Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Eclairs

Ok, so in the end, it all worked out. But it's not nearly that straight-forward. In fact, cooking and 18-year old boys end up going together quite well, because somehow during the making of the eclairs, I got one of the boys really mad at me. I'm still not sure what I did because he talks really, really fast, but let me start at the beginning.

So there is a small pool at Claude's. I have been thrown or pushed into this pool about six times so far by a friend of Kin's named Jean-Luc. I went outside (next to the pool) to ask Kin if he could light the oven for me, because I had never done it before. Jean-Luc was there also and tried to throw me in the pool. I tried to say, "Non, non, stop! I have to make eclairs, I don't want to be wet," but that just seemed to goad him on. In the end, after 15 minutes of serious struggle (Jean-Luc has joined the army and likes to do push-ups whenever he thinks people are watching), I managed to get myself back inside, but not before Jean-Luc had run the hose over my head. I was just a little pissed off. Later in the day -- I was still making eclairs, it took about four hours, but I'll get to that next -- Jean-Luc came in to see if I needed help. I said no. Because I didn't. I also said that I was mad at him because he tried to throw me in the pool. Well evidentally one cannot be mad at Jean-Luc, because from that moment on he gave me the silent treatment. He also refused to eat the eclairs, but his loss, because they were finished. Finally, last night, he drank about a third of a bottle of whiskey (classy, I know) and started yelling at me because he thinks I talk to him like he's a dog and I think I'm better than him and blah blah blah. I think it's because the moon was full recently. You know, hormones raging or something. At any rate, he leaves tomorrow, but it's been a little tense...

Ok the eclairs themselves: so my celebrated-Danish-chef cousin commented on my last post and said that I need to watch out not just for the flour but also the oven. There's a reason she's a celebrated chef (just so you know, staying at her house is the greatest thing that can ever happen for you. You actually want to gain 10 pounds the food is so good). I converted the recipe from American measurements to metric, a task much more difficult than you'd expect, even with the internet. But I was confident I had got it right and had all the tools I needed, so (with wet hair and t-shirt) I got started. Originally, the pâte à choux went very smoothly. I've made it before, I thought I knew what to expect, etc. But, I was cooking in a small gas oven that doesn't have a very precise way of adjusting the tempurature, which was in Celcius -- yet another obstacle. In the end, I had to take out the pâte à choux early because the bottoms were getting to dark, although I could tell that the middle wasn't quite finished. But the oven was as low is it would go and I didn't know what else to do. The crème was a little less smooth. Again, I've made it before, I know to stir lots, to not cook with a too high flame, to taste it after it boils to see if the flour is fully cooked. But the stove, again, threw me off. The lowest flame possible was still too hot, and within minutes and way before it boiled it got too thick. (To be honest, maybe it wasn't the flame, maybe I misconverted the amount of milk. Or something. Chemistry is not my strong suit.) So I frantically reboiled more milk -- I had given up measuring anything at this point -- and mixed it in with Kin's help and lots of swearing in English. Stir, stir, stir, ten minutes later again too thick, and it still had not boiled and still tasted of raw flour. So I started swearing louder and boiled more milk, seriously worried that I'd have to throw it out and restart, and near tears trying to explain to Kin that I just couldn't mess up a French dessert in France. (He actually made me feel quite a bit better by sarcastically saying that he would judge me very harshly if my eclairs sucked.) Anyway, the second batch of boiling milk did the trick and the flour cooked enough, but the crème was really thick. "Collé" Kin called it, which means glue. So I hoped for the best and began mixing in egg whites hoping that they'd take away the stickiness. In the end, I think I got lucky. The egg whites worked perfectly, I added just the right amount of rum for flavoring, and I used very good milk chocolate on top of the eclaires. Six people (seven were there, but of course Jean-Luc didn't contribute) ate 10 eclairs, and an amateur of pâtissière told me that no, the pâte à choux was not quite fully cooked, but the crème was very good, and all in all they were delicious. She ate one and a half. Kin, for the sake of culinary criticism of course, ate all the crème that was left over (nearly half), all the melted chocolate that was left over (a lot), and two eclairs.

I cooked dinner that night too, and in total spent about six hours straight in the kitchen. I haven't touched a pot since. But I'm thinking of making brownies tomorrow. It's much safer to cook American desserts I've decided.

For the sake of giving a little more merit to my stupid fight with Jean-Luc, I'll over-intellectualize it. Really, it's made me understand extremely acutely the relationship between identity and language. Ok, this idea is not a new one: a pillar of deconstructionist criticism (yes, I'm really over-intellectualizing it, but I really like deconstructionism) is the fluidity of language. We've all experienced in our native tongues the frustration of not being able to express ourselves, and even had major fights that have come from a simple misuderstanding caused by the fluidity of language. But in a second language, everything becomes that much more complicated. I don't even know who I am in French, because I'm never quite sure that what I'm saying is what I mean to say, and I'm never fully in control of how I express myself. Laetitia, Claude's daughter who lives in Spain and experienced the same phenomenon in Spanish, said that she is who she is only in French. In effect, she doesn't have a complete identity in Spanish. This year is seeming a little daunting. Furthermore (and this is the real cause of the argument between me and Jean-Luc), there is a very large gray area between funny and insulting in any language. In English, I can manoeuvre this area. I typically risk being insulting for the sake of making a joke, and have continued to do so in French. The problem though is that I really don't know the boundaries of humor in French, both linguistically and culturally, and I'm afraid it's gotten me into a bit of trouble. From now on I intend to choose bland and safe over funny and possibly rude, and in the process actively construct my French identity (as somebody a little on the bland side). But without a doubt, I miss the ease of English.

