Let’s get down to brass tacks, dear reader. I’m a sick, sick, sicko when it comes to consumer culture. Much of my messing-around-time consists of reading what B has affectionately termed “rich lady blogs,” as in “I’m a rich lady! I buy things! You should buy things too!” Just for reference, this exclamation works best if you do it in a mocking falsetto.
Having outed myself as a rich-lady-blog reader to many of my [lady]friends, I’ve been delighted to discover that some of the smartest, most stylish, and coolest ones are also abashed readers of such internet pap. All of my friends and I have read our Marx and talk a lot about the evils of capitalism, but nevertheless find ourselves spending an enormous amount of time looking at the contents of strangers’ closets and beautiful homes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that many (most?) of the women writing these rich-lady-blogs are far smarter and more stylish and cooler than I, and therefore deserve their revenue and legions of fans. (And, I know, I know, they also post a hell of a lot more regularly.) But there is a confluence of money and free time implicit in a lot of these blogs that make me feel really uneasy, and the last thing I’d want my dear Bear-Garden readers to think is that I fancied myself to be a wealthy, out-of-touch shiller of luxury goods. Out-of-touch I may be, but I conduct my fantasy life on a pauper’s budget.
That said, everyone who knows me in real life knows that I am incredibly over-invested in the stuff I own. I take brand-loyalty to a whole other level. Much of this I get from my father, who is always eager to sell everyone he knows on his current favorite thing. It’s gotten so bad with him that we now jokingly identify certain objects as my father’s “Product of the Year.” Last year’s winner was a battery-powered wax candle that actually flickers! Everyone and their brother got one for Christmas! However, to parrot my father: “Here’s the thing about it, kid.” It’s not like either of us have a profit motive in telling you about our favorite things, it’s that we both genuinely feel like if we’ve found the very-best-travel-coffee-mug-in-creation that you should know about it. We love you! You deserve the very-best-travel-coffee-mug-in-creation! (It’s called a Contigo, by the way, and it was my father’s Product of the Year 2008.)
With that spirit in mind, I’m inaugurating a new feature here at The Bear-Garden: Object Relations. I’m doing this partly because I want to share with you all of the things I love, and partly to try and get content up on this site with some kind of regularity.
Without further ado, I bring you Object Relations No. 1: Duralex Glassware.
As the child of proto-hipsters, I grew up drinking skim milk every single night out of a 16-ounce Duralex Picardie tempered-glass tumbler. I didn’t recognize the brand as anything special, though I did associate seeing the circular “Duralex, Made in France, depuis 1945” imprint on the bottom of the glass with having permission to get up from the dinner table. You see, hippies they may have been, but my parents didn’t indulge any of this newfangled nonsense about picky eating when I was a kid. I could leave the table once I had cleaned my plate and drank all my milk. Sometimes it was hard to choke down that final inch or so of bluish skim milk, so spying the Duralex imprint became indelibly associated in my mind with freedom.
Like all things that belong to one’s parents, I thought of Duralex as weird and stupid when I left home and was shopping for my own glassware. It was only after a few years of shattered glasses that I realized how ridiculously well-made and virtually unbreakable Duralex products are. Fast forward to my twenty-something Francophilia, when I ‘discovered’ that Duralex is not only a national treasure in France, but totally ubiquitous at every bistro in Gallic territory. That is to say, not only are Duralex burly beyond belief, but they convey a certain kind of Continental cool. Let’s just say that many Derrida-reading, Gainsbourg-listening hipster men have fallen under my spell, and that probably had more than a little bit to do with the Côtes du Rhone red I served them in a Duralex.
My personal collection began at the age of 22 with a 24-piece set of Picardie tumblers, all of which have survived numerous-cross country moves and plenty of drunken fumbles. Nearly a decade later, while I do happen to possess a fair amount of non-Duralex glassware, nine times out of ten B and I drink most everything out of those very same Picardie tumblers. During my time in Paris, I gleefully “acquired” several out-of-production vintage goodies: a square Lys serving bowl and two ribbed small tumblers.
I say “acquired” because I guess I technically stole these vintage delights. The bowl “technically” belonged the people I rented my apartment from and I “replaced” it with an Ikea version. The tumblers came from some heinous South-American-fusion restaurant on rue Amelot. The food was so terrible and expensive that I somehow rationalized pocketing the glasses. B has described them as among our more treasured possessions, not only because they have excellent hand-feel but also because that theft represents one of the only times he has witnessed my ever-relentless superego, well, relent and break the Law. It only happens once in a blue moon, so it’s good to have a souvenir of the occasion.
My beloved M (Francophile-extraordinaire) is equally Duralex-crazy. Sometime in 2011 we heard a terrible rumor that the company had gone out of business and ceased production. This resulted in a mad dash to rich-lady-blog-Mecca, a.k.a. Merci, where we both purchased a set of smallest Gigogne tumblers. These will be used to serve espresso to my guests in a fantasy, future, rich-lady-blog kind of life in which I have an espresso machine. Currently they are used for tequila shots, and work splendidly for that purpose as well. If you ever want to buy me a present (hint hint), I dream of a full set of 10 circular Lys stackable bowls.
You can freeze them or pour boiling water into them. You can accidentally drop them on the floor or the counter and ninety percent of the time they’ll survive without a scratch. They’ll last about twenty years longer than comparably priced glasses from Ikea (my parents’ tumblers are probably over thirty years old and still look great). They’re simultaneously utilitarian and chic, and might bring back fond memories of that-one-night-at-that-one-bistro-in-Lyon for one of your friends. Frankly, I can’t get enough Duralex, dear reader, and for that reason, it’s first among my Object Relations.
