A bout de soufflé

March 12, 2008 at 1:52 pm | Posted in food, writing | 11 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Back when I started the blog, I created a category called “writing“, which was supposed to contain musings and observations about my attempts to launch a career as a novelist. If you click that category, you’ll see I haven’t used it much — my thoughts and struggles as a writer turned out to be too personal (not to mention tedious) to share in such a public space. I’m happy to report, though, that now I have at least a small tidbit of news fit for public consumption: I have acquired representation for my novel!

This means (in lay terms), that the odds of my novel actually landing in a bookstore near you some day have gone from “wildly improbable” to “vaguely within the realm of possibility”. Which is good news!

Good enough news to celebrate with a dinner out, certainly. I knew it would be premature to binge on an elaborate three-star feast, but I wanted something that felt a little indulgent, a little out of the ordinary. So what better choice than the decadent all-soufflé menu at Le Soufflé?

Grand Marnier souffle

The only problem with soufflés is, if you’ve seen one, you’ve more or less seen them all. I’ve got a few more pics available for completists, but as far as this post goes, I think I’ll exercise my writerly skills and stick to textual descriptions.

So, soufflés tasted monday night:
Foie gras — a fluffy cloud infused with the most delicate aroma of foie gras, complimented by a molten puddle of the stuff in the middle.
Forestier — earthy, mushroom flavors whipped up lighter than air
Sanglier — the lightness of souffle meets the robust, gamey flavor of wild boar. Although in fact, the boar chunks hiding at the bottom were so tender it was hard to believe the animal was raised in the wild.
Volaille — This was actually the pinnacle of the meal: nothing but chicken, mushrooms, and gravy, but it was like the most divinely inspired chicken pot pie you’ve ever eaten.
Pommes aux Calvados — drunken apples doused in Calvados
Grand Marnier — the most traditional of all soufflés, but still difficult to pull off as perfectly as they did last night.

So there you have it — the perfect celebratory meal for a most happy occasion. Oh, and they change their soufflé menu regularly… Good thing, in case I get any more good news in the future.

Restaurant Le Souffle
Phone: 01 42 60 27 19
36, Rue du Mont Thabor
75001 PARIS 01 er

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Trippert

May 30, 2007 at 3:15 pm | Posted in writing | 1 Comment

Sorry things have been quiet around here for a bit, but I’ve been busy sharing content with Trippert.  It’s a fun site to browse around, if you’re interested in travel writing and pics.

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

____________________________
*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…

Novelversary

November 3, 2006 at 2:04 pm | Posted in backstory, books, writing | 8 Comments

As some of you may know, I am currently slogging my way through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Last night I came upon this gem in the notes et variantes section, from a letter written by Flaubert on the 18th of April, 1854:

Next September, I will have been working on this book for three years. That’s a long time, three years spent on the same idea, writing in the same style (particularly a style which has about as much to do with my personality as with the emperor of China’s), living always with the same characters, in the same setting, constantly beating oneself up over the same illusion.*

As of November 1st, I have been at work on my novel, more or less consistently, for exactly three years. It seems a bit wrong to celebrate it as a birthday, since I don’t think the book’s been properly “born” yet — let’s just call it the third anniversary of its conception.

And I have to agree with Flaubert: it is an awfully long time to be living with these characters, these ideas, this stylistic voice which, although it may have more in common with my voice than with the erstwhile emperor of China’s, is nonetheless a sometimes awkward and imperfect fit. But it is nice to know that this titan of literature once experienced the same exhaustion and ennui that I am now encountering.

I haven’t done it much on this blog, but longtime readers of my livejournal know that I love to, well… bitch about my writing. I tear my hair out over an inelegant turn of phrase, I despair over the occasional cliché, and a minor plot hole can send me spiraling off into deepest depression. And don’t get me started on the irrational rage inspired by certain friends and acquaintances who innocently note how easy it all is for them.

In light of this character defect of mine, I’m sometimes asked why I bother: “If writing makes you so unhappy, why do you do it? Why waste your life on something that brings you no pleasure?”

I can only answer that pleasure is sometimes found via a circuitous path.

This may sound a bit weird (and irredeemably geeky), but I think it best compares to the pleasure of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Now, jigsaw puzzles aren’t for everyone — lots of people think they are dull and frustrating and completely pointless. Why would I put so much effort into building a picture that I could just buy as a poster, and probably cheaper?

