When living in France, as we did for eight years, you learn there is no such thing as Bastille Day. Instead, “la Fête nationale” or “le 14 juillet” is the national public holiday celebrated on July 14 everywhere in France and in many places around the world. The date is never changed to make it convenient to a long weekend. It’s that important. Like 4th of July, Christmas Day, and New Years’ eve.
The 14th of July is the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution when the common people revolted against their king, Louis XVI, and the French aristocracy. In 1789, economic conditions in France were in crisis and tensions were nearing a breaking point. People were fed up and unable to afford daily bread.
The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison that held political prisoners with no hope of pardon or freedom. It was also thought to contain munitions and gun powder. A crowd of angry citizens stormed inside the Bastille, freed the few [only 7 at the time] who were imprisoned, but found no guns. It was a compelling action and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2010, we were living on the 5th floor of a small apartment building in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, on avenue de la Motte Picquet. Tall multi-paned windows opened like full length doors onto the street below. There was a direct view of the top third of the Eiffel Tower in the park of Champs de Mars. For five minutes every night, at the top of the hour, from dark until midnight we watched thousands of lights twinkling on la Tour Eiffel. It charmed our guests and was a spectacular display we never tired of during two years in the neighborhood.
What we did tire of was perpetual plumbing problems ancient apartment buildings in Paris are prone to. It’s all part of 19th century architectural charm. But still. Leaks from above dripped through our ceilings and light fixtures or down walls. After a middle of the night broken pipe in the wall of our unit flooded apartments one and two floors below, it was time to try our luck elsewhere in the city.
But for two summers, living near the Champs de Mars, we adventurously celebrated la Fête nationale far above the crowds amassed for the fireworks display along the river Seine. With the best seats in town.
French neighbors who lived in the apartment above ours shared the idea because they said the entire building would be deserted by early evening. And they weren’t going to try it themselves.
There was a tiny one-person-sized elevator in the back of the building that accessed 7th floor apartments. These “chambres de bonne” were maid’s quarters in another century. But in this century they made for inexpensive living, like a one room studio. The ceiling in the hallway of 7th floor had a trap door to the roof eight floors above the street.
By removing the ladder attached to the wall and climbing up to the hinged glass door, it was possible to unlatch and fold it back onto the metal roof. We came prepared. One backpack carried chilled champagne and glass flutes, crudités, and salty snacks. Another held big camera equipment. This was not a party for cell phone photography.
We gingerly situated ourselves on the angled roof near some chimney stacks and away from the sloping edge, set up the picnic, toasted a new adventure, waited for darkness and the show to begin.
We had a bird’s eye top-of-the-world view, albeit a bit precarious. Tiptoeing back up the roof and descending the ladder was another intrepid experience, but no one was the wiser. For two memorable years we managed to enjoy le 14 juillet festivities with a private rooftop party in magnificent Parisian scenery.
I’m reminded this week, on July 14, of the sacrifices French citizens made 233 years ago to spur change and move an entitled monarchy to a democratic republic for all.
Sitting every night at the dining table with my wife, sharing our meal and a bottle of wine, discussing the events of the day…This daily ritual has been ingrained so profoundly within us that we could not live without it and that is how food memories are made. –Jacques Pepin
If you watch people eat, you can find out so much about them. Eating is learned behavior; one of the ways cultures define themselves is by teaching children what to eat…But as we get older, we begin to make our own food choices and they are equally telling. If I tell you I like very spicy food, I’m not just talking about food…I’m telling you I like adventure. –Ruth Reichl
Yesterday was the first rain/sleet/snowstorm in our part of the Colorado mountains. I spent the afternoon on the sofa with a fire blazing, a book in my lap, and candles on the coffee table as the light faded. The season for sitting outside with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a meal is behind us now.
Europeans have well-established dining rituals built into their cultures for centuries. Having lived in Germany and France, memories filter in on this quiet day. When we lived in France dining outside, “al fresco”, occured throughout the year, weather permitting, whether sipping “un café” or “un verre de vin” or enjoying a meal. It is as acceptable to do this alone as it is with friends or family.
My friend, Michelle, is American/French, married to a Frenchman, Jean Louis. They both own their own businesses. Michelle and her partner are in relocation services with their company, A Good Start in France. Jean Louis took over his mother’s bookstore which started out specializing in rare books on mountain climbing in the 1930’s. Since then, Librairie des Alpes has expanded into books on mountain imagery, guidebooks, rare, vintage, and new books of photos, art, lithographs, and even postcards. It continues to reflect the spirit of the mountains on rue de Seine in Paris’ 6th Arrondissement.
Michelle and Jean Louis live in a charming glass fronted two story house that looks like an atelier [artist’s studio] with so much natural light flooding in. It has a private courtyard outside the kitchen and living room.
Almost every Sunday morning Michelle and Jean Louis walk to the Porte de Vanves Flea Market which is in their neighborhood in the 14th Arrondissement.
After browsing and schmoozing with vendors they have long known, they head home stopping at a local market for lunch ingredients. Theirs is a mixed ethnic section of Paris which offers a rich variety of flavors in food choices in their market. Seasonal fruits and vegetables come straight from the farm, their favorite fish vendor is from Martinique and specializes in spicy, white fish dumplings called “acras de morue”, from the butcher they buy Lyon sausage, the boulanger provides fresh baguette and pastries.
What do I miss about living in Paris? It’s right here–in every local market in every neighborhood throughout the city. Choosing what to eat from the best and freshest ingredients all year long. I miss daily shopping on my market street.
Sometimes I ran into Michelle and Jean Louis on Flea Market weekends. One Sunday, shortly before we left France, I was invited to meet them at 10 AM for a walkabout/browse/pick up a trinket followed by lunch in their home courtyard. In the warm months, lunch takes on the informality of tapas, an assortment of small dishes. Always wine and a basket of sliced baguette.
The generosity of the French table is akin to honoring the spirit of the guests invited for a sit-down meal. Any meal, simple or formal, pays tribute equally to the guest and to the hosts who prepare it. It is a time to gather, enjoy good food, exchange information, share conversation (often politics), and memorable time with others. The art of the debate is encouraged and freely employed. No subject is off limits. This is a centuries-honored ritual of dining à la français.
For our lunch fare, the table was laid with spicy “acras” or codfish dumplings, slices of farm tomatoes with basil snipped from the courtyard garden, shrimp and avocado, cucumber salad with dill and a dash of piment d’espelette, a cheese assortment of buffalo mozzarella, goat, and camembert, smoked salmon, asparagus, roasted red peppers and tuna salad which Michelle spices with lots of chopped shallots and Dijon mustard. [She says French people think tuna salad is exotic because of its inherent American-ness]. A glass of wine, bien sûr.
What I remember is conversation that was lively and fluid, a Willy Ronin black and white photo [which I admired and was given as a gift], delicious food to dip bread into, and a host and hostess most charming. This “meal as a ritual of exchange and sharing”, in Michelle’s words, is a perfect reverie on a snowy indoor day. In France, every single sit-down meal is like this, whether sitting with one other person or a tableful of guests. Ah, France.
I believe we replicate this in America, perhaps not daily, but better on our national holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter where traditions and patterns around food are more universal in many families. Religious traditions also claim meal rituals and memories particularly around their holidays.
There are other stories of living in France, many written while we lived there. But today, this one of friends and food and time spent around a table in a cozy Parisian courtyard comes just at the right moment. It is vivid and warms me to the core while I gaze at blowing snow and autumn slides into winter.
Michelle often makes a seasonal soup for Sunday lunch. Fresh spinach soup is one of her staples. Spinach is out of season here now, but this is her recipe in simple format to try on your own.
Michelle’s Homemade Spinach Soup
Thoroughly wash and stem 2 lb of fresh spinach leaves.
Heat olive oil in a large stockpot, add lots of chopped shallots and sauté until wilted.
Peel and chop 1-2 large potatoes.
Add spinach, potatoes, and water or chicken or vegetable stock to the pot. [You can use a pressure cooker if you have one.]
Simmer until spinach cooks down and potatoes are soft.
Using an immersion blender, blend ingredients together in the pot.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and some piment d’espelette. [Espelette pepper]
Serve in a bowl with a little design made with cream or half and half on top.
Links to more stories about living in France that you will enjoy:
Your home has to be a refuge, the place you come back to after the world has done all the things it has done to you, where you can be truly yourself, power out, refuel. It should feel good every time you walk in the door. –Amanda Dameron
One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, where spending more time at home has been the norm, the importance of home space, how we create it, how we live in it, what it means, seems a timely topic.
Quarantine has redesigned the rhythms of life at home. It has provided different ways to think about and use space. It’s not only about structure, but also light and air, comfort, privacy and intimacy in a place where we can safely talk, think, do, or just be.
…as a child, I always wanted to be in other people’s houses. Now, though still fascinated by those other houses, I am only really comfortable and relaxed in my own. My house is like a garment, made to my exact measurements, draped around me in the way I like…–Margaret Forster
My interest in houses and interior spaces began in childhood. In a small town suburb of a mid-western city, my mother would pile my younger sister and me into the backseat of the station wagon whenever she visited a friend outside our neighborhood. I never refused to go. I knew we would drive past a certain house, on curvy Big Bend Road, where my imaginary friend Cindy lived. And every time we drove by, I said aloud, “Look, there’s Cindy’s house!”
Imaginary friends weren’t an option–they were essential. –Emory Ann, 23 Things Only Children Know to be True
I made up this friend, gave her a name, and pretended to call her on the phone from the car because there was something I loved about that particular house, shaded by tall trees on a curved lot. I wanted to run to the door and be invited to play with a friend who didn’t exist. In my eight-year-old mind, I even imagined living in this cottage-like home with people I didn’t know.
Like the body itself, a home is something both looked at and lived in.…it is an image, an idea, a goal; perhaps as it was for my mother…it has filtered down to me.–Rachel Cusk
It is common to find a family link in people who care about how they live, what their space looks like, how it feels to others. Often it begins in an environment during childhood, emulating a relative’s sense of design and comfort in the home. Sometimes it comes from other early life experiences.
I spoke with a sampling of family and friends about how their interest developed in creating a home that both nurtured them and resonated with others. I asked for a recollection or anecdote when they knew that space, of a certain style, just so, would be important for the rest of their lives.
Responses varied from a childhood obsession for re-arranging furniture in a tiny bedroom until it felt right, to sewing curtains, bedspreads and pillows to create a signature space. Others spoke of a fascination with miniature rooms in doll houses, or a teenage bedroom on the top floor of a Victorian house with a sink built into the closet, or annually setting up a primitive cabin in a summer boys camp.
My friend Marilyn Larson wrote a beautiful memory about playing with her younger sister on the family farm in southern Minnesota. In a small grove of trees, they carefully raked the ground and removed debris in preparation for setting up rooms for a home. Each room was given a name designated by purpose, furnished with orange crates, lumber, or broken implements scavenged outside the barn. Sometimes they played “restaurant” by setting up a counter on a long plank of wood dragged from the junk pile, accessorized with broken dishes. They served homemade “mud cakes” and tried to entice their brother to buy one.
My brother-in-law Erik, a professional designer, has two memorable stories. The first was when he carved the skyline of New York City into the pine headboard of the bed his father had just built. Only six-years old, using pointy scissors and ballpoint pens as primitive tools, he was proud of the creation of what he thought New York might look like. His parents were not impressed. He also secreted clear plastic food containers from the kitchen to an empty neighborhood field where he spent hours constructing houses, buildings and towns in the open, weedy landscape. His mother had no appreciation for this either. But he was onto something that evolved into a life of designing and building sets and spaces for theater, television, and corporations.
Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work organically synced with nature, was influenced by space as a toddler. His schoolteacher mother bought a set of educational blocks created by the German educator, Friedrich Froebel. These geometrically shaped blocks were designed to teach children about form and relationship to nature. Wright remembers being fascinated by them, assembling shapes and compositions for hours at a time. He credited them for kindling his creative mind toward architectural design.
…there is no true understanding of any art without some knowledge of its philosophy. Only then does its’ meaning come clear.–Frank Lloyd Wright
Considering houses as art forms, Wright suggests that to really understand them they should be viewed philosophically. But it was a book by Gaston Bachelard that first started me thinking about houses metaphorically.
Gaston Bachelard [1884-1962] was a French philosopher from the last century. But his idea of the house as poetic space that holds memories and opens portals to dreams and imagination feels timeless.
Bachelard uses the image of houses “as a tool for analysis of the human soul”. Simplified, the house is the container that shelters our body, which is the container for our inner life. To access inner life requires daydreaming. In order to daydream we need solitary time. With solitary time, we learn to love “the space inside us”, the creative dreaming place. Learning to happily “abide” within ourselves while in the shelter of the house is poetry, because the house is in us as much as we are in it.
What does this mean?
The house, a physical space, provides shelter for us to dream and make memories. These dreams and memories are held in our unconscious, a metaphysical place. Remembering dreams is easier with connection to an actual space. When the house offers places to curl up, in solitude, such as nooks and crannies, window seats, attics and garrets, one’s own bedroom, there are built-in places to think and dream and create. The circle of house around us housing the soul within us is poetry.
Bachelard says children must be allowed time to daydream. They need to learn to love being alone and, at times, even bored. Solitary time opens and invites new thinking in unexpected ways–just as poetry does. Time alone teaches children to live within themselves, too. Inside their daydreams is where they experience the immensity of imagining–worlds within worlds.
The house protects the dreamer. The houses that are important to us are the ones that allow us to dream in peace. –Gaston Bachelard
The house you were “born in” is your first space of material warmth, protection and rest. It is imprinted in a place in the subconscious that you may or may not return to in dreams. If we dream about houses they are often not easily described by words. There’s where the poetry comes in.
In the house I was born into, my older sister had the best room. Her bedroom was underneath the roof. To the right, at the top of the stairs, was an aromatic cedar closet where seasonal clothes were stored. To the left, down a narrow hallway was the door to her room. The walls and ceiling were honey colored pine and the ceiling angled like a triangle from the peak. Low walls ran along both sides with cubbyhole doors that hid spaces further under the eaves. There was a tiny closet with low hanger bars and a narrow shelf for folded clothes. The only window opened to a flat roof over the front porch. It was forbidden to go out there because you might “fall through” the unsupported porch ceiling. But I learned that my sister crawled out the window to climb onto the higher roof and [secretly] smoke with her friends.
When she was away, I lay on her bed, stared into the peak, re-arranged the furniture in my head, and imagined how I would live if this were my space. Eventually I had a claim to the coveted room when it was time for her to go to university. But then my father took a job in a different state. And that perfect bedroom nest, which I never fully inhabited, still recurs in my nighttime dreams. [Disclosure: with the addition of a bathroom through the back wall of the closet by my subconscious.]
Our house is our corner of the world…it is our first universe. If looked at intimately–even the humblest dwelling is beautiful.–Gaston Bachelard
All inhabited space is essentially the notion of home. But it doesn’t have to be a house as the shelter that opens the doorway to creativity and dreaming. A hermit’s hut, a childhood bedroom, a tent in the woods, the car on a road trip, a favorite hike, a deep soaking bathtub, a tree next to a river–places where we can be alone are also conduits to accessing “inside” spaces where we think and dream and create. Even the humblest, most primitive space can be this place.
You have to filter out stale ideas that your mother gave you about how you should live, or what you should have in your space. Does it have to do with you, or not?–Interior designer, New York Times
My mother had a knack for making houses into homes. She intuitively knew how things should be arranged and was true to her own tastes for creating comfort in the places I grew up. Later, she was on the sidelines with advice as I began experimenting with my own living spaces.
