Vive la France…where food meets style

In excited anticipation of my upcoming Provençal research trip, I’m going through my cookbooks and scanning favorite recipes to be uploaded to my iPad. I expect to live in the daily food markets in Aix and environs and–if just for a few weeks–live the life I write about and love.

I  stumbled across a recent article that said the French were annoyed because there was a grass roots movement to close some McDonald’s restaurants in France. And while granted, if you read the piece you’ll see that their Mickey D’s are nothing like ours, it was still a shock.

IMG_4348I hate to think that our American way of eating is leeching across the Atlantic to the land of food and style, but there are some things that seem to be the same no matter where you live and the combination of holding down a job and raising a family while attempting to bring good nutrition (and taste!) into the equation seems to be one of them.

I don’t think it’s  impossible to eat healthily and work full time, but it’s hard. That’s because here in the States our “convenience” foods—frozen processed foods and snack-packs (which tend to be tasteless and generally bad for you) are often the only things we have time to “make.”

I mean, really! Doesn’t preparing, then cleaning up after evening meals (if you bother to do it before slumping  in front of the TV set) wear you out? You work hard all day and then there’s all that chopping and prepping in order to put out a seasoned, cooked piece of meat—hopefully with some kind of sauce on it—a vegetable (better make it two, we didn’t get anywhere near our quota of fruits & veggies today), a salad, a starch (rice or risotto—both of which take at least forty minutes to cook), a piece of bread or a roll to help move it all around the plate with, and something to drink. And it’s all eaten in less time than it takes to change the channel.IMG_3209
If you have  a full time job, any kids at all, and maybe a spouse  who expects your occasional participation in his/her life AND you have the least desire to stay up with current events, friends, extended family, a clean house, and keeping your family’s shirts and shorts laundered, not to mention possibly writing a chapter in your latest murder mystery, you will be, without question, no two-ways-about-it, totally crunched for time all of the time.

I  love to cook  my family’s favorites: cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, etc. But if I do it on a weeknight, I end up agitated and grumpy—if I’m able to pull it off at all. So I reserve the creative cooking for the weekend when I have a little extra time (in between soccer games, birthday parties, church, and yard work!) and during the week I take a page from how the French dine when they dine simply and perfectly.
30770518It doesn’t take an elaborate morney sauce or a counterful of mise-en-place bowls to make an exquisite, satisfying meal, (and I’m not leading up to take-out here). Sometimes the simplest meals are the best. If you can get your hands on really good tomatoes, for example, you needn’t do any actual cooking.

The French can do wonderful things with a cold plate of pickles, a little pâté and a hunk of fresh bread. It takes seconds to assemble. (Be sure and give everything a finishing drizzle of your best quality olive oil.) Set a pretty table, open a decent rosé wine and voila! Nothing simpler.
Come to that, it’s hard to beat a good couple of cheeses (say a Brie or Gouda with a blue cheese, varying the hard and soft cheeses) with a salad, fresh bread and maybe a simple tapenade.  All of which you just pull out of the fridge and put on a plate.

Now, if you want to do a little something ahead of time—say, on the weekend when you have all that extra time— roast some peppers or shred a bunch of hard cheese or pre-bake some eggplant and store them in the fridge. Then, come Tuesday night, you can get a little jiggy with dinner without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. You’re still just assembling, but some of your ingredients have been pre-assembled.

I guess I hate the thought of anyone longing for McDonald’s–even if they do have McCamemberts instead of Monster Macs–but especially not the French!

At least not until I have one more perfect summer in fantasy land.

Why do we love Europe so?

19007453Is it weird that Walt Disney, among his fantasia rides and fairyland worlds, also re-created Europe at one of his theme parks? I try to imagine what I would think if I found out that a bunch of Europeans created an amusement park where bears talked and pirates roamed, cartoon mice and castle princesses cast spells and in the midst of all this fantasy was a replica circa 1975 of my suburban neighborhood in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. I think I might be a little insulted.

