Sex in a Pan

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painting by gustave moreau, french symbolist, 1826-1898

Some “firsts” you remember and others you don’t. I can’t remember my first Sex in a Pan.

Many years ago, I was told Sex in a Pan was for women only. Men don’t like it. It is something you never do alone, always with others, preferably in the afternoon.

Hemingway once said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” I say, never have Sex in a Pan with anyone you don’t like–at least a little bit. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble?

What’s special about Sex in a Pan? It’s not the equipment, which is ordinary. It’s not the getting ready, which is straightforward. It’s not the result, which is pleasurable. It is when everything comes together.

When we lived in Taiwan, I remember one Sex in a Pan party around my friend Linda’s dining table. The other guests were Asian women who had no idea what to expect. But, as with our American Thanksgiving dinners, they wanted to learn and share new customs. So they joined in…and loved it.

Sex in a Pan is like secretly swiping your finger across a thickly frosted cake. It’s what lingers in the memory after taste melts away. But Sex in a Pan is not cake. It is a decadent dessert of many layers–for sharing.

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The recipe I have carried around the world is in someone else’s handwriting. That well-worn piece of paper is the key to unlocking where I was and who I was with my first time. It’s sadly lost to memory now.

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who wrote this?

So, by default, Sex in a Pan is mine to offer anyone who loves smooth and creamy with some crunchy, slightly sour with some salty, chocolate-y, close your eyes, eat-with-a-spoon-kind-of-fun.

At the Taiwan party, inhibitions were safely shed around the table as we talked of taste and texture and guiltless self-indulgence while eating something pleasurable. There was laughter and letting go among friends. And that, in a nutty crust, is what Sex in a Pan is about.

Recently, I updated the recipe Euro-style since we live in France. The ingredient choices are different. Butter from Normandy embedded with crystals of sea salt, Chantilly whipped crème [from a can] instead of Cool Whip, dark chocolate shaved into curls instead of milk chocolate.

We were four women around the table–two Americans, one French and one German. The other three had little forewarning except I needed help to write a story.

It doesn’t really matter who or how many you gather for Sex in a Pan. Once you invite people in, they are mostly curious, ready to dabble in the unconventionally offbeat, perhaps with a touch of “double sens”, [“double entendre”, which is strangely not the expression in France]. The truth about Sex in a Pan is that what’s in the pan is simply a channel for what happens around it.

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sex in a pan parisian party

In double-sens-speak, I learned that “sensuously seductive” is said to be “croustillante” in French or “eine heisse Affäre” in German. We romanticized taste by describing the salty [yes to French butter!] and crunchy [those pecans!]. Layers of chocolate, sweetened cheese, and fluffy crème mingled in the underbelly. Tiny pellets of chocolate atop hid unexpected softness below. Voilà! Quelle langue!

We sipped Champagne and dipped into the communal dish. Late afternoon gave way to evening. And other liaisons.

When you host a Sex in a Pan party, try to keep the memory alive by having it again…and, then again.

SEX IN A PAN

Ingredients:

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  • 1 C. flour
  • ½ C. butter–best quality salted butter you can find
  • ¾ C. chopped pecans
  • 8 oz. cream cheese [let get to room temperature]
  • 1 C. icing sugar
  • 1 large pkg. instant chocolate pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 1 large pkg. instant vanilla pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 3 C. cold milk
  • 1 large container Cool Whip [or a good whipped cream]
  • 1 large dark chocolate bar

Preparation:

  1. Mix flour, butter and pecans and press into bottom of 8 1/2 x 11 inch [22 x 28 cm] pan. Bake for 20 minutes, 350 degrees F. [180 C.].
  2. Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar and spread on top of cooled crust.
  3. Spread ½ of Cool Whip or whipped cream over cream cheese layer.
  4. Mix together instant chocolate and vanilla pudding with COLD milk and beat by hand with a whisk until it starts to thicken.
  5. Spread over top of whipped cream.
  6. Spread remaining Cool Whip or whipped cream over pudding.
  7. Shave, grate and chop the chocolate bar. Sprinkle all over the top.
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  9. Serves 12-15 from one pan, depending on appetites.

Serving:

Pass out spoons, one to a person. Place Sex in a Pan in the middle of the table. In the spirit of communal adventure everyone dips in and eats spoonful by spoonful from the pan. Scoop all the way to the bottom with each bite.

So far, I’ve only known one man who said he enjoyed Sex in a Pan. He was able to rise above the gooey communal aspects others have no taste for. However, let it be known that my brother-in-law, Frank, has a very strong bias for anything chocolate.

Begin With Russian Dumplings

We might live in less divisive times if world leaders learned a few lessons from multi-cultural families.

The intersection of New Year’s weekend in Latvia with the Russian side of our family [by marriage] with news of cyber-hacking by Russia’s government in the U.S. presidential election is one example. Cultural and political tensions between nations have always been complicated to resolve. In contrast, relationships in our dual culture family grow stronger with shared experiences, cooperation, and acceptance. People behave better than governments.

The holiday time in Riga made me think about new ways to initiate diplomacy between Russia and the United States. It might begin with, well…making Russian dumplings.

I have been to Latvia twice before with our daughter-in-law’s family. [Shrooming in LatviaLetting Go In Latvia] What I know about Russian generosity, from the first time and thereafter, is that it begins at the table and flows outward from the heart.

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016

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This was the evening for a small family gathering. After gifts were exchanged, we sat down at Aunt Olga and Uncle Ivar’s large dining table.

There was food covering the entire surface. We generously helped ourselves to dishes of caviar or smoked fish and quail eggs on bread. There was a huge platter of olives, pickled tomatoes, stuffed peppers, salted cucumbers, garlic and mushrooms. There was perch salad, stuffed calamari, meat salad, and layered shrimp salad. There was sturgeon in fish jelly, herring-in-a-coat, and lamprey–a bottom feeding fish that I diplomatically declined.

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aubergine salad, crudités, caviar, quail eggs on smoked fish, meat salad, marinated mushrooms [from the forest]

That was the beginning. Later, a second round of eating featured mutton, potatoes, and  more of the first courses. The finale was cousin Polina’s homemade cheesecake.

We toasted throughout the meal, which meant raising a shot glass of icy Beluga Vodka and downing it whenever someone spoke. After the first two toasts, I strategically sipped my drink. The other women refrained from vodka and drank juice or wine. I stayed with the cold Beluga, finding it perfect with the food.

At 11:00 PM, when it was midnight in Moscow, we toasted Russian New Year. One hour later we toasted the arrival of 2017 in Latvia. Fireworks lit up the sky. Seven-month-old granddaughter was carried to an upstairs window to see the colorful light show.

New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017

The day for partying with family and friends! Guests and more guests arrived throughout the afternoon. It was an open house that overflowed with adults and children of all ages. There were platters and casseroles of food, shots of vodka [yes, indeed], glasses of cognac [with tonic and lemon], prosecco, champagne, beer and wine.

Russian music concerts played nonstop on the television. Women gossiped around the table or in the living room. Men stood at the kitchen island for manly talk and vodka. I learned that if Beluga is not available, Grey Goose or Finlandia are good choices for icy shots.

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manly toasting on new year’s day

Yuri Gorbacev is the maternal grandfather of Anna, our daughter-in-law. Every year, on January first, he makes fresh dumplings from a family recipe that originated in the Ural Mountains.

Meat stuffing had been prepared the day before. It was a mixture of ground beef and pork, eggs, salt and pepper, onions and cabbage. When it was time to make the dough, two young girls joined Yuri. A new generation was eager to learn, as there is no written recipe.

Basic Dumpling Dough [by observation]:

Start with a glass bowl with water in it. Break three eggs into the water. Stir yolks with a fork until broken. Throw in two unmeasured amounts of salt [like mini handfuls]. Add more water. Pour in flour straight from the bag in several batches. Keep stirring with the same fork, even when dough gets thick and sticky and hard to turn. Arm muscles helpful.

Eventually, dump the lump of dough onto floured counter. Begin kneading.

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yuri’s hands, photo courtesy of kristians lipse

The girls were fully engaged under Yuri’s guidance. The rest of us watched. Our hands-on help time was approaching. Kneading completed, the dough was rolled out flat and thin, then cut into small rounds with the open end of a glass. Each round had to be packed full of the meat mixture, pinched tightly closed, bent into a circle and laid on a floured tray.

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the art of cutting circles, photo courtesy of kristians lipse

Readied dumplings were placed in boiling water. In a few minutes, they were pulled from the pot and immediately served. Latvian sour cream with or without black pepper was the dipping sauce. Vodka shot optional.

My son, Adam, and I stood next to each other as part of the dumpling-filling team. Others continued to roll dough, cut circles, fill or boil dumplings. Volunteers rotated by choosing a part to play: production, cleanup, serving, eating, or simply enjoying the party.

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leila lends her helping hand

Suddenly, the volume of voices grew very loud. Russian–spoken, shouted and sung overwhelmed the room. The cacophony turned into background “white noise” for Adam and me. We spoke of feeling “invisible” in the middle of a hubbub we couldn’t understand. It was surprisingly peaceful, even meditative. We murmured in our own language, rhythmically filling, pinching, and turning out dumplings.

Adam said it is like this every year. The dumpling ritual gives him a purpose. Then, when he can no longer discriminate words through the tangle of sounds, he slips into his own thoughts. It’s a little quieter there, yet he remains physically present amid the chaos. He can be happy in both places at the same time.

