Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Meals and Kitchens in July

July 2018 has been a month of travel, as well as houseguests visiting our house, so I've spent time in my own kitchen and in others. As the summer progresses, I'm trying to use as much local produce as I can, wherever I am. I've shown a lot of photos of my kitchen in the past: this post more emphasizes my dining room and other kitchens I've been in lately. I'm sharing this wrap-up of what I've been doing in July with Sherry's once-a-month blog event, "In My Kitchen."

Duck with mango & cherries.
We celebrated two patriotic holidays with meals for friends, and prepared lots of meals outdoors as well as inside. Above: our Bastille Day table with our Provencal-print placemats (purchased on our trip to France in 2016) and our fanciful plates with drawings of French waiters by the illustrator Guy Buffet. The menu included duck cooked according to a French recipe. This fit the theme Paris in July, that I've been writing about all month.

Above: another table setting for guests. Many other bloggers post pictures of their set tables with elaborate themes -- I've decided to feature some of my table settings here, Ikea napkins and all. We mostly emphasize the food, but do try to make our table pretty though simple. I believe the menu served on the above setting was meatballs and mashed potatoes -- not so photogenic.

We had many meals using local farm-fresh products. Above, using a similar table setting, we served a fresh red-and-yellow tomato salad with herbs from our garden. In addition: an omelet of local eggs, which are amazingly excellent, filled with local squash and onions. In the lower-right corner you can see Len's bread. The ceramic dinner plates are the work of my daughter; the serving plates are made by local Ann Arbor potters.

Another dinner at home for 9 people. We enjoyed Sy Ginsberg's corned beef (a Detroit classic) and my own potato salad prepared from locally-grown new redskins. Further back: Carol's bell pepper salad. Just visible in the foreground: Zingerman's bread and sandwich rolls.

A trip to the farmers' market in Lafayette, IN, yielded this beautiful white squash, which I brought back with me and baked for lunch one day. I stuffed the squash with breadcrumbs and topped it with cheese that browned very deeply in the oven.

Ruby's Kitchen. Ruby was way in back.
While in St.Louis for my cousin's 90th birthday (posted here) we had brunch in Ruby's kitchen, an extremely pleasant place where we've eaten many meals through the years. On the table you can see bagels, smoked fish, fruit, coffee... typical brunch.

Elaine's Kitchen.
Driving between St.Louis and home, we stopped for a couple of nights and several meals at my sister Elaine's. Here she is in her kitchen where we were preparing food from the Lafayette farmers' market. 

Lafayette dinner: a medley of farmers-market eggplant, summer squash, and other vegetables; a Caprese salad featuring local Indiana tomatoes and basil from Elaine's garden.

Eggplant medley decorated with Elaine's home-grown herbs.
Elaine also baked a wonderful cheesecake!
Back in my own kitchen: fresh corn pancakes frying on the griddle.
The Weber grill in our back yard becomes an extension of our kitchen. Sixteen people (and 2 dogs) came to our July 4th
get-together with friends and family. We grilled the right food: burgers and brats!
And the one new thing in our kitchen: a baking stone. Here we are,
checking to see if the pizza on the stone has finished baking.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Grand Véfour

Le Grand Véfour by Guy Martin is large, flashy, and overwhelming cookbook that documents the current state of a historic restaurant: Le Grand Véfour. The restaurant is located in the Palais Royal in Paris, and preserves its historic interior, while serving a very modern style of food. 

For the photo above, I placed a paper clip on the upper left-hand corner to give you an idea of the massive size of this book. It looks expensive, but in fact was one of those bargains that appear on amazon.com from time to time, and I went for it -- $20! I love to read about Paris and its restaurants of distinction, though I definitely could not afford to eat at this one.

A historic drawing of the gardens of the Palais Royal, which was built in the 18th century, and has housed famous
restaurants ever since. The Grand Véfour is close to 200 years old, though there have been interruptions in its existence.
This large and dramatically illustrated book begins with a history of the restaurant, including photos and drawings of the exterior (that is, the gardens of the Palais Royal) and the grand and historic interiors of the restaurant. It includes sketches by Jean Cocteau, Picasso, and other famous artists who ate there, and reminiscences of writers and other famous patrons.

