Archive for August 2007

Sowing the Seeds of Success

August 29, 2007


“Oh my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…”  NOT!  The next 24 hours promise to be fairly hair raising, and so this will be my last post from home.  Home as we know it, home in America.  When next we speak, our French life will have begun and we will be in our new home.  Goddesses willing, the DSL will get hooked up expeditiously and I’ll be back with you in almost a flash.  It will probably seem like a flash to you because you won’t be crammed into a jet flying unnaturally close to the sun.  To me, it’ll be long, long, long but hopefully worth it.

I remember vividly that day, a shockingly short four months ago, when we merrily said “hey, why don’t we go live in France for a while?”  That moment planted the seed, and I’m hoping the fruit will be as sweet as we’ve been imagining.  The process of our move has been absolutely like gardening, where you pore over the seed catalogues in a pastoral rapture, rake up the topsoil, sprinkle the seeds with hopes and dreams, then weed and water the hell out of it all until you’re dripping with sweat, scratched and bruised, aching with exertion, and never want to see another radish as long as you live.  That’s where we are today.  Radish overload.

The sweaters are vacuum packed down to the size of a brick and still don’t fit in the suitcase.  A bag that would fly for free at 50 lbs and may weigh 70 lbs if we’re willing to pay for it currently weighs 57 lbs.   That’s a misery, since we’ll be paying as if it were 70 lbs, and so we’d damn well better cram in another 13 lbs, but how?

Our dear Sushi cat, unhealthy during almost all of her short four years of life, refused to move to France and chose to become sick unto death instead, leaving the planet this morning.  Beppo,  never having been an Only Cat, is bewildered.  We’re trying to teach him French, telling him “on ne te laissera jamais, petit minou” and it’s true, we’d never leave that little kitty, now our only furry companion.

Soon, almost unbearably soon, we’ll be setting off on what promises to be our greatest adventure yet.  Please stay tuned and I’ll be back with you right after we tackle a message from the sponsor of all great adventures: hard work and inspiration.

Let’s Go, Let’s Go!

August 28, 2007


Pack up the bags and let’s go, let’s go

Clean out the house and let’s go, let’s go

Water the plants and let’s go, let’s go

Take a deep breath and let go, let go

Get cats their shots and let’s go, let’s go

Run to the bank and let’s go, let’s go

Empty the fridge and let’s go, let’s go

Take a deep breath and let go, let go

Spend sleepless nights and let’s go, let’s go

Finish our wills and let’s go, let’s go

Kiss friends goodbye and let’s go, let’s go

Take a deep breath and let go, let go

In the Frying Pan AND In the Fire

August 27, 2007


This is us.  We’ve got a whole heap of ingredients in the pot, and the fire’s getting hotter every minute.  In actual fact this iron pan cracked from the intense heat, but we won’t.  At least, we hope that we won’t end up any more cracked than we are already, which isn’t saying a lot these days.

I need to cook something soothing.  Something that feels like home yet doesn’t anchor us too firmly.  We already have more luggage than any two people can manage, so it has to be a dish that won’t slow us down, will give us strength, and won’t produce leftovers unless they can fit in a 3 oz. bottle in a clear 1 quart ziplock bag.  It needs to be a calm food, an optimistic blend of ingredients with no clash of flavors or cultures.

What should it be?  What’s the recipe for a new life?

The Taste of the Northwest

August 26, 2007


Everything about this place is beautiful enough to eat.  Going out to get the paper this morning I taste salt water in the cool morning air, and I pop a few salal berries into my mouth on the way back up the walk.  Eating salal berries always reminds me of the native people who depended on them before blueberries and raspberries were staples of the Pacific Northwest diet, and although their flavor is subtle, it’s easy to imagine how delicious they must have tasted when they were the sweetest food one could gather.

For the past few weeks the lavender has been full of bees, grooming each petal in their quest to preserve summer’s aromas, and I watch them and think about the honey I won’t be here to taste.  Then in another week or so the annual spider time will begin and the lavender will be spun with webs, waiting to ensnare the delicious lavender-fed bees who fly right into the spiders’ dinner plates.  I won’t be here to see that either, which is okay with me since it’s always a little sad to see the tightly wrapped bees, wings stilled.

But for now I sit in the morning-warmed garden with an iconic cup of coffee, watching the blackberry brambles run rampant, and taste the fir perfume from the trees towering over my bench along with the bracing dark roast.  The bench is right next to a hardy fuschia, which serves as a sort of supermarket for cats, attracting nectar-loving birds.  This morning Beppo brought a small dark bird into the house, and for once I was able to set it free before he got to sample its feathery flavor.  The bird streaked off like a shot, in utter silence, and Beppo growled.

It’s all in the timing, eating and being eaten.  It’s all about eating and flying away.  Five more days.