The time came when we both realized that choices going forward needed to be mine and not hers. One birthday she gave me a clear glass ginger jar lamp stuffed with white seashells. The shade had accordion pleats the color of beige sand. I didn’t say I hated it, but it had nothing to do with me. It was her idea of a cool accessory. So I diplomatically said I didn’t want a lamp as much as I wanted a professional bread knife with serrated edges. She kept the lamp. I got the knife. Future gifts were checks.
My first apartment living alone was in Madison, Wisconsin on the top floor of a house across the street from Lake Monona. It had a glassed-in porch that looked into trees on the lake shore. The bed was a saggy mattress on top of bouncy coil springs hauled down from the attic one floor above. I arranged green trees and plants for window treatments, hammered Indian cotton tapestries to the wall to hide plaster cracks, and covered splintery floors with funky patchwork rugs. There was no bedroom door so I tacked up a curtain of wooden beads that clinked and swayed in long strands. It was perfect.
Marriage followed with several changes in geography in the U.S. Eventually we made the decision to move overseas. Different stories accumulated while living in five countries over the next 30 years. Apartments or houses in Singapore, Cyprus, Taiwan, Germany and France were woven together by the layout of affordable space that fit our family and by treasures we collected from each place we lived. There were always challenges while adapting to a new job, unfamiliar languages and cultures. But whatever the outside world threw at us, when we crossed the threshold of each dwelling and breathed in familiar sights and scents, it was our space, our comfort, our sanctuary of home.
My artist friend, Catherine Ventura, whom I met in Taiwan said it best, “I make familiar spaces in unfamiliar places.” We all did.
The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle. It stands for permanence and separation from the world.–Simone de Beauvoir
Frances Schultz recovered from a failed relationship and missteps in mid-life by buying and renovating a tiny dilapidated cottage with good bones. She wrote a therapeutic memoir, The Bee Cottage Story, about healing herself with the power and creativity of making a beautiful home.
There are no rules about how a house becomes a home. It requires thought, time and attention, and putting your stamp on it by living in the space. As far as decorating, Schultz advises intuition; “If it feels right, it probably is. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Instincts are not wrong. Ignoring them is…when a space is right for you; there is an instinctive response to it–an intuitive sense of how you would live there, where your things would go, what you would keep, and what you would change. It’s a project, not a struggle.”
Ruth Bender, a long time friend, wrote these thoughts; “Making a home is a mentally engaging and creative gift to oneself. It is an expression of love to those we are lucky enough to actually be with and to those dear ones who are gone or far away.”
Houses that become homes are like a poem. They have structure that represents how we want to live in the world. They shelter our feelings for people and beautiful surroundings we love. And if the home is nourishing to the soul and allows expression of the “inner self”, then we are fortunate to have created our own poetry of space.
…believe that place is fate. Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is entwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave. –Frances Mayes
Many of the most rewarding relationships in my life are friendships formed when we lived in Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Our family friendship with the people in this story, Nancy, Maddy, and Cabby, began in Taiwan in the 1990s. We forged relationships in the midst of howling typhoons and bed-shaking earthquakes, during Thanksgiving pig roasts, in delivery rooms birthing babies, on hillside picnics with roaming water buffalo [transcendent-picnics], at uncountable dinner parties in each other’s homes, and on apartment rooftops.
In 2018, we decided to have a reunion in Greece. Shortly before Easter, Nancy flew from New York to Paris where I was living. Together we traveled to Athens where Maddy and Cabby are now living.
In Greece, we shed our Asian history and jumped right into a mix of antiquity and contemporary adventures. As we climbed to the rooftop of their home, the Acropolis and Parthenon appeared stage center before our eyes. Hellooooooo Athina.
Mornings began with breakfast carried to the roof–an image imprinted forever in my mind. Strong French-pressed coffee, a bowl of Greek yogurt with sour cherries spooned on top, a basket of buttered toast, hardboiled eggs. And that view…
Family and holiday traditions are often a shared experience with friends overseas. During the Taiwan years, when our children were young, Maddy and Cabby hosted an annual family-centered party at Easter time. Eggs, dyed and decorated, were hung from dried branches standing upright in a tall vase to form a colorful egg tree. Multiple families were invited. There was food and a ceremony involving candles and a song. Then the eggs were selected from the tree, one to each person, and taken home in carefully packed containers.
Twenty-five years later, Cabby was in the final phase of decorating 60 eggs hanging over the second floor balcony. I don’t mean simple-dipped-in-one-pastel-color-dyed eggs. I mean Eggs As Art.
In the 1990s, decorating small bare tree branches as “Easter Egg Trees” became popular in the United States. In the Tennis/Hewitt family, the first egg tree was produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts when their first-born, Liza, was a toddler. It consisted of a single branch decorated with a few colored eggs taken to a party of graduate school friends.
Following graduate degrees and the birth of a second child, Maddy and Cabby moved to Taiwan. In succeeding years, their egg tree tradition was shared with international school families from Taipei, to Cairo, to Johannesburg, to Saudi Arabia.
Watching the tradition unfold in Athens, I realized that an important annual event, merged with artistry, had created outreach and a ripple effect in international relationships. Families from different countries and cultures invited to the Egg Tree celebration often carried it forward. They began new traditions that passed on beyond the Tennis/Hewitt family.
Maddy inspires action. Cabby implements details. It’s one of the ways they complement each other. Together they prioritize the importance of nurturing the family they created with lasting traditions.
Cab also has a knack for research and prototyping. Since crafting the first egg tree, he experimented and fine-tuned the “how to” process of taking a raw white egg and turning it into something spectacular. The steps from A to Z are not for the impatient or the faint of heart. But, the results are dazzling.
In the beginning, there was trial and error. He blew out the egg interiors as a first step only to realize that empty eggs don’t sink. There was year-by-year evolution, advancing the dyeing/waxing techniques used today. For example, randomly splattered candle wax creates only one type of pattern underneath–spots. So Cabby made small tools from toothpicks and wooden skewers that allow painting stripes, swirls, and even plaid patterns onto the shell with hot melted wax. Complexity and depth magically emerge after rounds of dyeing/waxing/dyeing/waxing on a single egg. Each egg reveals a surprise ending.
The bleaching process arose from a mistake of leaving an egg too long in one dye. Because it turned an ugly dark color, he wondered why not lighten it with bleach. A new step was added when he discovered bleaching enhanced the depth and range of dye colors.
Growing up overseas, the three Tennis children spent time around the table with their parents learning the egg dyeing craft. One Christmas, when they were older, each of them received a complete supply kit with containers, dye packets and tools to build their own egg tree and carry on the tradition after leaving home.
Oldest son, Whiting, took on the challenge first as a university student. Now married and teaching in an international school overseas, he produces spectacularly decorated eggs and invites faculty families to participate in the Egg Tree Party.
After Athens, I thought about the generosity of sharing this family-centered tradition all over the world and how comfortably it links people together in international communities. Cabby and Maddy exemplify a natural ability to build and create inclusiveness in every relationship.
The Tennis Family Egg Tree Tradition is one way this family has fostered love and respect in their global and personal relationships. It begins at home with a circle of people gathered around a bare branched tree covered with kaleidoscope colored eggs.
I’m reminded of the ending to the movie Annie Hall. The main character muses about the nuances of relationships, suggesting they are sometimes irrational, usually complex, and often absurd. He tries to sum up his feelings with a joke:
…A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. The doc says why don’t you turn him in? The guy says, I would but I need the eggs.
And, he’s right. We strive to hold onto each other in love, support and caring, because, actually, all of us…need the eggs.
This is the definitive “How-To” for dyeing and decorating eggs in the Tennis/Hewitt tradition. Instructions are by Cabby Tennis. There is minor editing on my part for clarity.
THE TENNIS FAMILY EGG TREE
WHY GO TO ALL THIS TROUBLE FOR A FEW COLORED EGGS?
It brings family and friends around the table working creatively together.
There is hands-on learning––coordination, art, safety, chemistry, physics, perseverance, patience and the final “wow” factor with each finished egg.
There is grace and humility in overcoming a “Humpty Dumpty” moment of loss on the kitchen floor.
Cover surface of worktable with taped together garbage bags, a vinyl tablecloth, or shower curtain liner. Layer of newspaper on top absorbs spills. Do not work over carpeting! Outside picnic table is ideal.
Set up table with plastic gloves, liquid dye containers, plastic spoons, eggs, paper towels [pre-torn into a stack of single sheets], empty egg cartons, waxing tools [explained below], 3 bowls for bleach and rinse water, candles for waxing, small saucepan for hot melted wax, scissors, pen, scotch tape.
EGGS – Unstamped white eggs are best. Large [not XL] range free eggs tend to have stronger shells. Rinse under water–no soap. Eggs are dyed raw because they are heavier and will sink. Blowing them out comes later.
CONTAINERS FOR LIQUID DYES – Any glass jar [preferably with lid] such as jam jars, canning jars, etc. One plastic spoon per jar to prevent color mixing as eggs move between dyes. Leftover dye can be kept year to year, so save the jar tops. If not enough jars, use water glasses.
DYE MIXING – 1 packet powdered dye diluted with ¾-1 cup boiling water. Add 1 T. white vinegar. Apple or grape vinegar is ok. (Exception: No vinegar for orange dyes because they will curdle.] Follow package directions for diluting liquid concentrate dyes. Cut off color name from dye packet and tape on jar for reference.
Partially used taper candles set into aluminum tea candle base for dripping or sprinkling wax over eggs.
A small saucepan with hot melted wax to use with tools [see below] or for complete immersion of egg into wax. Leftover candle remnants can be melted over low heat in saucepan on stovetop, camp stove, or hotplate. If no candles at home, purchase 2-3 thrift store pillar candles [any color] as melting base.
WAYS OF APPLYING WAX – Time to get creative. Holding a lit candle above egg, drip or shake/splatter wax onto shell. You can also use tools made from several toothpicks or split bamboo skewers bound with rubber bands to paint on wax. Repeatedly dip wooden tool into melted wax in saucepan, then touch or tap the egg with the tool. Egg color underneath the wax will be preserved and not take on next dye color. This is how you create different color patterns by waxing stripes, dots, or splatters on the dry egg. The number of colors on the egg depends how many times it goes through the cycle of 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry.
DUNK DYEING – Place waxed egg into any dye jar, then remove and gently dry with paper towel before waxing on a new layer of stripes or splatters. Repeat sequence as many times as you wish. Each wax application retains the color underneath it. Dyeing sequence is from light colors to dark. Begin with yellow [or any light color] moving toward darker colors each time you 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry. Creativity and patience are keys to this technique.
BLEACHINGas part of the dunk dyeing process – An optionalbut effective way to reverse the usual light to dark dyeing sequence. Bleach lets you cut through any final dye color [even black] that is un-waxed on the egg. Once the dark color is bleached, a lighter color can be dyed over it. This takes deft handling. Three bowls recommended. One with 1 part bleach to 2 parts water, and two [or 3] rinsing bowls with plain water. Dip the egg into bleach solution. Then move it through the rinse cycles, swirling thoroughly through each bowl. Egg continues to bleach with each step. Dry with paper towel. Note: The bleach will creep under some of the wax edges so be quick with the steps. You can do several rounds of 1. Bleach 2. Rinse 3. Dye 4. Wax 5. Dye and then repeat.
POWDER DYEING – This is a simple and efficient one step method to achieve beautiful eggs with the look of Monet water lilies or a ‘60s tie-dye experience. Eggs must be moist after soaking in plain water or liquid dye. Use leftover powder remnants [from envelopes used to make liquid dye] or open new ones specifically for this technique. With previously opened packets, write the color name on the outside to identify the powder inside.
METHOD FOR POWDER DYEING – Wearing clean, dry gloves lift a wet egg from bowl and hold each end between thumb and fingers. Tap the powder dye envelope against the egg to sprinkle grains onto the moist surface. Upon contact they will explode into fireworks shapes. Turn the egg and keep applying powder until it has the look you want. Use different colors, but be careful of combinations. Red, green and blue used together will turn brown. When desired color is achieved, quickly pat dry and immerse in saucepan of hot melted wax to seal. Or splatter with candle wax.
DE-WAXING EGGS – Wear gloves. Place used candle stubs or pillar candles into small saucepan over low to medium-low heat on stovetop. You need enough wax to completely immerse an egg. Have a stack of prepared paper towels nearby. With a slotted spoon, lower egg into the pan and stir gently, watching for wax coating to loosen and shed. [Stirring speeds up wax removal.] When the coating is clearly melted, add a second egg to the pan and lift first egg out. Rub loosened wax off first egg with paper towel. It should feel smooth with no rough spots and have a shiny patina. When wax in the pan starts to film over, time to re-heat on low temperature.
Safety note: Heat wax only until it liquefies. If it starts to smoke, it’s too hot and should be removed from heat.
Economy note: Place the saucepan of wax in the refrigerator overnight. The solidified wax will pop out the next morning. Store for re-use the next year.
BLOWING OUT THE EGGS – Use a bellows type egg blower. Good source: BestPysanky Egg Blower. With the awl that comes in the kit, make a hole in the exact bottom of egg the size of a wooden kitchen matchstick. The bellows pumps air in and forces white and yolk out the bottom hole. Be gentle. Take your time. Too much pressure and egg can explode. Use a paper clip or thin wire to break yolk or un-jam clogs as needed. Do this in rounds, about 10 eggs in a round, letting each egg sit upright between rounds so gravity can help the insides move to the bottom. Next, do a “gravity shake”. Holding egg upright in fingers, firmly and repeatedly whack your wrist against the tabletop onto a paper towel. When drips emerge from bottom of egg, blow it out again. Repeat until nothing comes out of egg and it feels light and empty. Finally, carefully use the awl to make a hole the size of a thick paperclip in the top center of egg. This is where knotted string will be attached later.
BAKING THE HOLLOW EGGS – This removes the final film of wax and bakes inside of eggs to prevent spoiling. In a preheated metal pan, place 6 eggs at a time on their sides. Make sure both ends of egg are open and unplugged or egg can explode in the oven. Bake at 350 F for 4 minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn. Remove from oven and cover pan with foil or kitchen towel to retain heat. Place next pan of eggs in to bake. Quickly rub each baked egg with paper towel to remove any wax residue before it cools.
STRINGING THE EGGS – Use thin string such as dental floss or embroidery thread. Tie a knot and create a loop where the size of the knot barely fits inside top hole of egg. Hold the knot against the hole, and gently push it inside the egg with a paper clip. Expand hole with the awl if necessary. Line up strung eggs for gluing. One by one squirt a tiny dab of super glue into the hole. This affixes knot inside the egg. Let eggs rest on their sides [string parallel to table top] while glue dries. Avoid getting too much glue on the string above the egg as it will dry stiffly and can snap like a twig over time.
HANGING AND FINAL CLEANING OF EGGS – String a rope where eggs can be suspended at least 6 inches apart. Use large paper clips or loops of wire to attach eggs to rope. If inside the house, place drop cloths below to catch drips. Wear gloves and use a soft cloth to gently wipe each egg all over with paint thinner [white spirits in Europe]. Dry with another soft cloth to remove any residual wax. Let stand for 30 minutes. This step speeds up drying time of the lacquer.
