Tag Archives: Peter Mayle

Eupepsia

“Food is a feminist issue – and not just because historically women have been the ones to cultivate it, harvest it, preserve it, can it, budget it, shop for it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it, and/or mass produce it in assembly-line work at the Frito Factory…”– Bonnie J. Morris

There are usually two publications I read immediately upon receiving: The Sun, a monthly magazine that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of human narratives and experiences, and Gastronomica, a quarterly journal that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of all things related to food and food culture.  I received the Fall 2012 issue of Gastronomica weeks ago, though I couldn’t say exactly when because during that time I started working as an instructor-in-training for a group of bright, sweet middle schoolers.  I spent those weeks training and training, and devoted what little time I had outside of training to planning and planning.  When I finally granted myself the permission to stop planning and read the current Gastronomica issue, I experienced a series of unsettling revelations.

In the issue, a writer named Paula M. Salvio presents her study of food blogs written by women and the commonalities that appear between them.  According to Salvio, the larger body of work written by female food bloggers can be distilled into two categories: 1) “narrative references to postwar cookery books with specific references to a discourse of comfort,” and 2) “narratives of domestic discomfort.”  Dyspepsia roiled as I read about the bloggers who apologize for their lapses in writing (I’ve totally done that before – in fact, I’m kind of doing it now) and bloggers who interweave autobiographical details, positive and negative, into their exploration of food (ditto).  She concludes with the uplifting suggestion that female food bloggers are actively creating a culture in which to connect and support one another as we face the stresses of challenges of work and domesticity.  This comforted me for about a minute, until I realized that not only was I a stereotype of both narrative categories, I had also forsaken my culture of food peers through an unintentional gap in my writing.

Panic whacked me upside the head.  Suddenly, I couldn’t recall the last time I cozied up with a recipe or made anything but the most perfunctory, quick fix meal.  When was the last time I lingered in the cookbook section at Barnes and Noble?  When was the last time I thought, I should cook something in beer today!  It’s been over five months since I opened my Google Reader, overflowing with posts from bloggers whose writing and photography have historically been my threads of inspiration.  When did I stop paying purposeful, measured attention to my central passions?

The middle school faculty met with parents a week prior to the start of school for orientation.  I found myself face to adolescent face with enormity of the responsibility of my new position.  I also caught a glimpse of its potential, and I liked what I saw.  I have the freedom to create my own curriculum, heavy on writing – to my good fortune.  I can use my talents to inspire young minds, something my grandfather urged me to do since I was a teenager. (My mother would have burst into proud tears to learn that I am finally pursuing the profession she urged throughout my life.)  Quirk and spunk are assets in an environment such as this… I only hope that students embrace this notion sooner rather than later.  But if my goal is to foster open creative expression among my students, then it must be something I practice too.   If I want to help them unlock the dynamics of style and prose, shouldn’t I commit to following a similar path of discovery?

Food is a feminist issue.  Everyday, I wake before dawn to squeeze in a run, then rush home to assemble school lunches, shower and get ready, ferret Kai out the door, and deliver Rory to her babysitter-du-jour, barely making it to work on time.  I duck out of meetings to retrieve Rory from the babysitter and transport her to afternoon kindergarten, only to return to classes and meetings that last until dinner.  What’re you making for dinner? I ask my husband, keenly aware that I will be preparing dinner myself and/or phoning in an order for take-out.   I’m not willing to concede to failure in any role.

And why the constant stress?  It was so freeing to read Peter Mayle’s honest assessment of a writer’s occupation in Toujours Provence.  “There is constant doubt that anyone will want to read what you’re writing, panic at missing deadlines that you have imposed on yourself, and the deflating realization that those deadlines couldn’t matter less to the rest of the world,” he writes.  “A thousand words a day, or nothing: it makes no difference to anyone else but you.”  Though Mayle is obviously not a female blogger, I think his notion of anxiety caused by self-imposed deadlines holds validity.  In an online sphere of such immediacy, we create constructs that spur us to produce more and with high frequency.  But, without an editor or a book deal, who’s really keeping track?  Who are we actually disappointing when inspiration wanes?  Does quality of work suffer? Mayle also points out the intense pleasure that a writer receives from having his/her thoughts and ideas heard (or read).  “What makes it worth living,” he writes, “is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment to people you’ve never met.”  This is why we write, what we miss when we don’t write, and why we press ourselves: our urgent compulsion to produce and our need for validation are irrevocably intertwined.

