Pushing Pause Mid-Bite

1747288One of the ongoing scenarios that I take pains to describe in the France-set mystery series I write is the one where people make a big deal about sitting down together and breaking bread. Food is important to the French so dining is a BFD in all its forms–at home, in restaurants, on park benches or cafés. When I’m writing about characters who live in France I like to explore as many of those forms as possible because I’m so attracted to the style and ritual and pleasure of slowing down. And I can’t do that here in the States.

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in a trend-tracking firm, was quoted as saying that  Americans are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

When you add that 400 times more information we are all attempting to process with the fact that we don’t have 400 extra hours in the day to do it, you see where the problem is. If you’re not mindful of your habits and of what you’re giving up to get those extra hours inevitably the things you lose will be those things that used to enhance your life and heighten your quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with a friend.

Here's what the family table looks like now that we're all off doing other things.

Here’s what the family table looks like now that we’re all off doing other things.

I’m an amateur chef and a baker. I used to fantasize about a place-setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. I have always been drawn to beautiful tableware in stores and catalogs and imagined wonderful meals chez moi with family and friends about me. And yet, the year before my son went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals. (Honestly, half the time John Patrick took his plate to his bedroom with his calculus homework.)

Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make the meal and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest.

It's a fact: you don't have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

It’s a fact: you don’t have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

Naturally, it tastes like donkey vomit and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some important reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

Let’s all take a breath and slow down.

An open love letter to the city of Aix-en-Provence

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In my mind, Aix-en-Provence is a city created for the way people should live. Should really live. I am finishing up a too-fast week in Aix but I feel pretty confident in my statement. Now it’s true I’m probably inadvertently, unavoidably comparing it to the city I’m currently living in back in the States. (A Facebook friend posted on my timeline yesterday the fact that north Florida was experiencing three digit temperatures and an outburst of yellow flies. She kindly didn’t even mention the humidity.) I’m not sure there’s even a word in French for humidity. (Well, I guess there’d have to be because of Tahiti.) The weather for mid-summer in Aix is probably described most aptly as pleasant, warm and breezy but more succinctly as perfect. I sat out evenings here in weather that just didn’t exist. It wasn’t hot or cold, wet or dry. It was exactly right. It was so perfect you didn’t have to think about it. It just was.

I’d have to say the key reason I think Aix is a city made for how people should live is because of the daily food markets. The idea that you can wake up and take a quick (and gorgeous) walk to an outdoor array of the freshest, best possible choice of seasonal food—is something we Americans have largely given up on and the French wisely would never.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

When did we Americans decide that we don’t need fresh-baked bread? Or to have strawberries that taste like strawberries? Or vegetables in season? When did we accept the fact that the way food should taste—succulent and specific—was something we could live without? (I have a French friend who did an internship at the advertising agency I worked at and she used to bemoan the fact that all American food tasted basically the same—like it was coated with a light caramel coating: sugar and salt but no real distinct flavors. Live a week next to an open air produce market and you’ll know exactly what she means. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my palate this week.)

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Not surprisingly, I haven’t seen a single seriously overweight person since I’ve been here. Could the availability of delicious, fresh food ingredients combined with a beautiful walking city have something to do with that?

Yuh think?

Okay, so now Aix has seen to it that you’ve gotten your cardio in such a way that you’ve window shopped and wound around and through ancient alleyways and streets. It’s de-stressed you by insisting you stop every now and then in your daily round to sip a cup of coffee (which everyone knows is good for you) and maybe nibble on a hand-made pastry (balance! Everything in moderation.) It’s made it practically impossible to find processed foods so you’re stuck with the real thing—ten kinds of olives harvested from the area, olive oil so pure it will make you weep even if you use only a dribble on your salads, tomatoes plump and red that make your plate look like a work of art (this is France after all) and that really taste like tomatoes.

