzed his family for historical context, but mostly, I was horrified.

Part II: We returned to this patisserie this past Saturday to say hello to our friend held at the mercy of the institutional racism of the patisserie. No camera (out to get butter and cream for the pumpkin pie I was about to make). We step in, look down to the right, and were shocked - there she was, no, not la negresse, but her thinly veiled cousin - Black Beauty. Written in English, same old colonial pastry with her chocolate breasts on her knees, but now Black Beauty didn't have the blackface of white icing or the hair, she was just enrobed in ebony chocolate, you know, like a black beauty.

Part III: My French teacher informs the student who describes what I'm wearing that my earrings, which he describes as round and I would have called hoops have a particular name in France: des Creoles ... because of, well, their history (as she explained it)

I am not one to say that America's own history with race is anything but terrifying, but there's something about race in France that is new to me after 30 years in the US. Something that quickly goes from "hmmm, creoles you say?" to a vision of the map of colonial Africa memorized in AP European history. Race in France is like Oakland, yes, where every police car I see has a black face in the back of it, but also where French grandmothers have the sculptured African faces on their shelves and rich folks spend $500 not just on purses, but also on recycled bottle-cap tables that in Marais boutiques. Helping African people make a living or simply just gobbling up a colonial consumerism? And then today, multiple emails from friends asking me if I'm affected by the riots here.

It's enough to make me alternately reminisce for slow days spent writing about post-colonial thought and the African diaspora and yearn for days when I'll be back to doing something about it - 8 years working to close the achievement gap for students of color in this country and now I'm here fuming over pastries and earrings.

In college, I was reprimanded in Japanese class for asking why the character for 'weak' is also in the character for 'woman,' but I have always been a rebel-rouser, even when it comes to pastries.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I am Grateful for ....

I am grateful for BK Algerian pastries that fill up the box quickly and the woman won't even tell you which ones are best, she just says, "they're all good" and they are (especially the dreamy lemon one you can see with the silvered sugar balls on top and the gooey ones that you think will be too honey-ish and never are). I am grateful for buttery crisp pan au chocolat from the Au Levain du Marais (28 Beaumarchais location). I am completely grateful for Thanksgiving Day 2007 which leaves 6 macarons in front of me from Pierre Herme: truffe blance & noisette, huile d'olive & vanille, rose, plentitude (chocolat and caramel), infinitement vanille, and caramel a la fleur de sel.

I am thankful that I can walk across the Seine with the evening sun setting, albeit at 5pm, and reflecting into buildings and Notre Dame. I am thankful that I can speak enough French to secure 6 macarons or a Tazo Chai at Starbucks or even a new set of plates for our first dinner party at the vaissellerie. I am thankful to continue on to level A2.2 at Alliance Francaise, and for hearing stories of a woman from Columbia who met her husband online and rendezvous-ed in Cuba and another who never knew her father until he got the internet and found her in 1999, when the first thing he searched for was her.

I am grateful for the stories of people new to me, for having the time for a long cup of lao-zhu green tea or Harmutty black in the morning and the leisure to write for an hour after that. I am grateful that the New Yorker delivers to Paris and that Ploughshares does too. Even more so, I am grateful to the American Library in Paris for having a bevy of cookbooks familiar and new to me (despite the 125 euros I had to shell out to join and deposit).

For the years I spent living in a country where transit and postal workers don't strike, I am grateful. For my dear pen pal Emily who keeps writing me despite the fact I am not receiving mail, I am grateful. For packages coming from California with tea and yarn and more tea, I am grateful in advance.

