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Sunday, April 30, 2006
I can't believe I have this much to say about gum
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Recently I flopped down wearily on the sofa and mournfully declared to my mother, "I miss being a mademoiselle."
I realize that this particular complaint takes so many things for granted that it's a bit like bitching about the scent of the oil the masseuse has chosen for your weekly two-hour session. But it's true. I officially miss France. Beyond the pastries, the duck and the thick yellow butter, I mourn the loss of all the identities automatically bestowed upon me as a youngish woman living abroad. I miss being An American in Paris, and all of that label’s romantic expat connotations. I miss being a Cooking School Student, and waking up each day to new challenges in the kitchen without fretting about creating a gigantic pile of dishes. I even miss being Unemployed, because …well, because now I have to work again.
But perhaps more than anything else, I miss my status as a mademoiselle.
When my friend and mentor Alison came to Paris for a visit, she remarked how nice it felt to be appreciated again.
"In the United States, women over forty are invisible," she said.
My mom recently returned from a trip to Mexico, where she spent an evening watching the world go by from a public bench.
"I realized one thing that night: nobody notices me anymore," she told me later.
I'm coming up on thirty, and I'm starting to ponder this eventual anonymity that various women have informed me is a fact of life in youth-obsessed American culture. But in Paris, everywhere I looked I saw glamorous, gorgeous older women who clearly hadn’t gotten the memo that they were supposed to shelve their sexuality with their first grey hair. “I want to be like her when I grow up,” I’d think, admiring the silvery bob and arty jewelry of the woman ahead of me in line at the boulangerie. Everybody else was busy admiring her too.
At the same time, though, I always relished this vestigial token of girlishness every shopkeeper in France tossed my way:
As a word, “mademoiselle” is delicate, springy, feminine. It rolls off the tongue and concludes with a pretty chime. Adding “Bonjour” to the mix creates a wonderful series of hills and valleys to be traversed. The exclamation point does no justice to this phrase, but there is no other way to convey in print that particular singsongy cadence exchanged between shopkeeper and customer as readily as goods or money in France.
The same goes for "fille," the French word for girl.
"Bonjour les filles!" our cooking school teacher would trill each morning.
"Bonjour, Chef!" we'd reply in unison.
"Fille" sounds lacy and fine, with the slightest whiff of the equestrian for this Anglophone, who is repeatedly tempted to transform herself into a filly. I loved being "une fille" at school, one of the band of naughty filles who inspired occasional head-shaking and feigned shame from our instructors when our cakes fell or our lobsters wriggled out of our grasp. I know I am and will always be a stompy, clunky American girl, but every time I became a mademoiselle or a fille I felt a little bit transformed, a little bit closer to one day becoming that beautiful silvery woman buying baguette.
"Ou est le monsieur?" asked our friend's toddler worriedly when my stepdad left the living room. "Ou est-il?"
"Is Steve le monsieur?" I whispered to my mom.
“I guess so.”
I had never considered my stepdad in this light before. To me, the word "monsieur" will never escape its waxed moustache connotations. Le monsieur wheels out the cheese cart and eyes me suspiciously. He might call me mademoiselle, but he does it superciliously. He is a French stereotype of the worst proportions, brandishing frogs’ legs and snails as he mimes the accordion beneath his beret.
And then there is the dreaded Madame. Madame is regal and elegant, yes. But she embodies austerity. Those that refer to her are denied the pleasure of chirping her title like a joyous canary. Madame is a somber word that peers out from behind velvet drapes and slams the door shut on your tongue with a dull thud. While Mademoiselle skips across the field plucking daisies, Madame wipes her hands on her apron before sternly chastening the gardener.
In America, I’m still too young to become a “Ma’am” (incidentally, what a horribly dowdy word THAT is), so nobody calls me anything. The only exception to this rule occurs at Starbucks, where the staff requests my first name when I place my order and duly writes it on my cup, just like a urine sample. When my drink is ready, they trumpet “Cindyyyy!” even though I am standing right there at the counter, a pig at the trough waiting for the slop to be poured. On some days, I become Sydney or Christy or Sandy.
This demand for my first name feels uncomfortably familiar and distressingly intimate. It’s just coffee, after all. I want to rebel and go all haughty on them. “No, you may NOT have my first name. Or my last name, for that matter! You may have nothing of mine but my four dollars for what is really little more than a glass of warm milk! Take THAT!” But I never do. I’m not even a mademoiselle anymore. I have been stripped of my title and my magical powers.
But somehow, I doubt the beautiful silvery boulangerie lady would suffer this forced intimacy. Somehow I think she’d stand up for herself. She is a Madame, after all. Maybe growing older will be fun after all.
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Berkeley and Betelnut
One week ago, I was frantically packing my stuff up back in Illinois. My mom, perched amidst the wreckage to provide moral support, asked me what excited me most about my move to the Bay Area.
"The fact that I can wear WHATEVER I WANT and nobody will care!" I crowed, brandishing a pair of hand-knit legwarmers that hadn't seen the light of day since their completion last winter. True, last time I checked there were no Singapore-style laws in Chicago governing dress, but the city seems far less interested in self-expression through fashion than San Francisco does. This doesn't mean that I'm going to start wearing a leopard-print jumpsuit to get the car washed or anything, but hey, I like to have the option, you know?
I recalled this conversation yesterday when I embarked on my first grocery run. Nothing like shopping at the Berkeley Whole Foods to make you feel like a conservative, uptight Midwesterner. Even the range of muffin options was eye-opening: wheat-free, dairy-free and low-fat were just starting points. "I should develop an intolerance to something," I decided. Now that I live in California, I need a niche. Should I go vegan or soy-only or macrobiotic or fruitarian or eat only local foods? As I plodded down the aisles reading labels, I could hear echoes of the enraged voices of my fellow co-op members in college, people who practically came to blows arguing about honey exploiting bees and whether a microwave would zap us with cancer rays. My fellow customers included a woman in her sixties with shocking blue hair and a goth girl who had tattooed stocking seams up the back of her legs.