The three smaller photos in this post shamelessly stolen from Duralex USA’s website, http://www.duralexusa.com. While I bought my Duralex in the US from Williams-Sonoma back in 2005, it appears that they are now primarily sold here in the States at Sur La Table. Frogs can pick a more extensive selection up at BHV or Merci. I guess I’m also supposed to say that I haven’t been paid for this endorsement, not that any company would pay for such a meandering and verbose write-up in the first place.
Some dark clouds have gathered Chez Bear-Garden, as my amazing 95-year-old grandmother is in the process of passing away from this world to whatever lies on the other side. There aren’t really any wise or clever words to dose out in this situation. All I can say is that she has lived a long and interesting life and raised a great family in the process, and I am still sorting how much emptier the world will be for my family without her in it.
Juanita is the most fiercely independent person I’ve ever known, and if I had to describe her in two words or less I would say “elegant mettle.” Originally raised in a Southern Colorado/Northern New Mexico Hispanic farming community that can trace its roots there to the early 16th century, she married into a family of Sicilian immigrants who had settled into the San Francisco Bay area. The fusion of those two culinary traditions — roasted green chiles, queso blanco, and blue corn on the one hand, salted anchovies, Cioppino, and homemade raviolis on the other — is what my family considers comfort food of the first order. All of us cook the way we do because of the way my grandparents cooked, and one of the ways I will always remember Juanita is through the culinary traditions that she and my grandfather started and that I hope will be shared with the generations to come in our family.
As a small tribute to her, I wanted to share one of my favorite of her recipes. An inveterate sweet tooth, my grandmother would always have a cake, a pie, or a loaf of famous banana bread for her visitors. Her banana bread is perfect, simple solution to that bunch of rotten bananas that you might have hanging out in your kitchen right now. My mother would always bake some for parties or for a sick neighbor, and today I often make a loaf at the beginning of the week for easy, yummy breakfasts on the go.
Juanita’s Banana Bread
1 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of butter or vegetable shortening
3-4 very ripe bananas (we’re talking brown, shriveled, and fruit-fly ready)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease loaf pan well with butter and sprinkle with flour. Cream together sugar and butter. Add eggs and bananas to butter and sugar mixture and mix well. I find that a potato masher works excellently for smushing up the bananas. Add flour, baking soda, and walnuts or pecans. Mixture will be stiff. Pour into pan and bake for one hour or more until toothpick comes out clean from the center of loaf when inserted.
Second generation modification: My mother used to serve slices of banana bread topped with cream cheese and black olives at her wild parties of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not my cup of tea, but a lot of people reading this blog might have fond memories of those days.
Third generation modification: To make this a bit healthier for weekday breakfasts, I like to substitute 1/4 cup of flour with 1/4 cup of ground flaxseed. I also omit one banana and add instead a cup of frozen blueberries when I add the nuts.
I went to Boston this past spring because I had been listening to a lot of Joan Baez and going to Boston in the springtime seemed like the thing to do. No, actually I went to Boston to visit M and her lovely husband A at their digs in Cambridge, where A was completing a fancy degree at that fancy college there. Now he can join the legions of people who, upon being queried where they went to graduate school, can say “A school outside of Boston?” The trick is raise your voice at the end, so it sound like a question. Nobody can be sour grapes about what a rock star you are if you make your answer sound like a question. That is my tip for you, dearest A.
M knew that one of my biggest gripes about my landlocked existence this year was the dearth of lovely seafood available in Indiana. So our first stop was Alive and Kicking Lobsters (269 Putnam Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, 617.876.0451, http://www.aliveandkickinglobsters.com), a no-frills seafood shop and lobster-sandwich purveyor that was dangerously close to M and A’s apartment. I say “dangerously close” because if someone with the non-existent willpower of yours truly lived nearby she would probably eat there every single day. I hate it when you order a lobster roll and they skimp on the lobster, or mix in Pollack, or give you a sandwich that is 90% mayonnaise or bread. I would say that Alive and Kicking makes a damn perfect lobster sandwich, with an unearthly amount of sweet fresh meat, a little herbal kick (tarragon?), locally-baked scali bread, and just enough mayo to keep the whole thing moist. Paired with some salty chips and lovely picnic table seating outside, and you’ve got yourself a pretty awesome local place, should you find yourself in “Cambridge?”
I was also starved for some good-old-fashioned unclean eatin’, so M took me out to get a bivalve fix at the Island Creek Oyster Bar (500 Commonweath Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, 617.532.5300, islandcreekoysterbar.com). One of what appears to be a growing trend of restaurants that own the farms where their oysters are grown, Island Creek is a serious destination for oyster-lovers (and is priced accordingly). I was able to sample a variety of lovely gems, including the namesake Island Creek oysters grown by Skip Bennett in Duxbury, MA and Stephen Wright’s babies from Chatham, MA. All of this was paired with a lovely bottle of Grüner Veltinger, which M and I had independently decided is the ultimate oyster-pairing wine. The climax of the evening, however, was sampling my first ever Belon oyster (grown in Maine). M described eating a Belon as “basically like taking a big bite out of a zinc countertop,” and I’d have to concur with her assessment. Oyster-lover I may be, but I don’t think I’ll be buying any more of those metallic little suckers anytime soon.
