Getting ready for Paris

16449141Steve Martin has a comedy routine where he observes that “the French have a word for everything!” I particularly love this when I think of the French word for “diet” which is “regime.” Interestingly, what we Americans think of when we think of diet is “lose weight” (we are so straight-forward, n’est-ce pas?) and what the Brits mean when they say “diet” is “slimming.” (Less straightforward but still means basically the same.) But what the French mean by diet is NOT either of those two concepts at all but rather the way one eats.

I love this because “regime” doesn’t mean “change yourself,” as much as it means habit or just  “this is how I do things.” (So French!)

The reason I’m thinking of diet and “regimes” at the moment is because 1) I live in America and 2) I care about my weight since I care about how I look in my clothes (and oh yeah there’s the health thing) and 3) I’m headed to the food/fashion capital of the universe in 8 weeks.

There’s a reason why “diet” means something different in Paris and anybody who has spent longer than a weekend there knows what I’m talking about. I think the French paradox is more than just how do the French eat butter and not croak from heart attacks like Americans do? I think it also has to do with the fact that you can spend a week in the food capital of the world and eat the most high-calorie, high-fat foods there are and still come back to your own country five pounds lighter.

38065267It’s no wonder French women don’t get fat! (Well, at least Parisian women.) And the ones that do are probably bedridden or something. Because Paris is a walking city and not only is it way easier to lace up your Converses and walk to wherever you want to go (rather than study your Metro map or find a taxi or unlock a velo, start a civil war with Uber or God-forbid rent a car), it’s such exquisite fun to stride down just about any block in Paris. (You know this is true!)

Sometimes when I’m huffing and puffing away on my treadmill at the gym, counting the minutes until I can get off, I imagine how much more pleasurable (not a word I associate with my hour at the gym) my 10,000 steps would be if I were instead scurrying from the Galeries Lafayette to my favorite neighborhood café to a cute little boutique or bookstore or museum before meeting up with my husband for dinner at some amazing little bistro. Rather than begrudging this necessary hour at the gym I would be in a flurry of delight all day long—eating, shopping, and marveling at the history that surrounds me—before looking at my Fit-Bit to see that I’d logged in twelve thousand steps. Without even trying.

Naturally most Parisians aren’t on vacation all the time and I imagine even they have to spend a certain amount of time sitting at desks. But a city like Paris is forgiving. You can lounge in bed (with or without your lover) until noon (or sit at your desk for seven hours) and still have plenty of time left in the day to walk everywhere and eat everything.

Which brings up another food observation I have about Paris.

Is it even possible to be hungry there? I’ve tried for years and have yet to succeed.

I’m pretty good “back home” only eating when I’m hungry or not snacking. But in Paris, how is your appetite ever ready for the next meal? How is it possible? (I’m seriously asking so please jump in on the comments because I would love to know.)

In Paris, if I wake up, enjoy an espresso or a café mocha and maybe a Nutella crepe at one of the convenient little crepe kiosks on every single corner in Parisbonbon or hit my neighborhood boulangerie for bread that is so amazing it will make me change religions and lead nations into battle, then how am I possibly going to be tempted by that amazing little macaron shop on the way to the museum? And once at the museum, how am I going to do justice to that life-changing quiche or boeuf daube I’ve read so much about? (I mean, of course I’ll eat the macarons and destroy the lunch—bien sûr!—but where’s the edge? Where’s the hunger?)

Bottom line—how can you be hungry in Paris when every step you take puts you in front of a dish or morsel that is the epitome of that particular food in all of history??? (I’ll look for your responses in the comments section but when answering kindly refrain from using words like self-restraint, hold back, or skip a meal. Thank you.)

Meanwhile, I’ll sign off for now. I have a standing date with a daydream of me striding down La Madeleine to Fauchon’s for lunch and turning the treadmill incline up to 6.0 as I do it. After all, I’m the practical sort and everyone knows certain neighborhoods in Paris can be quite hilly.

À bientôt, mes amis…

13 Ways to Celebrate Christmas

 Madame Renoir pulled out a tray full of Calisson d’Aix cookies. “I have much still from the réveillon,” she said, indicating the pale oval cookies. “You are familiar, yes?”

Maggie nodded. “The réveillon. That’s the thirteen desserts, right? The ones everyone eats on Christmas Eve?”

Exactement. Before the Mass. They symbolize Christ and his apostles. It is a Provençal tradition.”

“I see you’ve got a lot left over.”

Madame Renoir placed the tray of iced cookies on the counter. “The people of St-Buvard care little for traditions,” she said, frowning. “They will eat the cookies for the…little snacks, yes? Not for the purpose I am baking them. You understand?”

—-Excerpt from “Murder à la Carte

If you’re from Louisiana, you’ve likely heard of a French tradition that happens at Christmastime called the réveillon, which is a long dinner, or sometimes a party, held on Christmas Eve after midnight mass. The word réveil means “waking” which is appropriate since the dinner involves staying awake until midnight…and beyond. The reason you might have heard of this tradition in the States is because it’s still observed in New Orleans at various restaurants that offer special réveillon menus on Christmas Eve.

36849922In Provence, the réveillon is seven separate courses plus thirteen different desserts, which is totally my kind of tradition. Some sources say  les enfants are not allowed to have a single bite of dessert until they can name each one correctly. The number thirteen has to do with the number of apostles plus Jesus at the Last Supper. (The réveillon is also connected to Easter with some folks saying the Christmas Eve feast is a lead up to Mardi Gras before nose-diving into Lent and, traditionally, fasting and sacrifice.)

I loved using the réveillon in the Maggie Newberry mystery, above, first because one of the main characters in that book was a baker and the timing was Christmas. It would have been weird, especially in a small rural village, not to mention the réveillon. Besides, the tradition is so layered and visual, it was a delight to describe it and so, experience it.

Okay, what are these essential thirteen desserts that kick off Christmas and take us all the way to Easter?

Voilà mes amis, I give you, the réveillon!

  1. The pompe à l’huile is a flat bread flavored with orange blossom and brown sugar. (Some people believe cutting the bread (as opposed to breaking it as Jesus did at the Last Supper) brings the risk of bankruptcy in the new year. So watch yourself.
  2. Two kinds of nougats, white and black, representing good and evil.
  3. Hazelnuts which represent St. Augustin
  4. Almonds, representing the Carmelite Order
  5. Raisins for the Dominican order
  6. Dry figs representing the Franciscan Order
  7. Candied citron representing I honestly do not know what.
  8. Quince paste I assume one may get creative with this since all by itself it doesn’t feel like much of a dessert to me.)
  9. Pears
  10. Apples
  11. Oranges
  12. Dates
  13. Calisson d’Aix (this is a Provençal favorite any time of the year but I always send away for it at Christmas. It’s made of ground almond paste that’s been extruded into petal shaped cookies and frosted with royal icing.)

As you can imagine nowadays, people add many more desserts to this list to celebrate the réveillon. (I mean, come on, apples as a dessert? Where’s the buche de Noel?) But, however you celebrate your holidays, I hope there’s lots of good food and even more loved ones crowded around your table.

Joyeux Noel everyone!

 

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.