I had my own thoughts, too. Here I was, on New Year’s Day, in a houseful of partying Russians and Latvians who embraced me with ease. No tension. No discord. An international marriage, a dual culture grandchild and, of course, Yuri’s dumplings bound us all together in friendship, joy, and love.

It should always be this way…

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the cutest dumpling

“Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon

For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see  “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, published October 2016.

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railroad map: paris to avignon

In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for an early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon took us there in a little over three hours.

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the staircase to le train bleu

We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the stylish restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains on one side and the city of Paris on the other.

The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.

Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch. We were seated at an unadorned table near the trackside windows.

We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance with an early breakfast.

Fisher’s typical breakfast order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.

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We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left to return to Montmartre, we boarded the train going south.

Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.

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photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence, north of the coastal city of Marseille. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century, it became the center of Christianity. The Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied for the next seven decades by a succession of seven popes.

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UNESCO world heritage sites: bridge of avignon and pope’s palace, photo courtesy of meu

Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterward, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Palace itself.

The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are filled with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.

The most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. It is impossible to fathom the volume of wealth once secreted under these stones.

We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple.

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closeup on the steeple view
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rooftop mosaic from terrace

As is often the case when traveling, one of the best experiences was stumbling upon an unknown restaurant when rain-wet, tired, and hungry.

We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café called Chez Lulu. What we ate was so simple and satisfying that I wanted to replicate it at home.

On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of Camembert cheese baked in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box there were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad.

That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day rain showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

There is perfection and enjoyment in the harmony of opposites. Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, all-afternoon rain. Breakfast in luxurious old world splendor–dinner in provincial old world simplicity.

The day began under the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in Le Train Bleu and ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie…

If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…

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parisian luxury, le train bleu
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provincial simplicity, chez lulu, avignon

BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE

  • 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
  • boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
  • prosciutto or any charcuterie [optional]
  • tiny pickles, gherkins or cornichons
  • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes
  • baguette or crusty country bread
  • mixed green salad with homemade vinaigrette
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basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad
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remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil
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sprinkle with rosemary and/or chili peppers, place in an oven proof dish

Preparation:

  1. Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil [keeps cheese from leaking out of box]. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue!]
  2. Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired.
  3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet then into preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
  4. Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
  5. Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
  6. Recipe for best vinaigrette here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice
  7. Serve with a basket of good bread.

A light red wine [Burgundy pinot noir], a crisp white wine [French Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne as accompaniment.

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baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread
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Winning–At What Cost?

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American Ambassador’s Residence, Paris, France  November 8, 2016

I am not a political pundit or an op-ed writer. I don’t wear my politics or spiritual beliefs on my shirtsleeve. I write stories. Not of war and peace, but about relationships, experiences, or simply a place–often overseas.

Twenty-nine years ago, we chose to leave our home in the U.S. and move to a country in Asia with two very young children. The initial motivation was a job opportunity. But the multi-cultural, international lifestyle suited us. So we remained abroad as expatriates.

From the beginning, we found ourselves experiencing stronger patriotic feelings toward our country by living outside it and looking back in. We talked about this with other Americans also living overseas. We weren’t alone in our pride.

People from other cultures have often told us how much they love and admire the United States. They openly wept and leant support in times of national disaster, 9/11 in particular.

They followed the details of our presidential elections. No matter what country we lived in, we have been asked to give opinions about current U.S. politics. Keen to the international importance of American leadership, people were interested in our “insider” knowledge. Which was, of course, only what we ourselves believed.

The 2016 presidential election has been a turning point to wondering where in the world we belong. Yes, we are a generation older. Our global perspective feels very normal to us now. Yet, we are clearly outsiders looking back to a country we no longer recognize. We see a head-knocking clash of values and compromised national character.

This has been THE most difficult election to discuss or try to explain to non-Americans. During the campaign, my husband and I were often asked by neighbors in our Paris apartment building how Donald Trump could become a candidate for the Republican Party.

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We fumbled for words that mostly ended in head-shaking silence. Throughout the whole painful campaign we hung onto the [naïve] hope that preparation and decency and respect for the responsibility of being President of the United States would win in the end.

Because it didn’t work out that way, we have stumbled. We feel stuck in a way that is difficult to shake. Or explain to others in our overseas world.

My personal upset, initially “all over the map”, was honed by something I read a few days ago. A female educator, in Massachusetts, initially thought her sorrow would be about the loss of a qualified woman to lead the U.S., the loss of knowing what could have been.

She went on to say, “…but that’s not where the disappointment is for me. The disappointment is in the values that won and what that means for lots of people.”

In other words, our collective sorrow should be directed toward the dread of a man whose character and values make him a devastating choice of leader both at home and in the world.

And there, in a nutshell, is my sticking point.

Values are goals to strive for, abstract standards to live by. They are the moral fiber that makes us human. Having them defines character. We grow up. We get to choose personal values that play to our individuality, defining the path by which we live.

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Notre Dame, Paris at sunset

There is also a history of values that Americans have culturally ascribed to those serving as U.S. President. Intelligence, preparation, responsibility to service and inclusion of all others, integrity on the job–these are a few.

Living in Europe the past eleven years has solidified for us the valued role American leadership has played historically and continues to play globally. In Normandy, United States and French flags are flown side by side. At the American cemetery on Omaha beach, French school children annually adopt an individual gravesite to take care of, remembering and learning about the soldier who lies there.

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American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy

On this windy, northern French coastline the memories of WWII remain strong. People in Normandy beam when they learn you are American. All Europeans remember that in 1948, via the Marshall Plan, the U.S. pledged to rebuild a devastated continent. It was a remarkable historical first–the victor rising to aid the vanquished. These events, including the noble Berlin airlift, occurred because of morally responsible government leadership and values that represented the best of America.

One more story: Today, my husband went to pick up his dry cleaning. The normally reserved French woman at the counter looked directly at him and asked, “How are you doing?’ Then she said, with utter despair, “I have no words!” It was raw emotion.

This election isn’t solely about disenfranchised voters with a myopic view of what they “think” is going to change and “the guy” who can get the job done. It isn’t solely about the inability to break a glass ceiling by a woman capable of doing so.

This election, as all before it, is also about the recognition, reputation and stance of the United States in the world. It has unnerved people internationally that much of our “American-ness”, the compassion and cultural values exercised and upheld for 240+ years have been cast aside by so many. At what cost?

Looking upon my country from afar, it appears that we have tossed a vital piece of national character and conscience out the window. I feel ashamed right now.

It’s difficult to know, or predict, what this “win” will cost our country, our international standing, our global consciousness, and our future.

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“Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris

Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.

Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.

She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.

In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.

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gare de lyon today

In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”

In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.

Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.

If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.

Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.

Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.

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neon sign pre 2014 renovation
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and after renovation

The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.

There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.

These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.

Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.

When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.

Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.

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view toward kitchen and big ben bar

On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.

As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?

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view toward the station tracks

To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.

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Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…

That story here: Paris to Avignon

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Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

Shrooming in Latvia

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photo by olga gorbacova

In June 2015, our son, Adam, married his bride, Anna, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was described in a previous story, Letting Go In Latvia.

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the site, june 12, 2015

The women in our daughter-in-law’s Russian family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is a highly anticipated annual event.

The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. Then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages: 1. I would forge a new Russian/American alliance, 2. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting, and 3. I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.

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architecture in the historic part of riga

Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and its’ history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer.

Like many small Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were also influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.

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on the tour with tania

After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief, twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then, the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its’ second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.

In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to, as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters, Tania and Olga, and worked in a factory. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family’s mother tongue is purely Russian.

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vera aka “babushka”

Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its’ own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forest areas where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover, under trees, rocks, and leaves.

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Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides were Tania, her sister Olga, and their friend Edita, who acted as my translator. That day, they needed to do some serious sleuthing to find the coveted treasure.

I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.

The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose an American in the Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their range of comfort.

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serene beauty in a secret forest

Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were­, well…poisonous.

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olga scouting for me

One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered small squares of sliced black bread. There was a whole hardboiled egg, and a big wedge of red tomato.  Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.

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olga and edita

Two more hours of hunting before returning to the city, changing clothes, and meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for safely chauffeuring “precious cargo”–Julia and me. You have to love a man like that!

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cleaning ‘shrooms with julia
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the harvest pre-cleaning

Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived. Her technique was meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, bigger means less work for the end result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white, when looking at it from the bottom, it meant worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded as unacceptable. After peeling, mushrooms were rinsed and drained in a colander.

While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium-high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.

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Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. [I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. But this is not Russian at all.]

While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka Russian style. It should be consumed in shots and always with traditional food pairings.

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fish, onion, tomato on black bread, icy cold shot vodka

First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, down a shot followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–deliciously satisfying. No side effects.

A cultural turning point occurred unexpectedly at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story Anna had told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.

When her parents, Tania and Sergei, would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half, by herself, with a spoon, down to the white rind. Seeds and all!

As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at the dessert plates. On every plate there were two, maybe three watermelon seeds, idly dropped. But, on my plate, there was a mountain of black and white seeds because I had carefully picked them out before eating the sweet fruit. Every single seed.

I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched, and then–they erupted into uproarious, mirthful laughter. And so did I.

As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard–and saw each other clearly.

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my favourite tania and julia photo, june 2015

Foxglove and Oreos on the Camino

The Road has no beginning, and the Road has no end. The towns they run together and they run apart again. Right now is the only moment, and Time is the time to go and make yourself a pilgrim on the Road to Santiago. ¡Buen Camiño! –David M. Gitlitz & Linda Kay Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago

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starburst scallop shell marks “the way”

For more than 1000 years, the Camino de Santiago [the Way of St. James] has been a pilgrimage route from the foothills of the Pyrennes, in southwestern France and northwestern Spain, to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the Iberian Peninsula. In ancient times it was undertaken for spiritual cleansing or “losing time in Hell”.