LACQUERING THE EGGS – Use clear polyurethane [Varathane] or Spar Varnish to seal eggs and enhance colors with a durable finish coat. Varnish can be satin or gloss finish. [Cabby prefers gloss.] Dip fingers into the urethane and rub each egg, coating from top to bottom. Dab off accumulated drips with paper towel. Lacquer can take 1-3 days to dry. Eggs kept year to year can be re-lacquered annually. The Tennis family has one egg, “Jungle Book”, with over 15 coats and a deep hard shine.
NAMING [Optional, but great fun] – Give each egg a creative name–something it reminds you of. Examples from the 2020 collection: The Duke of Earl, Violet Sultana, Jigsaw Cyan, Fly Like an Eagle, Calypso, Sgt. Pepper, Tetherball, Clouds of Mercury, Purple Reign, Gilly Spring
BEST EGG TREES – Made with dry sticks or branches with many limbs. Bougainvillea branches are excellent. Bind branches with string or zip ties and place in a large vase or container, preferably metal. Fill with rocks/pebbles to keep branches secured and centered. Hang eggs in a pleasing arrangement.
THE EGG GIFTING TRADITION – Invite families with young children to your home. Have an Easter reading about the historic symbolism of eggs, the season of spring and renewal, or related meaningful traditions. Light hand held candles one by one around the circle, and sing, “This Little Light of Mine”. Pass a bowl of folded bits of paper with numbers on them. Eggs are chosen from the tree in numerical order. [Parents sometimes trade numbers so children can pick earlier.] Number 1 leaves the room after pre-selecting an egg in their mind. The group tries to guess which egg will be chosen. #1 returns, removes their egg and the sequence continues. The key is to keep the pace going without dampening the enthusiasm of conjecture.
Egg cartons are filled with selected eggs for each family to take home.
A new egg tree tradition begins.
Cabby has additional details such as video clips of different stages of the process and a movie of the complete 2020 egg line up with names included. For more information, contact: email@example.com
I’m watching snow fall outside the dining room windows in our mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s good to have a retreat for winter hibernation or to avoid cities during a pandemic.
With the world facing a global health challenge and each of us needing to do what we can, collectively and individually, my thoughts turn to kitchens. Kitchens are the heartbeat of a home. During uncertain times we need them more than ever as a calming, comfortable retreat to nourish body and spirit.
A kitchen is a good place to be, almost always the best place in the house.–Michael Ruhlman
The world begins at the kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.–Joy Harjo
Designed as the room to prepare food and feed a household, kitchens are also the place for informal banter, story telling, blasting favorite music while cooking or cleaning up, problem solving around the table, and memory-evoking aromas from childhood onward.
From early marriage through 31 years of overseas living, I have unpacked and set up sixteen kitchens. Eleven were in rented houses or apartments. Five were in homes we purchased. One is of my own design. It stands as a close second to the best kitchen I ever inhabited.
Good kitchens are not about size. –Nigel Slater
My favorite kitchen has an old, yellow and orange, hexagonal-tiled floor. There is strong natural light, wooden countertops, and a window that opens in, like a door. It overlooks an interior courtyard of leafy Virginia creeper, twining thickly up brick walls. There is a small eating area next to it with a brown and gray marble fireplace and a tall French window with wavy antique glass. Outside, tendrils of vines hang down and create a living curtain that moves in the breeze.
To reach the kitchen, you crisscross the entire apartment–from the front door, through the wide entrance corridor, zig zagging down two narrow interior hallways to the backend of the building. This is the original floor plan for family-sized apartments, built in 1905, in the sixteenth Arrondissement in Paris.
During the early 20th century, Parisian kitchens were largely domains of household help who slept in tiny bedrooms under the roof. They shared a Turkish toilet and cold running water from a miniature corner sink in the hallway. There is a spiral wooden staircase to these rooms behind a double locked metal door in the kitchen.
By the time we moved to Paris, my daily cooking years were over. Children had grown up and now lived on another continent. Still, I was drawn to this kitchen every time I came home. Windows that opened wide over the quiet green of the courtyard became my meditative retreat.
I have a fireplace in my kitchen that I light every night, no matter what. –Alice Waters
During the dark wintery months, candles and oil lamps were lit on the fireplace mantel every morning and evening in the kitchen dining area.
My writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] said that a good kitchen requires few things.
There are only three things I need to make my kitchen a pleasant one. First, I need space to get a good simple meal for six people…Then, I need a window or two, for clear air and the sight of things growing…more of either would be wasteful. –M.F.K. Fisher
During our last six years overseas, I found Fisher’s vision in my perfect kitchen too. It had sufficient counter space for setting out an array of ingredients or rolling out pizza dough. The chopping board under the window opened to flowers in window boxes and vines that unfurled in tender green shoots each spring and dropped to the ground in red, yellow and orange splendor by November.
This kitchen was the site of preparing simple meals for two, dinner parties for ten, girlfriend TGIFs, or standup cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for a crowd. Sunday pizza night was a weekly ritual. [wait-twenty-minutes-then-add-salt] It was the gathering place for breakfast and Christmas holiday meal preparation with family visiting from America. The chopping block was the stage for photo shoots to illustrate my story writing.
You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens.–Trisha Yearwood
Our first grandchild played with wooden utensils and plastic storage containers on the tile floor while her mother and I played at roasting a chicken or making Latvian Lasagna. [love-and-layers-of-lasagne] She patted her own tiny pizza dough with her grandfather at the marble topped table in front of the fireplace.
The kitchen is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.–Laura Esquival
Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time. But it is a good investment in your spiritual development. –Laura Esquival
People who find their kitchen a good place to spend time would agree there is another dimension beyond mere preparation and cleanup. Whether you cook regularly or not, “inhabiting” a space that is pleasant and inviting is paramount to defining the kitchen as the soul of the house. More importantly, this is where you can retreat into your thoughts and dreams and nourish health in a personal way.
True health care reform cannot happen in Washington. It has to happen in our kitchens, in our homes, in our communities. All health care is personal.–Mehmet Oz
These days, as we are staking out a safe place in the world by spending more time at home, don’t forsake the importance of your kitchen. Use it as a haven for renewing spirits, replenishing bodies, and exchanging worry for hope and optimism.
Hopefully, there is a window nearby to provide “clear air and the site of things growing”. And candles to light when the sun goes down.
I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and enjoyment. –M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
Weeknight Bolognese from the Barefoot Contessa–Good comfort food
Good Olive Oil
1# lean ground sirloin [or 1# mushrooms for vegetarian, or both!]
4-5 minced garlic cloves
1 T. dried oregano
1/4-1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 1/4 C. dry red wine
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 T. tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1# dry pasta, any kind
1/4 t. nutmeg [optional]
1/4 C. chopped fresh basil, packed tightly
1/4/ C. heavy cream [or use milk]
Heat 2 T. olive oil in large skillet on med-hi. Add ground meat and cook until it starts to brown. Stir in garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook another minute, then pour in 1 C. red wine. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T. salt and 1 1/2 t. pepper, stirring to combine.
Bring sauce to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 min. In another pot, cook pasta in salted water until al dente.
Add nutmeg [if you have], chopped basil and milk or cream to the simmering sauce and continue another 8-10 min. Add remaining 1/4 C. red wine or some pasta cooking water [as needed] to make enough sauce.
Serve sauce over pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmesan on the side.
A Hollywood movie was released in 1998 called Sliding Doors. It’s a romantic comedy in which the plot alternates between story lines depending on whether the female character jumps through a closing subway door and catches the train or misses it entirely.
The concept of “sliding doors” is life’s trajectory. Even mundane moments of decision-making can alter future outcomes. We all think about what might have been if we had chosen differently in our lives.
I wonder if we sometimes pass through sliding doors completely unaware. When what we are doing is different than what we think it is. When someone else chooses for us.
It helps to have an active imagination.
For example, I could have been recruited as a CIA operative earlier in life, making a conscious choice to jump through that door. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the CIA found me.
In the early 1990’s, I was married and raising two young children with a husband working in Nicosia, Cyprus. We had a friend I will call “John”. His job was with the “State Department” in the U.S. Embassy. We assumed he was part of the CIA desk because he made extensive trips throughout the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Also, he never talked about his work.
John was a foodie before the term was common in popular culture. He relished good food and wine, and was knowledgeable about both. When he wasn’t out of town gathering information and following leads, he enjoyed long lunches at his favorite Italian restaurant, La Romantica. The owners knew him well. They were cued to his wine preferences and shared what was fresh on the menu. He always reserved the same corner table.
As John often entertained visitors, he began inviting me to join his lunch gatherings. I had no idea who any of the guests were, met them only once, never saw them again. It was always new people from different countries and cultures. At first, I thought I was rounding out the table for some good food and conversation with a friend and his clients.
I can talk to just about anyone in a social setting, even people I don’t know, by asking a question that leads to a further question. “Tell me about…” followed up with “And what about…?” A slight nod and unwavering eye contact helps people go on and on with their stories.
As a conversational skill, the focus is on the talker. Begin with one searching question, followed by the next, and then another. Sometimes people share more than intended. Perhaps John knew I naturally asked a lot of questions. What I noticed about him was that he hardly said anything at all. He just listened.
Oh, he ordered bottles of wine for the table, joked with the chef and his wife and made recommendations about food. Otherwise, he quietly took in what people were saying, what they were telling me.
After several lunches, I began to wonder if I was gathering info for his professional files instead of being a good guest chatting up sophisticated visitors. The thought escalated after my husband asked, “Do you ever wonder why John invites you to lunch with people you don’t know?”
Eventually the lunch crowd thinned and the restaurant emptied, but our table remained intact. There was no mention of needing to vacate the space. This should have been my cue to excuse myself so John and his guests could get down to “real business.” If non-verbal cues were signaled, I missed them.
Instead, I busied myself a different way. Over the course of four, and sometimes five-hour lunches, I became familiar with Romantica’s owners who invited me into the kitchen for a mini-cooking lesson. With hindsight, Signor and Signora “Romantica” were probably in on the gig, too. Allowing John some professional space in the front of the house while they tried to beef up my cooking skills in the back of the house.
I have often said that I am not a natural born cook. Eating well is important, but I love when someone else is in charge of the preparation of a good meal. Still, I learned two memorable recipes from my post-lunch lessons.
The first was how to make a fresh tomato sauce from the beautiful, deep red, Cypriot tomatoes. It begins with removing the skins by dropping them into boiling water. After de-skinning, it is basically a stir-fry for about 20 minutes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, fresh basil leaves added at the end. The eye-closing-wonderful-taste of this simple sauce, with any pasta, has everything to do with tomatoes grown in ancient soil, ripened in blazing hot Mediterranean sun. I found it difficult to replicate elsewhere.
The second thing I learned was how to prepare my favorite order at Romantica; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. This became one of my comfort foods–spaghetti with garlic, oil, and red pepper flakes. It’s a fast prep made as easily for dining solo as for a crowd.
If the afternoon wore on toward 4:00 or 5:00PM, my husband and John’s wife would show up, their working day ended. They wondered why lunch had stretched into the apéro hour, but sat down as John ordered a final round of wine before we all headed home.
What they didn’t realize was that I had completed another assignment of covert information gathering as a CIA volunteer.
Well, anyway, all imagining aside, what those lunches provided was a set of skills that served me for the rest of our years overseas. With insightful questions, I learned to navigate, and [mostly] enjoy, large social gatherings where I didn’t know anyone.
I’m not wild about stand-up cocktail parties, shoulder-to-shoulder receptions, huge galas, or fancy dancing balls. But we participated in all of these during 31 years overseas. Many times. Gearing up for such events was less formidable when I realized I didn’t have to talk to every person or “work the whole room” as my husband did naturally and very well.
My tactic was to zero in on one or two people for meaningful conversation. Time flew by in a satisfying way and felt better spent without idle mingling and wishing to kick off high-heeled shoes. Thus, my brief interrogation stint with the CIA had a positive afterlife.
Life’s opportunities come and go. Whether we decide to enter a door as it opens, or miss it and choose the next–there is always an experience or an unexpected something that follows.
Overseas living was a sliding door of opportunity for us. The courage to jump [blindly] was necessary only once. With the next international job and the next, we understood that our family unit would remain tight and our collection of memorable stories would continue to grow.
However, I still wonder about one sliding door, many years ago, which briefly opened for me personally. Riding horses in my 20’s, and newly married, I was offered a job as an exercise rider for thoroughbreds. It required travel and hinted of excitement, risk, adventure.
Now there’s another story ending to imagine…
SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO
1 lb. spaghetti
1/3 C. good olive oil
8 garlic cloves, minced
½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
½-1 C. flat-leaf parsley or baby spinach, coarsely chopped
1 C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ C. pasta water.
Heat olive oil in large saucepan.
Sauté red pepper flakes with garlic until garlic just begins to brown.
Stir in the reserved pasta water.
Add the cooked spaghetti and heat through, mixing all together.
Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan.
Use additional parsley and Parmesan as garnish.
If you don’t like spice, leave out the pepper flakes and you have spaghetti aglio e olio.
Some Italian lineages say never use Parmesan on any pasta dish with an oil base. Parmesan is for tomato sauces. Signora Romantica was of that tradition. But we love Parmesan and made it our own addition.
Other stories of friends and adventures in Cyprus [with recipes, too]:
Editor’s Note: While we were living in France, my husband was invited by the American Embassy in 2014 to take a group of students from the American School in Paris to a commemorative ceremony overlooking Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. The presidents of France and the United States spoke. American veterans of that fateful day were present. It was a time to reflect on remarkable courage and leadership–with freedom as the outcome. I wrote about that here: The Unexpected in Normandy
Five years later, as the 75th D-Day anniversary approaches, we now live in the U.S. and find ourselves thinking about our country’s role in today’s world. I asked my husband to be a guest writer and offer his perspective on keeping the spirit of D-Day alive. What follows are his remembrance and thoughts about an historic event and the hope that the metaphoric message of D-Day will live on throughout all generations. Thank you, Mark.
There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves. –Barbara Kingsolver
Second Lieutenant Richard Winters parachuted into D-Day in the early hours of June 6, 1944, separated from his weapon as he jumped, landing miles away from the rest of his Easy Company 506 Parachute Regiment. A soldier from another company, who came down near Winters, asked if they were lost. Lieutenant Winter’s response? “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.” Operation Overlord had begun at 1:30AM on a pitch-dark morning.
In all, about 75,000 Americans parachuted behind the lines or disembarked from an armada of boats onto Utah and Omaha beaches that first day. Casualties were over 10,000. With unimaginable sacrifice and courage, so began the liberation of France and, once the breakout unfolded beyond Normandy, the fall of German Fascism.
Consider that seventy-five years ago the youth of America with their lives out in front of them came ashore, under withering fire, based on a premise of arriving into a country not their own, fighting to liberate a people they did not know, and becoming one with the human race in a fight against Nazism. Not words but actions to preserve democratic ideals of self-government, liberty, equality and human freedoms. “America First”–no. American leadership–yes. In the words of Harry S. Truman, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
But on June 6, 1944 there was terror amid bloodshed and dying young men crying out for their mothers. It was a time when America did the most important thing on earth by letting besieged nations know they were not alone. It was American power with characteristic capacity for good.
Today if you fly into Paris, rent a car, and drive into the Normandy countryside you will see two flags adorning doorways of farmhouses and homes–the French tri-color and the American stars and stripes. Young school children still tend the graves in allied cemeteries across France.
Five years ago, I took students to Colleville-sur-Mer, in Normandy, France, to participate in the ceremony of the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings. That year’s commemoration brought together then U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande at the Normandy American Cemetery. They spoke of what love means after all: sacrifice and selflessness. Standing on this ground, absorbing the meaning of their speeches, made me weep. I wanted every child from now to eternity to understand what happened in Normandy.