Is it presumptuous to think of another culture as our idea of an amusement park? I think some Brits and Europeans come to New York City on holiday and I’m not quite sure why. The bagels, maybe? It can’t be the history, like us with Europe. New York is, like, five years old compared to what they have back home. It can’t be the friendly natives or the pastoral vistas, the geological landmarks or the food. I’m frankly stymied. Is it just to be someplace different?39194840

The last time I visited London, I was disappointed to discover it looked and sounded a lot like the US. (Come to think of it, Paris last year felt a little too much like Epcot Center for my comfort too.) I found the charming English accents blunted by watching too much American television. I found the architecture modern and attractive—but hardly English. I found the pubs, for the most part, a strident attempt to be pub-like for all the tourists, and the department stores, although fun and attractive, devoid of everything that had set them apart—except for their names—from American retail.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the Internet is turning us all into one big homogeneous blob of diluted Americana. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. The last time I was in Germany, my husband—who is fluent in the language—never found a single opportunity to speak it. Everyone spoke English.

37743092Even the bathrooms have done a tip of the hat to the Americans. A few years ago, one was always challenged, especially in France, with public toilets and usually had to take a moment to negotiate even hotel room bathrooms. No longer. Europe now out-Americans the Americans for modernized bathrooms. There even seems to be fewer and fewer bidet sightings.

Not that Europe’s charm was all in its bathrooms, but it did help make the whole experience feel foreign. And that’s partly the reason I travel—to jump outside my comfort zone, to struggle to order from a menu, to snap out of the somnolent death-march that marks much of my daily round in the States, and to find the unexpected around every corner.

Jeez. Is that too much to ask?

When a fake is nearly as good as the real deal

When I look at a situation that needs changing, I first try to imagine how the flawed situation would look in a perfect world. That at least gives me a target to shoot for. I then either rearrange things that can be rearranged to head in that direction, or I camouflage the situation such that it at least looks closer to the ideal. I’m not sure how well this works on a small scale but I find it pretty effective for big-picture scenarios. And maybe that’s because the details don’t matter quite as much.

For example, when I was younger by a couple of decades, I used to imagine myself a published author. In addition to stealing hours from the night while the baby slept or from my lunch hour on my job in order to write, or to read craft books and structure endless query letters and so forth, I had this habit—usually indulged while I was driving when nothing more constructive could be accomplished—of imagining myself as a successful author being interviewed by Oprah on her show.

Feel it, baby! You're almost there!

Feel it, baby! You’re almost there!

Just the feeling of stepping into that role—smiling benignly when asked by the Big O about where I got my story ideas or did I feel guilty receiving eight-figure advances when there were still starving people in (fill in the blank)?—helped me feel more confident in my dream of becoming an author. And trust me, as with a lot of things, feeling the part goes a long way to being the part.

There’s a lot to be said for feelings following behavior. I once dated an actor who was wonderfully good—brilliant, in fact, in the way he could transform himself from an impoverished, not particularly witty thirty-year old living in Atlanta, Georgia to a smoldering powerhouse in the character of Silva Vaccaro from Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. It wasn’t just my fondness for him that made me think his portrayal was one of the most mesmerizing performances on stage I’d ever seen. He was that good. Which was why when he scraped the makeup off it was so perplexing to have him resort to a whiny, depressed artiste—nothing like the characters he brought to life on stage.

Oh, fie! Where is yon lip gloss...?

Oh, fie! How canst thou smile if yon lip gloss is gone mayhaps forever?

When “Robin” complained to me about some amorphous tragedy he was in the midst of (it was never anything specific like needing rent money or having an annoying boil on his nose or something), I would say: “You’re an actor. Just pretend you’re happy! If you smile—like you do on stage—you’ll eventually end up feeling that way!” (BTW: This tact totally didn’t work with him. OTOH, I imagine my Pollyanna advice was at least as irritating to him as his whining was to me.)

19088982I’m not saying I believe that we can necessarily control how we feel or what we think. I get that unwanted thoughts and emotions squeeze into our minds during our daily round derailing our best intentions, our plans, our goals. But I think creating a pretend-world is a lovely exercise in make-believe that can, for at least a little bit, supplant reality when you really need reality to be blotted out. Or if you just need a level playing field to get your mood up, your confidence running, your mojo topped off—and I think once you’ve done that—and even gotten in the habit of doing it quite a bit—you’ll end up feeling a little better.

Anybody else subscribe to the fake it ‘til you make it line of thinking? Does it work for you? Got another idea?