Why is this pilgrimage so historically significant? Here’s the story.

James was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and the 4th disciple recruited by Jesus. He was assigned to the Iberian Peninsula to spread “the word of God”. He made it as far as Galicia in northwestern Spain. Upon returning to the Holy Land he was tortured. Adding insult to injury, he was beheaded. Became a martyr. His body was secreted out of Jerusalem on a boat. Across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, along the Iberian coast, back to the shores of Galicia. His tomb became enshrined in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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So began the third most important Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, after Rome and Jerusalem. During the Renaissance and years of religious reformation [16th century] the Camino’s importance waned. It fell even more out of favor during the Age of Enlightenment [18th century]. Yet pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela never stopped completely. Nowadays the Camino is rocking in popularity. 262,459 certificates, or Compostelas, were awarded in 2015. Pilgrims traveled by foot, bicycle, or horseback. Some in wheelchairs.

In ancient times as well as today, travelers often carry their provisions in a backpack, camp out, or sleep in hostels, retreating from normal life for days, weeks, or months. Usually their journey ends at the cathedral in Santiago.

There is also another “way” to experience the Camino, which is what I did.

In May 2014, I was with a group of women who started the journey where most people end–in the courtyard of the cathedral. We walked from there to the actual “ends of the earth” [Finisterre] on the Atlantic Ocean. We carried only a daypack with water and rain gear. Our worldly goods were transported to the next charming “casa rurales” [bed and breakfast] along the route. After hiking all day we enjoyed a hot bath or shower, delicious Galician cuisine and wine, followed by restful sleep–in a bed.

The Camiño de Fisterra-Muxía is the road less travelled these days, particularly in the off-season. On the fourth day we arrived at the lighthouse on Cape Finisterre overlooking the ocean. On the fifth day we walked up the coastline to Muxía where we received the Compostellana [Certificate of Accomplishment]. You must walk at least 100 km to receive the certificate. We walked 117.

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route from santiago to muxía

 

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compostela record

 

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stamps acquired along the way

 

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lighthouse at the cape

Our group came together through the joint venture of two American women, Sally and Sienna, who met in Spain while Sally was producing a documentary entitled, “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”.  In 2013 they began organizing small group trips for people to experience the Camino as a one week venture.

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sally on the trail

The topography of Galicia is extremely hilly. It is also very rainy which keeps the landscape lush and green. And, in May, there were fields upon fields of pink foxglove. Future heart medication [digitalis] growing wild.

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Digitalis purpurea, common foxglove

“Oreos” were spoken of frequently. In Spain they are tiny barns of granite or shale stone built on mushroom-like pedestals. Functioning as storage granaries in rural areas, they are mounted off the ground to deter rodents. Later, when I learned the Galician word was actually “hórreos”, I understood what they had in common with the name of a cookie. Absolutely nothing. But “oreos” is what I remember.

Forewarned about the hilly terrain, I brought hiking sticks, which gave me a long rhythmic stride. So I was often by myself, up ahead, looking for trail markers [the yellow scallop shell or the painted yellow line] and discovering new terrain. After the first day, I realized that hiking alone was going to be my experience on the Camino.

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yellow marks the way across water too

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romanesque bridge and aqueduct

Everyone goes on a journey for some reason. It’s often initiated during a moment of transition, a need to “walk through” personal issues, let go of the old, let in the new, or to simply break up routines. It might bubble up as a search for healing or forgiveness or a time to give thanks or to mark a special occasion. Perhaps the motivation is to meet new people, hear their stories, see new places, rediscover something forgotten or discover something new. Journeys can be the catalyst for creative inspiration, finding harmony in nature, exercise, penance, meditation, or delving into the spiritual.

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My own journeys are usually discovery seeking ones. They widen my perspective, feed curiosity, and replenish me with the adventure. Those quiet hours in the hills, forests, villages, foxglove fields and countryside of Galicia brought real contentment. I was part of the changes in weather–the pouring rain, looming storm clouds and intermittent sun. I was one with the topography–the out of breath up-hills, the knee jarring down-hills and the blessed stretches of flat terrain in between. Often I was lost in thought about the history and natural beauty of this part of the world. It is impossible not to feel connected to others who walked the same trail over past millenniums.

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Day 3, last 5k of steep downhill, long negotiation of massive boulders ahead

Evening meals were social bonding time. We were treated to delicious regional cuisine including famous Galician wines. Arroz con calamares [rice with squid], zamburiñas [scallops in shells], and a giant fried prehistoric style fish that looked ominous but melted in the mouth.

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dining ambience

 

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happy pilgrims

A uniquely Galician tradition, the queimada ceremony, was performed for our group. Queimada is made from a special Spanish liqueur distilled from grapes, flavored with spices, herbs, sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans. The ingredients are put together into a clay pot, set on fire and allowed to burn slowly. The concoction is stirred frequently by lifting a ladle of flaming liquid and pouring it back into the pot. When the flame burns blue, it is ready to serve in ceramic cups.

There is a recitation chanted as the queimada burns–to purify the drink and to share it with the souls of family and friends not present to enjoy it. Special powers are conferred on the queimada and to those drinking it. We didn’t experience anything supernatural, but there was a lot of infectious laughter and animated conversation after a long hiking day. Sound sleep followed.

Upon reaching the cliff at the end of the world on Cape Finisterre, we saw blackened remains of burned clothes and shoes on the rocks. It’s a tradition for those who venture all the way to give up their worldly goods. None of us were moved to burn anything. Instead we picked up a stone to throw into the sea, giving it the name of something to let go of.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw my stone away. I kept touching it in my pocket and wondering about the hesitation. My friend Margaret suggested that I wasn’t ready to let go. There was something I needed to do with that energy. She was right. Three weeks later, in June 2014, I published my first story on this website. Later, I noticed white markings on the stone that reminded me of a face. I keep it on the bedside table for good luck.

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everybody needs a rock

All pilgrimages have a fixed end point. But they begin wherever you start walking.

The going is more memorable than the getting there.”

When you are ready, just put on your boots, and go…

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galician coastline, iberian peninsula, spain
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margaret, laurel, nina, sally, carole

 

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nina, sally, carole, wendy, teresa, laurel

Some of the photos in this story are courtesy of Nina Cooper or Teresa Goodwin.

Other stories featuring Sally Bentley: French-splaining American Thanksgiving, Sex in a Pan, Leaving Paris and Hemingway

Bags of Laughter

When laughter helps without doing harm, when laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is laughter that causes health. When laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love…lifts sadness and severs anger…when they are made bigger, made better, more generous, more sensitive, that is sacred [laughter]. –Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Sometimes I laugh so hard the tears run down my legs. Unknown author

It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down to your hips. Unknown author

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Laughter is part of the universal human language. Everyone speaks laughter. Laughter exercises the diaphragm, the abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles. It’s a workout!

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Laughter is yogic. Nothing works faster to bring the body and mind back in balance than a good laugh.

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Laughter is cathartic. When the good feeling from a big laugh remains, it lifts your mood for hours.

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Recently, some tear inducing out loud laughter took over my day. Bursts of laughter broke free for hours. It made me feel great.

The source was a story written by Alec, a friend with a gift for spinning a comedic phrase.  This time it was a personal to my experience of having lived in Germany and then making a specific request to my friend.

Alec knows there are things I miss from Germany, so he always offers to bring “a list” when he and his wife drive to Paris to visit. This time I tacked on “one more thing” to the list, but felt it needed more description:

…Oh, there is one more thing you could bring. It’s very lightweight and packable, but you have to go to the Oberursel Altstadt to find it. On the main street is the One Euro Store. Not everything there is one euro, but it’s a cheap junk store you should know about anyway.

Inside, they have these little cloth shopping bags that come wrapped in a cloth carrying case. The nameReisenthel is on the side label. They cost more than one euro, about 4.95 each. They are brilliant. I use them daily or give them away to family and friends, doing my “green best.

I only like solid benign colors. Black, blue, green, brown. No patterns or foofy florals.  6-10 bags if you find them…

I received the following email from him the day before their arrival. It was titled:

On A Mission for Wendy

I loitered outside the dollar store in the winter cold, waiting until the store emptied before I approached the owner.

Uncertain of his level of English, I said with some hesitation, “Guten Tag. I am shopping for a woman-friend who lived here six years ago. She asked me to pick up some packable lightweight shopping bags she used to buy in your store.”

He remained silent so I continued, “They’re made by Reisenthel. She gives them away to be environmentally friendly. Do you still carry them?”

He stared at me and I wasn’t sure if he was mentally translating what I said from English to German or was wondering if I was crazy enough to think a dollar store carried the same merchandise over such a long period of time.

He gestured to a box that had packable shopping bags in a floral pattern. Apologetically I said, “Um, she doesn’t really want a floral pattern.”

Again, the stare as he said, “She wants to be environmentally friendly but doesn’t like flowers?”

He had a point, but I stood my ground. “I think she wants to be fashionably friendly to the environment.”

This time his stare lasted even longer. He scratched his head. I couldn’t tell if he was thinking about whether he had other bags in the store or if he was beginning to understand why a person like Donald Trump could be elected if Americans were all like me.