President Obama observed that, “If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world. And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history.”
Then our president said, “But in the annals of history, the world had never seen anything like it. And when the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild. We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it. But America’s claim — our commitment — to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being — that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.”
How important it was for our students, surrounded by 9388 gravestones, to hear about America’s (and our allies) sacrifice beyond borders.
President Hollande described the reality of that day in 1944, “Seventy years ago to the day, right here, opposite this beach, this beautiful beach on the Riva Bella, thousands of young soldiers jumped into the water under a torrent of gunfire and ran toward the German defenses. They were 20 years old, give or take a few years, and at that moment, who could say that 20 was the best age in life? For them, 20 was the age of duty, it was the age of commitment, it was the age of sacrifice. They were cold; they were afraid. On that June 6th the air, so pure today, was thick with the smoke of the first clashes, and riven by the din of explosions. The calm water we see today was striped with foam from the landing craft and red with the blood of the first combatants. What were those 20-year-olds thinking in the face of this terror? They must have been thinking of their beloved mothers, their fathers so worried, their loved ones so far away, their childhoods so recent, and their lives so short, lives whose horizons were blotted out by the war.”
“And yet those young men, amid that hell of fire and steel, didn’t hesitate for one second. They advanced, advanced across the soil of France, braving the bullets and shells; they advanced, risking their lives to defeat a diabolical enemy; they advanced to defend a noble cause; they advanced, yes, and went on advancing, to free us, to liberate us at last.”
The French president reminded us about the character of America and our country’s leadership, “But the soldiers who came from the sea had achieved the essential thing. The essential thing was to set foot on French soil, and on 6 June they had begun to liberate France. And as the sun set on the Longest Day, a radiant beam of hope rose over subservient Europe. On these Normandy beaches, the memory lingers of a bitter, uncertain, decisive confrontation. On these peaceful Normandy beaches, the souls of the fighters who gave their lives to save Europe live on. On these tranquil beaches, whatever the weather, whatever the climate of the seasons, a single wind blows, the wind of freedom. It still blows today.”
On that beautiful spring day in the “orchard of gravestones”, Normandy American Cemetery, all of us attending the 70thanniversary recognized that freedom is fragile and that we must stand together as nations. Hollande continued, “I’ve talked about courage – the courage of the soldiers, the courage of the resistance fighters, the courage of people at the time; courage in wartime. But courage in peacetime is just as essential and necessary. What motivated the soldiers who landed here 70 years ago? Their patriotic duty? Yes, no doubt. But also an idea, an idea they all shared, whatever their nationality: by setting foot here, on these beaches, they were carrying a dream, a dream which seemed impossible in 1944; a dream born out of the depths of despair, a dream which enlightened their conscience. What was this dream? It was the promise of a world free from tyranny and war.”
Speaking directly to President Obama, François Hollande said, “Mr. President, the French people recognize an indefatigable energy in America, an ability to innovate, create, invent and carry the dream of success. But what they admire the most in the American people – because they themselves are its most ardent champions – is their love of freedom. And my compatriots know that, when the critical moment comes, when our principles are in danger, France and the United States always come together, as in that terrible summer of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy and on the beaches of Provence.”
How is it possible to hear the French president’s words about the spirit and character of America and not feel proud, and today wonder how we would ever compromise this legacy under the moniker of “America First?” What is the message we send our youth about the principles of democracy and friendship between nations being worth courage and sacrifice? The story of June 6, 1944 must live in the hearts of today’s and future generations too.
As the 75thanniversary of the Normandy landings approaches, with many fewer World War II veterans alive, is there not still a message about America’s leadership overseas? To honor those young, forever young soldiers who died for our freedom on foreign soil that day in 1944, what decisions will we make about our world? Is it going to be totalitarianism or will democracies prevail? Will the current “America First” idea, or runaway nationalism, diminish the message of Normandy? History tells a different story. America was not so constructed. We lead with generosity.
Today, American leadership around the world is perhaps in doubt, especially when leaders of other countries are asked. We appear to be an uncertain friend. Our moral compass is without a true north.
Maybe the Longest Day, seventy-five years later can serve as a reminder that if there is an “America First” concept, it is our willingness to step into the breach–to advance values born out of the Constitution and with our allies in common purpose to preserve freedom around the world.
It was William Blake who said, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” We remember June 6, 1944 by defining a hero as someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Such thinking might well apply to individuals and nations alike. A life message to all children–we want them to know and to care.
Let “America First” mean finding our way with confidence and courage to confirm our nation’s place as an agent for good in the world. On this principle, we need to stand rock solid. Think of two soldiers finding their way on the darkest of nights, having been dropped from the sky, not knowing what was ahead, but optimistic–where the metaphor of our time lies in the hopeful words of Dick Winters, “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.”
Naples, Italy is the birthplace of pizza. When tomato was added to flat bread in the late 18th century, pizza, as we know it today, was born. If you go to Naples, you will certainly enjoy eating pizza on a cobblestoned street after touring the Amalfi coast and the dusty excavations in Pompeii. Then fly out the next day. Naples is not an easy city.
Pizza ranks high as a favorite food all over the world. You can order in, carry out, or enjoy at your neighborhood spot. However, I don’t eat restaurant pizza anymore, except in Italy, because my husband learned to make perfect pizza dough at home. His finesse began with a friendship of mine.
My husband enjoys creative time in the kitchen. Not everyday. But when people come to our home he will go to finicky recipe extremes. I call it performance cooking. Guests love it. Each course is beautifully plated and presented with a detailed description of what goes into whatever is being served.
His foray into kitchen time began when we lived in Taiwan. Home dinner parties were an almost every weekend event. This, in contrast to meeting up with friends in fluorescent lit, Formica tabled, disposable chopstick, plastic plate restaurants circa 1990s.
We did that often, as well, because the food in Taiwan is fresh and delicious. However, it wasn’t a place for long, conversation filled evenings with good wine and food, heavy china, linen napkins, and candles flickering down the middle of the table.
One of our family rituals while the children were growing up was to have a formal Sunday night dinner. Husband was in charge of menu planning, shopping and meal prep. I laid the table with the “fancier” china and flatware. Son and daughter were on cleanup and some form of “presentation” as entertainment. Those responsibilities worked some of the time.
My friend, Linda, is a Midwestern ex-pat who moved to Taipei with her family several years after our arrival. We became fast friends with husbands and children joining in. Linda’s Sunday night family ritual was making homemade pizza. Her youngest daughter liked to participate by carefully rolling out the dough, just so. Her two teenagers showed up for the eating part.
When she made pizza for guests, I discovered my favorite Linda-topping-recipe. It was always this: the thinnest crust, basil pesto sauce, toasted pine nuts, sliced garlic and fresh chili peppers with grated Parmesan cheese over the top.
Along the way, a quirky tweak was added to her recipe because of an Italian chef named Max, who found himself temporarily employed in a Taipei restaurant. He left Barbados for one year while the hotel where he worked was being renovated. What he loved about the Caribbean was the warm, turquoise colored water and beautiful beaches. Max found Taiwan on a map and saw it was an island, too. He thought he could happily cook and still be near sand and water. That didn’t exactly work out. Not much white sand and blue water in Taipei.
Max enjoyed chatting up lingering late night restaurant customers after the kitchen closed. When Linda mentioned she often made pizza from scratch at home, he told her the secret for the “best pizza dough”. It was a tip from his Italian mama.
Don’t add salt right away. Wait at least 20 minutes to let the yeast, sugar and warm water begin their bubbly reaction. Yeast reacts better without salt added until later. It creates more pliable and elastic dough. From a mother in an Italian village, to a beach loving chef in Taiwan, to an American home cook, here was insider pizza chemistry.
Before Linda left Taiwan, I wrote down her dough recipe with Max’s tweak. I’m the basic kind of cook rather than the finicky kind, so it was filed away and several years went by. Children left home. A new job with new geography moved us out of Asia.
With only two at the table, formal Sunday dinners faded away. We ate out more often because it was Europe! Germany! Restaurant atmosphere was charming. And the food didn’t disappoint.
Sundays in Germany are quiet. Everything closes from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Pulling out Linda’s recipe, I waved it in front of my husband and suggested, “We need a new Sunday eating ritual. I love Linda’s pizza. Why don’t you learn to make it?”
And so, my man began kneading and punching and creating homemade dough with puffs of flour in the air and a rolling pin in hand. Sunday night became Pizza Night. It worked when there was just the two of us. It worked as a night for entertaining guests. It worked as a Christmas Eve meal for a crowd.
From rustic Naples centuries ago, to an ex-pat friendship in Taiwan, to a displaced Italian chef and his mother, to a man who found contentment in mixing flour, water, yeast and salt into elastic dough, a new family tradition was formed. Linda’s pizza became ours.
We have made it for family, and for people from cultures around the world. In whatever geography we find ourselves, and in the midst of complexity and the rush of life, we always wait twenty minutes. And then add salt.
MARK’S PIZZA CRUST
Yield: 4, 15-inch or 6, 12-inch pizzas
2 packages active dry yeast
1 t. sugar
2 C. semolina flour–mix in first [optional, but a good Italian touch]
3 C. all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
2 t. salt
Olive oil for coating bowl as dough rises and for pizza pans
Place 2 C. warm water [110-115 degrees F.] in small mixing bowl.
Stir in 1 t. sugar. Then sprinkle in yeast. Stir to combine.
Set aside for at least 20 minutes, letting it expand and bubble.
After 20 minutes, combine flours, salt and yeast mixture in a large bowl. If using semolina flour, stir in first, then add the rest.
When dough becomes difficult to stir with a wooden spoon, turn out of bowl onto a lightly floured smooth surface.
Begin kneading by hand. Add small amounts of flour, as needed, so dough is not sticking to hands and surface.
Knead at least 10 minutes, squeezing and folding dough over on itself, pushing with heels of both hands. I like to pick the dough up and throw it down hard onto kneading surface several times. Husband likes punching it.
When dough becomes smooth and elastic, form into a ball.
Lightly wipe a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl. Turn once to coat both sides in oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.
Set aside to rise 45 min. to an hour or until doubled in bulk.
Punch down, reshape dough, and cover. Let it rise once or twice more as you wish. It’s not necessary to do multiple risings, but time gives more structure and flavor to the dough.
Preheat oven to 465 degrees F.
Wipe or spray pizza pans lightly with olive oil. Optional to sprinkle pans with semolina flour.
Roll out sections of dough as thinly as possible to fit prepared pans.
Arrange toppings on dough. Less is more with homemade pizza. This keeps crust from becoming soggy and heavy.
Bake in preheated oven to desired doneness. Start checking at 10-12 min. Watch the edges so they don’t get too brown.
Remove from pans and cut into slices. Kitchen scissors work great.
Individual preferences rule
Allow guests to create their own pizza topping combination
Toppings and Sauce suggestions: light brushing of red pesto, basil pesto, tomato sauce or olive oil over unbaked dough
Thinly sliced [or diced] garlic cloves–always
Red pepper flakes or sliced fresh chili peppers–optional
Meat–chicken, prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage
Or no meat
Roasted vegetables such as eggplant, broccoli or cauliflower
Raw veggies like sweet peppers, mushrooms, black olives, onions or shallots
Toasted pine nuts
I like freshly grated Parmesan, only, over top of ingredients.
Husband mixes a little fresh buffalo mozzarella, or goat cheese, or mixed grated cheeses with a topping of Parmesan.
Fresh arugula or baby spinach strewn over cooked pizza adds a bite of salad and green. Add before serving or let people help themselves table side.
Champagne is our pizza beverage of choice. There is some kind of chemistry going on there too. In your home, family choice rules.
Practice makes perfect. Play with proportions until you are comfortable with the sequence of steps. You won’t need a recipe if you make it regularly.
This makes a LOT of dough, which is efficient for later use.
It freezes well in zip lock bags and thaws easily. Place in refrigerator overnight or on the countertop until soft.
Roll out on lightly floured surface and proceed with toppings.
I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen. –Winnie-the-Pooh
The important relationships in my life are best explained by this: Stick with people who pull the magic out of you and not the madness. These are the people who fill in my gaps with their strengths. They have characteristics I love and want to absorb when we are together. They are the ones with whom I am always comfortable.
I have written about my overseas friend, Janmarie in an earlier story, Hellenic Halloumi. We saw each other almost every day for the three years we overlapped while living in Nicosia, Cyprus. She came to my kitchen table on weekday mornings for coffee and conversation after dropping off her children at the International School.
In 1993, our family moved from Cyprus to Taiwan and the daily connection was left behind. It was before email and international phone calls were common so we lost touch with the changes in each other’s lives. In 2018, our last year living overseas, Janmarie was in Beirut, Lebanon while I was in Paris. She urged me to visit her before leaving Europe. I didn’t hesitate to say “yes”.
Friends are the family you choose. –Jess C. Scott
In an overseas lifestyle, friendships tend to be intense and become surrogate family on holidays, vacations, and for celebrations.
My mother visited us the first Christmas we lived in Taiwan. We had just arrived a few months earlier. She was surprised by the closeness and quality of friendships we had already established. She said that we were at a depth of relationship and caring about people we had known for only months that could take years to develop at home.
Having lived in Singapore and Cyprus before, we knew that filling in the details of our home away from home started with the people who came into our lives by chance…and shared geography.
Janmarie met me at the airport in Beirut. We slipped into easy conversation on the way to her apartment as if it had been 25 minutes instead of 25 years. She told me how important it was to her that I made the effort to come to her home, how much it honored her, and our friendship.
A true friend is one you can go extended periods without seeing or talking to, yet the moment you are back in touch it’s like no time has passed at all.–Ellie Wade
Janmarie’s plan was to immerse me in the beauty and culture of Lebanon. Generosity and freshly prepared food are hallmarks of Lebanese hospitality. After we arrived at her apartment, the dining room table was laid with an array of dishes made in preparation of my visit.
Because I had watched Janmarie feed her family in Cyprus, I knew the importance and love that goes into making nourishing and delicious food followed by sitting à la table en famille in Lebanese/American households. An abundant table with my friend’s vivacious spirit was the perfect beginning.
Janmarie introduced me to Marti, an American of Lebanese heritage who grew up in Kansas and now lives upstairs. She is a scholar and an intellectual, studying the Quran with a private teacher, working her way through reading and reciting all of the holy prayers in Arabic. Marti became a new friend because of an old friend. We connected right away.
The three of us took a day trip outside Beirut to the beautiful Shouf Mountains and the picturesque village of Deir el-Qamar [Monastery of the Moon], which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along the way we stopped for coffee and a typical pastry snack, ka’ak [Arabic for cake]. It was savory rather than sweet–a ring shaped bread “purse” filled with cheese and covered in sesame seeds. At lunchtime we dined al fresco, under trees overhanging a restaurant patio, with freshly prepared traditional dishes to share.
My favorite cultural experience was the “Hubbly Bubbly” ritual. This is a tall water pipe that sits on the floor and is used for vaporizing flavored tobacco. It is available in every bar, restaurant or café. Janmarie chose a mint/lemon flavor for me. Not a smoker by habit, but there was enjoyment in relaxing with friends and making big puffs of smoke from an aromatic hookah in the midst of others doing the same. When in Lebanon, do as…
We spoke about the Cyprus years when our children were young and life had a different framework. But we shifted seamlessly to exchanging stories of experiences, perspectives and beliefs that define who we are today. It’s an important quality for ongoing friendships–each person capable of keeping the relationship moving forward, while savoring shared times from the past.
