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Archive for December, 2014

 

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Approaching Thanksgiving with the prospect of family coming to visit in Aix-en-Provence, including young grand-daughters, was, I admit, a delight. It was also overlaid with memories of another Thanksgiving spent in France, in Paris, a half-a-lifetime ago.

I had been young, a student, and living as a pensioner with a ferocious retired professor of cuisine who was relentless in her drive to teach young barbarians to understand the basics of French cooking, and the requisite use of utensils to properly eat it. She was also, in my view, an unabashed zealot in her anti-Americanism, based primarily on her opinion that all that was wrong with America (plenty) stemmed from our primitive if not laughable preferences in food.

In my naivete, I decided the way to correct these obviously erroneous assumptions was to produce the ultimate delicious American feast and to invite French and American friends to enjoy it. With good will, pumpkin pie, and the pièce de résistance, a perfectly roasted, stuffed turkey, what could go wrong? I leave it to you to imagine what did (beginning with the fact that the French did not at that time really eat turkey, and finding one that was at least partially plucked was step one on the road to disaster).

Now decades later, the kids were coming and we contemplated what to do about Thanksgiving dinner. Echoing my long-ago experience, I began by investigating where to find our seasonal fowl. Although various turkey parts were available in various markets, I couldn’t seem to find one completely assembled. This was because, a friend finally informed me, you can’t buy one of those until Christmas. But never mind: Even if a turkey had been magically available, my oven was too small to cook it.

What, then, to do with the family coming for Thanksgiving? The only logical alternative took shape in the best Francophile corners of my mind: Book tickets on the fast train (TGV) and go to Paris.
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Whizzing north from Aix, the girls were wide-eyed and inquisitive about what we were going to do—and particularly what we were going to eat.P1030666 (1)
They’d quickly embraced the French food they’d encountered so far. Justine was quite enthusiastic about pain au chocolat, while Bridget favored palmiers, and neither could have too many bowls of hot chocolate with steaming milk in the morning. Crêpes, baguettes, potage St.-Germain, golden Provençal apples and dark muscat grapes, all thumbs up. And that doesn’t even get to the artisanal treats we found in pastry shops.

Bridget did have one lingering concern, however. “We don’t have to eat snails, do we?” She asked her ritual question again on the train, and I thought of Madame, who had terrorized me all those decades ago in her fashionable 7th arrondissement apartment as she demonstrated how to correctly hold a snail. And I laughed.

Within hours we were comfortably settled on the most delightfully touristy conveyance I could find, a bateau mouche. The adults were happily sipping champagne and eating paté, while the girls ate a fine chicken in cream sauce, and watched, dazzled as we passed the Eiffel Tower, bridges over the Seine, and wondrous palatial buildings all blazing in lights. And after a sampler of tarts, a taxi ride, a hot bath and a night in a hotel, worries about snails—and what to do about a turkey—were easily forgotten.

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The next day, they played in the Roman Arena, fortuitously full of lycéens in Roman dress who were making a video for school, and wandered the ancient streets with shops full of color and wonder.

Paris in full regalia, what could be a better holiday?

All the same, once back in Aix, we stuffed and roasted a large chicken, cooked potatoes and green beans and remembered all we have to be grateful for by clinking glasses filled with fine Provençal rosé (and grape juice). Instead of pumpkin pie, we finished the feast with a platter of irresistible goodies the girls chose from a patisserie in town. 608x304_photo1112286

Where is it written that Thanksgiving requires turkey, anyway?

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When you move to a new place, of course it is a beginning. But when you move to a new place while at the same time moving into the end of the natural year, there is a sense of beginning at the end. So, arriving in Aix-en-Provence as my husband and I did, in October, we expected to be greeted with a feeling of fall.

We were wrong. This year, of all years, summer lingered into the early territory of winter. It wasn’t just the glorious strands of light filtering through the avenues of plane trees, nor the light clinging with blinding white vigor on the  rocky heights of Mt. Ste. Victoire, nor the light of the clean blue sky playing over a blue  sea—the famous Provencal  painterly light.P1030471

It was the sense of summer the light carried. People sitting long and leisurely in shirt sleeves and light-weight skirts in cafes; kids running free and playful in that holiday mood; crowds pushing into the streets in the mornings on market days and into the dark after dining in restaurants, or leaving the theater;unnamed (5)

even throngs in bathing suits and towels dusting themselves off as the sun set over the beach and the boats in the harbor and the wine sippers in bars beneath the dramatic cliffs of Cassis.unnamed (2)

Surely, I thought, this can’t last. For even as summer seemed a permanent guest on the terraces with geranium-filled pots outside our new home for the year, inside told another, cooler story. We soon learned what the people of Provençe all know: that stone houses with tile floors are meant to keep the cold inside, even while walls and stones and pavements harvest the light.unnamed (6)

I looked for the shafts of light falling straight as church steeples into open spaces, public squares, and the glow of orange, pink, yellow and rose tones—the colors of Provence—on buildings as the last light of day hit them. It seemed I should do something to save the summer light, too, to put something up before the storms and rains, and the Mistral came in earnest.

Then I went to the market and saw the mounds of multi-colored vegetables: baskets of peppers and zucchini; mounds of tomatoes, onions and garlic; stacks of purple-skinned eggplants. Then I knew: I could cook summer light where it was stored, in these vegetables.P1030431

Our friend Maurice was coming to dinner, and I decided to make my best ratatouille and a favorite Provençal dish. As the scents of the vegetables, olive oil and herbs simmering in the heavy pot invaded the kitchen, Maurice wandered over.

He looked over my shoulder and finally said in French, “You know, that looks something like ratatouille.”

I turned to look him in the eye. “But it is ratatouille,” I said.

“Ah,” he answered. “But it is a dish made in summer, with summer vegetables.”

I did not tell him I committed another heresy and put some away, for winter, in the freezer.

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