Holding On, Letting Go

August 25, 2007


After last night’s going away extravaganza, which featured such delectables as bacon-wrapped bacon, vegetables with an addictive bacon dip, mini BLTs, and bacon baklava, I’m ready to let go of bacon for quite some time.  Embrace salad, that’s going to be my motto for today.

But it’s a lot harder to let go of the sweet friends who put all that bacon together, along with the layered smoked salmon canapés topped with a roe mosaic, the tiny tarts with figs or raspberries nestled in creamy clouds, the warm carrot fritters with their mysterious hint of banana, the beautiful cheese and charcuterie platter, the “may I just eat this with a spoon?” warm seafood dip, the hot fudge sundaes with three ice creams and two luscious sauces, and the stunning cocktails with names like French Pearl, Lapin Agile, and my personal favorite, Wicked Kiss.  By personal favorite I mean that I had more than one of those, and let me tell you, if you’ve never had bacon-wrapped bacon with a Wicked Kiss, you have missed something special.  Have I mentioned an urgent need to embrace salad today?

As we pack and sort and sift our way through every single thing we own,  we’re forced to think all day long about holding on and letting go.  It’s hard to fathom why some things slip so easily into the bags destined for the thrift store, and others stubbornly cling to me.  A little carved Polish box that I’ve carted around from home to home for the past 35 years suddenly is easily let go.  It’s spent the past 6 years tucked into a drawer, all but forgotten, like the man who gave it to me.  The flower wreath from my wedding day hair has been dried and crisp for 13 years, something I used to find charmingly nostalgic.  Now I look at it closely and see some dried fragments of vegetable matter wrapped around wire trailing a few ivory-colored ribbons, and into the trash it goes.  I’ve held onto the husband for 13 years, the wreath’s done its job, and I let it go without a tear. 

Things matter, and then they don’t.  It’s a hard choice, how much of the past to save for the future.  Even something like letting go of the bacon is easier said than done.  I’m probably sitting on it right now, in fact, and will regret that fact when I’m scrunched into an airplane seat for umpteen hours. 

Holding on to people over time and distance is easier said than done too.  Those of you that I love, and I hope you know who you are, I’m holding you tight and taking you with me.  All the rest is just stuff.

Food Security

August 23, 2007


Tonight I’m going through the cupboards and pantry.  Whew, I’m a terrible food pack rat.  If there’s an ingredient I might ever need at any time in the future I buy it the moment I see it.  Then, all too often, I forget I have it.  Why else would someone have two different packets of Bak Kut Teh soup seasoning?  Or worse, I forget why I got it.  What should I be doing with dried lily buds anyway?

In a stroke of brilliance I realize that tomorrow a bunch of serious food people are giving us a going away party.  We all met on the eGullet food board, and have been cooking and eating together ever since.  What better time to clean out my food supplies and bestow all my odds and ends on my unsuspecting friends?  Let’s see, who would like those lily buds, the dried Chinese chestnuts, the spekulaas kruiden, the date syrup, the jasmine essence, the candlenuts, and for that matter, the remnants of a special candle you burn inside a bowl of Thai cookies in order to perfume them lightly?

I lay out my goodies and begin to pile them up next to little stickers bearing my friends’ names.  There’s so much stuff I scarcely know how to start.  What would you think if I told you that the array above was only 20% of what I sifted through?  I’d be lying, of course, it’s only 10%.  Maybe less.

But see, here’s how I am.  I’m already calculating what will be just as good when we come back as it is today.  The Muscovado sugar will be rock hard, the vialone nano will go rancid, the Rancho Gordo beans I should take to my friends in Europe who can’t get them.  But the oak honey, the mulberry syrup, the quince preserves, the treacle and sorghum, they’ll all stand the sugary test of time.  The ochazukenori, sure, it’s sealed up tight.  And so on.  I just can’t give it all away.  My culinary security blanket turns out not to be my knives or my pots and pans, but my larder, so lovingly built, so hard to leave behind.

Actually, I am taking my knives with me, but I know you understand that.

Feeling Peeled

August 23, 2007


Now that we have only 8 more days to get it all together we’re starting to feel stressed, snappish, snarky and sometimes sullen.  Diffident, discouraged, dusty, and down in the basement more than we’d like to be.  Also peevish, petulant, and peeled raw like the bright dried favas you see before you.  There’s something about the process of turning over every single leaf in our lives, including some that should have been put in the compost heap long ago, that leaves me with a naked, picked-over feeling.

If looking at these beans gives you a yen to make homemade falafel, there’s a wonderful recipe here, but if you can find favas that are already peeled and split, do yourself a favor and get them.  Peeling away the skin isn’t difficult, but it is time consuming and tedious.

It’s a lot like what we’re going through now as we get ready to leave, opening up one thing at a time, stripping it bare, setting it down, doing it again, looking at the pile to see whether it’s getting any smaller, picking up another one and doing it all again.  In the end, I know something delicious will be the result, but right in the thick of it all sometimes it seems that all I’m getting out of the process is a lot of crud under my fingernails.