The day before I left, I asked Janmarie to cook one of my favorite Lebanese dishes, Mujadarah. She taught me to make it years ago when my cooking specialized in one-dish meals for the family. Mujadarah is a lentil/rice casserole smothered in fried onions. I probably served it alone because it is flavorful and filling. The version she made for me was finished with a lemon-y dressed cabbage salad over the top. I finally learned to make a complete one dish meal, salad included!
There are reasons, perhaps subconscious, as to why we want to return to certain friendships. And why others remain at a distance. There are people in our lives where any amount of time spent with them is just right, and exactly what we need. We swoop into their orbit because they pull out our better selves, even our best selves. And when a friend knows the joy in your company that you feel in theirs…then the magic is complete.
…And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit. –Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”
MUJADARAH WITH CABBAGE SALAD-Serves 4
1 C. dry lentils
¾ C. dry rice
Cook the lentils and rice separately. [Leftover rice works great.] Mix cooked ingredients together in a decorative bowl. Season to taste with salt and olive oil.
Cut two onions into thin slices. Deep fry onions in oil until crispy and brown. [You can also use less oil and sauté onions very slowly until caramelized.]
Smother the top of the lentil/rice combo with cooked onions.
2 C. finely sliced cabbage
2 cloves garlic, minced [or probably more]
¼ C. olive oil
¼ C. freshly squeezed lemon juice [or more]. Can use vinegar, but lemon is so right for this
½ t. salt
Pomegranate seeds [not optional as they add color and zing.]
Optional: 2 T fresh or 1 T. dried mint, also green onions
Pound garlic and salt in mortar and pestle.
Add lemon juice [or vinegar] and olive oil.
Whisk together and pour over cabbage.
Toss. Refrigerate 1 hour or so to blend flavors.
Place Mujadarah on a plate. Top with cabbage salad. Salad must be crunchy because the cabbage rules!–Janmarie
I have flown a million miles over the 31 years we lived overseas. As the miles accumulated so did stories of airports and airplanes. One of them, now part of family lore, involved a plane departing with my child but without me.
There are two other unforgettable stories about one airport in particular, the old Hong Kong Kai Tak International. It closed 20 years ago, in 1998, after serving the city for 73 years. In the late 1980s we used it for three years to fly from the U.S. to our home overseas in Singapore. It was a 24 hour trip from Denver, Colorado with layovers in California and Hong Kong before landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport.
One decade and two international moves later, a contemporary oil painting by an artist friend in Taiwan transported me back to the first, spectacular, pulse-racing landing we made into Hong Kong.
In 1999, Heloiza, who is a Brazilian artist, had a show of her oil paintings in Taipei, Taiwan. Strolling the array of artwork, I saw the title “Rooftops” next to a large canvas. Looking from the title to the painting, something shivered through me. Art is supposed to create emotions like this. When I looked again, I had a visceral flashback to 1987, the summer we left Colorado and moved to southeast Asia. Now, I wanted to own that painting.
In the years since Taiwan, “Rooftops” has hung in our home in the “altstadt” in Oberursel, Germany, later above an elaborately carved marble fireplace in Paris, and now in the living room of an apartment in Princeton, New Jersey.
Neither of our two children understand why I love this painting. One summer, our son Adam stayed in Taipei to work while the rest of the family was on home leave. He disliked it so much that he removed it from the wall and stashed it out of sight until August.
Adam was only 5, 6, and 7 years old during those early years overseas. He doesn’t remember what made this particular piece of art “real” for me. Or why I keep dragging it around the world to hang in a place of prominence in our homes.
Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International was a city airport in the midst of densely populated Kowloon. There were mountains and hills and multi-story apartment buildings surrounding it. The runway protruded into the sea. Reclaimed land kept extending its’ length as airplanes grew bigger.
But there was something even more remarkable about it than just longevity. Pilots of all airlines regarded it as one of the most difficult airports in the world to land a jet smoothly and safely. Because Kai Tak was renowned for its’ challenging, hair-raising approach to the runway. For a spectator on the ground witnessing jumbo airliners land was eye-popping entertainment. As a passenger in a window seat–it took my breath away.
One commercial pilot with 30+ years of experience remembers, “As a pilot, it was totally unique. It was the only major airport in the world that required a 45-degree turn below 500 feet to line up with the runway, literally flying between the high-rise buildings, passing close to the famous orange and white checkerboard as you made that final turn toward the runway.”
With two sleeping children who were oblivious, I watched with my forehead pressed against the window while the pilot executed that sharply arced turn to align with the runway. As the engines decelerated, the fuselage and wings seemed to barely skim the flat tops of square-shaped apartment buildings–block after block after block of them. In slow and slower motion, I looked down onto rooftops, laundry flapping on clotheslines, children playing, and Chinese faces with features easily distinguishable, turned upward. It was a bird’s eye view teeming with life.
Landing at Kai Tak was tricky partly because of a prominent hill blocking what would normally be a straight-on approach to the runway. Another daunting reason for a truly “white knuckle” landing was inclement weather.
A Cathay Pacific pilot reflects, “This [landing on runway 13] was quite a challenge, especially in strong wind conditions. As Cathay pilots, we had plenty of practice and became very adept at flying the approach…but it was quite a challenge for pilots from other airlines, especially in the more demanding flying conditions, as they might only come into Kai Tak once a year.”
Wind was one very big problem. Rain and low ceiling cloud cover were another. Because of the unique approach over the city, it was important for pilots to have a good view of the runway in order to avoid overshooting the turn on the approach.
A retired pilot recalls watching unsuccessful landings from the ground. “Being at the Kai Tak car park watching airplanes land in heavy rain could be very worrying. The pilots could not see the runway, and landing over Kowloon, you had to be visual with the runway. Some [pilots] seemed to wait a little longer than others before they aborted the landing and went around for another go. Some would appear out of the low clouds on the approach path, then power up and vanish back into the clouds.”
Another year I was traveling alone back to Singapore via Hong Kong. The descent began in extremely foul weather. There was rock and roll turbulence, heavy rain, and no visibility as we neared the airport. Everyone strapped in, no rooftop views, just a wish and a prayer to be on solid ground. The plane angled and tipped drastically with a big “bump”. Suddenly, the engines powered into high acceleration as the nose pulled upward sharply. We were pinned back in our seats, gripping armrests. The cabin was silent. No explanation from the flight deck. We swung around for another try.
Vivid memories tie me to that now defunct airport of crazy turns, aborted landings, and inhabited rooftops appearing like colorful concrete terraced gardens in the sky.
And that is why a painting always hangs on a wall of our home depicting blocky, geometrically aligned squares and rectangles in colors of red, blue, yellow, green, and mustard brown.
The other story, mentioned as family lore at the beginning of this story, has tried to remain buried at the bottom of mothering mistakes. But it is the one our son most definitely remembers. In today’s world of air travel the same series of circumstances would never happen again. It was bad enough 30 years ago.
Our first home leave trip was not until 1989, the second summer away from the U.S. I made the trip alone with the children, husband coming later. Four-year old daughter did not sleep for the interminable hours from Singapore to Hong Kong to California to Arizona where we had one final flight before meeting grandparents in Iowa.
She passed out in deep slumber as we landed at the Phoenix airport. There was no plane change, simply a one-hour layover to pick up additional passengers and a new crew. I asked the flight attendant if I could leave soundly sleeping child to run into terminal and make a phone call about our very delayed arrival to Des Moines.
Taking seven-year-old son, we disembarked and found the pay phones. Twenty minutes later we were back at the gate.
The jet-way door was locked. The plane was no longer there. A new crew had boarded quickly and, because the flight was well behind schedule, a decision was made to depart right away. I went into panic mode, pleading that my child was asleep in the back of the plane. IT COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE LEFT! The flight attendant who had [minutes before] agreed to my brief leave-taking “forgot” to mention sleeping child. The gate agent told me it was too late, the plane was in the sky.
In actuality, the plane taxied to the departure runway, was cleared for take off and began acceleration. As a new crew member prepared to take her jump seat, she discovered a small girl in the back of the plane with no adult nearby. A hasty call to the flight deck and jet engines were powered down seconds before lift off. The plane returned to the gate.
I did not look at the faces of the other passengers as I re-boarded, holding tightly to the hand of the child with me. I knew they were appalled at the situation and angry about the further delay.
In the long walk to the back of the plane, I focused only on the shining face of my now awake child, eyes blinking and small blond head bobbling back and forth above the seat, calmly wondering what was going on.
Two stories–one of a plane swooping low over flat rooftops teeming with life, the other of a plane that left the gate…early. A painting reminds me of one. A heart-stopping memory will not let me forget the other.
Both are reminders that life unfolds as a collection of stories–some of them expand the world we know, as when we see or do something extraordinary, and others remind us there is a world of unexpected, too.
A new experience can be extremely pleasurable, or extremely irritating, or somewhere in between, and you never know until you try it out. ―Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book
There are myriad ways to experiment with life. Moving away from the known or familiar is one way to keep things interesting. Finding enriching friendships is another.
In the late 1980’s, a new job opportunity nudged our family geographically away from the comfort zone in middle America. Our two children were young and adaptable. As the decision-making adults we took a chance–letting go of two jobs, two cars, a house in the ‘burbs of Denver, Colorado. Just for a couple of years. We moved to Southeast Asia.
From the beginning, everything we saw, smelled, ate, drank, or experienced in those first years in Singapore laid the foundation for what followed over the next three decades. We moved to four other countries. Singapore was the catalyst to keep experimenting.
My husband remembers pacing the aisles of the airplane as we flew there for the first time, children sleeping peacefully, worrying about what he had wrought on our family. How would we adapt a very American lifestyle to this small, tropical, island-state with three predominant cultures–Chinese, Malay, and Indian?
Actually, it was easier than we imagined. Because of the people we met, the friends we made–living a little off balance and learning to experiment became the new norm. The first important overseas experience happened after I met my friend, Jan.
Jan was an operating room nurse–we had that in common–who left her job to follow a husband to work in Germany and then Singapore. We both missed the camaraderie of our co-workers and the hospital environment. Here we were, in a foreign country, unable to work professionally. It was time to find something else to do.
There was a refugee camp located in a former British barracks on Hawkins Road in the Sembawang area of Singapore. It was established after the fall of Saigon in 1975 for Vietnamese “Boat People”. Because Singapore did not accept refugees, this camp was a transit stop before deportation to countries accepting them. Volunteer nurses were needed. Jan signed us up.
We took long bus rides to the north of the island to work in the clinic. Giving immunizations, tending injuries, dressing wounds, treating minor illnesses in men, women and children who usually spoke no English, but knew how to smile in gratitude. A steady influx of refugees created long lines of those needing help. I jumped feet first into learning the risks that other people take, too.
risking all for a new life
singapore refugee camp, 1975-1996
Another friendship, with Sandy, provided something different. She was also an American nurse who moved to Singapore with a husband and three children several years before we did. It didn’t take long for her to start a business by filling suitcases with wholesale women’s clothing made in Hong Kong and selling them out of her home. Clothing in Singapore in the ‘80s was available only in small Asian sizes and styles. Non-Asian women were an eager and ready market for her niche.
updated façades, little india, 2017
singapore little india shops, 2017
merlion park and a modern city backdrop, 2017
Sandy’s home was a cozy, eclectic mix of styles and textures that I loved. When I asked where she found certain pieces of furniture or funky artifacts, she said, “We should go Kampong shopping.”
The word “Kampong” is from the Malay language, meaning village. Throughout Singapore’s early history, and well into the 20thcentury, kampongs were settlements of houses and small shops where the indigenous population lived. Initially, huts were built with palm-thatched roofs designed to let the air pass through and temper the heat of tropical sun. Later, wood and zinc replaced thatch, which seemed exotic but actually leaked horribly in monsoon rains and housed centipedes and other creepy crawlies that dropped down from overhead.
The kampong communities were close-knit, doors left open, children of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian culture played together seamlessly. Rainwater was collected. Cats, dogs and chickens roamed in co-existence. Later, generators that sometimes worked brought electricity.
Colonial British government began addressing overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions within the kampongs in the early 1900s. Public housing began in earnest after WWII as the Singaporean population rapidly increased.
In 1960 (prior to independence in 1965), the Housing Development Board [HDB] was established to further urban renewal. Mass demolition of shop houses and kampongs began to build affordable, low cost, high-rise, housing estates for all Singaporeans. HDB flats led to the creation of “new towns” throughout the island.
Transition from kampong living to government sanctioned housing flats allowed people to easily enjoy clean water, electricity and gas. However, life changed dramatically in the sense of decreased community spirit, less neighbor interaction, and a population of children who grew up playing on concrete, not in nature.
By the time we moved to Singapore many kampongs had been partially bulldozed or completely razed as residents moved on to modern living. Tropical heat, humidity, and prolific vegetation growth from daily rains rapidly invaded and took over abandoned sites.
remains of kampong house
steps leading to nowhere
the jungle takes over in time
Sandy knew locations of deserted kampongs where, if you dared to venture into the overgrowth of tenacious weeds and jungle vines, dodge snakes and crawling things, repel dengue-fever-bearing mosquitoes, you could unearth left behind possessions with potential for renewal and use.
It was the Singapore equivalent of an archeological dig, with a recycling component. Here we witnessed the life of a community after the community had moved on.
Kampong shopping was always a dirty, sweaty proposition of hunting, excavation and fun. Rewards were in the discovery. We found crocks used for storing water, oil or food, incense burners, altar tables, tea pots, baskets, dragon pots, glass jars, marble lamp bases, teak tables, a wooden kitchen cabinet with rusted screens. We hauled our “treasures” home and spent hours cleaning or refinishing them. They functioned as decorative or usable artifacts, with a back-story.
altar table, refinished
ceramic pots for storing water or food
Introduction and initiation into the Singaporean cuisine came from my friend, Mary, who lived in the apartment building next to ours. She was a tiny woman who loved food–as culturally important to her as her Chinese matrilineal family hierarchy. Mary would call me on the phone and say, “I’m picking you up to go eat!” The food in Singapore was, and is, phenomenal. This is the country where my taste buds learned to crave anything spicy. Mary was my guide.
We ventured all over to her favorite “Hawker Centres”–informal, open-air food stalls specializing in Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Indian food. Cooked on order, on site, eaten with chopsticks while sitting on plastic stools at plastic tables on the sidewalk.
I tasted Nonya Laksa [Laksa Lemak] for the first time at Peranakan Place on Orchard Road–a spicy noodle soup in curried coconut broth with prawns and a quail egg. Carrot cake [Chai tow kway] is not cake and not carrots, but a favorite hawker dish of mine. Steamed white radish and rice flour cut into cubes and fried with garlic, eggs, preserved radish and other spices. Whatever Mary ordered I ate, sweated through, and loved.
fried carrot cake
Peranakan Place pre-urban renewal, 1979
one rendition after renovation
current look in june 2017
Singapore was the beginning of making friends who lived as we did, away from the usual, outside the familiar. People who say “yes” to living outside of the box.
I thrived in our international moves because of every friend I made. Sometimes it was hard to leave one place to rebuild relationships in the next. But the easy part was sustaining those friendships because of everything we experienced together.
Creating relationships and life lessons is really what overseas living is about. In such a nomadic lifestyle, the key is making a home where you embrace friends as family. Anywhere in the world.
