France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

January 4, 2010

The Stranger

50 years ago today, Albert Camus, 46, journalist, novelist, playwright, and Resistance hero, died — or, as the French say, ‘disappeared’ — in what Paris Match called “a banal highway accident.” And yet Camus, a bi-cultural symbol of hope and unity in fractious times that pitted the country of his birth, Algeria, against that of his blood, France, is more present than ever in today’s France and Europe. Not because president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to move him to the Pantheon, where repose the great men (and one great woman, Marie Curie) of France, but because, in an apparent attempt to change the subject, ahead of regional elections, from fear of daily survival to fear of the Other, Sarkozy, himself the son of immigrants, has launched a nationwide ‘debate’ on ‘national identity.’ At a time when neighboring Switzerland has just voted to ban the Muslim minaret, perhaps we should be thinking not of where Camus’s remains rest but of what remains of his personal example, that of someone whose final battle was to reconcile his two cultures. Coming from the United States and growing up in San Francisco, I see not the danger of the Other, but the beauty of the mosaic; how the base culture — which I treasure, it’s why I’m here — is not threatened, but enhanced by the ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ cultures it assimilates. (In the French original, Camus’s novel “The Stranger” — in which the protagonist is ostracized not for killing an Arab but for not crying at his mother’s funeral — is called “L’etranger,” which also means “the foreigner.”) Take the example of the pumpkin flan I served my French guests for Thanksgiving-Christmas-Chanuka dinner the other night.

After eight+ years in France, I’ve given up on having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving. The first year was fine. Taking advantage of the fact that the butcher on the corner of my street in the 13eme district of Paris always displayed birds complete with their feathers in his window, I decided to buy a turkey with feathers for the first time in my life. “Can you pluck him?” I asked, or rather mimed — I hadn’t been here long, and my French was feeble — “But then give me the feathers afterwards?” I wanted to use them as a centerpiece. After burning one pecan pie in the strange French oven, before I started the turkey I returned to the butcher’s with a napkin on which I’d drawn pictures of the two dials on my oven, one with weird symbols, the others with numbers, and asked him to indicate the proper settings for the turkey. The turkey came out great, as did the second pecan pie, but of all the items I served, the hit of the party was the candied yams covered with pineapples and roasted marshmellows, a recipe of my late dear friend, Annette Clark. (Ironically, I had trouble getting around the concept this time, as the only marshmellows I could find were muti-colored. Melted green glop on top of your sweet potatoes, or yams, does not exactly make them appetizing.)

For this year’s Thanksgiving-Chanuka-Noel party, I’d initially been planning to serve raclettes. This is kind of like fondue, but better. Instead of sitting around a fondue pot in which the fondue gradually turns into glop over the course of a long evening, with raclettes, you make your individual serving whenever you’re ready for it: Each person has a little pan, which fits neatly into a slot under the burning coil, on top of which is a hot surface to keep the potatoes warm. (The raclette apparatus has slots for 6 – 8 pans, so the dining is communal and convivial.)Onto the pan you place your slice of raclette cheese, ideally over a thin slice of raw ham or other meat, until it melts, then you pour it over your potatoes. Raclette describes both the cheese and the device with which, back in the day, and perhaps still today up in the Alps or Savoie where the dish originated, you peeled off the slices after melting a big wedge of cheese over a fire. For raclette to be good, though, it really has to come from the mountains — and not from the shelves of a super-market, where the concept ‘raclette’ is usually taken to mean simply ‘it melts’ and does not promise the cheese in question will taste like anything, let alone its crust. (The first time I bought raclette at my favorite Parisian fromagerie — on the rue Montorgueil, where it came in three flavors, smoked, natural, and pepper — when I asked the cheeseman if it was okay to eat the crust, he cheesily answered, “As long as you have a toilet nearby.” In fact, with raclette as with rebluchon — another melting mountain cheese, the basis for tartiflette — it’s the crust that gives the taste.)

