Peel Me A Grape

Posted September 4, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America



I fully intended to go to the fair. I wanted to see the animals, the kids’ 4-H projects, the pies, the jams and jellies. I really didn’t give a hoot or a holler about the concert stages, the fair foods, the hordes of visitors. I just wanted a metaphorical taste of the country life.

But somehow, instead of going to the fair, I became the fair.

My Concord grapes were so ripe that I could smell them from the driveway. I happen to think that their perfume is deeply thrilling, and I would eat them if I could, even though most people don’t consider them fit to be table grapes. Last year I gave them all to the food pantry, because they came ripe just as I was moving in, and I didn’t have the time for them.

This year I decided to make jam, which is truly a labor of love. I de-stemmed and then peeled 13 pounds of grapes, which took me the better part of an afternoon and evening. I wished for an old-fashioned huge family, sitting around the table, popping the fruit from the skins amid merry chatter. Instead, I sat outside on a lovely afternoon happily free from yellow jackets, and with the encouragement of some very nice tequila popped until I feared I could pop no more. And then, inevitably, I popped even more, because 13 pounds is roughly a million grapes. Fortunately friends came to harvest the remaining 40-50 pounds, because really, I was popped out.

But while I was popping the clear, seedy pulp from the fragrant near-black skins I looked up and saw that my plum tree had lots of ripe fruit, most of it too high for me to reach. I snatched down what I could, and made a few jars of plum-cardamom preserves. The rest will have to wait until a friend with a ladder comes to pick them for me. Whoever planted that tree let it get way too tall for picking. I don’t know what I’ll do with the rest of the plums, but it definitely won’t involve peeling them.

Plus, I remembered the pumpkins that a friend gave me last weekend, just waiting to be roasted, puréed, and frozen until Thanksgiving. So that’s up next, as soon as I wash just about every large bowl and huge pan in my kitchen, all of which are currently coated in stickiness.

The peculiar part is that, low-carb person that I am, I won’t eat any of it. I made it all to give away, because I can’t stand letting beautiful produce go to waste, and I love that it grows effortlessly in my garden, and because I enjoy feeling like a long-ago country girl, if only for a day or two. All that by way of saying that I had a good excuse for not making it to the fair, although I really did want to go. Next year I’ll have to plan better and not wait until the last day of the fair to start peeling those grapes. Or maybe I’ll gather a jolly popping crew and we’ll go to the fair together. Because whatever the next year may bring, there’s sure to be fruit, and there’s sure to be a fair.

Parting The Sea

Posted August 27, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America



I have a new friend, I’ll call her Maricela, with whom I can barely speak. I’m technically her English tutor, a job for which I am really not qualified since she speaks only a few words of English and is, to put it gently, not gifted at language-learning. I, however, am.

She desperately needs to learn English, and she knows that. I think she desperately needs an American friend too, and so, 85% of the times, she speaks Spanish to me instead of working at her English. Even though she knows that I don’t speak Spanish, she bares her soul to me. She tells me, in Spanish, about her seven children, about her work cleaning hotel rooms, about her daughter who is pregnant and the baby’s father is in Mexico and can’t get a green card. She tells me about the house she and her husband are trying to buy and about how the American mortgage system is driving them crazy, and stressing them out beyond bearing.

She tells me all this in Spanish, and so Maricela is teaching me much more Spanish than I am teaching her English. I try. I prepare lesson plans, and I always put the vocabulary in both languages, so I’m learning a lot that way. But mostly I’m learning because when I can’t understand what she’s telling me she holds my hands across the table and looks into my eyes and tries to speak right through my incomprehension. And, amazingly, I am starting to understand quite a lot. I wish I could say the same for her English.

The other day, for some reason, she was talking to me about going to church. In Spanish, of course. And she told me that she’s Catholic, and devout, and then she wanted to know about my religion. She ran down a long list of religious affiliations, leaving out judia? (for Jewish) but asking adventista? (for the seventh day folks). And finally, after I said no to each and every one, she looked down and asked me very softly “crees en Dios?” And I had to say no, no creo. And you don’t need to know Spanish, or even anyone Mexican, to imagine how crestfallen she was to hear that.

But she rallied, and let me know that it didn’t matter, and that we were still friends, and invited me to her daughter’s baby shower. It’s strictly forbidden by the tutoring association that we ever go to each other’s homes. I tried to explain that it’s not allowed, that I had signed a contract. And she said that we just wouldn’t tell them, and that there would be lots of good Mexican food, and that the party would be fun even though I wouldn’t be able to understand more than a few words anyone was saying.

Somehow I understood all that. Fortunately she knows how to say “baby shower” in English, even though she has no concept of the verb to be. And there’s that pesky document I signed saying I wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t go to her home. But just as something is parting the sea of language that separates us, so too something is making that signature seem like such a little thing, so much easier to ignore than the way she holds my hands.

The End Of Time

Posted August 4, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,


Shel’s watch stopped today. After keeping faithful time for the 854 days, 20,496 hours, and 1,229, 760 minutes since his death, elle a rendu l’âme, it gave up the ghost.