But we weren’t done! Oh no, we were definitely not done in Clarence’s crusade to eat every single crustacean and bivalve on the eastern seaboard. Graciously, A took a day off from work the week before finals (!) and the three of us drove up to Rockport, Massachusetts for ocean gazing, beach walking, and knickknack shopping. Scenery aside, our main objective was lunch at Roy Moore Lobster Co. (39 Bearskin Neck, Rockport, MA 01966, 978.546.6696). If you’ve ever watched a Red Lobster commercial late at night and felt an elemental pang of longing for the red flea (not from Red Lobster, obviously, but these commercials do seem to be my trigger), this is your Valhalla. Lunch was stuffed clams, smoked salmon with horseradish cream, freshly-shucked Wellfleet oysters, and the two most beautiful lobsters I’ve ever seen, all for a price that made me say “No seriously, how much did that actually cost?!”
Eaten outside while staring out over fishing boats and hundreds of lobster traps, it was the kind of Ur-experience of a lobster shack, and something I would happily cross off of my bucket list if I had such a thing. I don’t, but if you do, definitely add “Eat lobsters at an old-school New England lobster shack with your best friends.” It’s definitely worth the trip.
I was saddened to hear about the death of Nora Ephron. I’ve never particularly liked her movies, which strike even this die-hard Woody Allen lover as too hopelessly bourgeois for comfort. But I do have a bit of a soft spot for her writing, especially on the subject of domestic life. While dawdling in an air-conditioned Barnes and Noble yesterday, I reread “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir” in a cheapskate homage to the late, great author. It’s a genuinely funny essay about Ephron’s development as a cook and hostess, something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. For Ephron, learning to cook and host parties was an essential component of being a real adult, and not just any adult, but the kind of cultured, rarified adult that she wanted to be when she moved to New York as a young woman. This involved scouring important cookbooks, stalking the movements of food writers and celebrity chefs, and making incredibly elaborate dishes from a variety of international cuisines. Describing the culinary Zeitgeist of 1970s New York City, she writes,
Meanwhile, we all began to cook in a wildly neurotic and competitive way. We were looking for applause, we were constantly performing, we were desperate to be all things to all people. Was this the grand climax of the post-World War II domestic counterrevolution or the beginning of a pathological strain of feminist overreaching? No one knew. We were too busy slicing and dicing.
Later under the influence of Lee Bailey’s clean, unfussy strain of entertaining, Ephron threw out all the complicated recipes, the pathological overreaching, in favor of a simpler, more relaxed kind of cooking:
The point wasn’t about the recipes. The point (I was starting to realize) was about putting it together. The point was about making people feel at home, about finding your own style, whatever it was, and committing to it. The point was about giving up neurosis where food was concerned. The point was about finding a way that food fit into your life.
While Ephron is writing about a very specific time and place in food culture, her observations apply equally to my own generation’s obsession with food and entertaining, though perhaps in less gendered ways. In my own experience, single life cooking was ruled by practicality. An inordinate amount of things seemed to rot in my refrigerator when I tried to cook for myself from scratch on a regular basis, so an army of pre-prepared foods in frozen, pocket, or frozen pocket form entered my diet. It’s no wonder that Trader Joe’s—with its cornucopia of cheap, not-totally terrible pre-prepared meals—is usually a hot spot for singles in metropolitan areas. For me, at least, cooking for myself alone was totally depressing. While this isn’t to say that one can’t happily cook for oneself alone, I started having friends over for dinners as a personal excuse to cook something properly. Those early attempts were marred by my perfectionism, and I often found myself at the mercy of my own overreaching domestic superego. The result was gatherings that—while certainly fine and fun and a repository of nice memories of my early twenties—nevertheless seemed overwrought, both to me and probably to my guests. I regret speaking of this to those of you that ate at my house in 2007 or so, but I was probably a bag of nerves and lost illusions in those days. Those spicy lamb skewers that I wanted to seem effortless actually stressed me out enormously, and I’m sure they tasted of my strain. I apologize.
Two big things happened in my life to change my approach to cooking. First, I moved to Paris, which totally transformed how I thought about food in all of those terribly cliché ways that France transforms how Americans think about food (see: the six million memoirs written on this subject and the first two years of this blog).
This is not to imply that I was some kind of culinary philistine in the first place. My mother is a wonderful cook, both because of her own upbringing in a home of Sicilian immigrants as well as the Julia Childs/Gourmet magazine era of culinary consciousness that Ephron so eloquently captures in her essay. Moreover, my mother was always a very cool cat as far as dinner parties were concerned – everything flowed, with nothing overdone or fussy. My mother is a master of the dinner party were the food is excellent, the atmosphere laid-back, and the conversation sparkling. I now realize there are two very pragmatic factors involved in this success.