Puzzle nerds, of course, can’t help but smile at this question. Yes, jigsaw puzzles are frustrating. There’s a moment, just after you’ve spilled all those tiny pieces all over your table or floor, when you can’t help but think, Jesus, why am I doing this? And there’s another point, about two-thirds through, when you’ve finished all the easy parts, and all that’s left is about a hundred indistinguishable grey pieces, and you think, That’s it, this puzzle is a dud. They gave me way more pieces than I need, and none of them fit together! Obviously there’s been a mistake at the factory.

And if you are a normal human being, you walk away and watch tv or something. But if you are a puzzle geek, you will persevere, because you know that just behind this despair, a quiet sense of triumph is waiting for you when you find that perfect piece that suddenly brings the whole picture into view.

For me, that’s what writing is like: a series of seemingly impossible puzzles that only make sense once I, through perseverance and dumb luck, stumble happily on their solutions. That plot hole can be fixed by changing the season from late spring to early fall! That ugly turn of phrase will work if only I replace those two clunky words with this lovely one! And look here: a fabulously original way to restate that sloppy old cliché!

And suddenly the whole thing starts to fit together quite beautifully, and you allow yourself to feel just a little bit proud of all the hard work you did to get there.

Right now, the puzzle I’m attacking is, How do I take a character who is meant to be campy and over-the-top, and make her accessible and sympathetic? And all without resorting to cliché? At the moment, this problem seems insurmountable. I lay in bed last night thinking, “That’s it, it’s just not possible. I’m going to have to throw the whole book away.”

But today, the sun is shining, my calendar is clear, and the ghost of Flaubert is looking over my shoulder. So, who knows? Maybe today is the day that it all falls into place.

__________________________

* “Il y aura en septembre prochain trois ans que je suis sur ce livre. Cela est long, trois ans passés sur la même idée, à écrire du même style (de ce style-là surtout, où ma personalité est aussi absente que celle de l’empereur de Chine), à vivre toujours avec les mêmes personnages, dans le même milieu, à se battre les flancs toujours pour la même illusion.” The translation is mine, please forgive any errors or stylistic oddities.

Drôle de Décor

October 27, 2006 at 1:35 pm | Posted in vie quotidienne, writing | 6 Comments

Last night, I went to a meeting at a bar. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going or who I was meeting, and when I finally made it there, I was ushered in my confusion to a long, dark table in the corner. Hoping to make the best of an awkward situation, I introduced myself and ordered a beer.  That’s when, glancing around, my eyes lighted on this tasteful display, pinned to the wall directly above my table:

drawers

Um, yeah, that’s a wall full of ladies’ underwear.

Needless to say, this image cast a lacy pall over the rest of the evening.

Food Post!

October 23, 2006 at 1:19 pm | Posted in food, writing | 2 Comments

It was Friday afternoon, and I was at home. Writing. In my pyjamas, as I had been more or less constantly for the previous few days. The book, you see, it needs a new opening, and I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t leave the house until I came up with something decent.

That’s when — *ping!* — I got an email from Amanda, asking me if I’d caught the Marché Gourmand going on this week at the base of the rue Mouffetard. Apparently, she proceeded to inform me, it happens every year during the Semaine du Goût.

Mouffetard! That’s, um… a block from my apartment. And I’d been so wrapped up in my writing that I had no idea. I was a little embarrassed — working on the book is all well and good, but what’s the point of living in Paris if you’re going to miss out on things happening just down the street?

Thus shamed, I hopped out of bed (yes, I write in bed), got dressed, and headed down La Mouffe to find something for dinner.

Oh hey — the best thing about special marchés? Food samples! As I shopped, I got to nibble tiny squares of tarte tatin, individual escargots, and best of all, a buttery-smooth paté de foie gras. And I bought:

saucissons des pyrenees

Go ahead, snicker, but I dare you to find a G-rated way to photograph sausage.

Anyway, here we have saucissons made from duck and wild boar. These were far from the most exotic options; I was briefly tempted by a deer sausage, and considerably less so by the donkey sausage. Just say it out loud: donkey sausage. There’s something really unsettling about that. I think it puts me in mind of a video I once saw in college.

Okay, now try to wipe that image from your brain while I present my omelette au sanglier:

omelette de sanglier

Full disclosure: dried boar sausage tastes divine, but it smells like wet dog. Be forewarned.

I picked up a little dessert at the marché, too:

brioche aux fruits

When it comes to fruit cake, I’m usually the first in line telling the “hard as a rock” jokes, but seriously, this brioche aux fruits was fantastic. Sweet and soft and full of interesting flavors… By the way, that’s coarse sugar on top, not pretzel salt.

brioche aux fruits

So, the upshot of all this? I stayed up late with indigestion, and at three in the morning, managed at last to bang out a decent first page.