It’s not like it’s a pretty watch, or a valuable one. I can’t even wear it, the band was painfully reduced in size to fit Shel’s shrinking wrist, that last year. But I’ve kept it, because he wore it every day for 17 years, and I got used to seeing it. When he died I can’t say that I looked at it every day, or even with any particular regularity. Sometimes I would just need to see it, and would pick it up to find that time was still scrolling along, Shel-style.

But today I picked it up and it was running, then in the barest flicker of a moment, it went blank. Stopped for good, right while I was watching. Just like Shel did.

And now I don’t know what to do with it. It’s different from keeping and wearing one of his sweaters. The watch is a thing that was alive and moving and is now dead. It outlived him. It has no utility. What is a memory worth, anyway? It had only one function, one that it can no longer perform. Should I take it as some sort of sign? Is it one further piece of proof of the randomness of the Universe?

I’m thinking about whether to keep it. And about how no one else would want it, and about whether I would dare to throw it away. I wonder whether to maybe put a new battery in it, and let it remind me of him. Or would it always remind me, more truthfully, of stopping, of flickering out, of the life being sucked right out of you?

Of course every moment in time becomes just a memory, only an instant after its birth. I could let this memory go, but I don’t know what I would be losing.



The Courage To Cook

Posted July 16, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: , ,


Widows often say that they’ve stopped cooking. They don’t have the heart, they say. They no longer care what they eat, they say. They can’t bear to eat alone, can’t bring themselves to shop and cook just for one.

I admit that I don’t cook the way I used to, but I have kind of prided myself on the fact that I do cook for myself, do make an effort to eat well, go to the farmer’s market, frequent the good butcher shop, take care of myself as best I can.

And I’ve made sure that I always have something to read when I sit at the table alone, and I’ve mostly tried to taste the food and not just lose myself in a novel, as you might in a good conversation. Eating alone is one of the hardest things, it seems like an act against nature. But for two years and three months I have sat alone with a plate of something or other, and I have managed, as my grandmother used to say, to keep body and soul together.

Then tonight, don’t ask me why, I decided to roast a chicken. I’ve cooked and eaten a lot of chicken over those twenty seven months, but for some reason I’ve never actually roasted a whole chicken. I’ve just made pieces and parts for myself, as if I didn’t merit a whole bird. And as I was stuffing that chicken with garlic cloves and lemon slices, and showering it with salt, I found myself wondering whether I should make gravy with the drippings.

One minute I was contemplating stirring some good cream into the fragrant juices and reducing them, and the next minute I was doubled over the sink, wailing, tears slicking down, out of nowhere. Because, of course, a roast chicken with lemon and garlic and cream gravy was Shel’s favorite dish, and I’d forgotten all about that. If I’d remembered, in the butcher shop, I would have bought more bits and pieces and fed them to myself, never thinking about missing the whole. But now, it’s too late. The chicken is in the oven, roasting away as if he were here to eat it. I’ve avoided this pain so far -since his death I haven’t baked chocolate chip cookies or pound cake or biscuits, the things that remind me unbearably of my former life in the kitchen. But the chicken sneaked up on me, ambushed me after a hard afternoon of muddling through winery math problems. Cooking was meant to be a respite from that work, but instead tumbled me headlong into a sinkhole of grief.

I can smell it now as it roasts, the lemon note floating above the garlic, the golden skin crisping. It’s the thought of the gravy that undoes me. Yes, I know I can sauté those tiny eggplants with my friend’s zucchini, I know I can pour wine, because I can always pour wine. But do I have the courage to make that gravy, and serve it to only me, myself, and I? There’s still twenty-five minutes on the timer. Twenty-five minutes to face the fact that he will never again carve the chicken, serving himself the breast and me, the leg and wing. Twenty-five minutes to stare into the face of loss. What would you do?


And The Livin’ Is Easy

Posted June 26, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: ,


Oh summertime. Those sweet early summer days when it’s hot but not suffocating, when all I want to do it be in the garden and the vineyard. And put things up.

I’ve been having a sweetly old-fashioned weekend, making vin de noix, then raspberry jam from my garden raspberries, then French-style apricot jam with fruit that was a gift from a friend. Americans like their jam set up, firm, jam that behaves itself on a piece of toast. Hence my raspberry version, seeds and all, cooked to 220° to ensure a firm set. The French like their jam runny, oozing off a buttered baguette or spooned over yogurt, with big chunks of fruit, and so my apricot jam macerates overnight, cooks to only 210°, and has mouthfuls of succulent apricot flesh. Chacun à son gout, to each her own, and I’m pretty sure that both are delicious, containing, as they do, noting but fruit and sugar. My friends and family will have to tell me, since I won’t be tasting either of them.

Nor will I drink the vin de noix, since it too contains plenty of sugar. It’s funny, this compulsion I feel, to make things with beautiful summer produce that I’ll never taste. I do it for the pure joy of working with the ingredients, all jewel-like and filled with sunshine, and for the pleasure of giving and serving my creations to others. Weird, huh?