Number one, she doesn’t overreach, pairing a tried-and-true classic (often a pasta with a white wine and artichoke sauce or bœuf bourguignon) with a big salad and crusty bread, followed by something simple like berries and ice cream for dessert. Number two, she’s organized and does the majority of the preparation of both the food and the house beforehand. That way, she can actually enjoy her own party. While she still may be finishing up the sauce while everyone is having a glass of wine, you’ll never arrive at my mother’s house to an unset table. She flicks on the tea or coffee pot somewhere late in the main course, so that it appears that the coffee has just magically appeared from nowhere at the exact moment when you want it alongside your dessert. Frankly, it’s a rather artful gesture, one I find maddening in its perfectly executed simplicity. There is fine line to balance regarding organization, I’ve discovered. Arriving somewhere starving and then having to wait for six years while dinner gets made is terrible, and nobody ever wants to look at the dirty dishes from their host’s breakfast. But while I don’t like the idea of arriving at cluttered house or a totally inchoate meal, I also think I can (and have) gone too far in the other direction. Nobody feels relaxed when they arrive and the house looks like a Crate and Barrel ad and the meal-will-be-ready-in-seven-and-a-half-minutes-so-make-sure-you-pound-that-aperitif-so-that we-can-switch-to-red-wine-when-we-start-eating-in-eight-minutes-and-fifteen-seconds. I don’t want to seem a careless slob, but I also don’t want to turn my friends in fodder for my domestic OCD, either.
In Ephron’s case, her stylistic evolution took place over the course of three marriages, each with it’s own negotiations on the subjects of food and décor. For me, the second big change in my life that effected how I cook, eat, and entertain was moving in with B. He would be a rare dude in any generation for a lot of reasons, but he was the first man I ever met that could not only cook, but do so for a seriously enormous group of people in less than perfect circumstances, all without ever seeming to break a sweat. Longtime readers will remember that it was B’s epic American Thanksgivings and taco, gumbo, and chili nights—in which motley crews of people of all ages, nationalities, and persuasions gathered in tiny apartments for delicious food and better company—that really made me swoon when we were still “just friends.” My man can really roast a bird, people, and he can also admirably adapt to the sudden introduction of seven unexpected guests, a situation that would leave yours truly with a panic attack in the corner. Awesome dinner parties are an art being simultaneously hyper-organized yet unflappably laid-back, something B and my mom share and that I ferociously envy.
But I’m getting better, dear reader! Baby steps to the elevator! The last couple of meals we’ve hosted have been pretty masterfully casual-but-delicious, if I do say so myself! I’ve even tweaked plans for unexpected guests at the last moment, with only a minor amount of in-refrigerator grumbling! Getting older seems to be first about getting good at things, then getting relaxed about the things you are good at.
Even those meals that are just the two of us lately have been pretty awesome. I tell you all this because I know I haven’t written about restaurants much lately, but that’s because we’ve been mainly cooking and eating at home. I don’t exactly know if I want to take this blog in the direction of a cooking blog. Cooking blogs require being able to take pictures of the cooking process in ways that make it look like something deliberate and artful, rather than the horror movie set that happens nightly in my kitchen. Moreover, cooking blogs require recipes, which I never follow myself and am loathe to re-compose with any kind of accuracy. I cook from the gut, yo! Though I will say that Yotam Ottolenghi’s two cookbooks (eponymous and Plenty) are certainly in the Zeitgeist of my corner of the world, alongside my newish and already much dog-eared Silver Spoon. Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll just read recipes and peruse the pictures, which is officially the sign that I’m a Bobo goner.
Anyway, here’s a bunch of pictures of what we’ve been eating lately. The good news is, I’m moving back to Southern California in August, so our restaurant coverage will likely resume, OC-style, in a few months. In the meantime, I have some other things up my sleeve, so check back periodically should you be so inclined.
As always, thanks for coming back, dearest reader. I hope this summer is shaping up to be one of your happiest ever.
Gosh, it’s been a long time! Too long it seems, as I had to dust the metaphorical cobwebs off just to log in to my WordPress account. In the time since we last spoke I made a pretty big move, from Paris to Bloomington, Indiana. It hasn’t been easy, though it hasn’t been terrible either. I’m firmly of the mind that happiness is what you make of it, and that one can be happy anywhere. Perhaps not Antarctica or a war zone, but you know what I mean. I’m here for about a year, writing my dissertation on a fellowship while B teaches and finishes up some of his obligations at a large university nearby. That is officially too much information for a pseudo-anonymous blog, but there you go. I’ve got scads and scads of unstructured time and heaps of work to do in it, a combination that has more often than not leads to some very bad, very un-grown-up behavior. I’m not completely feral yet, but I have noticed that my work clothes are identical to my gym clothes, which are also identical to my sleep clothes. The Marais feels far away indeed.
Our last few weeks in Paris in July were rather melancholy. Most everyone we knew had either departed permanently or was on one of those achingly long and delicious vacations that Europeans take in the summer, so it was pretty much just B and me killing time. It was a record-breakingly wet summer, so my plans that we spend the month of July drinking Campari cocktails and working on our tans at Paris Plage were quickly dashed, as it rained nearly every day. We also found ourselves in a bit of a money pickle, what with the cost of moving internationally and our traveling in the spring. So those final days we were living pretty frugally, to say the least. That is to say, when we weren’t living frugally, like the day I managed to drop about a hundred euros at Dehillerin on Laguoile cheese knives and silicone trays for making madeleines and cannelés bordelais (which, um, I’ll get to making, someday), or the day when I bought a heap of antique lithographs and Turkish kilim pillow covers at the flea market. I think I was hoping that if I insulated my future digs with enough things from Paris, I wouldn’t miss it so much.
Most days we would trudge over the Louvre in rain (tough life) and continue our increasingly manic quest to tour the entire damn thing. We succeeded in the end, though I’ll admit that certain sections are just a delirious blur in my memory.
