Friday, January 31, 2014

French in Action

"Elle a les jambes longues et fines." - She has long, thin legs.
"Elle a les jambes epaisses."  She has heavy legs.

This comes from an early lesson in "French in Action," a free online program recommended by one of Matt's professors, to help us beef up our language skills before coming over here.  Filmed in the 80s, the Yale series features "Mireille," a pretty blond twenty-something with decidedly long, thin legs, who bounces around in a strappy sundress (obviously braless), gets hit on by guys at cafe, and argues a lot with her dysfunctional family.

This is a weird program, which apparently gathered a cult following for attempting to inject both comedy and drama into the tedious business of learning basic vocabulary and grammar.  "Tonton aime beaucoup les enfants!"  Mireille informs us, one eyebrow arched, that her "celibataire" (or "bachelor") uncle really likes children, as he demonstrates by hoisting her wriggling little sister onto his lap, leering at the child in a decidedly Humbert Humbert-esque way.

One of the first phrases we learned from "French in Action" was, "tu m'agaces!"  Mireille says this in exasperation to her sister, Marie Laure, whenever the child spills a tray of cookies or hounds her to play yet another round of cards.  You're driving me nuts!  This seemed like an odd expression to feature so early on.  Wouldn't "I need to buy one bus ticket please," or "How much is a baguette?" be more essential to the newcomer to France?  But since moving with a six-year-old boy to this rainy city in the dead of winter, we've gotten a lot of milage out of "tu m'agaces."  (The lesson in which students are asked to "pretend you're trying to pick up a pretty woman at a park" has been less useful).

Matt and I were lazy French students, more often mocking the "French in Action" videos than memorizing the lessons.  The only other thing I did to prepare for this move was to read Julia Child’s My Life In France.  She opens by describing her first meal here, sole meuniere, reliving every detail of what was, for her, a transformative experience.  I love the obvious pleasure that she took in wanting to recreate the magic of that meal for Americans who, at the time when she was writing, were often limited to frozen fish sticks and jello salad.  (Not that Julia didn’t love her some molded foods).

Being in France has definitely given me carte blanche to indulge my own obsession with food.  Matt says that I have a "foodographic" memory, because while others can remember what people wore or said around them, I can remember everything that anyone ever ate in my company.  I’m pretty sure that my early exposure to French culture is at least partly to blame, because that's when I remember first being fascinated by the differences between what people ate.  When I went to the homes of my French classmates after school, their “gouter” was usually white toast, folded around melting sticks of chocolate, and dipped into hot chocolate.  I told this to a French woman recently, who said that kids here take a baguette, hollow it out, and cram a whole chocolate bar inside.  I still can't get over how much chocolate French kids consume on a daily basis.  And since Max is definitely keeping up, it might have a little something to do with his "aggravating" behavior.

I came to France for the first time in the summer that I was five.  My mom had been asked to be the godmother to a French child, so we were there for the christening, and she had me keep a travel diary over the course of the month we spent here together.  Now either my writing skills were limited or my character has been remarkably consistent, because it's nothing more than a log of what I ate: most notably escargots (which I liked) and a ton of ice cream.  I can still remember being thrilled because the “boules” or scoops came side by side rather than being precariously smashed one on top of the other.  What’s not to love about a culture that designs a special cone just for the double scoop?

When I was sixteen, I spent a year in a host family in a suburb of Paris.  The father had run away from home at 14 and worked as a “saucier,” a sauce maker, in some of the finest restaurants of Paris.  By the time I met him, he was a businessman and no longer a chef, but he and his wife still lived to eat and drink.  One of our first activities, “en famille,” was to bottle 500 bottles of table wine, to be consumed with meals over the course of that year.  The eighty-year-old “meme” or grandmother, was allotted ½ bottle per day—to enjoy solo, with her lunch.  Every Sunday, we'd all sit at the dinner table for a butt numbing six hours, lingering over a meal that was always exactly the same: grated carrots with lemon juice and olive oil, butter lettuce salad with a red wine vinaigrette (my job), a dense and chewy levain bread for which my host father would drive 2 hours because it was the only "correct" loaf in the vicinity, and a roasted chicken that the meme had beheaded and plucked that very morning, her rain boots still splattered with its blood.