A feminist issue and a labor of love: I skip meals, but wouldn’t dream of letting my children skip them.  I am their mother – and mothers mean comfort, often in the form of food.  In my case, food means creativity.  I lapse in my writing, but can’t fathom damming the flow of ideas for good.  I might divert a stream of creativity to the classroom for the sake of inspiring young minds, but I’m lost if I can’t find a tributary that reconnects me to that which gives me such vital sustenance.  I embrace the recent ebbs in the current of my days – and welcome an entirely new group of opportunities.  Maybe this isn’t an apology, but rather a joyful song.

I survived the first days of school.  I enjoyed them, in fact: hearing my students’ laughter as they used teamwork to unravel human knots or mused whether zombies actually exist in real life.  My return to the creative fold reassures me that my beloved trifecta of cooking, writing, and reading hasn’t died, as I silently feared; it was only taking an extended siesta as I diverted necessary energies to the demands of an exciting new beginning.  Slowly but surely, my appetite returns.  I made lasagna last weekend… with honest-to-goodness marinara sauce that I slow-cooked with a friend’s garden-grown tomatoes.  I read Gastronomica cover to cover, and, thanks be, I’m still writing.

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Vive la France!

Peter Mayle lives in France and I do not.  He infects me with an acute and incurable case of Francophilia, and then he leaves me to fester away as he sips glorious rosé and saunters to his backyard swimming pool to cool his sunbaked skin.  Every day presents Mayle with an opportunity to observe the quirks and contradictions of the Provençal soul: every cheek kissed, every waggling mustache and gesticulating hand, every mais oui.  Mayle roams the idyllic countryside with his dogs.  He has uninterrupted access to baguettes.  Life is not fair.

Of course, Peter Mayle isn’t the first writerly person to succumb to the charms of France. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Liebling, MFK Fisher, Julia Child, James Villas, Adam Gopnik, David Sedaris, David Lebovitz, and Molly Wizenberg have also documented their love for France, so I shouldn’t hold Mayle solely responsible for my malaise vert.  Mayle believes that Provence has the curative power to relieve writers of the “daunting confrontation” of “the blank page.”  Mayle treats his own writerly “ennui” with “two or three hours of walking in the hills…  The happy combination of exercise, sunshine, solitude, and glorious scenery has such a tonic effect” that he returns to the work of writing with “renewed optimism.”  Even if I had the luxury of two hours in which to roam the plentiful hillside, which, incidentally, is crusted in deep snow from October to July, I doubt the solitude would similarly inspire me.

The true source of my frustration isn’t Peter Mayle.  I too would be on the first plane to France if I had the motive and financial wherewithal.  I am frustrated by the limits of my imagination.  Writers are told to write what they love, but I’m discovering that love only stretches so far.  Writers need stimulation: opportunities to observe, interact, and experience things.  Geography also plays a critical role in the interpretation of one’s days.  I live in the high desert of central Utah.  Though the area is classified as “desert,” I am surrounded by mountains that are lush with alpine vegetation and animals hardy enough to thrive at high altitude.  The snow-capped mountain crags are breathtaking; the fierce pink sunsets cast rose-colored rays over the outlying alfalfa fields.  I suffer no shortage of natural beauty.  But I write as Eater Provocateur, not Alpine Provocateur.

Mayle’s total love of place, character, and history ensures that he writes what he loves and, moreover, he lovingly writes.  If a Provençal acquaintance so much as utters a stray zut, Mayle captures it, rendering the moment in smart, engaging prose, like an anthropological rhapsody.  He embraces “big” personalities; they are the characters that bring brilliant color to Mayle’s writing.  There is Ramon, the plasterer, who drinks a succession of beers as he lies on his side, refinishing the ceiling.  There is gruff Massot, whose distaste for German tourists borders on obsession.  There is Monsieur Gu, “a genial, noisy man with the widest, jauntiest, most luxuriant and ambitious mustache [Mayle has] ever seen.”

