Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From Julia's Kitchen

I went to cooking class across the valley last week in Julia's kitchen. The keeper of the kitchen these days is an American lady of a certain age--sensible shoes, salt and pepper hair that she doesn't bother coloring anymore--who teaches cooking to vacationing Americans. We met this winter, and then we met again, and the second time--in yoga class, this was--she invited me to come for a day. There would be only one vacationing American. I would be there to offer a little local American color and to fill in the conversational cracks.

The vacationing Americans who come for cooking class spend the morning with the keeper in the kitchen, making a three or four-course lunch. At around one o'clock everything is ready, and then everyone sits down and eats and drinks until three o'clock or so. They spend a week at Julia's house--three days preparing and eating lunch, a day visiting the markets and lunching out in a proper French restaurant, a day with a visiting chef. The keeper is there throughout, shepherding, chatting, coaxing, leading, teaching. So only one visiting American can make for an intense week. Thus my invitation.

I have made the pilgrimage, several times, to Julia's kitchen, the one from the Cambridge house, now at the Smithsonian. The countertops are high and made of worn butcherblock. There is an island in the middle of the kitchen, with large storage baskets underneath. On the wall, of course, the famous pegboard, with the outlines of the pots and pans and whisk and spatulas painted so that the busy cook will know just where to put everything. I have looked in at that kitchen and read all the labels that the curators thought fit to write, and imagined what it would be like to step inside and take down a rolling pin. When I was a little girl I read a book about a sister and brother who got locked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art after hours. I'm sure that something else must have happened to them, but I don't remember what it was. What stayed with me was the thrilling idea of being behind the ropes, of being able to wander, to touch, to sit, without any shushing or shaking of heads. So all my life that notion has followed me. Locked in Versailles and sitting on the little slipper chairs in the Queen's bedchamber. Locked in Monticello and sitting at Jefferson's desk. And if I were ever locked in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I would bypass everything else and go directly to Julia's kitchen.

On the appointed day last week I drove across the valley, down the lane, past the "Défense d'Entrer / Propriété Privé" sign, and up a rutted gravel track. Julia's house is not grand. It is the house that you would design if you were not trying to impress anyone with Your House in France, but just wanted a place to live and have your friends to stay. Park and go around to the back--there isn't really a front door, just a series of French doors opening onto the small terrace--and open the screen door. It leads directly into the kitchen. Julia's kitchen. The same. High counters, butcherblock, island with wicker baskets of equipment, and, of course, the pegboard.

The keeper handed me an apron, a dishtowel, and a clipboard with copies of the recipes we were to make. I met the visiting American--an elfin lawyer from St. Louis--and we started cooking. The keeper taught techniques and tricks: save the tops of leeks for making stock. Correct melted chocolate that has gotten too hot and separated by whisking in heavy cream. Put basil stems, shorn of their leaves, in the sauce for their flavor, and fish them out later. We both took notes, and watched, and asked questions. In between times there were stories, about other places we'd been, meals we'd eaten, people we had eaten with. But there were no stories about Julia. She hardly came up, really. A few times I thought she would--and then instead I learned that in France it is permissible to break off just the amount of celery that you need from the stalk, and buy that instead of the whole bunch, which is a helpful thing to know. As the morning wore on I found myself bending to lean my elbows on the kitchen island where we were working. I am nowhere near six feet myself, and the countertops were too high for me.

It was when we were sitting down to lunch--if the pink champagne is good, go ahead and serve it with the meal, and when you put the plate down in front of your guests, the meat always goes at six o'clock--that I suddenly understood. There was no need to talk about Julia. This was not some exercise in hagiography. No saints lived here. This was the house, the kitchen, of someone who liked to cook, who liked to teach people to cook, who liked to sit long over her meals with friends eat and drink and talk and laugh without reservation. What we were doing was not participating in some pilgrimage but simply carrying on the same work that Julia had done herself, the ordinary alchemy of turning groceries into lunch. A particularly good lunch, but nothing mysterious. Sitting at Jefferson's desk I have always imagined that I might get that much closer to Jefferson's thoughts, and maybe at Monticello things are different. But in Julia's kitchen what I learned was that cooking done with love and care is the same in every kitchen.