I am thankful for new friends who have Thanksgiving dinners that include making construction paper turkeys and other new friends who will extend Thanksgiving to December. I am thankful to have the time to soak beans overnight and leave Persian rice to develop the tadiq with only two of us to fight over the coriander-specked golden pieces. I am thankful to have friends in Sicily and Guatemala who do online writing groups with me, for pen-palships of postcards and Skype calls from Brazil, and good old emails that go on endlessly about pastries and bureaucracy. I'm grateful too to be writing this while listening to new songs on an old guitar and sweet lyrics about love and loss and proper dreams from the handsomest man I know behind me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Home(sick)cooked Biscuits

I miss buttermilk and Cabot cheddar, big tins of baking powder and confectioner's sugar at any market. I miss chipotles canned in adobo and monterey jack and queso fresco and asadera and tortilla chips dipped in canned refried black beans. I miss tubs of Strauss Family Farm Organic Whole Milk yogurt, cheap steel-cut oats, and organic maple syrup from VT that is shipped to us in CA through our CSA, which reminds me that I also miss Full Belly Farm, bunches of deep dark greens, and several squashes lined up on my windowsill.

I miss putting books on hold at the Piedmont Library, black and tans at Fenton's, and every time we talk about eating out I moan for Dopo. I miss singing in my car, bringing gen-mai cha to work in a stainless steel cup and running into Jennifer on the street.

I don't miss driving, or paying for my car, or shelling out cash for gas. I don't miss waking up to an alarm. I don't miss a cell phone that I'm constantly checking for messages that aren't always there.

But I do miss friends calling to say hello or inviting me to dinner or being able to call friends who know all the great things about me so it's ok for me to be sad in front of them too. I also miss warm Novembers, cleaner air, and tea houses where pu-erh can cost $5 and it seems expensive and there aren't waves of smoke over my journal or book. I miss writing group with Sara and Cara, Cheese Club with Jasmine, Sara, Mat and Jennifer, and Book Club with many of my favorite Oakland ladies. I miss, nearly every night when I'm cooking dinner, Cookbook Club - between that and my CSA box I was never at a loss for what to cook. I miss lunches with Amy or Martha, walks with Rebecca, and having Jennifer live next door. I miss spicy soy Chai at Gaylord's, patatas bravas at Cesar, and have I mentioned that I miss the pasta at Dopo?

I miss my bed, counter space, a deep stainless steel sink, and a shower where I don't have to hold it above me to wash my hair. I miss having a closet and my Danskos and having more than one sweatshirt. I even miss the bags of clothes I hadn't worn in a year and gave away, and then I miss the more generous attitude I had in September.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Polenta Persistence

I have never stirred polenta for 45 minutes straight. The closest I got was when Liam and I stayed in Mar Vista and I had nothing else to do, but for some reason (maybe the temperature that's down to -3 C today) I decided to heed Madhur's advice and just stirstirstir. With The Gathering (Booker Prize winner and first Paris Book Club pick) in one hand, and an olive wood wok stirrer in the other, I set forth to stir for 45 minutes straight and yes, it was worth it. I returned after knitting group to Liam saying, 'that polenta was magical' - not usually can someone else who doesn't cook, like someone else who doesn't knit, appreciate the time and effort put forth!

And so, another victory for Jessica and Madhur (and Marcella, with the lick-off-the-spoon Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion on top), as I plod through another day trying to figure out what one does when one is not doing anything. Crazy, I know, but there is something about the safety and routine of a job that makes you desire the freedom and whimsy of not working, until you're not working and you're back yearning for the structure of a job again. Or, until you want to do things like get a library card at the American library or go to a show and you can't because of 'le greve' and it's so cold outside that walking doesn't sound so enticing after a long day of, well, walking.

Why did I think I needed to go to a gym here?

I do think I need to move on to cooking other things - it might be a trio of dinners to cook for (American food for French friends, faux Thanksgiving, faux Thanksgiving in Nice) or just me and Madhur, but my moral highground of cooking beans each day or polenta stirred for 45 minutes or even those quick French lentils is starting to get a little old - like I'm making do with what I have when really what I have is Paris and who here eats lentils, polenta and Baked Beans with Nigerian Seasonings? I do want to help Liam who's feeling a little confused about his job - they won't give him access to the machines until he's been there for 3 mos, but without access to machines it's hard to demonstrate that he has what it takes to get access while someone who is a 3 month contractor gets access right away, and after he put Microsoft Office on his computer his boss said, 'so soon?' .... and so the French way goes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