Now on to the social aspect of this city. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone. When I finally break away (or come up for air as my husband puts it), I go to the grocery store or drive to a restaurant to meet with friends for an hour or so or maybe wander around St Augustine to find an art gallery.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In Aix in the summer time, because it doesn’t get dark until after ten o’clock each night, and because the city is made up of French people, the city markets are taken down and the cafes are re-erected so that people can come together—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to talk. It is such a healthy, amazingly fun, exquisite way for people to commune and connect that I literally found myself longing for anything similar in my life back home.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

How can you not relax and unwind in a café setting? You’re outdoors, the waiter is unobtrusive but ever-there, all the food tastes better, the warmth of the day has hardly dissipated but the most soothing of breezes has been added, and you’re surrounded by your friends. As I watched café life from my own café table, I noticed over and over again how people in the café were joined unexpectedly by friends or family members wandering by (usually with ice cream cones or Nutella crepes in hand). I couldn’t help but think how it would change a person to be enjoying the evening air with the expectation that they might well see, unplanned, a loved one or friend.

Community. Food. Beauty. And on that last note, I have to add one more thing: I travelled with two men this trip and one of them a photographer. I am sure he’ll be doing his own page about the beautiful young women of Aix but even I could not help notice them. I loved watching all the city life saunter by my café table—or balcony—but the exquisite Aixoise in their inimitable fashion and style, their confidence in their beauty and youth added a intensified sense of panache to the trip. In a phone conversation with my ninety-year old mother, she asked, “Are the French women still beautiful? (We lived in France in the sixties.) How do they wear their hair styles? Their clothes?” I was happy to tell her that while plus ça change, the facts were clear when it came to French women and style that plus la meme chose too.

I leave you now until next time, mes amis. I am off Googling immigration possibilities…

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.

It’s a Numbers Game

63308251I love numbers. They are so starkly factual. They are so comfortingly irrefutable. There’s no wiggle room with numbers. As a creative, I like the security of facts. And there is nothing so factual as numbers. They either add up or they don’t. I once had a friend who was both a writer and an artist. She said the main reason she preferred painting to writing was because she said she always knew when she was finished when she was painting. She could look at it and know: That’s it. I’m done. With her writing, she was never certain. Let’s face it. We can always tweak and rethink most of what we write. It must be lovely feeling to look at a project you’ve labored over and know for sure that it was truly finished. Numbers give you that certainty. They’re either right or they’re not and we can all agree—from Toledo to North Korea—on whether or not they add up.

I think there’s a place for this kind of firm grounding in life—especially if you’re a “creative.” I look at it as a sort of infrastructure within which I might take chances or break the rules a bit. That makes me feel safe when I take big leaps.

Where numbers drive me crazy, however, is when we attach a value to them not based on anything but opinion or maybe personal pathology. They still add up as they should but now the numbers aren’t comforting or supporting, they’re indicting and debilitating. The most obvious way this occurs, I guess, would be in your checkbook or your family budget. But since having more money than you’re spending is a pretty universally accepted idea of a positive situation, I’d be inclined to point out other more insidious areas where numbers add up to grief.19209376

The weight on the scale, for example. There are probably very few people reading this blog who haven’t jumped on a scale only to find the numbers ruin what had up until then been a very nice day. Why, if your clothes fit as well as they did the day before and you’re basically in a good mood, would anyone let a number on the scale—a number YOU put in your head as a RIGHT number—mess with your mood or your day? Furthermore, why would you then, do this over and over again, day after day? Some days letting the numbers give you joy, and other days, letting them bring you down when—if you’d never looked at them, you’d have been perfectly happy. I’ve heard of the power of numbers before but this is nuts.

Numbers are good. I love numbers. But I believe a détente with their power is definitely in order. Numbers don’t—even IQ or test score type numbers—determine your worth from day to day. They just don’t. They don’t measure or predetermine or fulfill or prove or disprove your worth. They only label. That’s a very good thing when you’re trying to figure out how much corn syrup or GMOs are in a can of applesauce.

Less so when you’re using them to determine how you feel about yourself.

I think, as with everything, numbers are best seen as tools to enhance our lives. Using them to gauge how well my last book promotion did in the way of sales or downloads is one thing. Looking at them to determine how I feel about myself? Not so much.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath, you realize.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath you realize.

Mind you, having just returned from a week in Germany and Switzerland—land of the heavy, filling and ubiquitously draped melted cheese over potatoes and fried pork diet—I may be a little more hesitant to find out what the trip’s final cost was for me (and I’m not talking Euros) than at other times.
Anybody else giving more power than is probably good for you to a predetermined number in your head?

