Remembrance of Cakes Past

January 25, 2007 at 12:43 pm | Posted in backstory, books, food, writing | 24 Comments

If you haven’t heard a lot from me lately, it’s because I’ve become a lock-in.

I suppose this happens to everyone in the final stages of a novel — I promised myself that the final edits would be done by the end of January, and as a result, I’ve hardly left my bed all month. My bed, you see, is where I write. And as I sit here in bed, propped up by innumerable pillows, staring out the window at winter’s interminable gray drizzle, my laptop cozily warming my knees, it occurs to me Marcel Proust occupied a very similar pose just about a hundred years ago. (Sans laptop, bien évidemment.)

Then I get hungry, and wander over to the kitchen in search of madeleines.

madeleine

I know I’m not the only person who makes the inevitable connection between Proust and madeleines, but for me, it’s a relatively new experience. When I was a kid, madeleines were just a fact of life, preferable to pain d’épice, but definitely not as desirable as an éclair. As I grew up, I heard from time to time about this Proust character and his abiding love for madeleines, and frankly, I always found it a bit puzzling.

Madeleines? They’re nothing special. Of course you can get fancy ones baked fresh from Paris’ most famous bakeries, but when I was a kid, our madeleines came from the grocery store, and were oh so inelegantly packaged in a clear plastic bag. The madeleines of my memory are dry and crumbly, modestly sweet, desirable mostly for their amusing shape, shelf-stability, and absorptive properties when dipped in tea or coffee.

madeleines

Proust, though, he must have had access to a better variety, right? How else could he wax lyrical for 1,300 words about the subject? That’s what I assumed, anyway.

Then, a couple of years ago, I actually read À Coté de Chez Swann. Turns out, the madeleine is not so special:

She sent someone out for these short and squat cakes called Petites Madeleines, which seem to have been molded in the fluted shell of a scallop. And soon, mechanically, worn out by a dull day and the promise of a sad tomorrow, I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had dipped a piece of madeleine. But the moment the mouthful mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I trembled, aware that something extraordinary was happening within me. A delicious pleasure had overtaken me, isolated, with no notion of its cause.*

Ignore the stuff about the “delicious pleasure” and what do you have? Precisely the same dry, crumbly confection that inhabits my own memory. Of course, read a little further, and you find out this is the whole point:

… And all of a sudden, the memory came to me. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine that, Sunday mornings at Combray (in those days I never went out before Mass), when I went to tell her good-morning in her room, my Aunt Léonie offered to me after having dipped it in her tea or infusion.*

Proust (or rather, his narrator) isn’t in ecstasy over the madeleine, but rather this unexpected window into his childhood. He further explains: “It’s clear that the truth I’m looking for is not in it [the cake], but in me.”*

So, there you have it: if you’ve never had a madeleine, there’s not much point is eating one now. On the other hand, if you read French, and you haven’t yet read Proust, promise yourself to do it this year. You won’t regret it.

madeleine

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*I’m using my own translation here, because I just can’t stand the canonical Moncrieff version. But if you want to compare, here it is again in French and Moncrieff-English:

Continue Reading Remembrance of Cakes Past…

Sorry, Pats

January 22, 2007 at 7:24 pm | Posted in food, vie quotidienne | 9 Comments

I’ve already been to Paris, I already been to Rome
And what did I do but miss my home?
I have been out west to Californ’.
But I miss the land where I was born.

Dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum-da-dum-day
Oh, New England.

Last night, Brumaire and I headed out to an expat pub (Canadian-themed, ironically) to view some live, authentic football americain.

I’m not normally the type to go seeking out pseudo-American experiences while I’m here in (arguably) the most beautiful city in the world. But I had to admit this was a special occasion: the Indiana Colts and the New England Patriots facing off for the AFC championship.

Brumaire, you see, is a long-standing Colts fan, and I (as indicated by Jonathan Richman’s lyrics above) hail from New England, so we really had to come out to support our teams — even if it meant there was a little competitive cheering going on.

All in all, it was a good game (the Colts came from behind for a long-awaited win), but it was also kind of a weird experience. In America, sports bars are generally filled with local fans. In Paris, the bar was packed with displaced fans of both teams, plus a motley assortment of curious Frenchies (note to the Parisian in the ludicrous cowboy hat and oversized belt buckle: nobody likes a wannabe).  So every play was greeted by near-violent exchanges of cheers and boos.

And I was so amused by the attempts at American barfood that I had to snap a picture during the half:

choco-onion

Who in the kitchen decided it would be a good idea to pair a plate of onion rings with a square of dark chocolate?

We stumbled home at five in the morning, after four (!) pitchers of beer, countless deep-fried delicacies, and nearly seven hours of football (we’d showed up early for the Saints/Bears game). Don’t tell anyone, but that’s about seven times as much football as I’ve ever watched in one sitting in America.

Le Bain Douche

January 11, 2007 at 2:16 pm | Posted in backstory, vie quotidienne | 13 Comments

In the realm of science and technology, there’s no question that the French have achieved many great things. Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac: all worked hard to demystify the world around us and improve the lot of humanity.