He opened a cabinet and handed me a slightly larger shopping bag-inside-a-bag, this time in basic black. The tag indicated it was manufactured by “Schneider”.

Now it was my turn to hesitate. Finally I got up the nerve to say, “Um, this is a Schneider bag, but my friend really wants a Reisenthel bag.”

I felt completely stupid. I said “Reisenthel” like it was some kind of designer brand from Bloomingdales or Saks, but the shelves lined with cheap bric-a-brac reminded me I was far from Fifth Avenue.

By the look on his face, I feared he was going to hit me with one of the dozens of snow globes within easy reach. Instead he just blinked. It was one of those blinks where the eyelids remain closed long enough that I could have slipped out of the store. Maybe he was offering me an out, but I stayed. I was on a mission for Wendy.

Finally, he opened his eyes and said, in an accent heavier with each exchange, “And what, may I ask, is so special about a Reisenthel bag?”

Luckily for me I came prepared with an email from my friend. I pulled it out of my pocket and quickly read aloud what she wrote. “Um, well, she says here that, ‘They are brilliant.’

He squinted at me, considering my words. Then he repeated very slowly, as if offering me a chance to take one of the small green pills prescribed by my psychiatrist, “These bags. They are brilliant?”

Rather than hold his stare, I looked back at my friend’s email and blurted out the first words that caught my eyes. “She says here they should be benign”. Then, realizing how incredibly stupid that sounded, I tried to make a joke with a forced chuckle, “But I assume all of your bags are benign, right?”

For the first time he looked at me with something other than pity or spite and said with clear relief, “So you want nine bags?”

I looked down at my shoes. It took only a moment to realize my joke had been misunderstood. I looked up and then again at my friend’s email with the very explicit directions of what she wanted.

Drawing upon an inner strength, built from more than 20 years of living overseas, battle-tested by language and cultural barriers from Asia to Europe. I looked him straight in the eye, and said…

“No. I’ll take ten…Danke.”

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It doesn’t happen nearly often enough–this kind of mirthful laughter that tickles to my core and ripples throughout the day. I laughed until I cried. Then I laughed all over again–thanks to my friend.

…and a great family laugh too…

Other Alec antics told here: Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

Living Both Sides of the French Coin

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At one time or another, almost everyone has been caught in some kind of bureaucratic nightmare. Where you can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences occur wherever you live in the world. When they happen, it’s important to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again. For me the reset button began with a serendipitous stop in a Parisian café.

I had just returned to our home in Paris after two months in the U.S. First order of business was to exchange my old French telecom SIM card for one to fit a new cell phone purchased over the holidays. It’s a pleasant ten-minute walk to the neighborhood store where we have been customers for six years.

Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air seemed minor compared to the long queue of people ahead of me. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in for the wait by staring at mute TV monitors rolling repetitious ads. A sign on the wall reminded everyone to behave courteously at all times. Potential customers entered, assessed the non-moving line, and spun back out. A few lined up behind me. Ninety minutes later, it was finally my turn.

I explained that I needed a replacement SIM card to fit my new cell phone. Account numbers were given. Alors, mais non! The account was not in my name. No transaction was possible without the account holder’s identity card. The “account holder”, my husband, was at work outside the city with his passport and carte sejour [residence card] in his briefcase.

I pleaded courteously, in poorly phrased French, about how long and patiently I had waited, what an easy transaction it was. Surely the man could see our long-standing account on the computer. He agreed it would take 30 seconds to give me a new SIM card. However, I did not have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. No further negotiation.

Outside in much cooler air, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken, all the while fuming over French “rules”. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED” until 3:00PM. Now, both annoyed and hungry, I decided to wait it out in an upscale brasserie around the corner. Although well known by everyone living in the area, I had never been inside. Unknowingly, upon entering the door, my reset button began to tick.

A man in a red tie and black suit greeted and then ushered me to a small table for two. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and bistro glassware. The menu was large and colorful with “CUISINE FAMILIALE ET BOURGEOISE” in bold letters.

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The menu covered a range of fresh seafood platters–oysters, lobster, shrimp, and crab–served on ice with lemon halves, brown bread and butter, or starters of salads and terrines, main courses of viandes or poissons [meat or fish], desserts of profiteroles au chocolat chaud, crème caramel, glaces and sorbets. Très French indeed.

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I chose two starters as a meal. OEufs durs mayonnaise is one of my favorites. Hard-boiled eggs with fresh, homemade mayo and garnished with greens. Followed by a salad of frisée, croutons, and bacon. A silver basket of sliced artisanal baguette was placed on the table almost immediately, along with a tall pepper grinder, a carafe of water and a glass of wine.

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In France it’s easy and comfortable to dine alone, any time of day or night. As a single diner you are rather ghost-like, invisible to others dining and talking with companions. I sipped red wine, relaxed into the back of the cushioned leather chair, and contentedly looked around. A layer of frustration melted away.

At the entrance was a long brass bar framed in wood. While the bartender busily prepared coffee or drinks, his eyes took in everything else going on in the room. The inside lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades.

Servers wore traditional long black aprons over white shirts and black ties. They moved in fluid choreography; carrying food from the kitchen, unobtrusively refilling carafes of water, breadbaskets, or wine glasses at tables with standing silver buckets and cloth draped bottles.

A woman swirled in the door wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man at the table next to me was obviously a regular. His meal appeared without ordering, including an espresso at the end. He donned a fedora, slipped a newspaper under his arm, and departed with a handshake to the man at the door.

My food was served in two leisurely courses. I never felt hurried. Another layer of annoyance fell away.

By 2:45PM, the atmosphere changed. Diners drifted away and the bartender’s pace visibly slowed as he cleaned, polished and put away wine glasses. Servers casually cleared and reset tables, chatting back and forth to each other. A table of four lingered over a bottle of wine and an intense discussion.

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finale

I had finished eating, but remained sitting and rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the score tally had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, my mood was lighter, my attitude readjusted. All because of doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch, blending in with culture and ambience that I both admire and appreciate.

La belle vie en France–c’est comme ça. Final score: French bureaucracy-1, Wendy’s love for Paris-1. Not a tie…I won.


OEUFS MAYONNAISE [courtesy of Paris Paysanne]

  • 2 fresh egg yolks, room temperature
  • 2 pinches salt
  • 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups olive oil
  • dash of H2O
  • drop of red wine vinegar
  • 1-2 hard-boiled eggs per person
  • Mâche [lamb’s lettuce] or greens for salad/garnish, cayenne pepper, optional

Preparation:

Whisk egg yolks together with salt and mustard until creamy and light in color. SLOWLY begin to add olive oil–a few drops at a time to start, whisking vigorously all the time as you go. It should become thicker as the oil is mixed in, but not liquidy. Add all the oil until it is finished. If it seems too stiff, add a dash of H2O and continue whisking. Finish with a drop of red wine vinegar and salt to taste.

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Cut hard-boiled eggs in half. Top with fresh mayo. Garnish with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and greens as desired.

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Looking Back To the Present

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christmas carousel, strasbourg, france

Long ago, in December 1570, the first Christmas market was held on a cobblestoned square in front of a towering Gothic cathedral. Torches and candles lit the wintry darkness. Religious objects and decorations were offered for sale. A bowl of steaming stew might have been ladled from a cauldron over an open fire to entice passersby to linger and warm themselves.

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Now, 445 years later, this fairy tale-like tradition continues in the “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg, France.

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Strasbourg is situated in the Alsace region on France’s eastern border, across the Rhine River from Germany. Its’ strategic location dates back to 12 BC where, as part of the Roman Empire, it became the crossroads of Europe. Frequented by both travelers and invaders, Strasbourg has bounced back and forth repeatedly in political tugs of war. At the end of WWII, Germany returned the city to France for the last time. It retains strong remnants of Franco-German culture and tradition from the entwined history.

The original “centre-ville” is a small island formed by branches of the River Ill [La Grande Île]. Here, the red sandstone Cathedral is the most striking architectural feature. Construction begun in 1176 was finally completed in 1439. An impressive 263 years of engineering, masonry, and carpentry featuring a single Gothic spire which rises 142 meters [466 feet]!

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The oldest Christmas Market is also one of Europe’s largest. Three hundred cottage-like wooden stalls offer food, drink, and seasonal goodies along with an impressive array of gifts and decorations. A 30-meter fir tree from the mountains is beautifully decorated in Place Kléber. The market officially opens the last weekend of November. This year we made plans early, knowing the crowds are daunting. It didn’t turn out to be that way.

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100 feet of mountain evergreen
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Late Friday afternoon began with the usual glowing stalls selling festive wares, ambient street decorations, lights sparkling in cold, wintry dusk. It smelled even better. Aromas of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, grilled brats and sauerkraut, mingled with steaming vats of spiced vin chaud or glühwein [hot wine].

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chestnuts roasting
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gingerbread smiling
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baubles posing

While Mark was on his assigned mission of photographing the charm that transforms Strasbourg into Christmas wonderland, I busied myself locating the best cup of vin chaud. It is a serious task. They are not all alike!

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hot wine comes in red, white, or nonalcoholic juice, pretzels on the side

Unsuccessful initial research shooed me away from the bustling cathedral area. Winding my way to La Petite France, the old tanners district near the river locks, I found a small outcropping of stalls. Here was the place. “Le meilleur vin chaud dans la marché” [the very best in the whole market]. Not gagging-ly sweet, not cloyingly spiced, just good quality red wine, perfectly heated with the right amount of subtle spice. I was scientifically sure. The vendor beamed when I told him this “Truth”.