A REASON, A SEASON OR A LIFETIME
When someone is in your life for a REASON, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They are there for the reason you need them to be. Then, without any wrongdoing on your part, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes, they die. Sometimes, they walk away. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done. The prayer you sent has been answered. Now it is time to move on.
Then people come into your life for a SEASON, because it is your turn to share, grow, or learn. These people bring you peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They give you an unbelievable amount of joy. It is real, but only for a passing season.
LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons, things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.
It has been several months between writing stories while we packed up our life after 31 years overseas and repatriated home. Now there are new jobs to learn and new geographies to explore on the east coast of the U.S. And while there are other overseas adventures to share, this is my farewell to eight years in Paris.
boxes exit out the window
empty living room
If ever a city were designed to distract us from our troubles, it would be Paris.–Thomas Jefferson
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris…then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. –Ernest Hemingway
When I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a student, I found it dry as dust. Decades later, after devouring A Moveable Feast, his memoir to first wife Hadley set in 1920s Paris, our lives intersected more personally. Because I was living there.
My “earnest” infatuation with all things Hemingway began in 2010. It was more than literary interest. I walked up and down streets of the 5thand 6thArrondissements (neighborhoods) seeking addresses transcribed into my pocket-sized black moleskin notebook. I found the location of every apartment, restaurant, bar, and café where Hemingway was known to have lived, eaten, slept, talked, consumed alcohol, or written. More than 90 years later, in cafés where he nursed a single café crème for hours to keep his table and construct that “one perfect sentence”, I sat and read his books.
The first apartment where he and Hadley lived until the birth of their son, Jack, is marked with a plaque outside the entry door on rue du Cardinal Lemoine. The studio apartment he used for writing was around the corner from Place de la Contrascarpe on rue Descartes. He carried bundles of sticks up six flights of stairs to burn in the fireplace for winter heat.
plaque identifying 74 rue de cardinal lemoine
entry to apartment
rue descartes studio entry
top floor studio was where he wrote
Hemingway crossed through the Luxembourg Gardens, often passing by La Fontaine de Médicis, on his way to meet Gertrude Stein at her apartment on rue de Fleurus for conversation and counsel before the unfortunate rupture of their friendship.
He borrowed books and talked with other struggling writers at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach on 12, rue de l’Odeon. Sylvia lent him money when he was hungry, along with the books. Today, the original Shakespeare is a clothing boutique.
After WWII, Shakespeare and Co. re-opened across the river from Notre Dame. The owner, George Whitman, eventually passed it on to his daughter, Sylvia, named after Sylvia Beach. Under Sylvia Whitman, Shakespeare now encompasses two storefronts plus a café.
When Hemingway began an affair with Hadley’s girlfriend, Pauline Pfeiffer, the marriage ended on a sad note. After marrying Pauline, they lived on rue Férou near Saint Sulpice church. In this apartment he wrote A Farewell to Arms.
I read stories of the bar at the Ritz Hotel where Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others convened for hours on end. Since Hemingway was a regular there for 30 years, and the bar was eventually named after him, it was on my list to know first hand.
Actual discovery did not begin until our last year in Paris due to an extensive four-year renovation of the entire Ritz infrastructure. Toward the end, a roof fire created even more delays before the reopening.
Bar Hemingway, a very small space in the Ritz footprint, has it’s own unique history. In the early 1920s, it began as a ladies bar or “steam room”, followed by a poets’ bar, and then a writers’ bar called Bertin’s. Bertin was a friend of Hemingway’s who gave him gambling tips. And more than a few free drinks. Ernest was a man who often counted on the generosity of others.
In 1979, Mohamed Al-Fayed (owner of Harrods, London) bought the Paris Ritz. That same year, Hemingway’s family officially named the “Hemingway Bar”. Three years later it closed for the next twelve years, 1982-1994. Two years after reopening, in 1996, the name was copyrighted as “Bar Hemingway Ritz Paris.”
Located on the backside of the hotel, it is most easily accessed from a small side street. But I like to enter via Place Vendôme, through the front door of the Ritz, where there are uniformed doormen. Walking down expansive high ceilinged hallways past splendidly decorated rooms where tea or drinks or food is served, I peek into display windows of the high-end shopping gallery. Turn another two corners, go down several steps and walk in the door of a cozy, wood-paneled room.
two small rooms
and a bar
Minimal changes were made here during the renovation. Woodwork was stripped and refinished and new lamps were added over the bar. The Hemingway paraphernalia is all there–books, magazine portraits, photographs with wives, friends, and dead animals, a black Corona typewriter like the one he used, a long barreled hunting rifle behind the copper bar, fishing rods, a boat propeller, and a bronze bust of his head.
Sometimes I would go with a girlfriend or two when it opened at 6 PM, other times with my husband on a weekend. But if I wanted to ask questions and learn more, I went by myself to claim an empty barstool and talk with head barman, Colin Field.
What is it that draws crowds of people every day to this little piece of real estate tucked into the backend of a high-class hotel? Is it romanticized lore of Hemingway’s life in Paris–from marriages to Hadley and Pauline in the 1920s, to working as a WWII correspondent in the ‘40s, a short-lived third marriage, spiced with competitive friendships and raucous fights with other painters and writers of the time? Or is it because of the drinks, many of which are original and creative but, at the same time, over-the-top expensive?
the signature martini
served with a frozen olive ice cube
and salty snacks
I believe Bar Hemingway’s current popularity continues to be about ambience and lore and cocktails, with the added garnish of Colin Field’s 24 year history there. His amiable personality, professional bartending and management skills, and vast anecdotal knowledge of famous past patrons have kept it high on the list of iconic places to visit.
In 1994, Colin was hired to reopen the Hemingway Bar [before the name change and after the twelve-year closure]. In the beginning, as the sole employee, he did everything single-handedly. But, he added a twist–keeping the bar open until 4:00AM when all others in Paris closed at 2:00AM. During times when it was too busy to manage alone, he recruited regulars to help–answering the phone, greeting and seating customers, taking orders. In exchange, their drinks were free.
Opening night, August 25, 1994, happened to be the 50thAnniversary of the liberation of Paris in WWII. Jack Hemingway [son by Hadley, father of Margaux and Mariel] was invited and came for the party. It turned into a bash. People dressed in GI and MP costumes. A full line-up of army Jeeps was staged along the street outside. Chaos reigned inside. Hemingway would have loved it.
These days, there are five or six employees who serve a regular flow of clientele seven days a week from 6:00PM until 2:00AM. Colin continues to hold court behind the bar, chatting up customers and blending new drinks.
Shortly before our departure from Paris, I met friends at Bar Hemingway on a clear summer evening. They invited me for a final good-bye drink.
Conversation flowed as we reminisced about shared experiences and future plans. We mused about hiking together in Portugal and Spain on the Santiago de Compostela trail a couple years before. And then, it was time to part ways. Walking back through the corridors of the Ritz, we stopped outside to say good-bye on Place Vendôme.
There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties or what ease could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it. –E. Hemingway
Like Hemingway, Paris doesn’t end for me because I no longer live there. When I return, it will be with the happiness of years of wide-eyed discoveries, friendships for life, and the realization that…I will always be coming home.
When people hear that we are leaving our home in France after eight years, one question that invariably follows is, “What will you miss most?” My answer is not what they expect to hear.
What I will miss most are Norman cows.
Specifically, those geographically situated cows that graze on the sweet green grass of Normandy and produce the most delicious and flavorfulbutter in the world.
“Oh, don’t worry,” people will say, “you will find other good butter wherever you live.” I don’t think so. All butters are not the same. Neither are cows.
We have traveled to both upper and lower Normandy innumerable times during the past thirteen years while living in Germany and France. My first trip to the Normandy beaches and WWII sites was when we were living in Germany. During that excursion I had a personal epiphany to learn French–to use the local language every time we traveled to this region of northern France where we fervently loved the history, the solid stone architecture, and the people.
Eventually we moved to Paris and I did learn passable French. Soon after came the discovery of how butter from Normandy transforms nondescript food, like breakfast toast or potatoes or steamed vegetables into something with incredible flavor. I fell hard for the crunch of sea salt crystals in butter-with-a-real-buttery-taste on otherwise dry or bland food. Now there is no turning back. I have been known to carry salted French butter home to Colorado, frozen, in an insulated container tucked deep inside my suitcase.
One weekend trip to lower Normandy, we stayed in an historic, privately owned château. It is also a bed and breakfast, with a fine dining room, which helps pay the taxes and upkeep on an ancient estate.
There were wineries to visit and sites to see each day, but we constantly veered off onto pot-holed, muddy, dirt roads to pay homage to cows. Just cows–grazing and standing around in fields. I wanted to study the source of my butter obsession, up close, in their natural environment.
During the Germany years, we belonged to a weekend hiking club. Every Sunday morning we traipsed off, en masse, through forests, hills and vineyards into the countryside. I laughed at a friend who stopped to take photos whenever a cow was in the landscape. When I asked why, he said, “I just like them.”
Well, now I like them, too, but for a reason. They give something special back because of being these cows. Norman cows are raised only for dairy. They roam. They eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is the color of yellow buttercup flowers. The butter from this cream is sweet and delicious.
Why is French butter so irresistibly different? Two things. One, it often has a higher fat content [87%] compared to American butter [80%]. And secondly, the real secret behind the fineness of French butter is the way it is cultured.
Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it is churned. Thus, bacteria forms, sugar converts to lactic acid, and the result is a distinguishably creamier, velvet-ier, butter-ier taste.
American produced butter uses only pasteurized [uncultured] milk cream. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.
Before industrialization all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and delicious.
When I was a child, my paternal grandmother had a milk cow on her farm. I saw how the yellow cream rose thickly to the top of a container of fresh milk after it sat awhile. She used that cream to pour into coffee or to make desserts like strawberry shortcake with garden picked berries and a dollop of fresh whipped cream.
Today, with mass production, there is no skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes. Cream is spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter taste is fuller and, to some, even a “nuttier” flavor.
It is well known that the French are extraordinarily fond of butter. Culturally they take it very seriously, and it is not lightly squandered. One memorable example of this occurred during my quirky two-month job assisting a female chef with cooking classes in her Parisian apartment. I functioned as the prep and clean up person during a gap before her new student intern arrived.
One day, as she was demonstrating her no-bake-pastry-tart recipe, an entire brick of opened butter, about one pound, fell off the counter. She stepped into it with the heel of her work shoes, almost skidding to the floor, but grabbed the counter just in time. Without missing a beat, she told me to pick it up and “clean it” as it was still usable.
She carried on with class while I “cleaned” the butter with “beaucoup de paper towels” as that was the only method I could think of. [No suggestion was offered.] Only a sliver of butter remained when I thought it was “clean enough”. After sculpting it into a small ball, I set it out of sight.
During 2017 there was a lot of published hype about a calamitous butter shortage coming to France. It was and wasn’t true. Because of a shortage in raw materials, for a time, there was a supply problem in grocery stores. Concurrently, exported sales increased as the Chinese decided they loved pastries made with French butter. In America, sugar had shifted to being the dietary enemy so butter demand increased across the Atlantic. Fears of mass shortage did not transpire but my restaurant friend, Laurel Sanderson, [Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris] did stockpile it for several months because she is so dependent on butter for her baked fresh daily southern biscuits, cakes, and savory tarts.
Norman cows also produce milk for Camembert–the most famous cheese of the region. The village of Camembert resides in basse [lower] Normandy. The story is that in 1791 a Norman farmer, Marie Harel, while following the recipe from a priest who hailed from Brie, made some slight changes and improved it. Camembert was born.
Camembert de Normandie is a protected designation of origin. With this stamp, it can only be made from raw, unpasteurized milk from les vaches Normandies [cows from Normandy]. It is soft, with a fine rind covered in a “white duvet”. It is at least 45% fat, with a pungent aroma and stronger taste than Brie. When warmed it becomes even creamier and can be used as a dip for raw vegetables, potatoes, or bread. I serve it this way as an appetizer or light supper. It is typically sold whole, in rounds, inside thin wooden containers made of poplar.
There are many things I remember after more than a decade living, learning and experiencing European life. There are adventures, travel, and friends to reminisce about, food, wine, and restaurants to recall, even faux pas to laugh or write about.
Still, at the top of my list is “mes vaches Normandies”–those fabulous “buttah-making” cows that touched my senses and tastes in a forever kind of way. I’m often thinking of the next petit dèjeuner of wholegrain toasted baguette smeared with a melting pool of butter and sea salt crystals.
Ogden Nash, the American poet of light verse wrote, “Cows are of the bovine ilk: one end is moo and the other milk.” True. But all cows are not the same.
Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”
Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple–it engenders the best conversational exchange with everyone’s participation.
The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher
Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.
I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher
During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity and practice.
When we first began inviting guests to dinner, I needed guidance to learn one decent party dish to cook. [Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians] After that I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.
Gradually, and gratefully, the entertaining routine evolved into a shared partnership. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.
Left to my preferred activities, I carefully prepared the table. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads to reflect the candlelight.
After echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order listening to favorite tunes on high volume. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine in fading candlelight and remembered the best parts of the evening.
My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.
I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but also some advice for the perfect guest.
Gabrielle’s words from a New York Times series of articles published October 2017 are in bold italics preceded by her initials, GH. They are followed by my own thoughts and experiences.
GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
The art of good conversation and story telling is central to a successful party of any kind. I also believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about afterward. When guests have departed, before candles are snuffed for the night and you head to bed, there are a few moments spent remembering everything from mishaps [such as our friend Alec’s kitchen clumsiness Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto] or ideas exchanged during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews. Optimally, thisis the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the spirit of friends present around the table hours earlier.
For guests, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while returning home. Once, my husband and I laughed out loud during a taxi ride in Paris about the enforced departure from our host’s home. We were offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.
GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.
There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” to dinner parties. Americans are almost always on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late ritual. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.
GH:I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. Invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe down kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.
informal dinner for 4
thanksgiving table, chez bentley
GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still,always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.
About the wine…When living in Taipei, Taiwan we had an experience of marked East/West differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of our Chinese host’s home, the first bottle of red wine was a 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. Then they executed a perfect “ganbei”, the traditional Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but tragic, too. This vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.
A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We love hosting an informal dinner of homemade pizza topped with arugula and served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful tapestry down the middle of the table. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]
GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.
Our children are adults now and the best ones to say what they remember about growing up overseas. I believe they might recall coming home, from their own night out, to a dining room full of adults known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and drained coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship around a table.
I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But it is indelible in my mind as the communion of wonderful people around a grown-up table.
How can I cook dinner tonight–we’re out of garlic!–Aunt Josephine, from the Gilroy Garlic Cookbook
It’s not an exaggeration to say that an absence of garlic in the house could be, as far as dinner goes, a showstopper. Garlic simply makes things taste better. And, as Josephine makes the case, without it, why bother?
There is more lore about garlic than any other food. As one of the oldest cultivated plants, it was thought to be a cure-all, to have mystical powers, and even to protect from evil spirits. It was used in Egyptian burials and placed on windowsills when babies were born.
Garlic is a member of the lily order of plants and the onion family that includes chives, shallots, scallions and leeks. But the most important thing about garlic is the magic it performs when blended into other foods, creating delicious, taste-enhancing flavors.
I love garlic like I love my friends. Friends, carefully cultivated with time and circumstance, blended into my life, enhancing everything. Friends going back to childhood, at home in the U.S., and while living all over the world.