les fromagettes part deux

This blog started when Sara, Jasmine and I first started Les Fromagettes, our first Cheese Club. Little did I know last winter that I would be writing now from Paris, going from Berkeley's Cheeseboard to Trotte Fromagerie on Rue du Saint-Antoine. And little did I know I would find two more ladies as interested in learning about cheese as I am here - I mean really, it's hard to sample all the great cheeses of France by yourself. And so, we met here in my tiny room to sample the cheeses of Ile-de-France (Johanna's fantastic idea - that we spiral out from the region which we find ourselves in), enjoy some wine, and talk brie vs. coloummier vs. well, mostly Brie. Kate's Brillant-Savarin was the clear winner - creamy (triple creme?) and buttery and almost like cream cheese, but the kind you'd make a cheese cake out of. Or just continue to slather on bread the next day.

I brought at Fougerus that was ok - I'm realizing that ammonia-y turns me off and while I think Mr. Jenkins would say it means it's a little too old/wrapped incorrectly, Johanna also couldn't taste what I was tasting, so maybe I'm just blessed/cursed with some kind of smell factor that others don't have? I also asked for 'explorateur' to which the fromager said he didn't know what that was, but that there's a good family of cheeses (of producers or of type of cheese, my poor French cannot distinguish) similar - so I went home with a neuf chatel (am I even spelling that correctly?) which was almost cheddar-y in its yellow sheen and taste, but ultimately a bit strong for me (nothing like the fake cream cheese by the same name in the US). Johanna brought us bries that she was disappointed by from Au Bon Marche (her reliable fromagerie was closed), and we decided yes it was the store that sent us these bland sticks of brie. (Alas, they left me with the cheese and they did taste great last night on top of roasted apple, fennel and sweet potato right at the end, covering everything in its stanky brie goodness)

Next month we move on to Loire Valley - this city is wonderful for a great many things, but making cheeses isn't exactly one of them.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Pumpkin Cookies

Pumpkins are for Cinderella, not for eating Liam's French grandmother replied last fall when he held out a plate of roasted petit marron for her to taste. I had gone to my first French market in Provence and fell deeply, madly in love with the orange-until-it-bursts color of this squash and had roasted it simply for dinner. Well, for American dinner.

I have always loved pumpkins and fall and sweets that come with both. In 1997, I found this recipe - and that fall, the Pumpkinwiches were born.

I have changed them a bit over the years - in the picture you can see two of the new version with an old school 'wich in the background - but not as much as I have changed them in Paris. It pains me slightly, since in a world of new things new people new friends I want everything as good as it is as home, for people to say, 'ah ha! you are the woman who brought the pumpkin cookies!' to a potluck or Thanksgiving party. But here, without Libby's packed pumpkin or her organic cousin, I figured, it can't be that hard, I'll just get the ol' Cinderella fave.

Twice now, I've tried. This last time with more success thanks to a new friend's suggestion to roast with lemon rind, honey and cinnamon (I added some ginger too), and a bit more judiciousness with the 'puree-ing.' I have warring Bittman voices in my head: "good chefs only need 10 appliances/tools" and "you'll never regret having a food mill" as I mash up roasted squash with a fork in my one bowl. They are getting there, a bit more tasty, although the pepitas I found here are from China and I worry will choke someone with their Bay leaf edges. The fresh squash gives them a 'health food' flavor that I'm not that into, but perhaps brings them back to their roots from Veggie Life magazine.

In a few weeks, we're off to Nice to make Liam's family a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Well, a 'traditional' one. I thought about making these and an apple pie, and also some vibrant sides (we vegetarians go into our own carb coma after T-day sometimes) of ginger flecked green beans and lime flavored yams and beets braised in pomegranate and orange. We even had a can of cranberry sauce (I know, but there just aren't cranberries around these parts) in our belongings from Sicily, but that too was confiscated, so I'll see what I can do with dried, which they do have here.