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the best vin chaud in strasbourg is here 
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la petite france by day
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fairytale lights at night, times one
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fairy tale lights at night, times two
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street of baccarat crystal chandeliers
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a closer look inside

This year’s market was very different for several reasons. First were the roadblocks to cars entering the city center. We parked outside and walked in. Secondly, there were heavily armed police and military positioned on every bridge, square, and corner intersection. In teams of two or three, they stood, walked about, or drove slowly down the [now] pedestrian-only streets. We meandered leisurely through even the most popular areas without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. At 7:00PM the stalls promptly boarded up. It was not a typical opening night.

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We slipped into a wine bar to warm up. The owner told us this was the first year he could look out the windows and see across the street. Normally it would be a wall-to-wall crush of people until late in the evening.

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Two weeks before, November 13, was a tragic night in Paris. Terrorists killed 130 people and injured 400 others. France is still tender, reeling from an assault on the lifestyle and young lives in a proud democratic republic.

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memorial dans la Place Kléber

We paused next to a memorial for Paris victims near the towering Christmas tree. We noted the French tri-color worked into holiday decorating. These outpourings of nationalism, part memoriam and part act of defiance were not surprising. After a tragedy, solidarity and resilience are often displayed this way.

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french flag unfurled
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the tri color decorates

Still, it can be difficult to know how to move on when inexplicable things happen. We live in Paris and didn’t know the victims. But we learned of them.

The story about the café owner of La Belle Équipe is particularly poignant. One of the shootings occurred at this popular neighborhood bistro. His wife was among the fatalities. She died on the floor, in his arms. This man is Jewish. His wife was Muslim. They have a son. Their family represents the healthy diversity permeating Paris and France.

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After burying the mother of his son, the still grieving owner said it was out of the question to close his café. “We must go to concerts. We must sit on terraces. We can still smile with scars on our face. We will lick our wounds and live with our scars. It doesn’t stop us. There is no choice.”

I am struck by this difficult truth after disaster strikes. Of course he is right. One way to reaffirm hope is to return to the things we normally do. Going to work, eating in restaurants with friends, attending concerts, playing with children, musing over coffee on a terrace, visiting museums, strolling through a Christmas market…

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The ability to persevere over hundreds of years to complete the building of a cathedral is the same sentiment that propels us forward when heartbreaking events happen. Giving up is not a choice. Instead, as we lean into the collective embrace of family, friends and community, we hold onto our hope for the future as tightly as we can.

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Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.

[All photos courtesy of MEU, in-house photographer extraordinaire.]

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Simply Sally

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I have a problem trying to figure out what to cook for dinner. It’s silly because if you hand me a restaurant menu I know right away what will feed my hunger. My husband always asks what I am ordering before he makes up his own mind. He knows he will want it too. Especially after he orders something else and then sees the better choice in front of me.

Cooking at home is a repetitive daily hang-up. Over the years I have relied on friends whose culinary skills seem effortless, nurturing, even joyful. This kind of decision-making must be inborn. It bypassed my genetic makeup. Despite 39 years of marriage and two children, daily cooking is my predicament.

During our years overseas, friends taught me to prepare simple, delicious one-dish meals to nourish a growing, hungry family. Some of those meals became staples that over time no longer required following a recipe. Mujuddarah, People Who Pull the Magic Out of You Rancher’s Pasta, Lebanese egg-potato salad, veggie fried rice, Spaghetti Josephine Garlic and Girlfriends to name a few.

By the time we moved to France, children had grown and there were only two of us. It was also when I met my friend Sally.

Sally is an artist and teacher who moved to Bolivia for two years in the late 1980s. She became involved in running a house to support children living on the streets. A young boy in the program captured her heart and she adopted him. In 1990, they returned to the U.S. where she resumed her teaching job in the Arizona public schools.

Sally is a born nurturer who also happens to love cooking. Every day. She always has a plan.

Her picnics, in our Parisian neighborhood park, were memorable. Over colorful Bolivian blankets spread on lush grass, she arranged platters of sliced poached chicken, fragrant with spices, raisins, and sautéed onions, thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes, Mediterranean quinoa salad, cheeses and fruits, and chocolaty brownies. Flutes of champagne or a glass of wine served as accompaniment. Flowers stood in a vase. Sally made it look effortless. On many summer evenings, she and her husband charmed a revolving door of houseguests over the two years they lived here.

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One day, undecided about a cooking idea, I asked Sally what she was making for dinner. She said, “Galette.” What? I knew galette in the form of a cake [Galette de Roi] served in the early days of the New Year in France. It has a plastic toy king baked inside that is a good luck charm for the finder.

“No, no, no”, Sally said, “This is different. Galette can be savory as well.”

Traditionally, galette is a covered crust over cooked ingredients–savory [meat or veggies] or sweet [fruit]. She began to describe the process but I cut her off. “I’ll never remember, just show me.” We agreed to meet the following week in my kitchen-with-a-view for an afternoon of cooking.

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best kitchen view

That evening, on the day we met, I was to attend a potluck dinner party in the courtyard of our apartment building. All the other residents are French. At the time I didn’t know them well and felt intimidated by what to bring.

Back in the kitchen, there was a bottle of Burgundy in the counter wine rack. We opened it and got busy. From start to finish, preparing a galette couldn’t have been easier. A little glass of wine is a great buffer. –Sally Boyle

Sally brought cooked chicken breasts and potatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, zucchini, olives, onion, and soft goat cheese. While I shredded the chicken, she sautéed chopped onion and sliced zucchini rounds in a pan with olive oil until tender. Frozen pastry circles thawed quickly at room temperature on a baking sheet.

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It was simple assembly after that–one meat galette and the other, vegetarian.

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fold crust over for half-moon galette

For the meaty one, we layered chicken, potatoes, and vegetables [zucchini, onion, red pepper and olives] over the pastry, seasoning well with salt and pepper. [Add red pepper flakes if you like more heat. Yes I do!] For vegetarian, we used a combination of cooked spinach, goat cheese, zucchini, red peppers, olives and onions.

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ready to bake
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the lovely result

Cover with the top pastry or fold over in half and seal the edges. [I have also made a one-crust version, which is even lighter.] Make holes in crust to let out steam. Bake 20 minutes at 210 Centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. Voila–an instant main course worthy of a king, Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. Add green salad and glass of wine, as desired.

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one crust, open faced
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one-dish meal with salad and wine

Later that evening at the party, I discreetly placed my contribution on the table with other food offerings. Then moved away to meet and greet neighbors. As people began to eat, I overheard several women murmuring about something delicious on their plates. It was the galette! They wanted to know how to make it and what was inside.

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my dinner party galette

Surprised to receive notice in a foodie crowd, I said, “Oh, it was very simple…”

Simple, that is, if you have a friend like Sally.

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Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”

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There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne. –Jared M. Brown

I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad.Lily Bollinger

Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.Mark Twain

In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.

In the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards.

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Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing” champagne. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars! But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.

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All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered a flaw of nature. Fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.

What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.

The most important thing he did was blend different grapes. The harmony he created between balance and taste was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region–a completely new concept. Myths arose because he was extraordinary, but in actuality he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an innovator and adaptor with keen observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.

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pinot grapes
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chardonnay grapes

Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. Partying Kings and courtiers drank the local wine and decided the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.

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chagall stained glass in reims cathedral

Production, however, remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few people were maimed or killed.

Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.

Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it. One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks propelled Champagne’s future.

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champagne leaves in springtime, april 2015

A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. The discovery of disgorging this sediment became the crowning glory to Champagne fame.

Widow Clicquot [of Veuve Clicquot Champagne] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table and inserted the bottles upside down, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually toward the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked, and it was ready to ship. The secret leaked. An industry took off.

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champagne countryside, fall 2015

During WWII, most of France’s wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demand for shipments home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne! His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in this simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”

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undulating symmetry, post harvest, fall 2015

Post-war, vineyards not destroyed were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrically ordered rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and climate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather, and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagne is now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.

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blanc de blancs
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blanc de noirs

My love for Champagne came about later in life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years of living in Asia we drank Champagne only once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. But we never drank it at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to delight.

In Paris, Champagne was the only beverage served as an aperitif, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, the co-capitals of Champagne region, to sample and learn more.

Some people consume Champagne only on special occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. We live outside of that box now. When home in France, Champagne is often our white-wine-of-choice.

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Good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Delicious bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 a bottle.

Pairing Champagne with food often surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are cliché. Pizza happens to be a perfect chemistry match. On homemade pizza night we begin by uncorking something to sip while we cook. Glasses are refilled table side when we sit down to eat.

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classic pairing
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surprise pairing

Sparkling wine produced in other countries–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California are runners-up to Champagne. They aren’t bad, just not the same. When you uncork a bottle of Champagne, for whatever occasion, raise your glass to Dom Pérignon. Then enjoy “tasting the stars”.

My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne. –John Keynes

I’m not planning to have that regret.

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fall in champagne, 2015

La Bonne Rentrée in Paris

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August is the month when France goes on vacation. In the early 1900s, “La Fermeture Annuelle” was a tradition to provide paid time-off to factory workers. By 1982, laws were passed giving five weeks of paid vacation to all salaried workers.

From late July to the end of August, Paris is quieter, the streets emptier, parking–not a problem. There are still tourists and some businesses remain open. But most small shops and restaurants are closed and shuttered as Parisians head for beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.

Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and summertime is officially over. By the end of the first week of la rentrée, streets and cafés are full again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.

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un café timeout
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un vin rouge timeout

La Rentrée is a time to reconnect with friends, re-establish routines and reacquaint to life in Paris.