But I’ve also been harvesting kale and chard by the armload, as well as what I fear will be the last of the broccoli, lettuces and arugula for the season, and those I do devour happily. My tomatillo plant is covered with baby fruit, the cucumbers are scrambling up the trellis and flowering like mad, the beans are twining, and the tomatoes are just beginning to flower.

That’s life in the garden, one luscious things appears just as you’re mourning the passing of what came before. If you’re lucky, that’s life on Earth.


This Is My (New) Country

Posted June 14, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America



I needed to get away. The news of the Orlando massacre was more than I could bear, and I was bone-weary after finishing my first year of school. I planned a little overnight getaway for myself, just me, up in Joseph, Oregon. Everyone said it was so beautiful, and that the journey was almost better than the destination.


I headed out of town and up into the Blue Mountains, Very low mountains, but still.


Normally it’s about two hours from Walla Walla to Joseph, but I dawdled along, stopping to take pictures. For example, the Blue Mountains are sometimes red,


sometimes green.


This was my first glimpse of the Wallowa River far below,


and as soon as I could get right down to it I did.


It’s no wonder that it was way past lunchtime when I pulled into the town of Enterprise, Oregon, and up to the Red Rooster Cafe. Which, if you’re ever in Enterprise, is a great place to stop, with food that really exceeded my expectations for freshness and imagination. And there’s also a Napa Auto Parts store, which saved my butt on my return trip by providing me with the new windshield wipers I’d been procrastinating about for the past few months.


Pulling in to Joseph, with its lovely backdrop of the Wallowa Mountains, I discovered that every street corner displays bronzes from local foundries, to very good effect.


This is Nez Perce country, and Chief Joseph presides over his former dominion.


But I was staying at the Wallowa Lake Lodge, so after a thorough walkabout on the main street of Joseph, I went just a few miles out of town to the lake. The lobby is everything you would want in a lodge.


And even the hallway was picturesque. It’s old-fangled, no TVs, no phones in the rooms, but, surprisingly, reliable wi-fi.


The lodge isn’t actually on the lake; instead it borders the Wallowa River which flows to the lake in the very near distance.


And here’s where the magic and the surprise entered the picture. My friends and classmates Kelly and JJ, by the purest coincidence, happened to be camping in the state park just next to the lodge. So they were able to walk over and sit on the lawn overlooking the river with me, and a really nice bottle of wine,


before we had a pretty decent dinner in the lodge’s dining room. That was followed by a sleep with all the windows open to hear the tree frogs singing. Little did I know that what they were singing about was the fact that it was about to rain for the next five days. So in the morning all was sodden, but what is a lodge lobby for, if not sitting cozily and reading?


I had planned a morning trip to the town’s foundry, which gives one guided tour each day, and then the rain convinced Kelly and JJ to delay at least some of their hiking plans and join me on the foundry visit, so what I had envisioned as a solitary trip was something entirely better.


They make a lot of amazing things in that foundry, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures until the very end, in the Life Size room. This is a firefighter in progress, I think for a memorial. And indeed, he looks deathly.


And remember that stunning eagle up top? Here he’s posing with Kelly and JJ, showing off his mighty size.


Since it was raining, and Minou was home alone, I decided to call it a trip. But wait, I forgot to mention the distillery, right near the foundry. They give tastes, and those tastes are very convincing. So’s their story, since the distiller is a grain farmer who decided to turn his rye, corn, and barley into some really nice spirits.


On the way home, just outside the little town of Lostine, was this perfect time capsule.


The weather was still unsettled when I dropped into the valley, which was looking absolutely at its best. And then I was home, heart full of beauty and camaraderie, completely transported into another mind-scape after being away only 30 hours.

And I can report that Minou didn’t approve of being left home alone one little bit, and is still talking to me about it.


The Sweetness Of May

Posted May 1, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Customs

Tags: ,


A lovely French custom is to offer people sprigs of lily of the valley on this day, the 1st of May. It’s a custom that is said to go all the way back to the Renaissance, falling in and out of favor over the centuries, but always signifying good luck and good fortune.

Normally France has at least as many bureaucratic restrictions as any other country on earth, but on this day anyone may sell muguets on the street, not needing a permit, which I think contributes greatly to the public good and general happiness quotient. I remember that my first year in France I bought a handful and handed them out to the butcher, the baker, and pretty much everyone who made my life there more pleasant. It was only later that I learned that you usually only give them to friends, but by that time, those people had become my friends, so I chalked it up to the power of the sweet little flower.

This year, my new garden is full of them, and the corner where they grow smells intoxicatingly sweet. I bring them into the house, admiring their creamy white and oh-so-delicate bells, and think of France, about how I’d love to wander my old neighborhood, handing out little sprigs of happiness.

But this year it will have to be virtual, des muguets virtuels, and I offer some to you. From a cool, fragrant little corner of my life, a symbol of friendship and good luck, please accept them with my hopes that you have a lovely May Day, with just a soupçon of la vie française.