My passion is food, and I do sometimes struggle with where I live because of limited access to quality ingredients and larger grocery offerings.  I get especially cranky about three ingredients: fresh mozzarella, Brie, and baguettes, and this is where Peter Mayle enters my web of frustration.  I realize that I can make my own mozzarella and, should the baking gods ever grant me their favor, baguettes.  I realize that these three foodstuffs have relatively short shelf lives, decreasing their potential to raise my grocer’s profits.  I realize that it is pointless to fight the palates of the majority when clearly I am the single person who comprises the minority.  I nevertheless feel like it is a sin that there isn’t easy access (i.e. less than a two-hour drive) to these three basic delicacies.  I bet Peter Mayle can procure these within minutes of his Provençal home.  Therein lies my indignation.

My family moved to central Utah four years ago, lured by careers in education. We became quickly ensnared by our love for the students at the school where we work.  Relocation is not an option at the moment, so despite my epicurean complaints, I must abide by the area’s constraints.  To be grudgingly honest, I value our location for its safety and moral fortitude.  My children are cocooned by this relative isolation.  They will grow up with memories of camping, hiking, and skiing; they will have knowledge of wide, open spaces and a healthy respect for nature.  We live each day surrounded by resplendent Rocky Mountain glory.  But, oh, what I wouldn’t give to inhale the salty, doughy scent of a freshly baked baguette, to rip apart that lovely bread flesh.

Mayle counters: “For more lively inspiration there is the café, a paradise for observers and eavesdroppers… There is an ever-changing visual accompaniment, since conversations are decorated with nods, winks, shrugs, moues, and expressions of astonishment or outrage, often with minor explosions of even more dramatic body language.”  This would be much more fruitful fodder, but, alas, where is my bustling café here in this Utah valley full of predominantly non-coffee drinkers?  Where is my Didier, my Faustin?  Where is my Massot, “chewing at his mustache in vexation”?  I adore colorful, oversized characters; I revel in their light like an enraptured moth.  I also have this weird, superstitious, personal rule not to write about the people in my immediate social circle unless they give me express permission to do so.  (It helps ensure that they remain my friends.) And so, I search for characters in the outer world.  I befriend farmers, grocers, and gardeners, but the pace is slow, the personality rewards subtle.  The law of averages delivers its harsh decree.

The other night, after a particularly painful bout with my ailment (roughly 60 pages into Provence A – Z), I dreamt that I was traveling in France with my friend, Casey. (Casey has enthusiastically given me permission to write about her, affirming her consent by saying, “It’s about time!  I thought you’d never ask!”)  A horde of young French schoolboys descended on us, each wearing matching outfits and chic red scarves tied around their necks.  They separated us.  I lost sight of Casey.  Unable to fight against the press of the crowd, I matched their brisk pace and found myself in the home of a bushy-haired Frenchman.  I instinctively knew that he was a photographer.  He sat at a table in the center of a large storeroom, drinking wine, a cigarette dangling from underneath his full, salt and pepper mustache.  Edith Piaf warbled from a small radio by his side.  “Excusez,” I said, immediately recalling David Lebovitz’s etiquette suggestions for visitors to France.  I began again.  “Bonjour, monsieur!” I said, flashing my brightest smile. “Ça va? … Er… Excusez-moi, mais je….” I devolved into tearful English as I explained I’d lost my friend.  What should I do?  The photographer disappeared momentarily behind his plume of smoke.  He reached behind him, pulling out a plate of cheese and pushing it towards me on the table.  “Seet, chèrie,” said the man, his eyes twinkling mischievously.  “Eat.”

Postscript – Lebovitz’s book, The Sweet Life in Paris, is an excellent (and very funny) preparatory read for those embarking on a trip to the city of love and lights.  If, on the other hand, it’s the southern French countryside for you, go with Mayle’s Provence A – Z.

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