I cooked a lot of rabbit and boudin noir, and we ate rillettes and cheese for many meals. Every morning we ate croissants from our local bakery Huré, and most afternoons I would insist on a Paris Brest or a chocolate éclair with my afternoon coffee. Many evenings were spent with books, a bottle of wine, and a plate of charcuterie at our favorite caves. I probably gained ten pounds that month as a result of constantly saying “I won’t be able to eat this ever again!” We took a lot of long walks, went to see a bunch of Buñuel movies, and I cried a lot on various bridges.
Inexplicably, in our final weeks in Paris a magical thing happened. We were suddenly at home. Our neighbors chatted with us, the ladies that worked in the button shop downstairs joked around when we came through. Our baker, our vegetable man, our seafood lady, that guy that owned the bookshop down the road — everyone suddenly knew us and made small talk on the street. We got into long conversations with strangers while we hung out in bars, or sat in cafes, and or waited outside the cinema. The women at the market where I shopped every week knew what kind of lettuce I wanted to buy before I told them, and the man at the butcher shop where I bought our rotisserie chickens knew I wanted enough potatoes for two people without asking.
In short we were suddenly, amazingly, after two years, a real part of the community. And then we had to leave. I think that was the most heartbreaking part of the whole thing, and the part that has made it really hard for me to come back to writing here. In the end we said goodbye to Paris, for now. But I’m happy that I left plenty of things on my list for future visits, and I’m comforted that Paris is one of those cities that only gets better as you get older.
Our move was a real monster, as we both had things in storage with our respective families. We shipped (gulp) thirteen boxes of books to the States and managed to carry the rest of our junk in our luggage (it helped that we had sent a lot of stuff back with assorted visitors throughout the spring and summer). Upon arriving stateside with miraculously none of our precious glassware or ceramics in pieces (and a giant gratuitous bottle of Aperol to boot), we then managed to drive through ten states in the course of the month of August. B worked out that we spent more time in the car than we did in any one stationary location. We took a little jaunt to Santa Fe and Taos for B’s thirtieth birthday, which was lovely. I’d really like to tell you about it because I’m so in to New Mexican food it’s kind of crazy, but that has to be another entry for another day.
After seemingly endless schlepping we made it to Bloomington, where we quickly discovered that the little 1930s Craftsman-style house we are renting had fleas. I don’t know if you have ever had fleas, dear reader, but I’ll go on the record as saying that it was quite possibly one of the most annoying things that has ever happened to me. How generations of garret-dwelling 19th century artists and writers dealt with this and didn’t lose their goddamn minds is beyond me. We only made it through by pretending that we were Baudelaire and occasionally sleeping at B’s sister’s house. It took fumigating our house with six rounds of bug bombs and vacuuming and cleaning every day like madmen before we finally got rid of the little buggers, and I still feel assume that every piece of lint and pencil shaving I see is a flea waiting to bite me. I now officially understand what is meant by “the heebie-jeebies.” So September was written off to parasites, as I for one could think and talk about nothing else. I’d tell you to try it sometime, but I wouldn’t wish a flea infestation on my worst enemy.
The following months flew by, with a little trip to California and visits to Colorado and Michigan for the holidays punctuating long periods of rather solitary writing on my part. I’m a jerk and a half to complain about having nothing but time to research and write, but I’m finding it hard to feel purposeful and excited about my work everyday. The town we are living in is lovely, but this work is very lonely. I find myself talking a little too long to the cashier at the coffee shop or the grocery store. Thank goodness for the convention of Midwestern small talk, or I’d be a goner. I miss teaching, even teaching those crazy and disorganized classes at the university in Paris, where I did (as silly as it sounds) feel like I was making some kind of an impact on my students. But I’m deep in my writing now and it makes for good company on the days I let it. I suspect that what I’m writing it only feels stupid because I’ve been thinking about it so long, and some days it actually feels okay. On the days it doesn’t, I keep running over the final passage of the Great Gatsby in my head: “Gatsby believe in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…” Writing well and with discipline may not really be an ‘orgiastic future,’ but I do find reassurance in the idea that tomorrow I will be better than I was today if I keep trying.
For those of you that have dozed off already or are wondering where in the hell all the food talk has gone, I’m still eating! Say what you will about the Midwest, the produce and the meat here in Southern Indiana are to die for, and I’m a happy camper in the food department, especially at home in a kitchen four times the size of our little culinary closet in Paris. We’ve been cooking up a storm with the welcome addition of some lovely culinary tools and cookbooks from Santa, including a stand mixer, an ice cream maker, the new Silver Spoon, and two tomes by Yotam Ottolenghi. And I still get my mandatory offal fixes, like when B took me to the oh-so-lovely Restaurant Tallent here in town for my birthday last month. Veal sweetbreads and seared foie gras never tasted so good.
So thanks for coming back, my friend, and I hope you stay even though my life has gotten exceedingly less glamorous in the past six months. Thanks especially to An Accidental Expat for his kind comment that prompted me to write today, and to M, whose gentle prods about the blog make me hope that she hasn’t banished me from her Google reader just yet. I’ll be back soon!
About a week and a half ago M left Paris. She stayed as long as she could this summer, but needed to get back to the States to move to Boston, where she’ll be living with her wonderful husband this year while he studies at the Big Fancy School near there while she works on her dissertation. We had sort of “reserved” her for her final week in Paris. We didn’t do anything particularly out of character, maybe a few little things that we hadn’t managed to do before, but basically we just shared a few lovely days of rambling around town, chatting and lounging in the park, seeing films at our favorite places, and eating some great meals. It was impossibly sad.