One of my favorite returning rituals is to spend a morning at the “Marché aux Puces” at Porte de Vanves. This isn’t the biggest flea market or even the most famous one in Paris. The mega-flea market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where scenes from the movie “Midnight in Paris” were filmed.

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I like the smaller venue in the southern 14th Arrondissement. It lines only two streets, for half a day on Saturdays and Sundays, year round. There are professional merchants with covered tables and reserved spots. There are others who sell from a blanket spread on the ground. It’s treasure hunting and people watching fun. The crowd is both local and tourist.

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The entertainer
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the daydreaming vendor
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the watchful merchant
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the consideration
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the negotiation
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and the transaction

When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee An Egg in the Coffeepot, I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useful items such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we collected in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.

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red is best
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japanese-occupation pottery, circa 1895-1945, made in taiwan

Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. And sometimes–nothing at all.

Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The volume and range of objects astounds. Even knowing, “one man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s hard not to be judgmental of some objects on display for sale. Odd, quirky, eccentric, useful, cheap, expensive, collectible, colorful, playful, beautiful, strange, or simply weird. It’s all there for a price. Bargaining is essential, bien sûr.

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The odd
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the quirky
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the eccentric
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the useful
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The cheap
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the expensive
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the collectibles
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The colorful
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the playful
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the beautiful
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the strange
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and the weird

I go to the Marché aux Puces for entertainment, to see what’s there, to eavesdrop on interactions between shoppers and vendors, to stroll along and muse over oddities with a cup of coffee or vin chaud [in wintertime] from the corner kiosk.

The adventure never disappoints. It’s an annual ritual that reminds me that I’m back home in my favorite city in the world.

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I. M. Pei’s pyramid
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Letting Go In Latvia

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Jumurda Manor, Latvia

Joseph Campbell, mythologist and philosopher, wrote, “A ritual is an enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth…But you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. That’s what ritual does. It gives you an occasion to realize what you are doing so that you’re participating in the energy of life. That’s what rituals are for; you do things with intention…you learn about yourself as part of the being of the world…”

Campbell also said, “Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical…it is beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known, but not told.”

Herein lies the challenge–to tell a story that for the past two months has been beyond the reach of my words. It is rooted in a ritual with pagan origins. It was part of the wedding of our son and his Latvian/Russian bride.

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ceremonial site from our skylight window

In a countryside setting outside of Riga, Latvia, June 12 was as perfect as a summer day can be anywhere in the world. There was warm sun and a light breeze. Cloudless sky. Lapis-blue lake and a field of soft grass. A ceremonial framework of boughs entwined with flowers. Shared vows in Russian and English. Radiant smiles. Applause, joy, and love.

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The after party began with a scavenger hunt and Champagne for guests as the newlyweds were whisked away for photos. Upon their return, the celebration continued with good food and drink, fantastic music, poignant toasts and funny speeches.

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Just before midnight, the band music stopped. All of the guests were ushered from the party tent, down the hill, to the wedding site near the lake. Glowing candle lanterns lit the darkness.  Blankets were offered for the cool evening air. There was a young man playing soft guitar music. Two chairs had been placed beneath the framework of boughs and flowers. The mothers of the bride and groom were instructed to sit on the chairs. Then our children sat on our laps. No one understood what was happening, but we were entering an ancient Latvian myth.

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Mičošana [pronounced “Michuashana”] is a Latvian wedding tradition that dates back to [pre-religious] pagan times. It symbolizes the moment when the bride becomes a wife and the groom a husband. It is a way of saying “goodbye” to childhood and home. In this enactment, there was an unspoken tribute to both mothers as we held our children one final time before they passed into adulthood and the creation of a new family. It is a sweet, sad, and somehow romantic experience.

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Historically, Latvia was a country of peasants living and working on large farming estates under a feudal system. Girls typically married boys from settlements far away. Mičošana became a ritual of farewell. After marriage, the bride would live on her husband’s settlement, rarely seeing her own family again. The ceremony symbolized “giving the bride away” because it severed ties between the girl and her family.

Here is how it went 21st century style. Midnight–the end of the day and the beginning of a new day. With soft background music and married children on our laps, the bride’s mother took off her daughter’s veil and placed it into a box. She tied a ruffled apron around her daughter’s waist. 

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I placed an engraved wooden pipe in my son’s hand. The bride and groom stood together with their symbolic accessories and read aloud the roles they would now assume. This was the lighthearted version of contemporary Mičošana, with laughter too. Choosing from a basket of printed cards the bride read, “I will drink beer and be the master of the remote control.” The groom, “I will always be very pretty and sweet.”

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The readings went on for several minutes. The bouquet was tossed by the bride as the guitar music faded. People began to drift uphill to the tent where the party continued until the sun rose. But something very special had happened. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t have words to describe it. I only knew how it made me feel. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Walking across the grassy field, the bride’s mother and I linked arms. She turned to me and said softly in her rudimentary English, “Wendy, when babies come, 50/50, okay?” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and said, “Of course, Tanya. 50/50. Always.” It was another unexpected moment. Her overture touched me. The meaning behind the words was heartfelt and real. First women, then mothers, and now a multi-cultural family bound by our children.

As I learned more about Mičošana, the symbolism became clearer. Our son and his wife have assumed roles in an international marriage. It will take our daughter-in-law far from her Latvian family home. She will undoubtedly see her parents and family less and less often. The bittersweet midnight ceremony was the same parting experienced by generations of brides over thousands of years.

I believe Campbell. Myths are important. Rituals are important. Poetry is important. Symbolism runs through ceremonies from ancient times to the present. Because of our thinking nature, we strive to understand the meanings underneath. This helps awaken us to our place in the circle of life.

Campbell’s words, again: “…by participating in the ritual [with intention]…you are being put into accord with the wisdom of the psyche, which is the wisdom inherent with you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life.”

This is what we hope for all of our children. We wish for them to grow into the wisdom of their own lives.

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ajutimestwo, 6-12-15

SOLYANKA [pronounced Sahlahnka] aka HANGOVER SOUP

Partying continues well into the day after a Russian/Latvian wedding. A thick hearty soup of salty, cured meats and sausages is usually on the menu after a night of drinking. It hits the spot with its’ rich meaty stock, briny pickles and vegetables, garnished with sour cream. Although there is a vegetarian form, meat solyanka is more common. I fell hard for it’s delicious taste at Jumurda Manor. Anna and I made a version in her London kitchen. The key is a lot of sour and salt in a rich broth. Ingredient proportions are flexible. Rice can be substituted for potatoes. This is an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup. It tastes so much better than you think it will!

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lean beef and seasoning for broth
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other raw ingredients

MAKING THE BROTH

  • 300 gm lean beef rump
  • 1 whole onion, peeled
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 T. whole peppercorns

In a saucepan, cover broth ingredients with water. Boil uncovered over medium heat for 30 minutes. Take out onion and discard. Continue boiling until the meat is cooked through, about 1.5-2 hours. Add additional water to keep meat covered and to build up broth. When meat is tender, take out to cool slightly. Skim fat off top of broth.

NEXT STEPS

  • 200 gm Polish sausage
  • 100 gm good German ham

Cut cooled beef, sausage and ham into julienne strips. Cube some potato. Place in broth to simmer.

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ready to use ingredients

Chop ½ onion and sauté in olive oil. Add julienned carrots and ¼ cup [or more] tomato paste. Continue sautéing for a few minutes then add all of this to stock.

Place sliced meat in skillet to warm slightly. Then add to stock.

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brine soaked cukes and olives

IMPORTANT FINAL INGREDIENTS

  • Jar of cucumbers in BRINE. Different from regular pickles. Saltier. Brinier. See photo.
  • Black olives packed in BRINE

Stir in julienned cucumbers, whole black olives and ¼ to ½ cup [or more] of the brine.

When potatoes are cooked, turn off heat. Salt and pepper to taste.

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Slice fresh lemons into circles and place over top of soup. Cover pot and let sit about 30 minutes. Remove lemons. Serve garnished with a large dollop of fresh sour cream.

Delicious and nutritious even without the hangover.

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Secret Eating

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Secret eating is seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible they’ve never experienced this solitary pleasure.

The desire to eat unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you do surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.

A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It came from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she went to the market by herself. She bought a huge watermelon with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Including the seeds. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure.

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anna’s secret eating

M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place one frigid winter when she and her husband lived in an unheated walkup apartment in Strasbourg, France. They were depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows and heat.

Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in her Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing all the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.

There was a long lunch when Al returned and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter on the dresser before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.

For the rest of the afternoon, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each orange morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home from school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way.

Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that others with “secret eatings of their own” would somehow understand.

I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, I traveled by myself to Strasbourg on a train from Frankfurt. Next to Place Gutenberg is a small hotel where I stayed in a room under the roof. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when I stuck my head out the dormer window. The bathroom was at the top of an open staircase right under the peak.

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my room under the roof
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cathedral view from window by night

That February was bitterly cold.

I bought a bag of small clementines, peeled them into sections, and laid them on a piece of hotel stationery on top of the radiator. Then I went out to explore.

When I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. It made me happy.

Several years later, a new secret eating ritual started during a visit with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national food chain. I watched her fill a bag with flattened, dull-colored, brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. They were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.

The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, that road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and pliable. Careful considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. I had to chew slowly, without hurrying, before it was ready to swallow. I had to pay attention.

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unsweetened dried mangoes

The degree of subtlety from dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris.