The first scene of Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris takes place in
the Grand Véfour! This image is not in the book.
Following this colorful history, author Guy Martin offers an impressive collection of recipes. Martin has been chef of this Michelin 3-star restaurant for a number of years, and he's known for his culinary ability as well as for the historic and decorative features of the restaurant. Although the preparations are complex and require quite specific, expensive, and hard-to-find ingredients, I think it would be possible to follow them -- with a lot of patience! 

A photo illustrating one of the unbelievable recipes: "Barbary duckling breast,
crispy skin, fig confit, red kuri squash gnocchi, beet-blackcurrant jus." Five separate
preparations plus a spice mix are given. Time estimate: 2 hours. I suspect that's unrealistic!
Maybe this would be almost possible for a home cook: for one thing, it doesn't include fois gras.
A more modest -- and much more useful cookbook:
La Cuisine by Raymon Oliver, who was the chef
of the Grand Véfour in the mid-20th century.

Collette on her balcony at the Palais Royal, 1941. Raymond Oliver
often brought her favorite foods to her, and stopped by to reminisce.
This month is almost over, and many bloggers are wrapping up a very amusing blog event called Paris in July, hosted by the blog Thyme for Tea. I'm happy to offer this post about the Palais Royal: a favorite spot for a Paris aficionado. I've visited there often.

The book I reviewed yesterday, Paris à Table 1846 mentioned the restaurants then in the Palais Royal often, including Le Grand Véfour and an earlier restaurant called simply Véfour. Many films have been made in the gardens and interiors of this monument -- my favorite of them is Charade with Audrey Hepburn, with Midnight in Paris coming in second, maybe.

I hope to do a wrap-up post on Paris by the end of July.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Paris à Table, 1846

"Dessert crowns dinner. To fashion a beautiful dessert, you have to be at the same time a confectioner, decorator, painter, architect, ice-cream maker, sculptor and florist." (p. 100)

In 1846, Eugène Briffault published a little book about the food of Paris, including brief chapters about dinner, breakfast, lunch, supper, formal meals at grand houses, restaurant customs, a bit of food history, and lots of other miscellaneous disquisitions.

Paris à Table is delightful. The original illustrations by Bertall are irresistible! They look somewhat familiar: I think because they are in the public domain they have been published in many other contexts. The English translation by J. Weintraub, published by Oxford University Press, is brand-new.

"Dinner in the current age," Briffault tells us, "has, more than those that preceded it, its own distinct character." (p. 50)

He then describes many types of dinners. I was especially amused by this:
"In Paris there is a kind of succulent diner almost beyond reproach: these are the ones given by single men of leisure, persons withdrawn from the world and comfortably placed, who quietly pass the better part of their lives in an exchange of genteel gourmandizing. These meals are called bachelor dinners.... Youth  and women do not like being in such company; mature years and a vigorous  old age find considerable delight there. It is not rare to see ... a fine fish, a marvel of a chicken or an extraordinary roast of game, a renowned fish stew or a perfect pheasant in sauce, or some celebrated spring vegetable... . Married men, out on a fling and far from the conjugal pot-au-feu, also love and cultivate fine fare. These tables have a motto that exactly sums up their tendencies and preferences; upon sitting down the diners say to each other: 'Let's go slow and easy, and eat everything." (p. 55-57)

Surprisingly, Briffault also has a chapter titled "People who do not dine," in which he talks about more unfortunate Parisians:
"This distress -- its existence hardly suspected by people with full stomachs -- strikes not only those who have been reduced to this extremity by vice, idleness, or debility; those kinds always find some sort of feed somewhere; they get it from the pity they are not ashamed to provoke... The hungry who are good and decent are also around, and their strategies are fertile and ingenious. ... Literature, the arts, everything dedicated to the worship of thought and the imagination supplies Paris's emaciated population with an enormous contingent. Hunger, felt so often by the talented, lays its hand also on genius." (p. 112-113)
These are only a brief hint about the pleasures of this document about Paris in the nineteenth century. You can learn that some things are still the same, such as the cluster of restaurants in the Palais Royal, and some things are very different, such as class distinctions and formal manners. I have no idea if this has been translated into English before, but it's great to have this edition.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Disappointing Book

The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel.
One of the other participants in Paris in July recommended this book. She didn't say anything about it, just had it in a list of books with Paris themes. But I decided to read it.