M was the first person I came to know in Paris. We were both working at the same university here and had both had a terrible time with the process of getting a visa back in the United States. I contacted her about her consulate visit before she arrived, and she sent me a long, concise, yet surprisingly warm e-mail about what I could expect from my own appointment. I recall showing the note to my mother and declaring that I was going to make friends with this woman. At our first staff meeting, I pounced on poor M, declaring that I thought we should be friends. She seemed a bit flustered by my forwardness (she’s unfailingly reserved with new people), but nevertheless agreed to my proposal that she accompany me to see Lars von Trier’s Antichrist at Le Nouveau Latina next door to my apartment. That lead to coffee, and that lead to falafel, and the rest is history as they say. Somewhere along the line we picked up B and the three of us were inseparable ever since.
Being in Paris for two years has been a magnificent experience, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. But a huge part of what has made it so amazing has been the presence of these two remarkable people in my life. I fell in love with Paris because I fell in love with M and B. I truly have never felt more cared for than I do with this crew, and I know that they feel the same way.
The best part of leaving Paris is that I get to take B with me. The worst part of leaving Paris is that I don’t get to take M. Her final week was profoundly bittersweet, with poor B having shepard two women liable to burst into tears at any moment around town. I spent most of the day she left sobbing, and even though it will come three weeks later, I don’t think that the day we finally leave Paris will be anywhere near as difficult.
The good news is we’ve talked every day since she left, and I know that it’s only a matter of time before visits to Boston and the Midwest will be planned. I also know that she will be my Skype buddy during the long, likely lonely days of writing I have ahead next year. She’s not getting rid of me this easily.
A few have you have asked about my list of things to do in Paris before I leave. We’ve crossed off a lot in recent weeks, though I haven’t been stressing about doing everything. There is something strangely reassuring about the idea that there are still things left to do sometime in the future, a yet-to-be-determined “next time” with two of my best friends in tow. But a few little things that can be crossed off the list include:
Take B and M to the Cimitière Montparnasse
Not only did we cross this one off the list, but we did so with a bang. We tracked down all but one of the graves we wanted to visit (damn you Eric Rohmer!), blessed M’s new Repetto Zizis (the same ones that Serge wore, but in black, not white) at Serge Gainsbourg’s grave, and finished our afternoon in Montparnasse with a coffee at Le Dôme with M and E. It was a perfect afternoon.
Visit the Maison Rouge
What a lovely place! We especially liked touring the current exhibition of contemporary Canadian artists called “My Winnipeg.” Oh, and they have one of the only original-style Photomatons in town.
Go to Marché des Enfants Rouges as many weekends as possible The last few months we have been positively religious about our Sunday Marché visit. M was the one who “discovered” what we now fondly refer to as “McDo Bobo,” so it was fitting that her last Sunday morning was spent happily over a yummy marinated tuna tartare.
Eat at Frenchie
So after two years of trying to get a reservation at this place, they apparently finally took pity on the Americans on the 4th of July and granted us a table at 7 p.m. (the French equivalent of social suicide). The food is excellent, though the service was kind of weirdly abrupt. Um, yes, we do want that final hunk of foie gras before you whisk away our plates, thank you very much! Still, it was a lovely evening. I’m not going to spill too much ink over it, because too many people on the interwebs already have, and there are indeed better places to eat in Paris along the same lines that aren’t going to give you an attitude (La Gazzetta, Rino, and Yam’tcha among them). But still, here were the highlights:
Followed by a visit to Le Champo for a final Monica Vitti flick, Buñuel’s Le fantôme de la liberté, it made for a perfect Fourth of July in Paris. Three little Americans (okay, two little Americans and one little Soviet), three friends forever. Don’t worry, the blog snark will be back next time. For now, I just want to wish my lovely friend M happy travels always. Thanks for letting me come along on the ride.
When my mother and I began planning our five-day sojourn to London in May, I immediately began researching restaurants like it was my goddamn job. It was a first time visit for both of us, and I live in some kind of irrational terror about not knowing where to eat in a new location and ending up overpaying for tourist grub. It’s easy to fall into the rabbit hole when it comes to London restaurant reviews – it’s obviously a first-rate foodie town with review ink spilled to match. I read about all kinds of super-bobo things like “gastropubs” and “locavore menus” and something that people were calling “the St. John diaspora,” apparently with a perfectly straight face. Part of me was a bit skeptical about the heavy-duty language that seemed to align itself with a cuisine that I always suspected was bland city. The fact is that no matter how many times I had heard that London was the new culinary center of the world, I just couldn’t believe that a nation that consumed potatoes in that many different iterations could possibly on the new wave of progressive cooking.But I’m still a restaurant researching fiend, so I did a lot of homework (and made a lot of reservations) before we arrived in London.