L’Omelette Vaincue

October 2, 2006 at 2:22 pm | Posted in food, vie quotidienne, writing | 4 Comments

It’s been over a week and I have not heard back from The Agent Who Kinda (sorta? maybe?) Liked My Stuff. So that’s that, time to move on. On the upside, I don’t have to make the changes she suggested. On the downside, I will surely die unpublished, impoverished, unappreciated, unloved, and alone.

But fie on all that! According to this inspiring article, the best way to deal with rejection and discouragement is to throw yourself into another task, no matter how trivial or mundane, that you know you can fairly well succeed at. He suggests exercise, but honestly — where’s the fun in that? When it comes to short-term gratification and accomplishment, I turn to my kitchen.

This weekend brought me a couple of small victories:

Soupe à l'oignon gratinée

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée!

All right, all right, I made the soup from a mix. And I didn’t have any bowls that could go in the oven, so I made the croutons separately and then added them. The point of this exercise was to set my goals as low as possible, so as to be sure of achieving them! And I did. It was altogether yummy and heartwarming. But this small success only set the stage for what was to come:

Omelette au Fromage

Omelette au Fromage!

Tell me, is that not the most gorgeously French meal you have ever seen? Feel free to be not entirely honest, there. Seriously, though: a well-shaped omelet is pretty hard to pull off, and I’ve never managed it before. They taste good enough, but they always wind up falling apart in the pan and turning into an elaborate and messy plate of scrambled eggs. But this! This is an omelet of champions! (No, not champignons, champions. It’s only Gruyere in there.)

Greatly cheered by this mini-accomplishment, I went out for a walk and stumbled on this adorable advertisement:

egg and beans

Hee!

I don’t know why this amuses me so much… Maybe I just miss British breakfasts.

Great, now I’m all hungry again. I never meant for this to be exclusively a food blog, but I seem to be headed that direction. It must be this confounded neighborhood…

Que Faire?

September 25, 2006 at 12:51 pm | Posted in art, backstory, books, food, plans, writing | 8 Comments

In July of this past summer, I learned that I would be moving to Paris in the fall. Understandably excited, I ran right out and told everyone I knew. That was until I started getting the question.

The question:

Oh! How lovely! But what are you going to do there?

And no matter how many times I hear this question (and oh, it’s been a lot of times now), I never fail to be dumbfounded by it. It’s not because I naively thought my life would somehow end the minute I got to Paris — it’s just that I have no idea what kind of answer people are looking for.

All I can think is that they must want to hear about my job. But well, just because I’ve moved here doesn’t mean I’ve got permission to work. Besides, I’m generally lazy and lacking in any useful talent or skill, so regular jobs and I have never really gotten along.  Perhaps I could be a student? Well, sure, but… enh. I survived 16 years of hewing to the arbitrary desires of teachers and professors — can’t I have a few years to hew to my own arbitrary desires?

No, I am neither gainfully employed nor am I a student. So what exactly do I intend to do with my days? A wee list:

1) Write
I know I haven’t mentioned it before, but I’m a writer, in the sense that I type words onto a screen and then try to make them look pretty. Not, however, in the sense that I am being paid for this work.

Still, I would very much like to be paid for this work one day, which is why I have spent the last *not quite three years* of my life writing a novel. I’m currently in the process of trying to get people to A) read this novel, B) like this novel, and C) give me money in exchange for this novel. Sounds simple, but it’s actually rather challenging.

Over the course of this year, I’ll be sending out queries, fielding responses, and revising like mad until I’ve produced something that someone, somewhere (with some money) thinks is not too bad.

I’ll also, God willing, be writing some new stuff, too. I have a few ideas.

2) Read
In my last few years of arduous writing, I haven’t had the time or inclination to read much. I hope to change that, as well as to take advantage of this year abroad to read French books, an activity which I find entirely draining when in America, and will hopefully be less so here.

I’m currently reading Madame Bovary in paperback, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses over here (join us!). Once finished, I hope to tackle the second volume of A La Recherche de Temps Perdu, and that will probably take me the rest of my life.

3) Look at art
Paris has a lot of art museums. It also has a lot of galleries. I have a digcam, which means you will see what I see. Hopefully I’ll think of some things to say about the art, too.

4) Eat
And cook. And shop for food. This has to happen no matter where you live, but in Paris, it’s a lot more entertaining. Expect pics.

5) Other
Including, but not limited to, sleeping, breathing, walking, worrying moodily about my future, running into friends unexpectedly, drinking beer in cafes, surfing the web, sprinkling my French with faux-amis, screwing up metric/english conversions, and avoiding dog poo.

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