I didn't like it much. It was boring and predictable. Maybe 100 years ago it would have been innovative to have all the narrative take place in the heads of two people sitting next to each other on a train. It's too late for that gimmick to seem innovative; too late for it to seem anything but trite.

One of my goals in selecting books about Paris for this month's blogging event is to read books by French authors that are intended mainly for a French audience. This one does fit that description. Of course the details of the two characters' completely French lives fits this. Details that they relive while pretending not to recognize each other. But I was mainly bored, I'm sorry to say.

For more and maybe better books about Paris and many other memories and thoughts about Paris, see Paris in July hosted at the blog Thyme for Tea.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

French Food Idioms and Origin Tales

If you like to read about the history of France and of its many wonderful foods, I think you will love this book: A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment by Stéphane Hénault and Jeni Mitchell (just published July, 2018). Each brief chapter advances one's familiarity with French kings, queens, courtesans, wars, religious struggles and many more events and personalities, and tells how specific foods originated in each era. Beginning with the ancient Gauls and Romans and how wine came to France, these are delightful tales.

I can't begin to summarize the very rich and varied vignettes about French food and how it is embedded in history. In particular, the authors are fascinated by the way that food gives rise to French "idioms of everyday life." These linguistic echoes of foodways are very amusing, and I've selected some quotations to illustrate this:
  • If you want to come to a compromise over something, you must “cut the pear in two” (couper la poire en deux). 
  • Picking one’s brain might be expressed as “squeezing one’s lemon” (presser le citron). 
  • If you want to convey a sense of “eh” or “so-so” when asked for an opinion on something, you might say it’s “half fig, half grape” (mi-figue, mi-raisin).
  • One particular idiom, say the authors, seems to make no sense at all: ça compte pour des prunes (“it was worth plums”). This expression, they explain, harks back a bit tenuously to the Crusades, the Templars, the loss of Jerusalem, and the conquest of Damascus -- from which plum trees were imported to France. "So this is what the Templars ultimately fought for: plums." (Previous quotes are from page 49, explanation of plums p. 54).
  • Artichokes were thought to have aphrodisiac qualities, which no doubt also enhanced their appeal. There is still an expression today, in fact, avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have a heart like an artichoke), which is applied to people who fall in love very quickly and indiscriminately. (p. 121)
  • The French, they point out, remain greatly enamored of potatoes. In fact, if a French person is feeling in great form, he or she might say “J’ai la patate!” (“I’ve got the potato!”). It’s not clear where this expression comes from, but it’s another indication of how positively French people now feel about a food they once demonized. (p. 179)
Then there's a food-related story about the hat of Pope John XII, who lived in the French city of Avignon -- 
"His longevity was often attributed to one of his strange eating habits: he preferred to eat mainly white food products, such as milk, egg whites, white fish, chicken, and cheese. A gastronomic specialty of Avignon known as papeton d’aubergines, a sort of flan made with the (white) flesh of eggplants and originally shaped like the papal hat, is sometimes said to have originated during his reign." (p. 69)
Also from the same Pope, this food-related expression:
"Another enduring legacy from this era is the French phrase Il se prend pour le moutardier du pape, meaning 'He behaves like the pope’s mustard maker.' It is an expression used to describe someone who, although rather stupid, thinks very highly of himself. Alexandre Dumas tells us that John XXII had a nephew too dim-witted for any responsible position, and so the pope appointed him as his grand mustard maker (John was very fond of mustard)." (p. 70)
The Palace of the Popes, Avignon, as we saw it from the famous bridge.
I also enjoyed some of the origin myths for other famous foods of France, from the croissant to mayonnaise and many more. For just one of the many examples, consider cassoulet, the stew of white beans (which actually are a new-world product) and various meats. Here's the very unproven legend of the origin of cassoulet:
"The most persistent legend regarding the creation of cassoulet takes place in Castelnaudary. According to this story, cassoulet was invented when the infamous Black Prince of England laid siege to the town in 1355, during the Hundred Years’ War. The inhabitants of Castelnaudary decided to put all their remaining food, mainly beans and meat, in a common pot and cook it. Thanks to the magical properties of this dish, born of necessity and solidarity, the French defenders became so powerful that they chased their attackers all the way back to the English Channel." (p. 79)
And how it gets its name:
"Visitors to the town are greeted by a large statue of a woman holding a cassole, the traditional local cooking pot from which the name cassoulet is derived." (p. 79)
Our friend Michelle in her kitchen in Cotignac in the Var region of France, 1994.
Finally, one of my favorite stories from the book is an origin tale rooted in a very small and obscure town where we have often visited a friend:
"Cotignac d’Orléans, a sweet jam made of quince (a hard pearlike fruit, much less commonly eaten today). Originally created by a pastry chef from the southern town of Cotignac who moved to Orléans, it was a medieval delicacy traditionally given to noble visitors to the great Loire city— including Joan of Arc, when she liberated it from the English. For this reason, the bloodred jam is sold in small round wooden boxes that are emblazoned with Joan’s likeness." (p. 104)
One key word: gastronomie (in English, gastronomy).  From the Bite-Sized History (p. 166), we learn that the term was coined in 1801 by a lawyer-poet named Joseph Berchoux (1760-1839). This master word for subsequent food writers appeared for the very first time in his poem titled "Gastronomie ou l'homme des champs à table." (source)