Much to my surprise, London really is all that it’s cracked up to be from a culinary point of view. I will seem like the ultimate Paris traitor in saying this, but London really does have the monopoly at this point on beautifully simple, seasonal ingredient-driven cooking that draws on the rich international community who inhabit the city. Libelous as it may seem given my current digs, visiting London was like waking up in an Technicolor dreamscape of exquisite produce and fish and meat. Locally sourcing ingredients has obviously become de rigeur in London, as has providing comprehensive lists of where ingredients originated on menus. London is basically how I imagine West Coast cooking in the US will look in about a decade. And while all of this is obviously the product of a lot of food-obsessed people with a lot more money to put where their mouths are, it has trickled down into even the most basic sorts of fast-food lunch spots around town. I was flat-out amazed by the quality of the food at places like Prêt à Manger and Eat, chains that are as ubiqutous as Panera in the States or Bonne Journee in Paris, yet manage to be about a hundred times more ethically sourced and delicious than their American and French counterparts. And I know that as Americans we are always getting pounded sideways by the dollar/pound conversion, but I was geniunely surprised by the reasonable prices on food in the UK. Even my mother, who, um, was footing the bill pointed out the radical discrepancy between the cost of eating in Paris at a place like Rino and some of the spendier places we dined at in London, namely that you can get a lot more bang for your buck in London. I particularly loved the democratic feel of dining out in London, where suits mixed with totally casual duds, white tablecloths were rare (if not totally absent), servers were almost irrationally friendly, and you can make reservations just about anywhere online. I hate talking on the phone with strangers. I love being able to make reservations online, puzzling over the best time slot for as long as I need to in crafting the perfect eating itinerary. London is this obsessive deliberator’s fantasy city as far as that is concerned.
So where’d we eat, you may ask? In fact, my dearest J and B did ask me recently, as they are visiting cute-as-all-get-out niece and nephew in London this coming month. So for them, and for all of my other dear readers, here are some highlights, in chronological order:
Electric Brasserie (191 Portobello Road, Subway Ladbroke Grove) was our first stop after taking the Eurostar from Paris and checking in at our quirky, if un-recommendable accomidations in Notting Hill. It’s as hip as they come and attached to an interesting-sounding cinema, balancing a slightly formal dining room with an outdoor patio that is quite popular with locals that camp out for hours on end. As we were feeling a kind of “when in Rome” vibe, we both ordered the fish and chips with mushy peas and homemade tartar sauce. Oh man, did this ruin me for all future versions of this dish. The cod was perfectly cooked, just the right amount of crispy and greasy on the outside and flaky and moist on the inside. The mushy peas were super-sweet and tasted of spring. And that tartar sauce was sexy enough to slather all over your lover. The rest of the menu looked dreamy as well, and would pair delightfully with a date-night movie at the Electric Cinema (not that I’m already planning date nights for when I live in London or anything foolish like that. Ahem).
Dinner on our first night was at the original location of St. John (26 St. John Street, Subway Farringdon), the gastropub that apparently started it all. I made reservations about a month in advance online, and it was evident by the smirk on the hostesses face when the guy in front of us asked if they had any availability that night that reservations are a must and a half here. Our server actually continually reminded us of our good fortune to be eating at St. John, not in an ugly way, but in a “well, of course you should order some Welsh rarebit, you’re HERE after all!” kind of way. It was actually quite charming, so we did.
We also ordered the roasted beef bone marrow with parsley, onion, and caper salad served with toast. Mama L was skeptical about spreading marrow on bread, but the look on her face was pure complicit joy at first bite.
Our main courses were roasted lamb and fennel, which was quite possibly one of the most amazingly gamey-while-delicious cuts of meat I’ve ever encountered and pigeon with lentils (slightly bloodier than I usually like my pigeon, but maybe I’m in the wrong on that one). Either way, both were completely amazing, if a total departure from the oft-fussiness of high-end Parisian cuisine.
The next day we spent a lovely morning at the Tate Modern and decided to duck in to their museum restaurant before heading over to the Globe Theatre for an afternoon matinee of Much Ado About Nothing, an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone of either a theatrical, touristical, or human disposition. The restaurant at the Tate Modern was a totally yummy surprise, with an inventive menu with all-artisinal ingredients (the tomato chutney, the cheese, and the beef on my burger had homey-sounding names) and an excellent booze list. Yes, I drink and go to museums. Sue me. I got to sample my first-ever Scottish Brew Dog Trashy Blonde beer, which was a welcome change from the beer-desert I live in here in Paris (cue world’s tiniest violin, I know). Mama L had a vaguely Middle-Eastern platter of roasted vegetables, hummus, and salad, because she felt that we had eaten too much meat the previous evening and needed a reprieve. Amateur.
Our third night, we followed the “St. John diaspora” (snort) and decided to try Hereford Road (3 Hereford Road, Subway: Notting Hill Gate), a relatively new space from the former chef at St. John Bread and Wine, Tom Pemberton. I’m going to just go ahead and say it: we liked it even better than St. John. The space is beautifully designed with an enormous circular skylight in the main dining area. The staff is thoughtful and articulate about the food and wine. And the food, while simple and unfussy, is gutsy and delicious and traditional while also being totally out-of-the-box. To start, Mama L had an exquisite spinach, bacon, and seared scallop salad. Don’t you love it when a simple scallop screams “Whoever cooked me is a total artist!”? I sure do:
I began with a Meantime Pilsner (yum!) and the potted crab, a dish which I’ll admit I had never heard of before that night. Consider me schooled: potted crab is just about the most decadent fat-kid concoction you can imagine, pairing fuss-free crab claw meat with drawn butter and toast. I could literally eat this every single day for the rest of my life and live a warm and happy existence:
For our main courses, I tucked in to a serious slab of pork belly served with a sweet broth and some game-changing zucchini. I’m not kidding, this zucchini transformed everything I ever believed about zucchini.