And yet, one scientific mystery still remains: what the hell is up with French showers? I’ve lived in many different French homes, stayed in many hotels, and wherever I am, the shower is always the same*: a pathetic little nozzle fixed on the end of a long, flexible tube and suspended from a hook on the wall. Exhibit A:

shower up

This is how a normal French shower looks. And I suppose French people will try to justify its design — they might note that the detachable shower head is the height of convenience, allowing you to point the nozzle directly where you want it. And sure, I’ll grant, that might occasionally be useful.

The problem is, I need both hands free to wash my hair. And that little hook that’s supposed to keep the nozzle pointed at my head? It’s not working! Half the designs I’ve seen send the nozzle clattering to the floor every time you turn on the water. And the one I’ve got now? It does this:

shower down

Not useful! In the past, when this has happened, I’ve taken my soggy self over to the tool cabinet to fetch a screwdriver, and within a couple minutes had the whole contraption right as rain (so to speak). But this morning? That tactic is fruitless. No longer happy with the occasional disruption of daily life (a shower manif, you might say), the shower head has staged a full-on revolt.

I guess the threads on the screw are worn out or something, but no amount of tightening will convince the head to remain upright for more than a few seconds. How do the French put up with this sort of thing?

The whole ordeal has got me thinking: how is it, in this age of globalization, that France and America can have such different approaches to a tool that each of us uses every day? Why is it that I can get a crappy cheeseburger in McDonalds all around this city, but I can’t wash my hair without getting banged in the head by my shower nozzle every morning?

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*Except for my French summer camp, which had showers in what I affectionately call the “concentration camp” style. Basically, they herded all the kids into a room, told us to strip, and water shot down from near the ceiling in chilly, fifteen second bursts.

Holiday Hangover

January 8, 2007 at 1:37 pm | Posted in food, vie quotidienne | 3 Comments

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years… The holiday season is dead and gone, with not a hint of revelry on the horizon until Valentine’s Day, right? Ah, but that’s because you don’t know about La Fête des Rois.

pastry bag

Even as a kid, I always thought of La Fête des Rois as a sort of “hangover holiday,” not because there’s any drinking involved, but because it seemed like a sort of nicotine patch for celebration addicts, allowing sugar-saturated kids a way to wean themselves slowly off the adrenaline rush of the holiday season.

Theoretically, this holiday exists in America, too — usually known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany. Officially, it marks the arrival of the three kings/wisemen in Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus, but in most American households, it’s little more than a reminder to take down that tree before the living room carpet becomes completely obscured by pine needles.

In France, however, it’s a bonafide holiday with its own traditions — foremost of which is the Galette des Rois:

galette

This round, sweet puff pastry is usually filled with an almond paste called frangipane.

slice

The galettes used to be made with a ve or bean cooked inside, and whoever found the bean was made king for the night.

crown

Nowadays, the “fève” is usually a hunk of plastic in the shape of some totally inappropriate cultural icon.

Mme Agecanonix

As you can see from the label, this is Mme Agecanonix, a minor character from the much beloved Asterix comic books. Mme Agecanonix is a fictional character from a Pagan society — the status-hungry trophy-wife to the oldest man in town. What does she have to do with the Christ-child’s royal visitors? Beats me.

Even weirder was the fève from last year’s cake:

oscar

Who knew the French had even heard of the Academy Awards? I was happy, though: come February, it made a great cake-topper for my Oscar party.

What I Did On My Christmas Vacation

January 4, 2007 at 8:16 pm | Posted in food | 15 Comments

I’m back! Although in fact, I never went away. Instead, my parents came to visit me here, and swallowed up all my free time in an endless stream of museums, movies, and *restaurants*. Seriously, twelve nice restaurants in fourteen days is no easy feat — but while I didn’t manage to clean my plate at each meal, I did at least take a zillion photos. They’re all up on Flickr (minus the super blurry ones), but I’ll share a few of the best ones here:

caviars

Let’s get this off to a festive beginning. Black and red caviar, served with creme fraiche and blinis (eaten at home).

lasagne aux champignons

Mushroom lasagne at L’O à la Bouche. A misnomer, kind of, since I don’t think there was any pasta in this dish — just lovely layers of crunchy pastry, wild mushrooms, and cheese served in a luscious, velvety sauce.

oysters!

Oysters at Le Petit Marguery. We had oysters probably two or three times in the two week period.

piece de veau

Piece de veau at La Ferrandaise — simple and hearty but totally delicious.

foie gras cube

Only a mouthful, but possibly my favorite item on this list. Les Ormes served us this tiny cube of foie gras coated in spices and nuts, delectably matching crunchy and creamy textures.

ice cream sandwich

Also from Les Ormes, an adorable little ice cream sandwich, served with a chocolate mousse and red berry concoction.

snowman

Lastly, a detail of our overloaded Bûche de Noël. Hey, man — if it ain’t tacky, it ain’t Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas, here’s a little secret just for you: Brumaire got me a fancy new camera! I haven’t used it yet (it’s still charging), but once it’s ready, hopefully we’ll all get to enjoy a New Year filled with gorgeous, blur-free photos.

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