So many good words! Today is Wednesday, so I offer you these French words, expressions, and food idioms for Wordy Wednesday.

UPDATE, October 17, 2018: This is the October selection for my culinary reading group tonight.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"French Rhapsody" by Antoine Laurain

French people care about politics -- French politics! They know a great deal about the lives and histories of recent candidates for president of France. They care about literature, mostly French literature, though they are aware of writers from elsewhere: Shakespeare, for example. They care about a variety of genres of popular music. They have their own stars in music, literature, art, film... as well as sharing the love of many stars from England and the US.

Paris is the center of French life for politics, literature, music, education, and most other cultural activities. To live and work outside Paris can result in others viewing you as a failure or at least can result is others seeing you as giving up your ambitions.

All these basic facts are in play in the novel French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain (published 2016). Several fifty-something men and one women in roughly the present moment (maybe 2015) reconnect many years after their one shared moment from their past. For a brief time, they had tried to form an innovative popular band -- "The Holograms, that was my group, my rock group. Well, it wasn’t rock, it was new wave; cold wave to be exact," the central character explains. (Kindle Locations 127-128).

A strange coincidence brings the members of the long-dissolved group back into contact through a rather wacky and revealing set of events. The man who engineers the reconnection has become a rather dull doctor who has followed his father's footsteps treating very ordinary people's ordinary illnesses. Two of the other men who shared the brief dream are now powerful political leaders in opposing political parties. One politician was "To the Right of the Right" (Kindle Location 1119) and the other was a very rich businessman whose political position would only be understandable if you were French.

Another man from the group had become a kind of conceptual artist, moderately successful. He desperately craved recognition and adoration for his works. The last man in the band had been a very eccentric antique dealer, but had committed suicide in a rather bizarre way around a year earlier. The only woman, the group's highly talented singer, had lived in Paris only briefly, and long since returned to the provinces to run her family's hotel.