Our early years in Taiwan, in the 1990s, were the beginning of a ritual of rotating Friday afternoons among a group of women I grew to know and love. We took turns gathering in each other’s living rooms. Friends came and moved on as is normal in ex-pat circles. Yet, through the revolving door of overseas life, those Friday afternoons of “wine and unwinding” were highly anticipated.
Food served invariably included a healthy dose of garlic. In certain seasons in Taiwan you could find big heads of garlic that were perfect for roasting whole. We squeezed warm, nutty, oil-soaked roasted cloves onto fresh bread or directly into our mouths. Open bottles of wine stood at attention, ready to replenish glasses.
We let our hair down and put our feet up. The formula within the formula was that all ideas, problems, or dreams were fair topics. Laughter kept everything in check. We appreciated each other’s insights, intelligence and strengths. We learned to love the idiosyncrasies. And couldn’t wait to return to garlic and friendship a week later.
What garlic is to food, insanity is to art. –Augustus St. Gaudens
10,000 years ago garlic was first discovered. It has evolved since then, having survived winters in the caves of our ancestors. Garlic is a natural antibiotic, fights bacteria and viruses, thins the blood, detoxifies the liver, decreases inflammation and lowers bad cholesterol. It is also low in calories–one or two per clove.
There are five elements: earth, air, water, fire and garlic…without garlic I simply would not care to live. –Louis Diat
my garlic tin
filled with rose garlic
Store garlic in a cool, dry place with ventilation. Not above or next to the stove, sink, or in a window with sun exposure. Never in the refrigerator! Strands of garlic can be braided attractively into plaits, ready to pull off a head as needed.
braided garlic lasts a long time
and looks beautiful too
There is no such thing as a little garlic. –Arthur Baer
To eliminate garlic on the breath: chew fresh parsley or, my favorite, allow a piece of good, dark chocolate to melt slowly on your tongue and slide down your throat.
The best way to rid garlic odor on the hands is to wash with soap and water then rub fingers and hands back and forth on the chrome of the kitchen faucet. This works!
Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic! –Anthony Bourdain
For easy peeling of cloves, separate them from the head. Smash each individually with the broad blade of a chef’s knife. Slip skin off. Or, from Dietitian Daughter, place cloves in a plastic container with lid and shake like crazy. The skin will loosen and separate, ready to be easily peeled away. For either method it helps to first cut off the stem ends.
One little known use for garlic was as glue in the middle ages. It was used to affix gold and silver leaf to furniture, mend glass and porcelain. This seems like a natural idea when literally everything sticks to garlicky fingers after peeling and chopping.
Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese.Garlic makes it good. –Alice May Brock
As good as the garlic was in Taiwan, it is even better in France. I’m partial to the big bulbs of rose garlic on my market street. [My Market Street] It has a pink purplish tinge to the skin unlike white garlic. Once peeled, all cloves look the same. Rose garlic cloves are uniform in size and have a less pungent smell and taste.
Remove garlic root or not?
I remove it unless garlic is very young
We went to a party in Paris one Christmas season. The dining table was laden with an impressive array of food, but I made a beeline toward a casserole of hot artichoke dip. It was perfuming the room with a warm, garlicky aroma that I could not resist. After the first taste, I spooned it directly into my mouth foregoing bread or crackers. I learned that a lot of garlic was the secret.
That recipe for garlic artichoke dip played center stage at the French version of “wine and unwind”, chez moi in Paris. Not all of the women knew each other well, but conversation and laughter flowed as effortlessly as it does among long time friends. Garlic seemed to be the tie that binds. And, well…a few bottles of memorable white and red Bordeaux [Les Hauts de Smith Blanc et Rouge] from my husband’s wine closet worked a bit of magic, too.
It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking. –Marcel Boulestin
I don’t cook everyday now, but I always have a bulb or two of garlic in the kitchen. I’m afraid of being caught in a pinch, like Aunt Josephine, unable to put a meal together because the garlic tin is empty. And, if some girlfriends are getting together, I’m ready with my go-to ingredient to enliven the party…and create a memory of food and friendship.
ROASTED HEADS OF GARLIC
Cut ¼ to ½ inch off the top of head of garlic.
Cut off just enough so all clove ends are exposed.
Drizzle with olive oil. Salt and pepper as desired.
Rub oil in with finger or use a brush to evenly coat.
If roasting 1 or 2 heads, wrap each in foil and seal.
If roasting many heads, place them in baking pan with cut sides up. Cover the whole pan with foil.
Roast 45 minutes at 400 F. [205 C.]
Cool a bit.
Squeeze roasted cloves out of skins onto fresh bread, crackers or mix into potatoes or any pasta dish. Or place in oil and refrigerate to use later.
GARLIC ARTICHOKE DIP
2-15 oz. [400gm] cans artichoke hearts in water. Drain water.
1 whole fresh jalapeno pepper
3 large or 6 small green onions
6 large cloves garlic, chopped, then smashed in mortar and pestle
1 C. [250gm] grated mozzarella cheese
½ to ¾ C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2-3 drops Tabasco, Siracha or chili sauce
Salt and pepper
½ C. [or less] good quality mayonnaise. Not Hellman’s. [just enough to bind ingredients]
Sprinkle of cayenne over top
Bake 350 F. [175 C.] for 30-40 minutes until bubbly and brown. Serve with bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.
dip ready to bake
ready to serve
SPAGHETTI JOSEPHINE from Gilroy Garlic Cookbook
[This dish was prepared regularly for the family when we lived in Taiwan. You can add in other ingredients as desired. But I like it best Josephine’s way. Serve with a big salad.]
1 medium head cauliflower, separated into tiny flowerets.
1 lb. [500 gm] spaghetti
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. olive oil
¼ C. minced parsley [cut with scissors in tall glass]
½ C. butter
½ C. or more freshly grated Parmesan
Freshly ground pepper
Cook cauliflower in boiling salted water until almost tender [~5 min.]
Cook spaghetti al dente.
Sauté garlic in olive oil ~1 min, then add butter and parsley.
Cook on very low heat until hot and bubbly.
Add garlic butter to spaghetti and cauliflower.
Toss together. Add Parmesan and toss again.
Serve immediately with additional grated cheese and the pepper grinder.
The last time I turned down a whisky, I didn’t understand the question. –Anonymous
I always take whisky as a night preventative of toothache. I have never had a toothache. What is more, I never intend to have one. –Mark Twain
Whisky is liquid sunshine. –George Bernard Shaw
I love so many things about Scotland–except perhaps the food culture that takes mashed up sheep innards, encases them in stomach lining and disguises the whole mess by calling it “haggis”. Scottish comfort food for some, an acquired taste for others, or neither option for me. On the other hand, a morning bowl of hot porridge with butter and honey stirred in, topped with fruit and a wee drizzle of whisky–well, I took to that right away.*
Our New Year’s holiday was spent in the countryside of the central Scottish Highlands, south of Inverness. We stayed in a stone cottage on the grounds of a 17th century farm in Cairngorms National Park. It was nicely decorated, outfitted with a wood-burning stove that kept the living room toasty warm. Otherwise, we wore layers.
The Bothy, our cottage
the source of heat
Killiehuntly office and storage buildings
This excursion was inspired by the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon. Each is a captivating tome of historical fiction set in 1700s Scotland, England, France, and the young U.S. colonies. There is also some time travel. A few characters have the ability to pass through a cleft in a ringed cairn of upright stones and fall into a different century. Somehow Gabaldon makes it all work. She weaves an engrossing tale with strong male and female protagonists who pull you right along.
The other reason we headed from Paris into the winter Highland hills is that I enjoy single malt whisky. My husband does not, but he does enjoy driving on the opposite side of the road. Match, game, win-win!
I don’t just like to taste or sip whisky. I need to understand it. “Distilled” into bullet points, this is what I know about the drink of my ancestors.
Single malt Scotch whisky is distilled and matured in Scotland from 100% malted barley and water. No other grains are added. It is the product of only one distillery.
It must be kept in a wood barrel for a minimum of three years in its’ country of origin. [Otherwise it is considered a “spirit”.]
It is at least 40% alcohol by volume.
The difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey is in the spelling and the process of how the malt is dried. Hence, flavor differences.
Peat is partially carbonized plant matter [largely heather and mosses] decomposed over centuries. It is cut directly from the bogs and marshes where it forms. Its characteristics differ from geography to geography.
If there is a ready supply of peat for drying the barley during malting and firing the stills, the whisky will have a smoky flavor.
Location of a distillery is dependent only on a supply of good, clean, fresh water.
Water is of critical importance in the production of whisky. It is used for soaking the barley, making the mash, condensing, and diluting the spirit.
Water must be COLD, unpolluted, and as constantly flowing as possible.
Water picks up the influence of the peat over which it flows.
Every distillery is on the bank of a river or by a mountain stream or spring.
Water guarantees both the quantity and the quality of the end product.
It is crucial that a river runs through it…
Water is also important when enjoying whisky as a beverage. You can drink it straight, unmixed, and un-chilled. Or, water can be added to bring out subtle nuances of flavor.
Ernest Hemingway contributed to the misconception about water when he proclaimed, “Real men drink whisky straight.” An unnamed source “straightens out” Hemingway’s assertion. “There are two things everyone should know about Hemingway. First, the whisky he drank had already been diluted by the distillers before he got it; secondly, that man was an awful fool.”
If water is added to whisky, it should be “as soft and pure as you can find”–ideally, natural spring water or filtered water. Distilled water is less desirable because you lose the minerals occurring in natural water.**
Water taken in moderation cannot hurt anybody. –Mark Twain
When in Scotland never request “a Scotch” from the bartender. Total tourist talk. Ask for “malt whisky” or request by distillery name to guarantee being served native spirit.
Words for whisky measures vary in Scottish jargon. Dram is now in common use, but there is also a nip, a toot, a tot, or a wee goldie. All equate roughly to a single measure or one shot, 25-35 ml. A double shot is 50-70 ml. Asking for “a glass” of whisky means a double pour.
Measurement size is ultimately determined by the generosity of the pourer. In most Scottish bars, one dram is usual, but not always…a bartender in Edinburgh overflowed the measuring cup directly into my glass upon hearing the sorry tale of my cell phone’s demise when it smashed to smithereens on rain slicked cobblestones just moments before.
after the rain in edinburgh
edinburgh skyline with christmas fair and market
the royal mile, edinburgh, scotland
With designated driver behind the wheel, I sampled whisky from two distilleries, Tomatin [Speyside] and Dalwhinnie [Highland], because they happened to be close to our farm cottage and the winter roads were icy.
Dalwhinnie Distillery was particularly popular on New Year’s Eve as it was open all day. Their sampler of six whiskies was served with six chocolate palate cleansers on the side. I wanted to buy a bottle that was not exported or distributed in stores. Dalwhinnie Distillery Limited Edition is sold only on site–6000 bottles produced, 900 were left.
A serendipitous coup occurred in the town of Aviemore. I walked into a retail shop and asked the man behind the counter where to find a liquor store. He scratched his head and said, “What? You must be American. No one says that here. We call them booze stores.”
Ben Harris is the proprietor of Cairngorms Creations, a shop of colorful knickknacks. I told him I was interested in whisky found only in Scotland to take home with me. He said, “Do you know the black whisky, Beinn Dubh? It’s made just a few miles down the road.” I had never heard of black whisky. Speyside Distillery which produces it is not open to the public.
Ben Harris of Aviemore
Speyside Distillery–known as the prettiest in Scotland
December 31, late afternoon. We followed Ben’s hand drawn, not very accurate map, got lost, backtracked, and finally found a store with the right address but selling home furnishings. The glass doors were locked–early closure for the New Year’s Eve holiday. Seeing people still inside I knocked loudly, pressed my map to the glass and shouted, “We were sent here to buy black whisky!”
They let us in. The man behind that counter was drinking a glass of Beinn Dubh before he went home. He offered me a taste. The dark-as-night color is specific to its maturation in Portuguese ruby port casks. [I later learned that added coloring helps too.] I bought a bottle for my son and one for myself.
New Year’s Eve night–after three days of sleety rain, icy snow, and bone chilling cold the clouds parted to reveal a full moon.
Killiehuntly Farmhouse and Cottage now has a Danish owner. He and his extended family were using the main farmhouse, up the hill from our cottage, for the holiday. While they ate dinner inside, we sat by a bonfire outside, drinking champagne under fog-rimmed moonlight and tossing large logs into the pit to keep warm. It was exactly where we wanted to be.
The owner came outside wearing a tuxedo and, after chatting for several minutes [ascertaining our American politics–yes indeed!], invited us in to see the restored 400 year-old farmhouse, meet his family, and share a dram of…black whisky. The very same we had chanced upon that afternoon.
In the living room a fire burned brightly. The Christmas tree was adorned in Scandinavian straw ornaments. Conversation flowed easily between Danish and American cultures and across three generations from children to grandparents.
The whisky was very smooth, very black, and served neat. My husband politely, tentatively, sipped his first-dram-ever. He looked up from his glass to me across the room…and smiled.
It was a “verra” good holiday.
* Whisky in the morning oatmeal was not on the menu during our Scotland trip. The idea came from Gabaldon’s books. She describes steaming bowls of porridge served with butter and honey melting in. If whisky was available to the Scottish character, Jamie Fraser, he would drizzle it onto his porridge. Now, in the wintertime, I make it that way at home. Sublime! [Note to self: hack this recipe for future story.]
** I’m neither a water purist nor a Hemingway abstainer. I have my own method for the perfect water to whisky ratio. When drinking a dram or two at home, I run a very thin stream of cold water from the tap and pass my glass under it three times very quickly. Just right.
There are two kinds of people who make messes in the kitchen–those who cook and those who prepare meals because they have to eat.
Anna, our Latvian/Russian daughter-in-law, is one who cooks. All the women in her family chop, stir, taste, and serve wholesome food. From a young age she learned from her grandmother and mother before beginning to experiment on her own.
The cooking gene skipped around in our family. My grandmother cooked. My daughter cooks. My mother prepared food that fed us. Joy of cooking doesn’t fill me either.
For most of my life, I never made lasagne. To me, béchamel sauce is like wallpaper paste. Bolognese is so heavy with meat and thick with canned tomatoes. Then, all those layers of rubbery pasta–simply too much of everything.
Then Anna made what she called Latvian Lasagne for Christmas Eve dinner one year. It was a recipe she invented. The origins began while she was a student in university. It evolved as her life changed and each improvement was sparked by an episode of love.
In 2007 Anna left Riga, Latvia to attend Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. She bought a used book called Simple Pasta for one pound Sterling. It featured a Bolognese recipe, full of vegetables, which she cooked for herself and friends in their shared living quarters. They poured it as a sauce over pasta or ate as a hearty stand-alone main course. It was nourishing and inexpensive on a budget.
The Next Episode:
For a time, there was a German boyfriend. His mother was a wonderful cook who took pride in her meals. Once, while Anna was visiting, lasagne was served, but it was a disaster. The green-colored pasta was undercooked and crunchy, the sauce, dry and tasteless. Three sons complained loudly. There was drama. German mother, humiliated by criticism, slammed her hand down on the table and left the room, taking a full bottle of wine with her.
Anna thought the recipe could be improved. She began by using her already delicious sauce, layered it with thin, flat sheets of pasta and baked it in the oven.