Every day we ask each other “do you still want to go?”  The answer’s always yes, but it frequently comes only after a pause and a deep breath.  Those pauses are dangerous, since during that brief moment something else might get added to the eternal list of things to do.  I’m a bean-counter from way back, and I love to cross things off the list as soon as possible.  But this last week, because there won’t be any second chances, I’m being careful to count no bean before it’s peeled.

Knowing Your Vegetables

August 21, 2007


This will be the last week I’ll go to the farm to pick up my box of  vegetable jewels, like these irresistable greens.  The CSA will bustle on without me, providing the best vegetables I’ve ever tasted, orange-yolked eggs, and fragrant just-picked fruit to the other members lucky enough to have subscribed to the farm last Fall.  I, however, will be off in France eating Unknown Vegetables.

True, there will be two markets a week in my new town, and eventually I’ll figure out who sells the most inviting fruits and vegetables, and with luck I’ll learn to call both the farmers and their wares by name.  With perseverance I might learn something of their stories, how and where they live and grow, why a given farmer’s arugula is so much greener than another’s.  With observation I’ll come to understand the heat that withered the spinach, the untimely rains that split the tomatoes, the myriad ways that the soil and the weather work together throughout the growing season.

But will I ever hear about the peahen that escaped the coop and dug up the seed, or the apprentice farmer who didn’t like to get his hands dirty?  Will a farmer admit to me that she’s eaten chard twice a day for three weeks because the crop was so much more plentiful than expected?  I have to admit that food always tastes better to me when I know its story, and for five years now I’ve been listening to the stories of Persephone Farm.

I know I’ll find ravishing French vegetables, and I’m really looking forward to them.  I’ll listen hard for their stories and savor them gratefully.  But for now, my heart still belongs to the vegetables I know, the vegetables grown just for me, the vegetables that keep my coat shiny and my nose moist, those vegetables grown by Rebecca at Persephone Farm.

Très Elégant

August 20, 2007


Today I’m having a crisis of Americanness.  What if every single thing I do in France is judged to be crude, colonial, brash, and New World in the worst way?  Even more distressing to contemplate, what if no one there loves my cooking?  Take this little chocolate pudding, complete with its adorable truffle and light-catching shard of cocoa nib brittle; now that’s something I’d serve to any French guest without a worry.  It’s structured and chic and soothingly traditional.  But although I made and served that pudding with pleasure, the truth is that I’m much more likely to serve my guests something like this

which is admittedly still gorgeous, still delicious, but…rustic.  Primitive.  Not refined.  Sauvage.  American.

Of course this crisis isn’t entirely about food, as few things are.  I look in the mirror and my clothes are hopeless, my jewelry juvenile, even my hair looks too American.  I have really no idea how a woman of my age, une femme d’un certain âge, is expected to comport herself in France.  My personal style is to say what I think, dress any old way, and do what I like.  So New World.

It’s ironic, because in wine my tastes are decidedly Old World.  Give me a classic, understated, subtle, complex, and yes, elegant wine any day.  Give me one every day, in fact.  But my preference for elegance really goes no further than my glass, and I think that will come through loud and clear in France.  Actually, that’s a great description of my approach to life: loud and clear.

I’m trying to remember myself as I am today, knowing I’ll be changing soon.  I’m utterly certain that no one will ever say “Voilà une Americaine très élégante” about me.  But perhaps, like wine aged in France, I could become more understated, subtle, and complex.  No, scratch the “more complex” part, my husband would have to kill me if I were any harder to live with!

I wonder if the French have an expression analogous to our “it is what it is.”  I think that needs to be my new mantra, at least for the next 11 days.  After that, it’ll become “c’est la vie.”

The Season of Migration

August 19, 2007


Every day when I go out to pick blueberries I see that there are fewer left on the bushes, and not just because I’ve been devouring them as if they were the last fruit on earth.  Many kinds of birds migrate through our garden, snatching blueberries and huckleberries for their autumn journey, then holly berries on their way north as winter draws to a close.  The robins and I are on the same wavelength these days, stocking up for the end of this summer life, not leaving quite yet, but preparing to take to the skies and land in warmer climes.

We’re caught on the cusp now, torn between looking ahead and looking back.   We laze in our deliciously comfortable bed on this drizzly Sunday morning, nestled with cats, and wonder who will be sleeping between these sheets next month.  Who will pick the berries next summer? 

I expect that, once freed from the merciless hunting ways of Sushi and Beppo, the birds will enjoy a population boom and will claim most of the berries for themselves.  An as yet unknown French blueberry farmer will have a new and devoted customer.  Although I’m still in the dark about the details, I know that life will rebalance itself, for the birds and for us.