Last thing: I've finally uploaded my pictures onto my computer, and today or tomorrow will try to figure out how to post the better ones on my blog.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cuisine...18-year old boys...somehow they go together

I spend a great deal more time with eighteen-year old boys than one might think based on the description of WWOOF. The reason being that Kin (Claude’s son) is eighteen, has friends, and lives in the middle of nowhere. When his friends visit they usually spend about three nights because it’s such a long trip out here, and they can bring things like BB guns and four-wheelers and anything you can light on fire and have free reign. The boys (les petits garçons or mes chéris as I typically call them) are alternatively excruciatingly irritating and nul – a useful little French word that means some combination of stupid, worthless and pathetic – and highly, highly entertaining. Each boy on his own, particularly Kin, is intelligent, helpful, funny, and kind, but put him in a group of even two, and the best they can manage together is entertaining. The irritating episodes are exactly as you can imagine. They seem to be saying, “Hello, I am an adolescent boy. Watch me act like one with these matches.” The entertaining moments, though, are priceless. A few days ago, Kin picked up my flashlight that I had left in the living room and asked whose it was. “Oh, that’s mine,” I said. “Chad [Kin’s four-year old godson who came to visit] and I were playing light sabers and he was using it.” I took it and demonstrated my light saber technique, saying “brrring, brrrring” each time I waved the flashlight. “No, no, that’s not it at all,” said Kin. “Yea,” said his friend, “the light saber sound [you must imagine the words “light saber” here with a French accent, it makes it funnier] is more sheeew, sheeew.” And they were off. For the next five minutes, I sat on the floor doubled over with laughter, and Kin and his friend had a full-out light saber war. The joy in their eyes was pure and boundless.

Like the nul-ness of adolescent boys (yikes, this is a rough transition, but whatever), packaged food is also found across the pond, much to my chagrin. I had this idea that in France everything was bought freshly made or made at home. Last night, we ate frozen raviolis from a bag (or, rather, we cooked them so I guess they were no longer frozen, but you get what I mean). They were horrible, needless to say, but everyone was too tired to cook. Even crêpes and croissants come in bags here. I don’t know where the market is for a crêpe in a bag because they take about 30 seconds to make, but who am I to judge? Americans buy instant miso soup. The packaged croissants are worse than the crêpes, but more understandable. We live half an hour away from the nearest town of 1,500 people. Nice is another hour and a half after that. Fresh croissants just aren’t a reality. And to its credit, packaged food in France contains no unlabeled GMO ingredients, and brags about its real butter and sugar when it can.

The French way of eating packaged food is sort of oxymoronic: when Americans cook fast, it’s because they don’t have much time, so of course they’re going to eat fast too. The French do not eat fast. Two days ago, I served myself more beets, took one bite, and then got up to bring out the zucchinis and rice. Immediately, Claude and Valérie said, “Sit down, eat, take your time! We’ll bring out the rest of the food later.” Their tone was that of calming an overexcited dog, and their shared expression seemed to say, “What the putain is with the American?” Another un-American tradition in France is that of cheese. You do not finish dinner until you have had even just the smallest taste of cheese. Cheese often concludes lunch as well, though not as religiously. Kin recently said to a friend during the cheese course of dinner, “Oh mec [French for “dude”], mec you gotta try this goat cheese. This stuff is strong.” A rare sentence to hear from the mouth of an eighteen-year old American, but there you have it. Cheese has outlived God in France. (While the American Enlightenment was the reassertion of Christianity’s power in the United States, the French Enlightenment, 100 years earlier, was the beginning of the intellectual unraveling of the Church’s power, namely the Catholic Church. Few French believe in God, and the State is truly separated from the Church. But they’ve been eating cheese probably since they lived in caves.)