The Final Episode:
A new relationship bloomed between Anna and our son, Adam. He told her I said he should eat something green everyday. So they began adding fresh spinach and basil leaves into the lasagne layers. He suggested that a bit more cheese might enhance it. This became his part of the assembly. Together, they improved the recipe to its final evolution and, soon after, began a new life together. Letting Go In Latvia
It was during that Christmas Eve dinner when Adam and Anna were dating that my taste buds took serious notice. This was lasagne I wanted to eat again. It wasn’t ponderously heavy. It was slightly sweetened with the addition of bacon, lots of vegetables, liquefied and mellowed with milk and red wine reductions. The ingredients blended smoothly and distinctively. Everything worked in this dish. Now I wanted to know how to cook it.
November 2015, in the first days after the terrorist shootings in Paris, cooking this recipe offered me respite from the shock of a devastating event. Planned violence at several popular cafés and the Bataclan concert theatre occurred on a Friday night. Everyone in Paris was tender and raw. Friends from the United States were arriving on vacation. We had planned to take them out for dinner in our neighborhood.
Eating out was the last thing anyone felt like doing. Instead, I shopped in the morning on my eerily quiet and deserted market street. Then spent the afternoon meditatively chopping, sautéing, and stirring a bubbling pot of sauce. I set a formal table, assembled, and baked Anna’s lasagne for our guests. It was focused and calming, cooking food for friends we hadn’t seen for many years.
That evening, six of us sat around the table, warmed by candles, nourishing food, friendship, and conversation. It was the right blend of the right ingredients and the right recipe. I remember everything, even now, entwined as it was in those circumstances of the time.
With our dual-culture family in Paris with us this Christmas, we will chop, stir, and assemble layers of Latvian Lasagne on Christmas Eve. It’s a new family holiday tradition.
Even if you have your own traditional holiday meals, this lasagne recipe is one of the very bestcold weather comfort foods for family or guests.
Everything about the result is worth the mess it creates the kitchen.
Ingredients for Bolognese:
2 large carrots, diced
1 large onion, diced
4 large stalks celery, diced
6 large mushrooms, chopped in half, then sliced
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 lb. thin slices of bacon, chopped [I use center cut bacon]
1 lb. lean ground beef [5 -10% fat]
1 large can or 2 regular size cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 C. red marinara sauce
2/3 cup red wine
2/3 cup milk
1 T. dried oregano
1 T. dried basil
Fresh ground pepper
Red pepper flakes [optional]
Ingredients for the Layers:
Red sauce of choice, ~2 C. This is approximate, but use an amount that when mixed with the white sauce covers the casserole to the edges.
White Alfredo or lasagne sauce of choice, ~1 C.
8 oz. Italian blend cheese, grated
8 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated
Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
Fresh or dried lasagne noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish Use thin, flat sheets of pasta, rather than the wavy variety.
Making the Bolognese:
Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
Sauté onion until translucent.
Add carrots and celery. Cook until softened.
Add chopped bacon and cook until it turns pink.
Add ground beef. Cook and stir until it turns brown.
Add red wine, reduce heat and simmer until ½ has evaporated.
Add milk and do the same thing.
Stir in canned tomatoes with juice, marinara sauce, chopped garlic, sliced mushrooms, dried spices and fresh ground pepper.
Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to 1 hour until mixture is very thick.
Take off heat and set aside.
This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.
sauté first ingredients
adding mushrooms and spices later
Assembling the Layers:
Wipe bottom and sides of a deep-sided casserole dish lightly with olive oil.
Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Break dry noodles to fit evenly in pan.
Spread one layer of sauce over noodles.
Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
Add a layer of fresh spinach, as much as you wish, and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.
Cover with another layer of noodles.
Repeat layers one more time.
Cover all with noodle sheets.
Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
Bake 350 F. for convection oven [385 F. for gas oven] for 60 minutes. If pasta sheets are fresh, 30 minutes cooking time. Keep an eye on it. When top is browning and bubbly, check that noodles are cooked all the way through. Cover top lightly with foil if cheese is too brown before noodles are tender. Remove from oven and let sit 5-10 minutes before cutting into squares and serving.
Serve with salad and fresh baguette. Decant a red wine from Burgundy or pour a Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Sit around the table for a long, relaxing evening.
Purists will note this is not Italian style lasagne. Anna describes it more as a “pasta cake”. She believes cheese is what makes the whole thing delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it turns out great.
You can make it non-dairy by eliminating milk, white sauce and cheeses. It then becomes a tasty red-only-pasta-cake.
You could make it vegetarian by eliminating bacon and beef. However, bacon adds something sublime to the sauce.
No added salt. Bacon and cheese are enough.
There is flexibility in personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know other’s preference for spiciness. Sometimes I sprinkle them inside the layers.
Before I was reading news digitally, I cut out an article by a humor columnist from a prominent international newspaper. The subject was why Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving.
In 1952, an earlier version of this article was published under the title “Explaining Thanksgiving to the French”. The back-story, prompting the reprint, was a woman in Maryland who bought an old, yellowed newspaper clipping at a garage sale. She paid $10 for it. Someone-in-the-know, at the Library of Congress, told her it was worth $80,000 as a collector’s item. She framed it as art on the wall of her home.
We were living in Germany when I read the printed article. I didn’t speak French then, but found the story quirky enough to save. I understand French better now, so the literal translation reads even sillier.
For history buffs wishing to be enlightened without forking over $80,000, here is one version of why we eat turkey:
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.
Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims [Pèlerins] who fled from l’Angleterre to found a colony in the New World [le Nouveau Monde] where they could shoot Indians [les Peaux-Rouges] and eat turkey [dinde] to their heart’s content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth [a famous voiture Américaine] in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower [or Fleur de Mai] in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pèlerins was when they taught them to grow corn [maïs]. The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges…
…And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do…1
Living overseas for 30 years, without extended family around, our Thanksgiving holidays have been celebrated sometimes untraditionally. During Taiwan years, there was an annual pig roast in Maddy and Cabby’s backyard, linen covered tables lit in candlelight, adults drinking wine and trading stories while children ran rampant until late at night.
Another year, we shared Thanksgiving with Chinese friends who delighted in the array of traditional-American-food-in-excess more than we did.
The year we became empty nesters, I said to my husband, “No more beige, brown and white food for Thanksgiving. Let’s check into a hotel and eat what we want.” So we did. Spicy Thai is what I remember because we still lived in Asia.
After moving to Europe, with both children permanently in the U.S., we continued to lay low during this holiday-that-was-never-a-holiday in the country where we were living.
A couple of Novembers ago, we were invited to our friends’ Sally and John’s Paris apartment for Thanksgiving. It was an intimate group of eight, but international with one Spanish husband and one Italian boyfriend mixed among the Americans. We brought champagne, red wine, and something green to offset the neutrals of what would undoubtedly be served. Thanksgiving food, in brown and white, is traditional.
twice baked potatoes
pumpkin and fruit pie
something green [and red] to offset neutrals
But then–I was completely turned upside down by the holiday dinner we had been avoiding for years. At John and Sally’s table there was color, there was taste, there was texture, andthere was deliciousness in the one dish I detest the most–dressing.
Everyone in this family is creative. They are artists, film producers, film animators, screenwriters, painters, musicians, and, as it turns out, they are kitchen creative, too.
The dish I now call “John’s Original Holiday Dressing” is superior to the sage-y, soggy, overly bread-y brown mess I have skipped since childhood.
John’s dressing, rich with veggies, full of crunch, a hint of sweetness and tang, was the centerpiece to a remarkable meal in my favorite city [Paris] where Thanksgiving is not celebrated.
Last year, when we were invited again, I asked to learn the secret to the best dressing ever invented to be eaten with roast turkey on Thanksgiving. Like most naturally creative cooks, John uses no recipe. It varies from year to year, ingredients added or subtracted.
For the Benson/Bentley family legacy, as well as our own holiday celebrations, here, thankfully presented, is the most delicious stuffing/dressing recipe you will ever enjoy eating. Second and third helpings-yes! Next day leftovers if there happen to be any-yes!
There is room for your own creativity too. Play with the spice amounts and optional ingredients.
À chacun son goût. To each his own taste. The essence of French-splanation.
1. Story excerpt from International Herald Tribune, November 5, 2005
JOHN’S ORIGINAL HOLIDAY DRESSING [serves 12]
1 head celery, chopped
4 onions, chopped
6 large cloves garlic [or more], chopped
2 red bell peppers, chopped
2 yellow bell peppers, chopped
2 green bell peppers, chopped
Button mushrooms, sliced
Fresh bread croutons–explained below
2 apples, chopped
Greek Kalamata or Moroccan olives, pitted and chopped-optional
Tomato confit [or sun dried tomatoes, softened with just enough hot water], chopped–optional
1/2 to 1 lb. good butter, melted–as much as you want
1 bay leaf
2 tsp. thyme
4 tsp. sage, rosemary, oregano and tarragon [approximate]
Turkey, chicken or vegetable broth, 2/3-1 Cup*
Several Tbs to 1/4 cup Maple syrup**
*For turkey broth: boil/simmer neck and chopped gizzard in 2-3 cups water, lightly covered, for an hour. You want 2/3 to 1 cup of liquid to add per casserole dish. Okay to use chicken [or veggie broth] as substitute.
**John’s turkey preparation involves brining it beforehand. He likes using the salty drippings and basting liquid to add to the dressing. He uses maple syrup during basting to caramelize the skin and add sweetness. If you don’t use the drippings with syrup in them, then add syrup, as directed, at the end of preparation.
1. In a large pan, sauté red, yellow and green peppers in olive oil on medium to high heat, until they are slightly browned and softened. Add in onions and finally garlic. Add spices–2 tsp. thyme, 4 tsp. each sage, rosemary and oregano during sauté. [Quantities are suggestions because he doesn’t precisely measure.]
“It needs to smell herby-and good-as it is cooking!”–John
2. In another pan [flat-bottomed] melt a couple tablespoons of butter. Place sliced mushrooms flat in pan without overlapping. Sprinkle tarragon over it all for a light coating. Brown both sides on medium to high heat. Keep adding butter to the pan as mushrooms soak it up. Don’t skimp on butter. Mushrooms should still be firm on the inside.
3. Make croutons by cutting day old baguette into cubes. Sprinkle olive oil and rosemary over them and toss together. Place in oven on low temperature until browned or crispy.
“They should get oiled all around a bit, not soggy of course. Rosemary should be a light sprinkle.”–John
4. Mix together all sautéed ingredients in a large bowl while still warm. Add prepared croutons.
5. Add remaining melted butter, at least 1/4 cup or 250 ml [melt more if you need it!]. Divide amounts evenly per casserole dish. Just pour it over and mix in. Use 1/2 bay leaf for each casserole.
6. Stir in broth, a little at a time until everything is mushy and moist, but not soggy.
“Croutons should not crumble into crumbs if smashed. You will probably use 1-2 C. of broth, based on crouton softness.”–John
7. Now add chopped celery, apple, seeded olives, and sundried tomatoes [or tomato confit]. These will add crunch, flavor, and a bit of tang.
8. Smell and taste. Perhaps add more butter or broth and drippings. Can also add sprig of fresh thyme or extra sage.
9. Stir in some maple syrup, a few tablespoons up to 1/4 cup per casserole.
10. Spread all ingredients into ovenproof dishes. Can place some inside turkey as stuffing. Grind black pepper over the top, if you think about it.
11. Bake uncovered 180 C. [350 F.] for about 1 hour. Halfway through, give it a stir to check for softness. If it’s too wet, stir again in 15 minutes to help with evaporation of broth. If still too moist after an hour, turn on broiler for a couple of minutes to brown and crisp the top. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn!
“Ingredients are already cooked so baking is to evaporate the broth and crisp everything. A good dried out, browned, crispy top is unbeatable. I think it’s the butter.”–John Benson
Set a festive holiday dinner table. When seated among family and friends give thanks to everyone and everything for which you are grateful.
Remember to raise a glass to those Peaux-Rouges and Pèlerins who started it all…
For some, this might involve a long trip across many time zones. Perhaps even to geography halfway around the world.
Because of our overseas lifestyle, I have been flying internationally at least twice a year for the past 30 years. In the beginning, I ignored the concept of jet lag and simply acclimated with a lot of sleeping. It is easy for me to fall asleep on planes. When the engines rev up and white noise begins, I close the window shade and REM sleep takes over. After reaching destination, I sleep some more. Eventually, day and night realign.
ganesh in bali
buddha’s feet in bali
Numerous tips have been written about preventing or overcoming jet lag. Some are helpful.
Suggestions such as a good night’s sleep before a long flight, over-hydrating by consuming more water than you want, and refraining from too much alcohol or caffeine. Other tips include not flying with a hangover [major hydration no-no] and immediately adopting the day/night schedule of your destination geography.
These days jet engines don’t automatically make me pass out, so I think about waking/sleeping hours on a plane differently. I diligently perform ankle circles and spinal twists in my seat. I get up to walk or stand. I drink many glasses of water. I take brief naps rather than sleep for hours at a time. All are decent behaviors for trying to align my body clock. But they never accomplish the whole thing.
Recently, I made a long flight from Paris to Singapore and Bali and back to Europe two weeks later. Sixteen hours of flight time each way with six hours of time difference.
My friend, Patricia, who travelled with me to a yoga retreat in Bali had two jet lag ideas that were completely new. The first came from a limited study done in 1998. It was quirky enough I wanted to believe its conclusion–exposing the back of your knees to light, particularly sunlight, in the first days after travel, alleviates jet lag.
An instant antidote! And perfectly timed as we had two recovery days in a hotel in Denpasar before the retreat began. Our base of operation was established immediately after breakfast in poolside lounge chairs. When knees overheated [front or back], we obligingly cooled them by sliding into the water. If boredom or cloud cover made it silly to continue this “therapy”, we went exploring.
The other jet lag treatment she knew of was more medically aligned with the body’s circadian rhythms. It was the result of a hormone study by her physician brother on human cortisol fluctuation.
I emailed him after the trip to ask more about it. Dr. John replied, “Jet lag is hormone dislocation.” Translation: The body’s normal clock gets out of whack when you pass through multiple time zones.
“Your cortisol level surges each day at awakening. It is set to your biological clock and changes only reluctantly–about one hour per day per time zone. Hence the lag.”
At the opposite end of the day, when it’s time to go to bed, the brain produces melatonin and off to sleep we go. Cortisol levels rise again with the sun. The cycle continues.
Big time zone changes mixed with fluctuating biorhythms can play out dramatically in young children. Our son was six-years-old the first time we flew home to the U.S. after moving to Singapore. During an early dinner, we watched his head suddenly sag forward and plop down in the center of his plate. Sound asleep in mashed potatoes.
Dr. John suggests: “The fix [to jet lag] is in replacing the hormone [cortisol] at the right time of day. Hydrocortisone is safe and effective when you take it at 7:00AM local time for just three days. You can’t do it everyday, only with international travel. Combine that with melatonin [3-10mg] to help get you to sleep and you get the benefit both ways. Works like a charm.”
Take 20mg Hydrocortisone for three days only, at 7 AM local time, for international travel.
You need a medical prescription for oral cortisone and it may be challenging to find a physician willing to write one for jet lag, even in such a limited dose. You could try encouraging your physician with what Dr. John says: “Simple replacement dose is not the same as a treatment dose of prednisone which overpowers your own cortisol. It’s safe and effective.”
I have yet to use cortisone therapy for jet lag. Instead, I researched that back-of-the-knees-light-study from the ‘90s. It was debunked, not long afterward, as nonsense. I tried it anyway.
After returning to Paris from Bali, I took 45 minutes each afternoon for a week to lie on the floor inside my dining room window and expose the back of my knees to sunlight. Instead of a jet lag daytime nap, I fou