Tag Archives: Francophilia

Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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French American Idol

Will Jean Louis ever find me indispensable?
Quoth the raven, “Maybe next time.”

On Saturday, October 20, 2012, my friends and I attended the inaugural Halloween Spectacular at Salt Lake City’s Caterina, the current culinary venture of my not-so-secret French crush, Jean Louis. I had vowed to make myself indispensable to him in my New Year’s resolutions. Ten months later, I found the courage to make the first move.  We set off to Caterina so I could proposition Jean Louis about collaborating on a cookbook or memoir.

My friends and I hired a driver to deliver us from our hotel room to the restaurant.  Our driver seemed annoyed about his line of work. “You’re going where?” he asked, swerving in and out of lanes and fiddling with his GPS unit as we slid from one side of the backseat to the other. “That is much farther than I thought,” he said, glaring back at us without slowing down. (The restaurant was about 40 blocks away.) Our driver drove like multiple warrants had just been issued for his arrest, and he almost murdered two pedestrians who happened to be crossing an intersection at a red light.  He shook his fist at them and screamed, “Go on, then!  You are already dead!”  We chose to ignore this dark omen, tipping the driver to silence him and leaping from the still-moving vehicle once we arrived.

A skeleton wielding a cocktail glass greeted us in the lobby, as did a dapper courtesan in a vest and beribboned patent shoes.  The courtesan introduced himself as Martin Skupinski, and waved us into the spacious dining room, where more skeletons sat in various poses, their legs crossed and jaws dropped in toothy, lascivious grins.  Spider webs enshrouded the large chandelier and the room’s high windows.  Several of the other diners wore costumes or masquerade masks.  Pirates, gypsies, and zombies milled about as the wait staff cleared a space in the center of the wooden floor.

The spectacular began with a social dancing lesson, which, we quickly discerned, is a euphemism for “compulsory dancing with random strangers.”  Martin, a dashing emissary from the Land of Happy Dancers, led the exercise, pairing strangers with timely nods of his head.  I immediately started sweating.  I’m not a fan of formal dancing and I value my personal space; the thought of strange hands around my waist without a lubricating quaff of alcohol repelled me.  The shrieking in my mind only worsened when a woman named Cindy volunteered to be my “man.”

Cindy, a seasoned (and likely professional) dancer clad in a red tango gown, placed my left hand on her shoulder and her right hand on my waist, grasped my other hand in hers, and proceeded to box step her way right over my heart. Her heavily kohled eyes caught every misstep.  Skeleton feet prodded my rear end as she dragged me through the motions.  After three dances and at least one hundred iterations of “You walk the circle, you pause at three” and “Lower your arm to here,” Cindy dumped me on the dance floor, leaving me with nothing but a scornful assessment of my fox trotting abilities.

Freed from our bad romance, I seated myself at the table and tossed back an entire glass of wine in three deep gulps.  Then I drank another, whereupon I decided that it was high time to find mon cher, Jean Louis.  Busy with preparations and management of his wait staff, he greeted me in the lobby, though not as warmly as I had hoped.

I last saw Jean Louis about a year ago at his Park City restaurant, Jean Louis. The reception he gave me then would have tempted even the saintliest of women to abandon their husbands and abscond with him to his native Normandy.  My heart fell this time around.  His blue eyes didn’t twinkle in my direction.  He did not compliment my perfume, dimples, or sparkly eyes. My words evaporated.  No propositions were made.  I returned to the table and tried not to cry into my butternut squash soup.

*

I once knew someone who asserted that food quality corresponds directly to the cook’s mood.  I agree.  I also think a chef’s mood affects the dining experience, particularly when the chef prides himself on how he welcomes his customers.

Jean Louis worried me. Denim jeans hung loosely against his legs.  His eyes darted across the dance floor to assistants and the wait staff, transmitting instructions, prompting them to action.  He stalked between the serving station and the kitchen like a caged lion, carrying out tray after tray of food for each course of the night’s meals with the help of his staff.  He served the entire buffet alongside them.

I’d planned poorly, impetuously.  I was foolish.  It’s bad form to spring a proposition on an unsuspecting chef.  I’m sure there were many factors and circumstances beyond the glamour and glitz of the dining room. I would have liked to ask Jean Louis about them.  Productions of spectacular proportion require exhaustive planning and preparation.  A chef of Jean Louis’ reputation – he’s worked in a kitchen since he was twelve and has a distinguished professional pedigree – finds a way to pull it off without breaking the illusion of fluidity and ease.  I worried anyway.  The smile I’d hoped to see made far too few appearances that night.

*

Dazzling Martin tried valiantly to resuscitate my self-esteem during the dessert course.  With a mischievous smile, Martin twirled me around the dance floor, amiably bantering, for two pleasant minutes, and he, at least, dumped me with a flourish and a bow.  I was very grateful for his kindness.  Sadly, the internal wounds I had sustained earlier in the evening were too deep to overcome. Our driver’s prophecy proved true. Brutalized, beaten, and emotionally shanked, my self-esteem died shortly prior to midnight.

My crush on Jean Louis lingers, but it has been tempered by a splash of icy cream in the hot soup of my heart.  It will probably be another year until my friends and I save enough money to return to Caterina, but when we do, I hope that we’ll see a Jean Louis who smiles again.

***

The skinny:

Caterina is located at 2155 South Highland Drive in Salt Lake City, Utah. Private dining menus range from $35 – $65. The restaurant can be reached by phone at 1.801. 819. 7555 or found online at http://www.caterinaslc.com.

Though I was too distraught to register the quality of the prepared meals, my friends said they were very delicious.  They went back for seconds in many of the courses. Our waiters were courteous, and they provided meticulous service.  The $55 prix fixe menu, however, did not include water, for which they charged $8 per bottle. This seemed a bit excessive given that we were essentially serving our own food.

The restaurant’s décor was spirited and a little saucy – perfectly apropos to Halloween. My friends and I had a lot of fun taking pictures of skeletons, bottles of wine, and raven figurines.

I plan to return to Caterina on an ordinary night, perhaps one more auspicious for the making of propositions.

“Go on, then! You are already dead!”

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