In France, there is zero attempt to conceal the origins of meat, and no part of the animal goes to waste.  They take the "head to tail" movement literally, and I appreciate the absence of hypocrisy in theory, if not on my plate.  Max and I have started to treat the Muslim butcher shop on our block like a zoo/science classroom.  For some reason, the skinned rabbits and chickens are sold with their heads still on, often with a few feathers still attached.  I doubt anyone eats them, but I might very well be wrong.  As we walked by yesterday, one of the friendly shopkeepers stopped Max, holding out a beef heart in one hand and a lamb heart in the other, mooing and baaing to make sure he grasped the difference.  In front of the store, a big chafing dish holds nothing but roasted sheep heads, blackened eyeballs still in place, grilled tongues lolling between two rows of teeth.  We were ogling a jar of brains the other day when a woman approached the counter and asked whether she could get “a nice horse’s shoulder."  “Indeed you can!” the cashier declared cheerfully.

Just like language, our appetites are the product of our culture.  When Max was two, and didn't yet have preconceived notions about what he would or would not eat, we took him for dim sum with his new friend, Raven La, from his preschool.  Following Raven's example, he enjoyed a roasted chicken's foot.  We have a great picture of the two little boys, happily gnawing on those sinewy claws.  It cracked me up when, after describing this to the French woman who had come over for dinner a couple of weeks ago, she wrinkled her nose and said that this was disgusting--barely missing a beat before proceeding to tell us how much she enjoyed "le pied du cochon."  Similarly, I'm not sure why I could never bring myself to eat the slimy Japanese "natto" or fermented soybeans, which to me smell like rotten compost, and yet my mouth waters when I enter cheese stores here, which are so pungent that the ammoniac smell wafts halfway down the block, some of the rinds of the stinkiest cheeses gone completely orange as they slump in puddles of their own ooze.  Yum.

I have to stop myself from buying too much of that gooey, stinky cheese.  A license to indulge can be taken too far, and I'm beginning to worry that six months is a dangerous amount of time to be in Paris: short enough to feel like an extended vacation, but long enough that one's legs could definitely get on the "epaisse," or heavy side.  Once again, it seems that the "French in Action" folks knew what they were doing in their curriculum design, picking early vocabulary words that really matter.

The other night, we made lentil soup with basmati rice for dinner.  And because we’re clearly not getting enough dessert over here, I used the left-over rice to make a rice pudding, flavored with cardamom and rose water.  Because it turned out nicely, I thought I’d share the recipe and indulge my inner Julia.  Hey--when in France...

The Vie En Rose Pudding (named by Matt)

3 cups cooked basmati (or jasmine, or whatever) rice (use up your leftovers)
2 cups milk—I used “demi-ecreme,” which I think is 2 percent
1 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons butter
2-3 tablespoons rose water
5 whole cardamom pods
1 teaspoon each grated cinnamon and/or nutmeg (optional)
2 eggs

Take cooked rice and crumble it into a sauce pan.  Add milk and bring to a low simmer.  Add sugar and butter and stir until melted.

Add rose water and cardamom pods.  I crushed them between my fingers before adding them to the pot.  The whole cardamom pods are very fragrant, but if you don’t want to have to pick them out of the finished dessert, you could substitute a teaspoon of ground cardamom.  Add cinnamon and nutmeg, unless you want to highlight the rose.

In a cup, whisk the raw eggs.  Add the whisked eggs to the simmering pot, making sure never to let it reach a boil.  Continue mixing with a spatula or whisk for five minutes, or until the rice pudding thickens to your desired consistency.

Eat hot or chill. 

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