Now when I feel the urge, I go to the hiding place in the kitchen and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit in a window of our apartment overlooking the vine-laden courtyard where I never tire of the view.

If I stand in the kitchen window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.

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dining room window
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with a view

Or, I might decide to stand in the street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.

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street side windows at sunrise

My secret eating is something I try to keep to myself. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s simply a meditative time-out, or a few private minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, or a satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month.

There must be someone out there who understands what I mean…

The Baba au Rhum Affair

When dining in a French restaurant, there are three typical dessert categories people choose. There are the crème brûlée lovers or the mousse au chocolat [or anything chocolate] lovers. There are fruitarians who crave tarte tartin or other fruity things.

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crème brûlée
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mousse au chocolat
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tarte tartin

When I watch people eating these classic desserts I sometimes live vicariously with a mental spoonful. Mostly I remain distant from what I consider their ordinary desires. This is because of a passionate affair I had with Baba au Rhum.

It began casually, with an innocent introduction. We skipped over flirtation as things rapidly accelerated to a lusty peak, then slid rather quickly into unmet expectations. Inevitably it dwindled to a wistful end. Such is the cycle of most affairs. Even with desserts.

A series of events led to this. For two months I worked as an assistant to a French woman who conducted cooking classes for tourists in Paris. She was between student “stagiaires” during a busy season so I volunteered to fill in. Lessons began at 9:00AM with a walking tour through a well-known market street, followed by preparation in her professional kitchen, ending with a three-course luncheon. My job was to pay the vendors, schlep items home, prep and clean up while clients chopped, stirred, watched and listened. As they nibbled on regional cheeses and sipped white wine around the large kitchen work-island, I set the dining table, refilled glasses, and washed dirty dishes and utensils.

“Payment” for my services was mostly in the form of laughable anecdotes. Once, a 500gm block of butter fell to the floor and was stepped on by the chef. I was told to, “clean it” because it was “still usable”. I wiped the smashed butter with a lot of paper towels until only a small sliver of “use” remained.

As a thank-you at the end of this brief tenure, I was invited to lunch in a small, classic French restaurant off the Boulevard St. Germain. My hostess ordered dessert for both of us. And so, with this unexpected introduction, I met my French love.

In front of me was placed a shallow white bowl containing a cylindrical piece of spongy cake, a side dish of smoothly whipped fresh cream, and an open bottle of Martinique rum.

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baba at first sight

Rum was slowly and generously poured over the cake. I took a spoonful of rum-infused cake with a little cream and–well, it was like sharing a magic carpet ride with “Ali Baba” himself.

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slowly pour rum over cake
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take a spoonful of rum infused cake and cream

Here is the curious part; I don’t drink rum or even think about it, ever. I shun plain squishy cake as unnecessary calories. Whipped cream is so “dairy” and off my nutritional list. But the sum of the parts turned into obsession–lusty Caribbean rum plus airy booze-drenched cake mingled with cool, vanilla flecked cream. All of which dissipated into a cloud of vaporous desire in my mouth. I was hooked at first bite.

Thus began my infatuation with Baba au Rhum. It wasn’t perfect. There were ups and downs. I rejected restaurants that did not offer the rum bottle tableside, or served pre-fab, stale, even crunchy cake. Quelle horreur! I knew what I wanted. Expectations were extremely high from the beginning.

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split open, ready for rum, cream on the side
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served with full bottle à table

After months of reckless indulgence I made a profound discovery. And it was the beginning of the end. The best Baba au Rhum I ever had was not in Paris.

During one fall season, we took a road trip to the countryside of Bordeaux. We stayed in a charming guest cottage near the town of St. Emilion. It was in the middle of the vineyards of the Troplong Mondot winery. Having arrived after the harvest, the vines were empty and the fields quiet. The weather was cold and wet. We had an open-hearth fireplace in the living room that burned twisted grape vines and three foot logs. One evening we dined in the upscale restaurant of the Château. The menu was fixed. Dessert was Baba au Rhum. Of course I was thrilled.

It was served in the usual trilogy with one notable exception. The cake was lightly warmed–a variation that immeasurably enhanced the coolness of the cream and the velvety smoothness of the rum. I knew right away this was the best it had ever been. And might ever be.

Intense relationships often run their course. So it was with Baba and me. After Bordeaux, I tried it a few more times but it was never quite the same. Finally it faded into a wistful memory. Now when I see Baba on the menu there is a flutter of recognition. I question whether to dabble again. But I’m certain my expectations won’t be met. And, truthfully, they can’t be.

I enjoy telling friends and guests about Baba au Rhum’s charms, urging them to give it a try. It seems to fall into the love/hate category. Maybe it’s too extreme, too unusual, or too far removed from mainstream desires for chocolate, crème brûlée, or fruit tarts.

And yet, I remain nostalgic because that bite of sweet, rum, and coolness, savoured and shared, is a fine way to spend time around the table with people you love.

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Transcendent Picnics

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trail to buffalo meadows, taipei, taiwan

M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote that the best outdoor eating is on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of an unforgettable picnic took place in Switzerland in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, on a grassy meadow in Taiwan, we had a similar family experience. Continents and decades apart, the stories are interwoven because both Fisher’s memory and mine are reflections about more than the menu.

Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised just enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them carried baskets to the construction site, after workers had left for the day.

A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed in an ancient spring-fed fountain to chill. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.

The first spring peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot. An iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the end, then table side.

On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread, and fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They shared the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.

There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. –m.f.k. fisher

In the spring of our first year in Taiwan, we went on a picnic where the alignment of people, place, and food replicated Fisher’s kind of perfection. More importantly, our young daughter began to understand the communal spirit created when food is shared in good company.

Yangmingshan is the national park north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, hiking trails, flowers and greenery. Friends Maddy and Cabby knew of an area in the park where water buffalo grazed freely and people were few. They organized a picnic in Buffalo Meadows on a late afternoon. We were four adults and three young children.

From the parking area we hiked uphill in a cloud so dense it moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail the landscape turned sunny and green with views all around. The soft grass was picnic perfect. Out of a backpack came a Frisbee and the men organized play on the hillside. Lara and Liza tired of running after a frisbee they couldn’t catch. They tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.

lara and liza and a water buffalo
girls thinking about things

Our nine-year-old daughter came over and sat down to watch the food preparation. There was a small camp stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to put together the meal. Ingredients had been sliced, steamed, grated and pre-cooked at home. Once the stove was leveled, primed, and producing enough heat, assembly began. 

Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Bite sized broccoli flowerets were stirred in with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta was added along with butter. Everything was tumbled together with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, freshly grated Parmesan cheese was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices gave toasted sweetness to the broccoli and pasta. A one-dish meal. Perfect.

Plates were passed. We sat side by side on blankets eating, laughing and talking. As the sun lowered over the far hills, the temperature cooled and we reached for jackets. Thimble sized portions of single malt whisky were passed among the adults. A breeze stirred and we leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front of her father’s grey sweatshirt where she fell asleep curled into his chest, only the top of her blonde head showing. We talked quietly as darkness descended. The mist returned. It was time to go home.

Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that broccoli pasta. She had a faraway look in her eyes while she spoke of the picnic in Buffalo Meadows and how wonderful it had been. Looking at her face and listening to her speak I knew she had made a connection about more than the food. She was asking to go back to a feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot her request. She had connected the dots that Fisher writes about so well–the communion of spirits when food and love are shared, around a table or on a hillside, with people who are important to us.

Perhaps this explains why a picnic, so many years ago, is vivid in my memory. Although I love reflecting on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own recollection is this–a beat-up Japanese wok filled with pasta, a misty meadow, adults and children with arms around one another, and a water buffalo. I can’t let it go.

BROCCOLI GARLIC PENNE [from Silver Palate Cookbook]

basic ingredients except for parmesan
  • 1 lb. [500 gm] penne pasta, cooked al dente
  • 2 heads broccoli, cleaned and cut into small flowerets
  • ½ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 [or more] cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 T. [1/2 stick] good butter
  • Freshly grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Assembly:

  • Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
  • Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1-2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
  • Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic slices and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
  • Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
  • Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
  • Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pass the pepper mill.
  • Add garnish and extra Parmesan.

For variety, add shredded or cubed cooked chicken, sliced black olives, or leftover veggies. Red or yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition. [Steam or stir fry before adding.] Red pepper flakes for added spice. Cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as garnish before serving.

Mussel Memory, Revisited

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Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.

For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.

In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.

I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.

A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.

Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.

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side by side friteries
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sauce choices
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cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce

While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.

Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.

My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.

In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.” m.f.k. fisher

Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”

And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…m.f.k. fisher

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.

In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.

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waffles plus
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waffles loaded

On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

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The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.

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the best modules-frites in brussels

September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.

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They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.

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The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

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two ways to eat: using shell as utensil
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or fork

The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.

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Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.

“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher

Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’était très bon.

  • Aux Armes de Bruxelles
  • Rue des bouchers 13
  • 1000 Brussels
  • Tel: +32 [0] 2 511 55 50
  • Open 7/7 from noon to 10:45PM, Monday to Friday
  • Until 11:15PM Saturday and 10:30PM Sunday
  • http://www.auxarmesdebruxelles.com

Kindle Some Candlelight

I’m obsessed with flames. Growing up in a family with fire-making rituals, I come by this naturally. Wherever we lived, when the outside temperature dropped, it was time to lay wood in the fireplace and watch it burn. Now I live in a Parisian apartment with seven fireplaces. All of them sealed shut. In the dark winter months there is only one alternative. Between four and five in the afternoon, as the sun is setting, I begin lighting candles.