A calorie is a calorie—but thankfully not in Paris

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

It’s true Paris is a moveable feast and I’m living testimony to that since I’ve moved it right into my 1950s American suburban house and parked it on the chair beside me as I type. It clearly takes some time to flush the sweet smells and sights of Paris from your brain—or at least it does for me. The photos from our Christmas trip save my screen and take me back there in a flash and to make matters worse, I’m finishing up my latest novel which takes place in Paris so trying to come up for air is just not going to be possible for awhile.

Having said that, I wanted to talk about an amazing feature of travel to Paris that I’ve always been thrilled exists and that is the fact that you can go there—eat everything they have available to eat in the entire city—and not gain a pound.

A whole shop full of chocolate!

A whole shop full of chocolate! This store was nearly a block long. It was FULL of people, too!

Now I’m not so bad that I plan my trip  around French food shops and bakeries and the like although I did ditch my son and husband one afternoon as they headed toward the Arc de Triomphe (huh, been there, photographed that) to race over to Fauchon’s for a mind-swirling self-tour of the cakes and canapés and hams and macarons and buche de noels and oh! did I mention the hand made chocolates? They were laid out in row after dizzying row in different shades and shapes and such subtle flavors and spices—each with the promise to totally change your life with just one bite. I watched the Fauchon ladies—like angels bestowing gifts—plucking each delectable morsel one by one from its line of army chocolate brothers and placing them in big white tissue-lined boxes as patrons selected “this one and oh! that one and maybe two of those!”

I ate these every single day I was in Paris.

I ate macarons every single day I was in Paris. I think I ate this tart, too, now that I think about it.

I know it comes as no surprise to anyone that Paris is about food (well, really all of France.) But knowing it and seeing it are so different. The care and respect and appreciation that the French treat their food makes anyone want to slow down and savor and relish their dinner. We are such different animals, the French and the Americans. Never in a million years could they have invented the fast food restaurant. And while it’s true they do have fast food  in France, I’m convinced mostly tourists go there when they’re too worn out from choosing and discerning, marveling and being transported to culinary nirvana. (Hey, like anything else, it’s tiring day in and day out.)

I can't remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack...

I can’t remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack…

It’s not really a French paradox along the lines of eating all the butter and foie gras you want and not succumbing to heart disease at the rates Americans do, but it is still a delightful state of things that you can eat yourself into oblivion in Paris and not gain weight because the city is such a wonderful walking city. I spent one day the week after Christmas shopping on the rue de Rivoli, Les Halles, the Galleries Lafayette all by myself. I noted to my son and husband later at dinner that, as many times as I’ve been to Paris in my life, this  was the first day I was alone without my parents, a friend or my husband. I found the experience one of the most intensely perfect of my life. I also astounded myself by checking my pedometer when I got back to the apartment and realized I had walked over fifteen miles that day (and I wasn’t done. Our evening restaurant was deep in the Latin Quarter.) As I walked, I couldn’t help but compare my exertion to the ten thousand steps I try to clock in on my daily round back in Atlanta.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

While not exactly loathsome, I can’t say I look forward to my walk as the high point of my day. 10,000 steps is right at five miles. I couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to walk five miles a day if you were striding down the Quai de St-Michel under the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral.

In any case, I am back to the real world of trying to artificially create a calorie burn while I labor to concoct food that’s delightful to eat. It’s all so much easier in Paris. Eating and walking are organic to how one lives there. And when you try it on for size for a bit (oh! the macarons!) and find that you do not pay a price for the pleasure later, well, it’s enough to make you realize what Hemingway really meant by a movable feast.

  By the by, if you struggle to keep yourself slim while forcing yourself to eat “diet” food, you might find my book The French Women’s Diet  helpful. I wrote it when I came to the point where I refused to give up bread or chocolate, when I figured I was old enough to know the favorite foods of mine that I wasn’t going to eschew any longer, and when I was determined  to stay a size six in the process—all by eating like the French only doing it here in the States. If you get the book and try it, I’d love to hear from you!