Thursday, September 12, 2013

"All You Need Is a Kitchen and a Bedroom"


              I spent the last two weeks of summer vacationing in Europe.   Since returning home, I’ve run into several friends who saw my pictures of the Eiffel Tower on Facebook, and correctly assumed that I’d traveled to France. 

            “Your vacation looked amazing!” they said.   And I had to agree.  It did look amazing.   Especially the French Alps, which photograph incredibly well.  That is probably because they are spellbindingly beautiful, even in real life.

            Then again, I said, nobody posts pictures of those parts of their vacation that totally sucked.  And for good reason.  Here’s an example.   Would you rather log onto Facebook and see a picture of Mont Blanc, peeking up out of the clouds and piercing the shimmering August blue sky with its jagged snowy peaks?   Or would you prefer a close-up shot of our rental car, when it was stopped on the side of the road, halfway up the mountain, right after our younger daughter got carsick and upchucked her Kit-Kats all over the back seat?   

            So, yes, it was an amazing vacation. 

            Actually, even with the puke, it was pretty amazing.   France totally brought it!  The weather was perfect.  The Eiffel Tower was, well, metallic, in an iconic sort of way.  Or iconic, in a metallic sort of way. Versailles was so packed with sweaty foreign tourists that we got a visceral, first-hand sense of why Marie Antoinette had to relocate herself to her own, personal “cottage.”  Though the lavender in Provence was already harvested by the time we arrived, I snorted the dry stuff to my heart’s content, and made off with several stalks that I may or may not have declared with customs.   Our kids got to swim in the warm ocean waves.  They saw Mediterranean fish.  Unfortunately – and I didn’t post this on Facebook either – we had roaches in our Nicoise bathroom.  But even that was tolerable.  Because as it turns out, Nicoise roaches – much like French children – are much quieter and more petite than their American counterparts. 

            Objectively speaking, France has a lot of really good qualities.   Like art.  History.  Attractive buildings. Pristine gardens.  Epic fountains.   Lovely as it is to live in a small American town whose Target-store-to-citizen ratio is roughly 1 to 4, it’s also pleasant to travel in a country where Target hasn’t yet taken over the entire landscape.  Also, there’s just something beneficial about resetting your brain currents to the sights and sounds of a different culture: the quaint shuttered windows, the poofy little dogs, the trains of big fastness, the open air markets full of fruits and fabrics – even the narrow streets with high stone walls that French people drive down really fast, because the tourists will probably jump out of the way in time, anyway.   

             Truth be told, it was Mike who lobbied for France.  He used to live and work in Paris. He remembers his time there fondly.   While I speak very functional high-school-language-class French, Mike is practically fluent.  This made traveling easier for all of us.   As we sojourned from Paris to Provence to the Mediterranean to the Alps -- eating bread, cheese, or whatever version of the bread-and-cheese combo the locals were serving – our French patrons treated us with respect.  Sure, they blew smoke in our faces while we tried desperately to swallow our food.   They let their poofy dogs lick themselves under our dinner tables, pretty much everywhere.  But I’m happy to report that not one French waiter spit in our faces simply because we were born in a country where the first language is not French. 

            The fact that most Parisians were actually gone on vacation -- and were therefore physically incapable of spitting on us – certainly helped matters.   We did have a few tense interactions.  On one occasion, for example, the owner of our hotel scolded the children for having a little too much joie de vivre in the swimming pool.  We were not the only guests at the hotel, she told us.  And she was right.  There were two other people at the swimming pool at that time: A couple of Spaniards, who had probably just eaten their lunch, because it was 5 o’clock, and they were fast asleep.

             Really, it was fine because, you know, we used to live in New York.  Secretly, we like talking to people who are a little bit gruff, and angry, and sort of want to strangle you just for asking directions to the toilet.  But also – and with all due respect to the French people -- nobody goes to France for the French people.  I mean, that would be a bit like driving all the way to the Grand Canyon because you’re really into mule rides.  Necessary part of the trip.  Often very enjoyable.  But not really the main attraction.

            Personally, I wanted to go to France for two main reasons: the beautiful countryside, and the outstanding food.  And on those points alone – even if you took out the French Alps, and left in the car sickness -- the trip was amazing.  

            We ate… extremely well.  Here is a short list of some of the foods my family enjoyed, in roughly the order we enjoyed them.   Wine.  Chocolate crepes.  Chocolate mousse.  Antipasti.  Escargot in puff pastry.   Beef tartare. Cheese plates.  Croques – Messieurs and Mesdames.  Sole in butter.  Rack of lamb, provencal.  Lobster salad.  Monkfish in butter.   Wine.  More cheese plates.   Melons and ham.  Ham sandwiches with fresh aioli.  Wine.  Moroccan couscous with vegetables.  Seafood salad.  Wine.  Eclairs with fresh raspberries.  Langoustine ravioli.  Baguette with Miel de Bruyere.  Watermelon gazpacho.  Mussels.  Oysters.  Salade Nicoise.  Almond and pistachio croissants.  Tartiflette.  Campari.  Pastis.  Cognac.  Aperol.  Wine.  