Yesterday, I was about to bring them to my French class when I had this sudden fear of rejection, of my multi-national class frowning or refusing or even grimacing with an unfamiliar groan when the orange cookies passed by on a plate I don't even have - like I should just come in with Starbucks and shrug and say je suis tres americaine. And then I felt terrible, sending Liam to work on his first week with all sorts of non-French foods like black bean chili and cheese biscuits and lentils with rice and onions and imagined him in his cafeteria today happily peeling back the plastic wrap on his gooey trio l'orange only to have his French colleagues snickering that the new guy not only has trouble with his French but his wife makes him some bizarre food as well.

And so, while I fancy myself an immigrant mother in a Jhumpa Lahiri story, I will stand by the cookies this week trying to make them a bit more like home. And for now, for those of you who've been asking for it again, here is the recipe:

1 Cup sugar
1 Cup canned pumpkin (or, see above)
1 lg egg
2 T vegetable oil
2 Cups unbleached white flour
1 t. ginger
1/2 t each: nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, powder, soda
1/3 Cup pumpkin seed kernels (pepitas), toasted

Filling aka Frosting
1 1/2 Cups powdered sugar (or more)
2 T canned pumpkin (or, see above)
2 T soft butter
1 t vanilla

1. preheat oven to 350 and lightly grease a baking sheet. Combine pumpkin and sugar, then stir in egg and oil, mix well.
2. in another bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Add to pumpkin mixture and blend thoroughly. Stir in pumpkin seeds.
3. Drop dough by small scoops or rounded t. onto sheet, about 2" apart. With a dampened finger, swirl each mound into a wider flatter disk (necessary if doing sandwich cookies, not as much if you're going to frost the top). Bake 8 min. until edges begin to brown. Put on a rack to cool.
4. While cookies cool, combine powdered sugar, pumpkin, butter and vanilla. Whip to spreadable consistency. Sandwich cookies together or frost tops.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Le Poste regarding La Poste (and Sicily to boot. Pun intended)

I get nervous going to La Poste. It's not just the requisite long line or bureaucracy, it's the anticipation of the moment that language will fail me and I will be rendered mute. And so, with my heart beating yesterday I went to pick up the package I received two notices for while we were in Sicily.
'Ayiyi' he groans as he confirms my identity on my passport, 'americaine!'

I try to smile and think of things to say like, yes, I am American and I live here, hahaha laughing together, yes?

And then, before I can do more than the weakest smile of the non-French...

"bouche!" he exhales as he gets up to retrieve my package.

Bouche? What's the matter with my mouth? I start worrying. Americans have big mouths? I have bad breath? But why didn't he use an article - what I'm always getting chided for in class? La bouche? And wouldn't he say, "La bouche d'americaine?" and then as I hear his footsteps returning it hits me, he said "Bush!!!!"

This then sets off stage two of panic - does he think I like Bush? Will he sabotage my package because it came from Bushland? All I can think to say is Je n'aime pas Bush (I don't like Bush) but this sounds like a shrill delayed response. And so, we vaguely understand each other that I need to return to get it later and I leave laughing.

Unsolicited political commentary, sarcasm, language barriers, we had none of these things in Sicily over the weekend. We spent our time eating a traditional Sicilian breakfast: granita (above) with brioche, a traditional Sicilian dinner: eggplant pizza with the creamiest eggplant ever to sit on top of wood fired crust, and a traditional agritourismo: a buffet of vegetables, more pizza, and tiramisu to the tunes of Sting and Clapton. Here we had these onions that were the best onions I've ever tasted - little pearl onions caramelized and vinegarized and sweet succulent little treats (I suggested Rebekah pick up a Marcella book to cook when in Rome style and found a recipe that I hope is the same so I can replicate those lovelies!)
We also made a trip to the market where a jumble of English/Italian/French/Spanish still got us what we needed - and cheap! One euro could get you four heads of fennel or four bunches of spinach or add.50 and get two heads of cauliflower or over 1 kg of clementines.

We left Sicily wishing for more warm weather, the chance to see Mt. Etna erupt, more time with Rebekah and Mike, more trips to the navy base grocery store for Grape Nuts and organic deodorant, another granita, another canoli, a few more gnocchi for ma bouche.