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Recently, I became aware this is not a tradition others follow as consistently as I do. Earlier this month, on a dark December afternoon, my friend Lesli invited a group of women for “wine and unwind” time. This is a time of bringing friends into your home, opening a bottle of something and letting conversation flow.

Lesli’s apartment happens to be furnished with a spectacular crystal chandelier from another century. Studying it admiringly, I noticed it was not electrified. It was outfitted with candles. They had never been lit since Lesli moved in three years before. She needed little encouragement from me. With partially burned candles already in place, I climbed on a chair and broke off the blackened wicks before re-lighting them. In full glow, this antique beauty became a Versailles-worthy show stopper. Although no “ugly duckling” before, it was now a stunning swan.

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candlelight transformation

She also had six or eight candles in heavy glass jars from the oldest candle making store in Paris, Cire Trudon. This is the most prestigious French wax manufacturer in existence since 1643. The wicks were deeply buried in hardened wax. It took some digging and trimming, but those, too, were put into burning use. Soon the living room was ambient with candle glow, “coupes de champagne” in everyone’s hand, and easy banter among friends.

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trimmed and untrimmed wick lengths

Everyone knows candlelight warms up any room. But for many people they are messy and off putting to use except on special occasions. If you are an infrequent candle lighter, a bit of know-how etiquette is what you need. For anyone inclined to light up the night with candles, here is a basic tutorial as requested by a few friends in France.

  • Always trim the wick before relighting a candle. It will break off in your fingers at the perfect starting point. Otherwise, smoke from a too-long wick blackens walls, ceilings and pollutes the room.
  • Prevent excessive dripping messes by keeping lit candles out of drafts. This seems obvious, but it’s really important to be aware of air currents where candles are burning. For safety reasons.
  • If you light a lot of candles, it’s good to use a candlesnuffer for extinguishing rather than blowing them out. This reduces smoke pollution and spraying wax on walls and surfaces.
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candlesnuffer
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held over wick 5-8 seconds
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voilà! no smoking candle or sprayed wax

Whether you engage in regular candle usage or not, there is other interesting etiquette to know.

  • Never display new candles [taper or column] with white, unburnt wicks. If you leave wicks un-blackened, they look like a store display rather than decorative home use. New candle wicks should be burned briefly and extinguished unless using the candle right away. [Votive candles are an exception.]
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votive monks
  • Don’t burn candles during daylight. Candles are for darkness only, morning or evening. Breakfast before sun-up with candlelight is a mellow way to start the day. Evening is natural timing. A candle lit bath can be a regular luxury.

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    breakfast candles with ceramic match holder
  • When a drippy mess occurs, as it will, consider it part of the experience. A plastic spatula easily scrapes wax from hard surfaces. Hot water does the rest, melting it away.
  • As column-shaped candles burn down, empty the wax pool [while it is still liquid] right after extinguishing. As it burns deeper into the column, occasionally trim off the top flush with the wick, using a cutting board and a large knife. This prolongs a natural burning life until it becomes a stump ready to discard.
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    wrought iron candelabra, paris
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    best of electricity and candlepower, colorado

    I can’t explain how fire and candle lore became second nature to me. But, I believe our “indoor lives” are  enhanced by strategic candlelight. It’s a personal, creative choice for the selection of candle holders, shapes, and colors. Almost any non-flammable container will hold some type of candle. Oil lamp candlelight is a no fuss no muss option.

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    mix regular and oil burning candlelight
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    coffee table candles
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    shadow play

    Light a candle or two at home tonight. Enjoy a few flickering flames with family or friends. After all, ‘tis the season.

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    santa says ho ho ho & hippobirdday dar

    Premier candles: www.ciretrudon.com

    Cire Trudon USA, Inc. 358 Fifth Ave., Suite 901 NY, NY 10001

    In France: 78, rue de Seine 75006 Paris

    Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

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    basil pesto ingredients

    Our family lived in Taipei, Taiwan for twelve years, from 1993-2005. If you look for symbolism in numbers, like I do, it was a complete 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Twelve Chinese New Years celebrated traditionally with red envelopes and NT [New Taiwan] dollars, deafening strings of firecrackers, and an annual assortment of snacks from the market on Dihua Jie.

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    lara and friends, dihua jie, early 2000s
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    dihua jie market, every chinese new year

    In our Tien Mu neighborhood, we ate in local restaurants that served delicious and always freshly made Chinese food.  You signed off on ambience while dining out for taste. Formica tables, plastic stools, plates and bowls, disposable chopsticks with splintery ends, napkins like toilet paper, and strong fluorescent lighting–all standard dining décor. It was a good way to get the eating chore done, which we did often in favorite haunts. It was far from cozy.

    Desire bred creativity so we found another way of eating with excellent menus in ambient surroundings. Familiar friends around a candlelit table set with china or pottery plates, gleaming silverware and tall stemmed wine glasses became an almost-every-weekend event. It was regular “dining-out” that happened to be in each other’s homes.

    Sourcing ingredients was an adventure in foraging. There was one grocery store with more than two aisles, which we fondly referred to as “Two L Wellcome”, as that was the spelling. Otherwise, there were tiny mom-and-pop shops where the nuances of supply, demand, and restocking necessitated flexible planning.

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    tien mu grocer, of the mom and pop variety

    There were several men among our group of friends who enjoyed preparing party meals. One of them was Alec. He inspired my husband to start cooking. Our own dinner parties became more elaborate over the years. Fortunately, Mark adopted Alec’s kitchen-to-table results rather than his in-kitchen “bull in a china shop” methodology.

    It’s a fact that Alec operates on a high metabolism. He prowls the kitchen after midnight to down a bowl [or two] of cereal for hunger and insomnia in the wee hours. He bikes up mountains and through forests, he jogs, he talks quickly, and moves fast always. He makes us laugh when he pours coffee into his shirt pocket instead of his mouth or re-arranges pictures by knocking them off the wall. Luckily for his wife, he is the designated chef for their family by mutual choice. He nurtures both family and friends with home-cooked recipes.

    Alec not only cooks and bakes, but makes jams and condiments, too. For several years, he brewed fruity varieties of brandied liqueur and tried to persuade us to love them. There were annual gifts of syrupy sweet alcohol and floating fruit. Our appreciation never ripened. We finally had to tell him we didn’t know what to do with the growing collection of unopened bottles.

    Sometimes Alec and Mark teamed up for a special celebratory dinner in our home. We had a good-sized kitchen, but I learned to stay out of it during prep time. Unpleasant noises mixed with exclamations of “Oh no!” were normal. Things shattered on the floor and crunched underfoot when Alec was sous chef. Our kitchen table accumulated a series of distressing gouges and missing wedges of wood. By the time we left Taiwan, it was designated firewood. Guests were blissfully unaware of what went on behind the scenes and completely charmed by a three-course meal.

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    alec and mark, late 1990s

    When Alec is wrestling with ingredients in any kitchen, mishaps happen. The first dinner party in their Taipei apartment foreshadowed the future doom of our table. We just didn’t know it at the time.

    Six or eight of us were chatting amiably around the dining table while Alec’s final preparations were underway behind the kitchen door. A loud metallic crash was followed by a muffled wail. Conversation stopped. We peeked into the kitchen. Splayed like a fan on the green marble floor was an enormous spilled kettle of spaghetti and basil pesto. It was a vivid image of green and white on green and white, with a touch of barely suppressed laughter. Using the well-known 10-second rule, there was hurried scooping, wiping and reheating. Flustered nervous systems settled. Tableside, we murmured gratefully over the best pesto pasta that ever shined a Hualien-marble floor.

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    Hualien marble floor, made in Taiwan

    My favorite recipe of Alec’s, and the most memorable, is this homemade pesto. Served immediately over hot pasta, it is a garlicky, basil-y, olive oily sensation. Each time we were invited to dinner I secretly hoped it was on the menu.

    There are several advantages to making your own pesto. It’s easy and versatile and can be frozen if made in big batches. Aside from pasta, it can be stuffed into chicken breasts, spread on sandwiches, used as a dip, or an alternative base sauce for homemade pizza.

    It’s up to the cook whether to use it to polish the kitchen floor.

    ALEC’S GREEN-MARBLE PESTO

    • 2 C. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
    • 6 large cloves garlic
    • ¾ C. extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
    • ½ C. pine nuts or walnuts [or both]
    • ¼ to ½ tsp. salt and pepper [start light and adjust upward]
    • red pepper flakes [optional] for those who need some heat
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    toast pine nuts in un-oiled pan

    Blend ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust S&P.  Dilute with a bit of hot water to mix easily with prepared pasta. Delicious on it’s own or add cooked chicken, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, or cherry tomatoes.

    Recipe is sufficient for up to two pounds [1000 gm] of pasta. Adjust pesto amount to your taste. I tend to go on the lighter side when adding other ingredients. Store any extra in airtight container with a thin film of oil.

    I have also made pesto à la Alice Waters [Chez Panisse] using only a mortar and pestle. This is a labor of love, and meditation, with a uniquely wonderful result. For pesto purists. Or those without food processors.

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    the usual raw ingredients
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    prepared for food processor or mortar and pestle: oil, garlic, pine nuts, basil, parmesan
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    out of food processor—the color of green marble
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    dilute with hot water before adding pasta
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    stir into pasta and reheat slightly
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    garnish with chopped tomatoes and parmesan
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    glass of champagne always right
    Eternal+Spring+Shrine
    taroko gorge, taiwan, source of hualien marble