            If there is one thing I regret – apart from the fact that we never made it into Notre Dame and my mother is going to give me hell for that – it’s that I didn’t bring any books to read in France.  This was a tragic oversight because the jet lag in that direction is such that – for once in my entire old lady life -- I was actually a night owl and could have used some of those late-night hours to stay up reading, instead of falling asleep by 10 o’clock.   

            Fortunately, however, I did have one thing to read.  

            This was a chapter from Karen Karbo’s new book, Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life.   I received the chapter in my email inbox, a few days before we left Paris. Prior to taking the France trip, I’d signed up to “test drive” one of the chapters and “Live Like Julia” for a week, which sounded fun.   Since I can be a rather bawdy chick -- who also loves to cook -- I got Rule No. 5:

              All You Need Is A Kitchen and a Bedroom.

            Imagine my delight when I opened Karbo’s chapter, and immediately read a story about Julia Child having lunch in Rouen in the 1940’s.  She ate one of her favorites -- Sole Meuniere – along with oysters, bread, cheese, and a green salad.   The same exact meal, basically, that I’d been eating in Paris for almost a week!   But the chapter really started speaking to me when I came across this nugget, which Julia apparently told people who wanted advice on how to feel passionate about cooking: “Go to France,” she would say, “and eat.” 

            Yes, I thought, I get it!   I am in France right now... eating!   And Karbo tells wonderful stories about Julia eating in Paris, with her beloved husband, Paul.   She had Sole Meuniere at Michad.  Scallops and duck at Le Grand Vefour.  She and Paul gradually worked their way through the Guide Michelin, as she developed her passion and knowledge about French food. 

            Given my own experience of the French and their language quirks -- which I’d first encountered in high school, when I was literally yelled at by a fancy French waiter – I also found it humorous to read about Julia’s struggles with the French language.    Karbo observes, with just the right dose of envy and admiration, that Julia was a romantic.  And also, not surprisingly, a total force of positivity.  She believed that the secret to learning French (and to having a good life) was shopping for food in France.  So she put herself out there time after time, despite her poor accent, and suffered the humiliation of waiters, green grocers (and probably countless poofy little French dogs as well).  Always, Karbo says, she took much more from the positive interactions than the negative ones. 

            OK, so Julia Child and I are completely different people. 

            But ironically, what I realized -- as I read Karbo’s chapter in Paris -- was that it was going to be impossible for me to Live Like Julia in Paris – at least on this trip.  Julia Child encouraged people to go to France and eat.   In the end, though, Julia spent more time in France cooking her own food.   Her own, carefully prepared, masterful food.   We, on the other hand, were staying in hotels.  And eating out at restaurants.  For two weeks straight.  There I was in France -- the country that gave us fine cuisine, the country that gave us the Guide Michelin, the country that gave us Chateauneuf-du-Pape and buttered snails in puff pastry --  and I really couldn’t follow Julia’s wisdom.   Which was, by the way: “If we could just have the kitchen and the bedroom, that would be all we need.”

            I tried to imagine that when Julia said kitchen, she meant not only her kitchen, but the kitchen of every great chef in France.  But I don’t believe that’s what she meant.  Because Julia’s rule – which she articulated to Ruth Reichl, a few years after Paul’s death – was at least partly about her husband.   Karbo points out that in addition to being a romantic, Julia was also her husband’s best cheerleader.   She supported him, passionately.  One way she did this was by pouring her love for him into her cooking.  About which she was, obviously, already pretty passionate.

            I could relate to this.  If Julia Child’s cooking is the standard, of course, my husband gets a lot less love through my food than Julia’s husband did through hers.  But I enjoy cooking a lot.  And I do pour my love for him into the food I prepare.  Maybe not by creating gourmet masterpieces every night.  Or even, great tasting food.  But by paying attention to his preferences, creating healthy nutritious meals, and making sure there’s enough of it for him to eat which, quite honestly, can sometimes be challenging enough.

            I do the same, of course, for my children.  This is irrelevant to my task of Living Like Julia because she and Paul didn’t have children.   And it is maybe also irrelevant to everything related to food because frankly -- if God put France on this earth to give people a passion for cooking, God gave us children to kill that passion.   Small children are inherently picky, perennially dissatisfied, and limited in their tastes.  And yet, it is a measure of just how much I love them that I continue to strive, day after day, to feed them homemade meals that are healthy, tasty, and reasonably appealing to their palettes as well as to mine.  It's an uphill battle, but I'm fighting it. 