My mama took one bite, and another, and another, until I actually had to bat her fork away from my precious vegetable side dish. It was that good. Mama L had braised rabbit with fennel and a healthy scoop of aioli. She took a bite, closed her eyes, and said “My goodness, London has sure changed my opinion of fennel.” Clarence’s mama WOULD have “an opinion about fennel,” wouldn’t she?
For dessert, we shared an Eton Mess. Like many Americans, I had heard of Eton Mess but didn’t have a clue what it comprised. At Hereford Road it’s a mix of fresh sweet strawberries, candied rhubarb, and bits of meringue cookie smothered in whipped cream. It’s the kind of thing that I imagine might give a schoolboy a serious sugar high.
Our final culinary destination was Ottolenghi (several different locations, but we ate at the restaurant in Islington at 287 Upper Street, Subway Highbury & Islington). I’ll be frank, I am straight-up, fan-girl obsessed with chef Yotam Ottolenghi since “discovering” his genius Guardian column The New Vegetarian. So obsessed, in fact, that I’m seriously contemplating using his amazing sensibility as a framework for revamping my cooking to include more veggie-centric meals. Take the best vegetarian (or, at the restaurant, vegetable-driven) dishes you’ve ever had or imagined you could have, then multiply it by about a thousand. That’s how good this man’s food is. Mama L went back to the States and promptly ordered his cookbooks. I would die a happy, smug vegetarian if Ottolenghi was my personal chef.
The dinner menu at Ottolenghi is made of two sections: from the counter and from the kitchen. Everything is a small plate meant to be shared, and the servers recommend that you order a mix of plates from the counter (usually cold, and served more or less immediately) and from the kitchen (hot dishes that take a little bit longer to arrive). Our server recommended five dishes between two people, which was exactly the perfect amount with dessert. Our dishes from the counter were barley and farro with asparagus, feta, preserved lemon, green peas, and pink peppercorn (left) and roasted aubergine (eggplant) with apricot and ginger yoghurt, spiced pumpkin seeds, chili and sumac (right), served with the most orgasmic selection of bread I’ve seen in awhile:
Plus a char-grilled courgette (zuchini for you Yanks out there) with Parmesean, chervil, pistachio, and truffle oil, which will have you putting Parmesean and truffle oil on every vegetable that comes out of our kitchen, trust me.
From the kitchen, we ordered a pan-fried sea bass with garlic crisps and a mixed mushroom, seaweed, and truffle oil salad. While the sea bass was as perfect as can be, the real star of the show was the seaweed salad: tangy-sweet, tender, and umami to the max. My mom, never before a fan of seaweed salad, declared herself a convert.
Our second dish from the kitchen was smoked lamb cutlets with miso burt aubergine, pickled Jerusalem artichoke, and jalapeño sauce. Again, the lamb was great, but the vegetable accoutrements were the real breakout stars. I want to take a bath in this bright green jalapeño puree:
For dessert, we split a slice of amazing carrot cake, and on the way out we bought two “granola bars” (let’s just say that these are unlike any granola bars I’ve ever eaten before) for our travels the next day. Mama L said Heathrow airport looked a hellava lot nicer at five a.m when paired with a hot cup of coffee and an Ottolenghi granola bar.
So the food was great and unpretentious, the museums are mostly free, the people are absurdly friendly, and the public transportation wasn’t nearly as confusing as everyone made it out to be. Other things I’d totally recommend you do in London (besides the stuff you are already probably going to do) include visiting the Freud Muesum and the Esorick Collection of Modern Italian Art (both fascinating and largely empty) and taking a nice long stroll along the Canal or inside the Hampstead Heath. I’d also recommend, especially in the summer, a classic Pimm’s cup (for the uninitiated, it’s a refreshing combination booze, sparkling lemonade, cucumbers, berries, apples, citrus, and borage or mint). I had mine at the excellent-looking The Bull and Last (168 Highgate Road, Subway Tufnell Park), where among other things, they have a delicious sounding dog snack menu. I’m pretty emphatically sold on London – now all I’ve got to do is convince B that it is an excellent setting for our future adventures.
Speaking of B, I told you a few weeks ago that I had a big announcement to make. Well, here it is: I’m leaving France at the end of this month as expected, but instead of heading back to Southern California, I am moving to Indiana for a year (and I don’t mean the Tex-Mex restaurant chain in Paris). B’s got some coursework to finish and a teaching gig there, you see, and I’m in desparate need of a place free of distractions with a university library for my year of fellowship-funded dissertation-writing. I know a lot of you will be taking me off your regularly scheduled blog programming without the “Paris-factor” (and I don’t blame you) but I hope that you’ll still keep stopping by for the crêpes-to-cornfields chapter of my life. We’ve got big plans, you see, including a Bourbon tour of Kentucky, a pulled-pork orgy in Memphis, and lots and lots of home-cooking. I’ve been chomping at the bit to start some smelly home-fermentation projects (can anyone say “homemade kimchee and sauerkraut”) that B has prohibited me from beginning in our tiny Parisian apartment. Moreover we’ve got Amish farms to visit, fruit to pluck, and an entire Larousse Gastronomique to work our way through in a Bloomington kitchen. What I’m saying is that I hope you’ll stick around for the ride. I’ll bribe you with some Best Of Paris entries soon, that is, when I can stop my current cycle of pre-packing, compulsive shopping at Dehillerin, charcuterie-eating, and weeping. I hope you are happy and staying cool this summer, dearest reader. As always, you’re looking lovely.