The greatest part of our meals comes from the garden, so I guess that makes up for whatever packaged food we do eat. The other day I made fresh pasta with a cream sauce, and when I realized that it needed parsley, I was able to run outside and pick exactly what I needed. I’ve done the same thing with fennel, onions, zucchini, cucumber, lettuce, beets, potatoes, basil – essentially everything that’s ripe right now. And if I eat too fast, or sometimes am not in the mood for cheese, I think I save myself by doing a good deal of the cooking, which I love. I’ve made fresh pasta twice now, I’ve cooked a chicken (blech!), I’ve made vegetable salads and pasta salads and more zucchini dishes than I can remember, I’ve baked chocolate chip cookies (a major hit and huge step forward in foreign relations), and at least help mix or chop the meals for which I’m not the primary chef. Today, though, is the true test: it is Laetitia’s birthday (Claude’s daughter who is visiting from Spain), and I’ve been asked to make éclairs. I have made éclairs before, but that was in the U.S., for American taste buds. I am using Julia Child’s recipe, but she warned me in her memoire that French flour is different. I’ve used French flour before on American recipes, but this time I’m making éclairs! If I succeed, I will be a legend, if I fail, I might have to commit hari-kari. Or not. Pastry cream tastes just as good with a spoon as it does inside pâte à chou. At any rate, I’ll let you know how they turn out. But please wish me luck.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

French, french, french, french, french. In the past two days, I've had exhaustive debates (in French) about the American education system, the American loan system, the American health system, religion in the United States, racism in the U.S. vs. cultural chauvinism in France, imperialism in Africa, art as imperialism, and -- the longest -- the genius (or not) of Picasso. I've started rereading my New Yorker just to savor the ease of my maternal language.

Life on the farm is still great. I've got a nice shorts tan line and my legs are covered in insect and spider bites. I'm a real paysanne according to Claude. Which, coming from him, says a lot, as he's been doing this for 25 years and as I found out a little while ago that my nickname before I even got here was princesse. After I found that out, I tried to be facetious and said "Pourquoi pas déesse?" (why not goddess?). I spent an unfortunate evening being called princesse déesse.

The last four or five days we've had at least 11 people at any given meal. Not like it means any more work for us here; in fact, the visiters often help out in the garden, and always bring lots of food with them, do all the cooking AND all the dishes. We eat every meal outside, so there isn't much of a mess to clean up anyway. In fact, I'm rarely indoors here apart from sleeping.

We have our third market coming up this Saturday. Each week, about eight farmers get together and sell communally whatever it is they produce. Claude brings the bulk of the vegetables, and there's also goat cheese, sausage, bread, honey, olives/olive oil, eggs, and wheatberries. It's held in the old gendarmerie (police station, essentially), which I think is appropriately subversive. The first market, Claude stole the key to the prison. Although the idea of this market is wonderful, the execution is -- I suppose I'm a cultural chauvinist -- horribly French. The first week, we arranged the vegetables in three different rooms before deciding to put them outside. No one can figure out an efficiant way to keep track of who has sold what, and the various systems that have been tried are always complicated by the bartering between farmers that always happens and the constant nibbling on the cheese and olives. The first week, about eight customers arrived before the farmer with key to unlock all the doors. The customers' response: "I'll wait. C'est le sud." Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore -- or in any other state, for that matter. We Americans don't wait well. That said, the market has been going very well. Claude has been selling most of his vegetables each week, and the other farmers seem pleased as well. And I like my once-a-week excursion into civilization.

In about a week, another American WWOOFer arrives. Although it means that I'll speak less French, I'm pretty excited to meet her (and speak in English a little). And it'll be nice to have someone else to help me explain that actually pizza is American (I have stubbornly explained and re-explained that there are two sorts of pizza, one American and one Italian, but everyone just laughs) and cheesecake is delicious.

Monday, July 5, 2010

4th of July in the south of France

So yesterday was the 4th of July (American Independence Day for you foreigners), a fact that I failed to realize until half way through lunch. At which point we all dramatically increased our afternoon wine consumption -- to celebrate, you know -- and sang the national anthem of the U.S., as well as England and France just to be multicultural. I also sang America the Beautiful and a few others, and for the rest of the day Claude went around singing "America, America..." but it got a little repetive because he doesn't know any of the other words. Sometimes he'd mix it up and sing "God save our gracious queen..." (again, he only knows the one line). Still, it's better than the two lines of Michael Jackson ("We are the world, we are the children) that he had been singing incessantly since my arrival to honor my American-ness.

There was even something of a fireworks show: a neighbor dog came around to terrorize the Jourdans' three dogs, so Claude set off one of those things that makes a really loud gunshot sound (either I never knew the name of it, or I'm already forgetting English). After lunch, I ranted to Kin about bourgeois Parisian antisemitism (because I got a little of that when I was in Paris for the weekend) and that felt very American. He complained about the French police, and I amped up my patriotism by expaining in bad French American search and seizure laws (which are far more strenuous and much more focused on protecting individual freedom than the French laws, of which there are basically none).

More wine and toasting of the Americans came with dinner (yes, Grandma Sharon, we drink twice a day here, but relax -- I'M IN FRANCE and it's only wine and good for digestion) and we sang the national anthem again, which inspired Claude to sing the anthem of the IWW. Three times. It was truly beautiful. We went on to sing French and American nursery rhymes and I impressed everyone by knowing every word to "Frère Jacques".

So no hotdogs or red, white, and blue, but certainly immensely patriotic. And it seems there's some telepathy in this household, because just now Claude started humming the American national anthem again. Or perhaps it's just subversive American imperialism rearing its ugly head.