Sunday, November 26, 2006

France, Part II (Or, No One Will Ever Make a Mini-Series About This)

Part II

The cheapest flight we could get went from Logan to JFK, then JFK to Paris. Except we had been waiting at Logan for hours. Snow. We were going to miss our NY flight. We waited. And waited.

When we got to JFK, we found that, yes, indeed, we had missed our flight. We waited some more, for instructions. The airline was going to put us up for the night, and then we were going to take another flight the next afternoon. I called Josh, who was supposed to meet us at the airport.

“What do you mean? I need you here. You shouldn’t have left so little time between flights [As if I and not the airline had determined the length of time between the legs of the journey, which was a generous two hours anyway]. At least if you’re going to be late, you can do me a favor. Buy me some mineral oil.”

It was very, very late at night in the hotel at JFK. Where the hell was I supposed to get mineral oil? Why did he need mineral oil?

I promised to try.

The next day we spent a long, long time waiting around the airport. We looked in every shop for mineral oil. Nothing. We flew to France and arrived exhausted to find no one waiting for us. We tried to call, but no answer. We waited for over an hour. Finally, Josh appeared and the first words out of his mouth were: “Did you find the mineral oil?”

He was angry that we had failed. He seemed to have decided to take his anger out on his vehicle, an early-type SUV that was about five times the size of every other car on the road. He flew, going easily 90 miles an hour, and driving erratically, swerving and jerking the car around the road. Even my ex, who was generally a fast driver, was a bit alarmed. The whole trip out of Paris was a blur of words from Josh on the usual themes – France is beautiful, the French are annoying, can you do the job – with a few new additions. For example, he told us his wife came out on Friday nights and stayed “until we fight, usually on Sunday morning.” In New York he had claimed she came out Thursday and stayed until Monday. He asked if we remembered the sheets, because that’s all we’ll need. He pointed out an open-air market.

“What do you think of that? Americans think it’s quaint! That’s one of your New England words, “quaint!” But, really, it’s filthy! Why would you want to eat food that sits out like that?”

He was practically spitting.

We got to the villa, and from the outside, it was everything he promised. The factory is in one wing, his home in another, our apartment in the third; there’s a courtyard and huge windows with shutters. He took us into the apartment.

It was empty.

He was right about the sheets; there were no sheets on the bed. Also, no blankets. Or pillows. Or any other furniture. Or pans, pots, utensils. No fridge. No anything really, just a bare bed, and a few coathangers in the closet. The closet which, by the way, had those folding mirrored doors. To match the gold wall-to-wall carpet. He had a 15th century French villa, and he was remodeling it to look like a Holiday Inn in Jersey.

He made me go to work that afternoon, making brownies. He informed me that he wanted chewy brownies. Then he informed me that there was no mechanism for melting the butter. Also, the butter couldn’t be warmed in any way. The factory was in a stone building with limited heat; I would say the room temperature was about 55 degrees.

As anyone with the slightest knowledge of baking will understand, this was a problem.

I was told to work with the French head baker, who doesn’t speak any English. We muddled through and made a few batches of brownies. It was clear the cook thought that Josh was crazy. It was also clear he was a little afraid of Josh. Meanwhile, Josh was cooking lamb in a pit in the courtyard, occasionally throwing his arm to the sky and yelling, “We’re the only people from Spain to Belgium barbecuing!”

After the brownies were baked, Josh invited me and my husband to have dinner with him and his wife. The kitchen was vast, like a storybook kitchen, with an old hearth. Dinner was the lamb, plus a strange fish soup made from a powder; that was all. The room was freezing cold; his wife, still silent, wore a hat, coat and mittens indoors. Josh explained some of his business decisions. For example, instead of buying cloths for cleaning the factory, he stole towels from expensive hotels. Then, he offered these towels to his employees in exchange for their old home towels. That way, he got both free rags and improved employee relations. He had become disenchanted with this method, however, because the employees’ towels weren’t, to his mind, of high enough quality.

I got the next day off to settle in. We needed food, badly – the lamb and broth were all we had eaten since New York, except of course for some brownies. We decided to go into the neighboring village, since my husband had taken a walk around our tiny village the day before while I baked and found only a drugstore and a sausage shop. Josh warned us that it was too far to walk, and offered to let us borrow his car. We declined. At this point, all we want is to be away from him. He insisted that we couldn’t walk. Unfortunately, a car appeared in the road at this point. Josh ran into the road, waving his arms madly. The car stopped, and Josh told the terrified driver that he had to take us to the next town, opening the back doors and pushing us in as he did so.

The driver took off with panic in his eyes, and once he was safely out of view, I used my limited French to end his misery. “Arretez, s’il vous plait! Ici, c’est bien! Merci, merci!” He let us out, and we started walking.