I tried out my theory this weekend. It was Easter, and the house was full of company, so much that we overflowed into Jules' house up the terraces. Of all our household this weekend I was the only one for whom Easter meant much, or anything, beyond egg hunts and chocolate rabbits, and although I have long ago stopped sorting out my thoughts on resurrection, I retain a sense of the holy. A sense that this holiday is about grace, about good things happening when you don't think they will, when you've given up hope that they ever will again. So we have the chocolate bunnies and the girls have grown up with egg hunts, and I struggle with teaching them--not bread into body or wine into blood, but grace and compassion and kindness.

That's what I was thinking about Sunday afternoon while I made the keeper's recipe for osso bucco. That, and worrying. Everyone, even the dogs, had gone out and left me to cook, happily, in the kitchen. I turned on music and opened the kitchen door to the breezes, and chopped and sautéed and braised. Our guests were a motley assortment--family, old friends, friends of friends--and though they knew each other there was plenty to worry about. Would everyone be on time? Would they bring what they had said they would, and if they didn't, how would I produce the backups I had ready in the downstairs refrigerator without hurting feelings? Would conversation be easy? Would there be common ground? Would there be enough, would there be too much, what had I forgotten...the litany went round and round.

But everyone came when they said they would, and brought their offerings. We opened champagne and toasted Easter and Passover and Spring and family and friendship and hope for better days. When the osso bucco came out, it was as good as the one that had come out of Julia's kitchen the other day. Everyone loved it. We told stories and laughed until we couldn't catch our breath. We sat long over the main course, longer over the cheese--with the cheese some honey from a friend's hives, and our own olive oil--and then over the American cake longer, and, then, finally, time for tea. When we got up from the table late that night we were full, contented, a good meal closer to heaven. The bread and wine and osso bucco may not have turned into the body and blood, but they did knit us together, and make us all a little more whole. Julia said one time: Good food is also love.

Monday, March 17, 2008


We are six or seven months into a relationship, Violette and I, and coming along nicely. She comes to clean the house and do the ironing mostly every week, and drops in occasionally besides. These drop ins are generally for the purpose of comparing schedules, but they are also occasions for visiting.

Visiting is a challenge for us. Violette speaks without moving her lips. If she were American, she would be the cashier at the Harris Teeter who grew up about thirty feet from the parking lot and once went to Rock City on vacation, the one who says, Do you have your VIC card with you honey? and you look at her and try to make just one of those words sound like English. That's how Violette speaks, except in French.

Our conversations involve a lot of false starts and pantomime. I'm sure that my French is just as bizarre to her as her French is to me; bizarre, and, I suspect, slightly pathetic. After all, here I am, a grown woman with children and dogs and a houseful of furniture and a husband--whose name, incidentally, she thinks is Gory, and who am I to disabuse her of that?--but I am unable to carry on an ordinary conversation with her. She is constantly having to repeat the simplest things to me, like, Where are the coat hangers? (I think I have just about got that arrangement of sounds down. I still can't split it up into discrete words, but when Violette is ironing shirts and turns to me and speaks, I know to go get some coat hangers.) When we have had a conversation that has been particularly full of blind alleys, Violette often will reassure me. French is the most difficult language to learn. You have to be patient, she will say.

Meanwhile, despite what she may think, I understand more than I used to. I managed to translate a cake recipe into French for her last week. I had baked her a real American pound cake for Christmas, and her family liked it so much that she asked for the recipe. So I went upstairs and sorted out the difference between mélanger and battre, looked up the metric equivalencies for sticks of butter, and wrote it all out. Violette looked it over and nodded. I'll take this home and put it into good French for you, so that you will have it. I thanked her; she was clearly doing me a favor. To her it must be evident that I would want all my recipes translated into French; after all, what use is English?