            So, maybe Julia and I have more in common than I first thought.

            So, I decided -- as I read Karbo’s chapter on the train of big fastness from Paris to Avignon --  I guess I can’t really Live Like Julia until I leave France.  Oh, le irony.  And you know what?   It’s a good thing I was so inspired.  Because while it was delightful and decadent and delicious to spend two weeks in France, eating out at restaurants for every meal, the secret truth is that one can’t live by the Guide Michelin, or the poorer man's equivalent, every day.  

           After a few days of going out for pastry every morning, you started getting tired of pastry.   Buttered snails are really only appealing every once in a while.  You can only have so many meals centered around bread and cheese – or potatoes and cheese, meat and cheese, and wine and cheese -- before you, or someone you love, gets dangerously constipated.  Yeah, I said it (sorry Karen Karbo).  And eating out with the kids!  I mean, Parisian brasseries have absolutely mastered the art of serving entrecote and fried potatoes.  But my kids needed some green food.  And a few leaves of green salad -- tucked under camembert on the assiette du fromage -- really doesn’t count.

my older daughter's daily meal, Assiette du Fromage

              So the inspiration to Live Like Julia – in my own kitchen – came just at the right time.  After France.  We had many wonderful meals in France.  But as happy as we were to enjoy all that fresh ham, shellfish, cheese, wine, and chocolate, we were also ready – after two weeks -- to eat some simple, comfort, nonalcoholic food.

 I spent the first week back doing nothing but cooking (mostly) vegetarian meals that I knew my husband – and theoretically, also my children -- would enjoy.  Sweet potato, black bean, and portabello mushroom enchiladas with guacamole.   Spicy peanut noodles with carrot salad.  Rice with curried vegetables and chicken korma, courtesy of my mom.   Penne with vodka sauce, using freshly-picked tomatoes from my garden.  And the family standard: Basil pesto on pumpkin tortellini, with a melon-yogurt salad and baguette on the side.  Through the week, I also made chocolate chip cookies, homemade granola, and reinstated our morning rituals of smoothies which – with all due respect to the French people – I don't think they've really mastered yet. 

            Yes, my children like pasta.  And I know that none of these dinners were even remotely gourmet.  They required none of the artistry of escargots in puff pastry.  They mastered the art of no particular style of cooking, except maybe the Italian peasantry.  I’m sorry to say that Julia Child probably wouldn’t even have enjoyed them. 

            They were inspired, nonetheless, by Julia.  And by Karbo’s book.  Because I was so happy to be back in my kitchen!  I was so happy to be able to shop for – and in some cases, grow – my own ingredients.  And in the absence of all that second-hand cigarette smoke, I did have to get everyone regular again.  After traveling for two weeks in a beautiful place, I was glad to be back in a cooking routine where someone – other than a French waiter, and a poofy little dog – was responsible for my family’s nutrition.   

             And I have to think Julia would understand.  I mean, if Julia Child had believed in the health benefits of eating out in France for two weeks straight, she’d probably have stated a different rule, right?

All You Need is a Brasserie and a Digestif? 

            Until now, I suppose I have neglected the Bedroom part of Julia’s rule.   That’s because it’s so, well, obviously true.  Not everyone performs that well in the kitchen.  Or spends as much time in there as I do.  But I don’t know a single marriage that can do without one (or preferably both) members showing up in the bedroom on a regular basis.  Julia obviously knew that while buttered snails may be the key to a man's heart, well.....  

           In that respect, things were probably a little easier when we got home, to the privacy of our very own cottage.  Traveling in France is hardly the aphrodisiac it’s cut out to be -- at least when your kids are in the same hotel room. 

            But in homage to Julia (and Karen), I will say this.  French Hotel TV is pretty terrible.  And it’s, um, in French.   So it really only took us a few days in Paris to figure out– in the absence of reading material – what to do with all that late-night jet lag. 



Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) said...

Fun! We were in France in the spring -- such an adventure. No kids, so we had less to worry about in both finickiness and bedroom disruption.

We didn't make it inside the Notre Dame either -- I'm glad I'm not the only one!

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

That does make me feel better, Joy. But don't tell my mom!

Karen Karbo said...

Erin, you nailed it. As much as I salivated over the list of the food you ate in France, the things you made after you got home sound much tastier. And by the way, if you read widely in the Julia literature you'll find her complaining a lot about being "bilious" from all that French cuisine, so it eventually got to her, too. I also hear you about the smoothies! We're a smoothie-for-breakfast family too. Glad you made it home safe and sound to the land of the big(ger) dogs and slow trains!

Deb Stone said...

So funny. Life like Julia offers a different slant at the world we've built. Fun to read your view.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Thanks Deb! So true. And thanks Karen, for sharing your book with me. It was a real treat and truly fun to read on my trip!