Josh was right, it was too far. We walked and walked and walked. Finally, a car pulled over to pick us up – one of the workman who was rebuilding the wall in front of Josh’s property. We spent the afternoon in a nice little French town, and that was the high point of our trip to France. We had to take a taxi back. It was very, very expensive.

The rest of the week is a bit of a blur. Among the things I remember:

Finding out that the local children throw rocks at Josh’s windows – and at my ex-husband, presumably because he was Josh’s guest
Finding out that the American electricians left in the dead of night after wrecking the apartment
Josh mentioning how he likes to go to Amsterdam to get cocaine (that made some things make lots more sense)
Josh mentioning how nice it will be for him to be able to go away now that we’re going to be there to protect the house from the angry neighbors
Josh setting us up with furniture: dirty old pillows from some lost couch and a small exercise trampoline as a “table”
Josh admitting his wife rarely stayed even one night at the villa (forget that Paris apartment)
Eating sausage and brownies and wondering how we would ever find real food
Catching Josh looking in our windows first thing in the morning (no shades, of course, and he complained if we closed the shutters, which we did anyway)
And, most of all, trying to make brownie batter that didn’t break with cold butter in a cold factory while Josh stood right behind me saying over and over, “but what I want to know is, can you do the job?”

I broke after one week. I don’t get angry with people very often, and I rarely lose my temper. But, my god, did I lose my temper.

The French baker was back, the first time in a week. I had tried every chance I could to explain to Josh that we needed to at least warm the butter, or the batter would keep breaking. The brownies came out just fine, but there was a crusty top that didn’t cut cleanly, and that was the inevitable result of the cold butter. Needless to say, I never got that many words out at a time. He never seemed to notice that I was talking, let alone what I was saying. But now, with the French baker standing next to me as I mixed the batter, he suddenly noticed the broken batter.

“What is this crap? I’ve never seen batter look like that, have you?” He turned to the French baker, pulling him into his disgust with me.

That did it. I remember literally throwing in ths towel – flinging the rag I was holding across the room and turning on Josh with fury. I remember saying something like this: “Everyone hates you! Your employees hate you, the neighbors hate you, the village children hate you, even your wife hates you, and I certainly hate you!” I know it’s not nice, I know. But that’s what I said.

I told my husband we were leaving. He was happy. As I repacked my bags, Josh offered to drive us to Paris, an offer we unfortunately had to accept. A taxi, the train, would have been too complicated and expensive, and he was going there anyway. Something to do with his wife.

The ride back to Paris was very unpleasant, to say the least. Josh tried to convince me to stay, tried to convince my husband to make me stay, and still kept asking (you know what’s coming) “but what I want to know is, can you do the job?” and I will confess, part of me thought that if perhaps I just had a night or two away, I could go back with a clear head, draw some necessary boundaries=, and get to stay in France.

But then he was interrupted by a phone call on his cell. He said hello, then okay, I’ll be there soon, then he hung up. Then he said to us, in the exasperated tone of voice a man might use to say that his wife says she has nothing to wear, and with that closet of hers!: “My wife just had a miscarriage.” He actually rolled his eyes.

That was the point at which I actually thought I was going to throw up. The exhaustion, the madhouse ride at 90 miles/hour, the diet of sausage and brownies, and more than anything the utter disgust at this strange and horrible life I had just spent a week looking in on. I remember thinking that all I had to do was get to Paris without throwing up, and then everything would be fine.

Everything was fine, of course, and yet not fine at the same time. We went home to the worst Christmas I can remember. I was demoralized on my return; I felt like I carried the stench of bad luck and bad decisions. I knew I should have trusted my instincts and stayed home. But I was afraid of my instincts – my instincts were also saying: don’t become a cook, despite all the time and money you just dropped on your education. My instincts were saying: leave your husband.

It took time to pay off the costs of the tickets, of course. I did get a job in a bakery and worked there for a while, but ultimately I left the culinary world. I also left my husband. And life has been better since. I have not often looked back at that week in France, which wasn’t even the bottoming-out point, which came two years later, in another questionable job I should have known better than to take - one that lacked even an entertaining story. But there’s only one real regret I have.

I wish I still had that brownie recipe. By the end of the week, it was really good. So, yeah, I think I could have done the job.

The France Story, or, Why My Life Isn't Like Peter Mayle's, Part I

I don’t know why I suddenly feel like telling this tale. Frankly, this episode was part of my life I would rather forget. It’s been almost ten years, and I still have a hard time finding it funny. I still feel hot embarrassment at my own foolishness, anger at myself and the other people involved. I still tend to tell the story only after a nice, fortifying martini. Or two.