Violette came to clean while we were away skiing, and she left me a note. I read it over quickly--more bags for the vacuum cleaner, please, and we were out of Ajax, and let her know when to come again--and then read it again, more slowly. She had misconjugated two verbs, giving them endings that did not match their subjects, and misspelled a word or two besides. But at the end she had written: Dis-moi quand tu veux que je vienne. Tell me when you want me to come. An easy, straightforward sentence, you may think. But it was in the subjunctive. My entire relationship to the French language is based on strategies for avoiding the subjunctive mood. Here's the difference, then, between learned language and a mother tongue: with all my years of study, I can spell and conjugate till the cows come home, but any mood other than the indicative gives me a headache. Violette, with a high school education at best, can neither spell her native language nor conjugate its verbs correctly, but the subjunctive rolls off the end of her pen without a moment's hesitation.

Just before she left with the cake recipe last week, Violette noticed that we had begun working on a large puzzle with 1000 tiny pieces. She walked over and gazed down at it on the table. You know, she said, tapping the table and speaking slowly so that I could understand her, when you do a puzzle, you should put the edges and the corners together first. Because if someone can't manage the French subjunctive, there's really no telling what else they haven't figured out.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Up in Paris last weekend, we took the baby to visit Montmartre. I hadn't been in years. L. and I wandered up the back side of the mont, stopping for lunch in a cafe well away from most of the tour busses (we ate omelettes and salad, and drank hard cider, sitting at a table on the sidewalk, alongside a cobbled street). Then we wound around, behind the great giant Orientalist wedding cake that is Sacre-Coeur. We dove briefly into the Place du Tertre, where I ate lunch with my family 25 years ago, and then came around to the front of the basilica, to its immense parvis with its view out over Paris and its hundreds of stairs descending to the city below.

We found a place to stand along the railing of the church square and looked at Paris spread before us. There were our favorite landmarks : Saint-Sulpice, and Val-de-Grâce, and the Pompidou, and the Louvre. As interesting, though, were the sights just around us. Hundred of people milling about, enjoying the absence of rain. Students, tourists, even some ordinary middle-aged French people, out to watch the street entertainers on a Saturday afternoon.

The stairs were crowded with people sitting, some of them finishing sandwiches, others just perched. On the first landing below the square a busker had set up his microphone and was singing and strumming Tracy Chapman's Talking 'Bout a Revoultion, which seemed like fittingly studenty background music for the moment. He finished singing, and the crowd on the steps clapped perfunctorily. We were walking down the stairs when the busker started his patter. It was in accented but not bad English.

Now I want to sing a song and I want all of you to be singing with me. I do not want you to be singing like you are singing when you are outside and people are hearing you, and you are singing soft. I want you to be singing like you are singing when you are in the shower, and no one is hearing you. And we will all sing together like that, and it will be good, everyone singing.

We stopped midway down the second flight of stairs and turned back. I wanted to see what he was going to sing. He played the first few chords and then sang out the first line: Imagine there's no heaven / it's easy if you try... He was calling the lines out, then singing them, nudging the stair-sitters to sing along. No hell below us / Above us only sky. We watched the crowd, laughing, listening, and then, slowly, quietly, a few started to sing. Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.

More people were singing now. We looked at each other and smiled a little. The baby slept in his carrier. People walking up and down the stairs, like us, were beginning to stop. Everyone knew the song. The Asian tourists, cameras slung round their necks, were still. A French couple in their 50s stopped just before the top of the stairs, startled out of their nonchalance, and turned back to watch and listen. After a bar or two, we saw their lips start to move as they sang. On the other side of the staircase, a man in late middle age, with an immense cleft in his chin, serious five o'clock shadow, and the bearing of a steel mill worker, was smiling and singing out. An African man in soccer clothes stopped doing tricks with his soccer ball and his lips began to move, too. Living life in peace...When the busker got to the woo-hoo at the end of the verse, he stopped, and waited a moment to see if the crowd would come in without being given the line. They did.