But getting back to my Thanksgiving-Chanukah-Noel party: My plans to make use of my raclette set were foiled by my inability to find any kind of really authentic raclette cheese throughout my county of the Dordogne here in southwest France, which is more known for pre-historical caves and cave paintings and for duck products than cow cheese. (Goat and sheep’s cheese are another story.)

This is the point at which the Thanksgiving party melded into the annual Chanuka-Noel party, as I still had half of a sack of potatoes left and voila, latkes!

For the aperitif I served fresh pissenlit which I’d picked that morning — dandelion leaves to you, bub — and made up like a spinach dip, as well as tartines of fresh walnuts (the paths are paved with them here) and melted blue next-to-Savoy/Alpes cheese. (I mentioned real raclette is impossible to find here. In fact, up to about three weeks ago the Savoy cheese market around here was a bit of a racket. The stands that popped up at area outdoor markets sold the cow cheese for up to 50 Euros a kilogram. Well, apparently this was such a scandal that the t.v. news did a segment on it, which was seen by a big cow cheese maker in the Savoy, who sent his brother here to sell his specialty at reasonable prices. The blue was on sale for 4.90 a kilo. The tome de Savoy injected with penicillin was also cheap, at 8.90. Unfortunately, the one exception was the… raclette! Fairly priced at $10/kilo but with a taste just like monterey jack. “It’s from Italy,” the brother told me.)

Getting back to my aperitifs: Amazingly enough, even though it was the one thing I thought my guests wouldn’t like, as it came out tasting bitter — I told them it was an experiment and I wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t like it — the pissenlit dip was a hit. (Later, one of the guests, learning that I’d picked the pissenlit from the hill between his house and the road, said his dog droopy loved pissenlit and that’s probably the reason it was bitter.) For the apero part of the apero — the drink — I made vin chaud or mulled wine. (A couple of cloves, peel of tangerines and then their juice, lots of sugar, cinnamon, and wine — which can be cheap wine, in my case 1.50 a bottle plus some leftover cheap beaujolais nouveau.) To keep it hot — as I was serving in the upstairs bedroom/salon, where the fire is, and not the cold kitchen/dining room downstairs — I hit upon the idea of plugging in the raclette set and using it effectively as a hot plate, putting the pot of wine where the potatoes usually were. (When my guests said they smelled something burning, I explained that it was just old embedded raclette cheese.)

Before serving the latkes — we’d moved downstairs to the kitchen — I explained why the Jews cooked them on Chanuka: Besieged in their temple, the Jews only had a bit of oil with which they had to keep their lamps going for eight days while they waited for re-enforcements. Miraculously, the bit of oil lasted for eight days. Then I ladled the batter into much more than a bit of oil.

While my neighbors from the north Marie-Jeanne and Christian — young retirees from Lille — had promised to bring a cake for desert, in the market that morning a few freshly cut slices of potiron — like pumpkin — caught my eye. Then I spotted the condensed milk prominently displayed across from the check-out aisle. Pumpkin pie! As my oven isn’t deep enough for pies, I instead poured the filling (to the pumpkin and condensed milk — I used a medium-sized can, with enough left over for my 20-something Siamese — I added two eggs and some freshly grated nutmeg) into individual ceramic custard pots with birds on the bottom, that neatly fit into their own rack that neatly fits into the oven. Towards the end I gave each a freshly cracked walnut morsel.

I was a bit disappointed when no one ate my dessert, instead preferring to go for seconds of the bakery-bought raspberry cake. I even thought I might have committed a faux pas, in making a second desert when Christian and Marie-Jeanne had said they would bring a cake. Mostly to mollify me, Christian asked if he could take one of the custard pots home with him to eat later.

When I went by their place up the hill this morning after picking fresh pissenlit (or, as the French joke, piss en lit/piss in bed), Marie-Jeanne handed me the pot and said she was glad I’d come by as the custard was fantastic and she had to have the recipe to serve tonight to guests. “We’re from the north, so this is all new to us,” she said, showing me various orange, yellow, and orange-green squashes and pumpkins a guy brings by for her once a week.

A native French person had not just complemented my cooking — of something from my culture — but asked for the recipe. I gave it to her, stranger no more — at least for a day.

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