Each one who had shared in the band's brief existence also had a few significant close relationships with a spouse, a girlfriend, or children. The author provides a vivid look at the facts of their current existence and their current frustrations. At the same time, the author is surprisingly terse, portraying each character with just a few details, and telling the story of their reconnection in a suspenseful way so that the end is actually a surprise (but no spoilers). He refers to many French cultural icons such as the book Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (Kindle Location 1449), the restaurant in the Gare de Lyon called Le Train Bleu, or "an arthouse cinema on Boulevard Saint-Michel." (Kindle Location 1382).

Could this group really be a kind of "everyman" and "everywoman" who reveal a key cross-section of French life? And at the same time, satirize life in France in quite a funny way? That was how it seemed to me. Each character occupied a different social position in a typical neighborhood of Paris (or in the case of the woman, outside Paris). Each man had his own frustrations with his life and his own regrets about his past (maybe the woman didn't have as many regrets). As the story unfolds, each one is forced to think about how much life has changed since they were young, which could be pretty ordinary, but this is no ordinary tale.

Here's just one example. A publicist is attempting to create a new image for JBM, the not-right-wing very rich businessman character with political ambitions. So she makes him cook (how French is that?) --
"For half an hour, JBM had been stirring a now-overcooked pot-au-feu under the spotlights set up in the kitchen, to the constant flash of the camera. The domestic staff – the cook who had actually made the pot-au-feu, the butler and the housekeeper – had withdrawn discreetly to the doorway, where they stood watching Monsieur pretend to be an enthusiastic weekend cook, while doing their best not to smirk or nudge each other. Monsieur, who couldn’t boil an egg and was barely capable of pouring himself a Nespresso from the machine.  
"‘Who do you think I am, Alain Ducasse?’ JBM said with irritation in his voice." (Kindle Locations 1221-1225). 

In an article about the book, author Antoine Laurain wrote: "I called the book Rhapsody because nothing is certain in a rhapsody. It’s a very particular musical form, free, full of movements, and most of all, as unpredictable as the times we live in." ("Antoine Laurain: My country is the same as yours. Politicians have never been so unpopular" The Guardian, November, 2016)

My friend the blogger Jeanie at the Marmelade Gypsy recommended this author, for which I thank her enormously! She wrote about his other book, The Red Notebook, and said "It's all so simple. Yet so wonderful." Yes.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Lafayette, Indiana

Saturday morning, Lafayette Farmers' Market, with my sister.
The farmer says these white squash are the original from which patty-pan squash was derived.

Downtown Street Art

Near the bridge from West Lafayette to Lafayette, evening light.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

St. Louis: Merilyn's 90th Birthday Party

My cousin Merilyn with her sister and her 3 children, all gathered in St.Louis where we all come from.
Children, spouses, grandchildren... 
Special gift: a quilt by Debbie.
My siblings and two cousins all sat together. A total of seven cousins from quite a few places attended this party.
We have rarely all had such a reunion. Maybe never!
Brief welcome talk! 

Birthday Cake. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The St. Louis Art Museum

In front of the St. Louis Art Museum is this statue of St. Louis himself.
Memories of visiting the Art Museum in St. Louis date to my earliest childhood, and I've often returned here throughout my life. Today I visited the museum with my brother, sister-in-law, sister, and brother-in-law. In the morning and evening we also visited with a number of other relatives.

The permanent collections are wonderful, but we particularly enjoyed a visiting exhibit titled "Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds." Recent underwater explorations and archaeology dives have recovered large and small stone sculptures, religious objects from the cult of Osiris, and impressive stone steles. 

From the museum website:
"In 2018, the Saint Louis Art Museum will be the first North American art museum to tell the epic story of one of the greatest finds in the history of underwater archaeology, a story that revealed two lost cities of ancient Egypt submerged under the Mediterranean Sea for over a thousand years. World-renowned underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team discovered these submerged worlds and uncovered stunning ancient religious, ceremonial, and commercial artifacts, which has led to a greater understanding of life during the age of pharaohs." (link)
One underwater find: this sphinx.

So long, St. Louis Art Museum!
After the museum we took a quick look at the house where we grew up.
It's amazingly unchanged after so many years, but now includes a
plaque commemorating its 100th year (it was built in 1912).