Now it was a full-fledged singalong, and the crowd had become an audience. They were swaying, singing, and over the staircase we felt blossom this great feeling of guarded, cautious, slightly embarassed optimism. One time I heard Wynton Marsalis say that we are obliged to hope--that hope is barely rational, like love, that feeling it is part of what makes us human--but that what we must strive for is optimism. Optimism, he said, is what you feel when you know that things look bad, but you can see a way for things to improve. The busker was still calling out lines, but the audience seemed already to know them. Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man...

Yesterday, back at home, C. and the girls and I went to lunch with a Bulgarian family. Their daughter is a friend of E. and G.'s at the College des Vignes, and she has spent a fair amount of time at our house recently. Wanting to thank us for taking her daughter here and there, the mother invited us for lunch. Weekend lunch here lasts for the entire afternoon, and sometimes into the evening, so we had plenty of time to talk and listen. The family had left Bulgaria for South Africa in the early 90s, when the hope of democracy that had existed after the fall of the Eastern bloc was fading in the light of a rising Mafia and a deteriorating economy. They lived in South Africa for ten years, and then the husband's work as a yacht engineer brought them to France. He is at sea six months of the year, and his wife and three daughters live in a mostly-finished house high up in the hills. She devotes herself to the children. Someday she hopes to go home to Bulgaria, after her girls are grown and have lives of their own. But she doesn't imagine that her children will ever live there, and seems only to want to go back because she doesn't really belong anywhere else.

Listening to her talk, we assumed that our hostess was considerably older than we are. She had a weariness to her, a heaviness, that made it hard to imagine that she had ever been young. Towards the end of the afternoon, though, she asked us our ages--when you are communicating across so many different languages and cultures, questions like that are okay--and when we told her, she said she was only five years older. Which meant that the wall fell in her mid-twenties, which meant that she came of age in the last years of the Soviet-sponsored regime, when we were choosing between hiking trails in sunny California. She was brought up by working parents who sent her to the best school they could, a French lycée, and to state-sponsored camps in the holidays. She rarely saw them. She and her husband went to South Africa because it was a country that would take Bulgarians and her husband could get work there. And then they came to France for the same reason. She seemed so much older to us because she is carrying the burden of history.

Last weekend, L. and I had laughed at what a perfect study-abroad moment our interlude on the Sacre-Coeur staircase had been. The Hollywood, Coke-commercial aspect--the swaying, the crooning, the lovely young students and the old people in their heavy cloth coats--made it easy to dismiss. Looking down at our new baby, though, we didn't want to dismiss it. We wanted it to be true. We wanted everyone to mean it. Imagine all the people / sharing all the world...

In the shuffle of the week I had forgotten our moment on the stairs. Today when I was thinking more about our lunch yesterday, though, I remembered it. Our Bulgarian friends are here to try to give their girls more hope than they have had. We all want our children to live in a better world, a more peaceful world, and if it sounds like a Hollywood moment, then maybe that's Hollywood at its best. Anyway, it was a hopeful moment, there in front of the basilica with John Lennon's song, and it made us feel optimistic. Maybe what we need--besides an economic policy that consists of something more than tax rebates--is more international singalongs. More lunches. More talking. More healthy sleeping babies. More hope. More optimism.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Night at the Opera

We managed to get tickets to The Marriage of Figaro, at the Opera de Nice, a couple of weeks ago. The performances were all sold out--we had meant to try to get tickets much earlier than we did--but a couple of weeks before the last night, four tickets came through the grapevine. Even though it was a school night, we reasoned that this was a moment not to allow school to interfere with education.