I'm sure I'll quickly become inured to it all, but for now, I found everyone at the checkout absolutely fascinating. I couldn't stop looking: the woman who stuffed fluffy neon green socks into her pumps, the bespectacled professor with long grey hair down to her waist and orthopedic sandals, the barechested guy wearing a tiny cropped vest and huge, swashbuckling samurai pants and a headscarf. Who are they, and where did they come from? Dayton, Ohio? Plano, Texas? Or are they Berkeley born and bred? Somehow I doubt it.
Thus it was with some amount of confusion that I found myself deposited onto the streets of the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco on Friday night. It was the day before my friend Alison's birthday, and we were going to have drinks and dinner at a trendy place called Betelnut. All of sudden, I was surrounded by beer-soaked BlackBerries and wasabi-tinis and dry-cleaned clothing and more of those goddamned pointy shoes, which I keep hearing are going out of style but never actually seem to disappear.
Despite my initially frightened response to San Francisco yuppie culture, Betelnut was fun. I wasn't too keen on my drinks (they tasted strong but weren't), but our food was really delicious. We started with a bowl of garlic and five-spice edamame, which were completely addictive and utterly satisfying. Then a parade of small plates arrived: mango and asparagus salad, pork dumplings with Sichuan peppercorn dipping sauce, glazed short ribs with Thai basil, and the crowning glory of the evening: Sichuan green beans. These reminded me of the belacan string beans from my beloved Malay Satay Hut in Seattle; they had that same wonderfully salty, rich flavor that comes from dried shrimp paste.
Have I mentioned how much I love the small plates craze? I've had so many delicious appetizers in restaurants only to be grossly disappointed by the bland flavors and hulking portions of my entree. Small plates are ideal for commitment-phobes; we can flit and flirt with a wide selection of things but don't have to risk wasting an entire meal on something underwhelming. I suppose the trend will burn out soon enough, but personally I wouldn't mind seeing it stick around for good.
Hmm, maybe I just found my dietary niche. Perhaps I could petition Whole Foods to offer a bin of mini-muffins of every flavor and persuasion for us, the beleaguered small platers, a group continually oppressed by the constraints of typical three-course restaurant dining.
So next time you're in Berkeley, look for a girl wearing a leopard jumpsuit and comfortable shoes, clipboard in hand. If that doesn't narrow it down enough, just look for the hand-made legwarmers.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Nope, I didn't drop dead or anything. I have been working hard on finding gainful employment while simultaneously managing to attend the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Seattle this year. This particular trip involved me racing around like a madwoman to various points on the West Coast: Chicago to San Francisco, San Francisco to Seattle, Seattle back to San Francisco, San Francisco by car to Eugene, and from Eugene back to Chicago via Portland. In between all that nonsense, I managed to visit with lots of old friends, eat crazy amounts of delicious food, and talk to a few of my culinary idols.
Here are some highlights in no particular order:
1) Korean BBQ at Brother's Restaurant in the Richmond with Alison W. and Nathan.
2) Salmon chowder and girlie drinks with Jen at Twenty Two Doors in Seattle.
3) French hot chocolate and pear pastry with Megan at Sweet and Savory in Seattle.
French hot chocolate.
4) Hot pot with Peter and Chloe at Seven Stars in Seattle.
5) Russian pastries with Rachael and Rodrigo in the Richmond. Who knew I could fall in love with strudel?
6) Vietnamese lunch at Green Papaya with Shauna.
7) Vietnamese sandwiches from Seattle Deli with Megan.
Still more Vietnamese food with Megan. I can't remember the name of this soup - it was sweet and sour and very tasty.
8) Inventing a game called "Kitty Spank" at the expense of Megan's cats (they retaliated by using my face as a launching pad the rest of the night).
Kitty plots his revenge.
9) Attending the IACP conference with Alison R. and Pamela.
10) Sucking down a tequila shooter at the Hales brewery after helping Megan and Kris move.
When you help people move, you should reward yourself with half the menu from Shanghai Garden.
11) Beers at the Zoo with former Microsoft coworkers.
12) Chatting with Linda Carucci, one of the nicest people on earth. Go buy her book right now!
13) Listening to Fergus Henderson talk about butchers.
14) Hanging out with David L. and meeting all of his chocolate friends.
15) Meeting up with my cooking school pal Amy at Tartine in San Fran.
15) Miscellaneous Seattle yummies: mole salami at Salumi, clam chowder at Market Grill, roti canai at Malay Satay Hut, spending the afternoon as one of those unemployed laptop people at both Victrola and Vivace, passionfruit gelato at Gelatiamo, tasty pretty Mexican at La Carta de Oaxaca, and beef pelmeni at Cafe Yarmarka.
Hula hoopers in Capitol Hill.
1) Renting a car in Oakland and reading in the contract that returning the car with blood stains incurs a cleaning fee.
2) Locating my rental car. It was a tan PT Cruiser.
3) Listening to someone hurling violently three rows behind me on my flight to Seattle.
4) Babbling incoherently to Dorie Greenspan. I was just so excited to meet her!
5) Terribly stale macarons at Le Panier in Seattle.
6) Cupcake Royale running out of cupcakes.
7) Driving five hours through the mountains of northern California and southern Oregon alone in a rental car with the engine light on in the pouring rain. Luckily some desserts from Sweet Life were waiting for me in Eugene with Eliz:
Sweet Life overindulgence.
I'm moving to the Bay Area tomorrow for good. I hope to be blogging more regularly in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. Life is just a little bit crazy right now...
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