But it was funny, really. And vaguely culinary. And it took place around Thanksgiving.

I was in my last month of culinary school, the 1 year baking and pastry arts program at the CIA. I had figured out one thing after about the second month – I didn’t like professional kitchens. I had done an internship at a bakery, which was supposed to prepare me for the world of professional cooking, but the bakery was tiny. It was just the owner, the baker, two ever-changing Guatalmalan teenagers, and myself. The whole feel was pretty easygoing.

At the CIA, I learned what real kitchens were like – fast-paced, a little macho. (I later found out that bakeries and restaurants have a very different feel, and I spent most of my brief professional cooking life at bakeries as a result). I was older than my classmates by several years. I was interested in aspects of food they couldn’t care less about – I was just starting to learn about heirlooms and sustainable ag and all that stuff and I was excited, but I couldn’t find anyone else who cared, even among the instructors. I liked learning how to do new things, but I hated the performance aspect, the sense of having to do things perfectly on the first try, not being able, essentially, to write drafts.

So I was trying to figure out what to do with this new degree I was about to get, that qualified me to do something I had no interest in doing. Who was going to want an English major with a pastry certificate? I sent a few resumes to some cooking magazines, but no bites. I was starting to panic.

At the same time, my marriage had hit the rocks. My (now ex-) husband was suffering terribly from a depression he refused to treat with medication. Depressives make bad workers. He had left one job to avoid being fired, then was fired from the job that followed. He had found a new one, and then, just a few weeks before my program ended, he was fired again. It was a bad, dark time.

So, there I was, in the career office of the CIA looking at notices for something that would read, “Wanted: English major with culinary degree to write interesting food articles, maybe do a little research. High pay, no experience necessary.” Not surprisingly, there were no such notices. But there was a notice that ran something like this:
American baked goods company in France looking for recipe developer to improve recipes for cookies, brownies, etc. Room, board and small stipend. Factory located in villa 1.5 hours outside Paris.

Well. Huh. Recipe developer? I liked the sound of that. Careful, slow work, testing and retesting, applying scientific principles. Sure, I had never done anything like that, but I thought I probably could. How hard could it be? Of course, there was no chance I would be hired, but it can’t hurt to fax over a resume, right?

I did. The next day, I get a call from, well, we’ll call him Josh. This call seemed to be my job interview, but it was hard to tell. Josh was pure New York, with a heavy accent, a loud voice and an aggressive manner. He alternatively wanted to sell me on the wonder of this job and to ask if I thought I would be good at it.

“So, let me tell you, the place is beautiful! I mean, you’ve never seen a place like this. It’s a 15th century villa. Of course, the French people who owned the place never did anything with it. They think it’s charming to have outdated plumbing. But I’m fixing it up. My wife has an apartment in Paris, and you could use that on the weekends. We have this great machine that bakes bars in boxes, and cuts ‘em and wraps ‘em, but these French bakers don’t understand American cookies, you know? They wanted to bake chocolate chip cookies in rings! So I need an American baker. But what I need to know is, can you do the job?”

“Well, I have never done any recipe development, but I am just finish-“

“You would have your own apartment, in a villa! And you could go to Paris on weekends – there’s no way for you to work over here for a French company, you know. They’ve got all the jobs protected. If you stay the whole six months, I’ll pay for your airfare. But not if you leave before then! I had these electricians...but you’ll want to stay, it’s beautiful! Do you speak French?”

“I’m afraid not really – I took French in high school, and I of course can recognize most culinary terms, but I-“

“The French workers will work overnight anyway, to save money on electricity. You’ll be all alone. But it’s beautiful, you’ll love it. You won’t need to bring anything, just sheets for the bed. I don’t have extra sheets. But what I need to know is, can you do the job?”

“Well, I think-”

“The apartment in Paris is …”

You get the idea. It was like standing in oncoming traffic. I tried to be honest with him, tried to make him understand that I was just out of school, I would love to try, but I could give no guarantees. It was a little subtle for him.

“So, when can you be here? Can you be here by Saturday?”

It was Tuesday. I thought, he’s offering me and my husband a place to live in France on the basis of a twenty minute phone conversation in which I spoke less than one hundred words? Is he insane? Well, obviously, he’s clearly insane. But he’s offering me a job in France!

“I don’t think I could be there on Saturday. Classes finish next week, and I would have to pack all my things, put them in storage, get a flight. I could probably do it all in two weeks, at the earliest.”

He was annoyed. Really, he wanted me there on Saturday. Or maybe not, because do I really think I can do the job? Maybe we should meet first. He’ll be in New York for Thanksgiving (one week away). Could me and my husband meet him and his wife for brunch and talk things over? But he would really want me there in two weeks. From now. Which would be one week after the meeting at which he is going to, apparently, determine if I have the job.