The girls had been to a short opera or two before--a side benefit of being in a family related to an arts school--but this was their first full-on, full-length, non-dress rehearsal, professional production. And C., I learned after Act III, had never been to the opera at all. My first opera was Don Giovanni, in the civic auditorium in my hometown, when I was about E. and G.'s age. Afterwards my friend, whose mother was on the board of something, and I got to wander around onstage, and I found a large black grosgrain ribbon bow that had fallen off a costume, and that sat on my dresser for months. So I wanted to run opera by the girls and see what happened.

I had good intentions about downloading the score of The Marriage of Figaro and making it the background music of our lives for the weeks before the performance, but I never got around to that. I did manage to call up the plot online the afternoon before, and talk through it with the girls: lots of hiding in closets and behind screens, and finding out that the woman who is blackmailing you into marriage is actually your long-lost mother, and that the countess is dressed up as her maid who is dressed up as the countess. E. pointed out that it sounded a lot like that scene in Monkey Business where the Marx Brothers hide in steamer trunks in someone's stateroom. Well, you take your cultural references where you can find them, and, actually, the Marx Brothers and Mozart are not so bad.

The day of the performance we ate dinner early, and then the girls went to get dressed. They were both in velvet, E. in deep claret, and G. in a brighter red, with a black feathery collar. They both had black boots, with low heels, and when they clicked out of their rooms and across the salon towards us all dressed up, they took our breath away. They have always been beautiful children, if I do say so myself, but suddenly we had a glimpse of them as women.

The Nice opera house is of the jewel box variety: all red velvet and gilt and crystal chandeliers. We sat in one of the boxes in the parterre, each on our own red velvet slipper chair. The girls leaned their elbows on the edge and looked out, and saw the royal box, and found where Babar and Celeste sat in the picture book trip to the opera, and wondered where Princess Grace would have sat when she came over from Monaco. Then the concertmaster came out, and the orchestra tuned, and then the conductor appeared in his white tie and tails, and then it began.

We all followed the action. The girls kept shooting me conspiratorial glances as the plot unfolded: this is what we talked about, this is what the synopsis said would happen. They laughed out loud a few times. And they put their heads together in whispered conference when they weren't quite sure of a finer plot point.

At intermission we went into the bar--more gilt, and mirrors, and painted cherubs--and shared a plate of beignets that tasted of roses. Rosewater doughnuts at the Opera de Nice. Back into our box to watch two more acts, and, just at the moment when, finally, everyone figured out who everyone else was, and everyone who had been hiding in the garden pergola came out again, and Figaro and Susannah made up, and the Count and Countess reconciled, sprays of fireworks went off at the back of the stage. To celebrate. Because, really, if you can include fireworks, why not?

The evening was magical, even though we were all exhausted the next day. It came midway through a spell of visits and visiting, and this spell turned out to be all about our younger relations. We had our family toddler with us for a while, and then an expectant mother, and then I went up to Paris to call on the new baby and his brother. So we have had a lot of little ones recently, and all that that entails: the fish sticks and chicken nuggets, the Sesame Street, the tantrums, and the bodily fluids of every sort, as well as the moments of crystalline discovery, when a child sees the sea, when a toddler plays with words, and when a baby looks into your eyes and smiles on purpose for the first time.

It all reminds us of our own turn on the battlements of early childhood. G. and E. seem, now, such a long way away from afternoon naps and bouncy chairs. Especially in their velvet dresses, sitting at the opera, reading the French super-titles and laughing at Figaro's escapades. We love this younger set of children, and, really, all the laundry and the wailing and the spilled cups of juice are not so bad when chalked up against the rest of it. I am happy to dip in and out of the daily lives of these little ones, but I would not go back. I would not wish my girls toddlers again. Nor would I have missed any moment of their toddlerdom. When these small fry are ready, I'll take them to the opera, too. All those fish sticks make the rosewater beignets taste better.