I hang up the phone confused. Am I moving to France? Why not – I’ve got nothing here, neither does my husband. We also have no money. How will we get to France? Books. The ex-husband worked in publishing; we had tons of books. We sold enough to pay for one flight, the other we put on a credit card. I pack all our stuff in boxes. My husband went through the notes for the novel he thought he would have time to write. We put everything we own in our parents’ basements. We told everyone we were moving to France. Maybe.

The day before Thanksgiving, we were in New York, meeting Josh and his wife at a small breakfast place. The conversation was exactly the same one we had one the phone. I said almost nothing; Josh talked incessantly – the villa is beautiful, the French are awful, bring sheets, can you do the job? I was beginning to hate him. He noticed a woman sitting at another booth with unusually long fingernails. He told us to look, we all looked, and then he called out to her, “We’re admiring your fingernails!” She smirked. I was afraid she was going to come over and scrape his eyes out with the nails. I wished she would.

His wife was French and almost completely silent. I wondered how she liked his constant put-downs of France. I wondered how she could stand being married to him.

I should have stood up from the table, thanked him very much, and moved back home immediately. But when your life is falling apart, you’ll grasp at anything. Even if you’re grasping at a maniacal American businessman with a sketchy job offer.

So, we went home, celebrated Thanksgiving, and got ready to move to France.

Friday, November 24, 2006


I am thankful for the farmers that provided the good food on my table. I am thankful that the Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate. I am thankful for my friends and my family. I am thankful for Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Richard Thompson. I'm grateful that I live after the invention of ibuprofen. I'm grateful that I live in the good Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where my gay friends can marry. I give thanks for the Siamese cats that cuddle with me while I sleep, for the bus that takes me to work each day so I don't need to drive, for the woman at the local cafe who remembers not just my order, but my name. I am thankful for the books that line my walls and my Constitutional right to read them. I am deeply thankful that I am healthy and that I am loved. I am thankful, believe it or not, for my job, complain though I might, because it keeps me in pork chops, red wine and kitty kibble. And I am thankful for all of you, my imaginary internet friends, for taking the time to read my ramblings and for adding your intelligent comments and for giving me access to your own wonderful writings on your blogs. I feel like I have found a community of people who care deeply about food and where it comes from, about farms and communities, about the environment and about tradition - and for that, I am profoundly thankful.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Taking Stock

I've been sick this week and not really up for posting, despite having made a really nice Polish hunter's stew this weekendwith a walnut-date-rum strudel for dessert, and having drunk several interesting local wines with it and tasted some amazing cheeses my friends brought over. All that should have made for decent posting fodder, but I was too sick to think about it, and now I have nothing to say.

Except this: two chicken backs from free-range chickens (saved from cutting apart whole chickens for parts), plus the leftover picked carcasses of two chickens and one duck (from the stew) with the necks from all, will make the best poultry stock you've ever tasted. I've never been so pleased with a stock. The flavor was intense AND it was well and truly gelled. Too often, I end up with one or the other, a good gel or a good flavor. This was perfect, and I've got two quarts of it. There is simply nothing more satisfying than getting something for nothing, and stock made from trimmings and carcasses is the best example of that.

Also, good when you're sick. A-choo.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Make soup

Here’s my advice, and I speak from experience. If your soul is weary; if your Friday night and Saturday have flown and your boss is expecting you back at the office on Monday; if you’ve eaten nothing all week but pizza, toast, grilled cheese and eggs; if you’re desperate for your life to change, but nothing seems to be changing; if you’re facing a birthday that will place you exactly at the midpoint of your Biblical threescore and ten – under these conditions, do not decide that you are going to improvise a wonderful dinner, damnit, particularly if you aren’t getting started until 6:30 on Saturday night. The lamb will lack savor. The sauce, even if it includes mint and pomegranate molasses, won’t taste exotic. The kale will overcook. The potatoes might work, because even you can’t mess up roasted potatoes, no matter what mood you may be in. But the whole exercise is misguided and should not be undertaken.

If you ignore my advice, here is the cure: On Sunday, you must make something simple and savory and foolproof, something that will soothe your soul. I recommend onion soup. The process itself is satisfying; the slow, patient stirring of the onions will calm your nerves. Using the nice homemade beef stock from your freezer will make you feel organized and dependable and frugal. The smell of the soup simmering will scent the house. You’ll remember that next weekend is a long one. You’ll look forward to taking a walk around the neighborhood in the lovely November evening, with the full moon rising. You’ll feel better, really. Make some soup.

Posted by Picasa