Tuesday, May 20, 2014

More May Migas

I had what I can only describe as a stupid revelation the other day when I realized that the main reason I was eating as well as I am is not because of the quality of the ingredients I was buying (when it comes to fruit and vegetables, after all, France led in that area most of the time) but the fact that 99% of the cookbooks and recipes I use were written for Americans using American ingredients. After all, I struggled for years to make cornbread in Europe, trying this version of cornmeal and that version and failing over and over, and eventually smuggling back bags of cornmeal from Texas or whatever US destination I'd been in and parcelling it out like a precious substance -- which it was! -- and never, for instance, using it as the sliding medium on the pizza peel, in favor of semolina.

But now I can get it whenever I want, and my preferred kind (Lamb's) is available in the supermarket down the street for two bucks a bag. (I have no idea why this kind is so much better than everything else I've tried, but all I know is that I asked a friend to mule me some cornmeal when he visited from Texas one time and the results were stupendous).

Diligent research had settled me on the Northern Cornbread recipe from The New Best Recipe, but I was mooching around the Internet one day after I moved back to Texas and found one that looked pretty good. Hey! I told myself. That sounds good -- and I can easily make it. So I did.

Last Sunday's sunrise
The picture here fails to get the intense yellow of the cornbread and cheese, but it looks even better if you click the picture and make it bigger. The recipe is here (scroll down some), and if you play around with it a bit (ie, I omit the garlic, which made no difference whatever in the taste last time, I remembered not to stick the cheese in the batter, which made the cornbread almost indigestible, and I trusted my eyes and nose to warn me when it was done, because I think he has you bake it too long) you, too, may make perfect Texas cornbread. It also freezes perfectly, and if you wrap a defrosted hunk in foil and bake it at 350º for around 15 minutes, you'd almost never guess it was leftovers.

I guess as far as revelations go, that one's sort of a "Duh" moment. Still, at my age you take the revelations you get and are happy you're still getting them.

* * *

I forget who's directly responsible for this, but at long last I have a concise explanation for what it was about living in France that bothered me and why I finally had to move. I do know that it came about because I had read and enjoyed a book called Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr, who's Fisher's great-nephew. The book's kind of inside baseball for anyone not fascinated by the subject, but it did remind me that Fisher is a fascinating character. At any rate, someone recommended Two Towns in Provence by her, commenting that I might get more out of it than the average person. 

The book is actually two books, the first, Map of Another Town, about her time(s) in Aix-en-Provence and the second, A Considerable Town, about Marseille. Both are fairly close to where I lived, in Montpellier, although I never visited either during my 20 years in Europe. So I went down to Book People and picked up a copy (which I had to special order, but hey, the  price was the same as Amazon and they're an indie bookstore). One evening I started reading it, and immediately fell under the spell of her prose. All I'd read by her up until then was her food writing, collected in the classic The Art of Eating, and the prose there was also magnificent. But this, this was a different matter. 

The basic story is that as a young woman, Fisher had lived in (and, I think, studied in) Dijon, and had discovered France and its ways there. The man she was married to at that time died young, and she had two daughters to look after. But when they were old enough, the three of them went to France and stayed for a while in Aix, where the girls went to school and Mary Frances Katherine...observed stuff. She talks of this as a map, an ordering of her surroundings that permeates her consciousness, just as Dijon, which still showed up in her dreams, did. Living in a boarding house, she isn't exactly a resident of Aix, and in a chapter called "The Foreigner," she nailed something I'd certainly experienced, but never managed to solidify into words. Here's the passage. The second paragraph, in particular, made me sit up straight and re-read it several times before I could go on. 

In Aix, I came in for a certain amount of the old patronizing surprise that I did not have an "American accent," which I do; that I did not talk through my nose, which I don't; that I knew how to bone a trout on my plate and drink a good wine (or even how to drink at all), which I do. I accepted all this without a quiver: it was based on both curiosity and envy. 

What was harder to take calmly, especially on the days when my spiritual skin was abnormally thin, was the hopeless admission that the people I really liked would never accept me as a person of perception and sensitivity perhaps equal to their own. I was forever in their eyes the product of a naïve, undeveloped, and indeed infantile civilization, and therefore I was incapable of appreciating all the things that had shaped them into the complicated and deeply aware supermen of European culture that they firmly felt themselves to be. 

It did not matter if I went four times to hear The Marriage of Figaro during the [Aix] Festival: I was an American culture-seeker, doing the stylish thing, and I could not possibly hear in it what a Frenchman would hear. This is of course probable; but what occasionally depressed me was that I was assumed to have a deaf ear because I was a racially untutored American instead of simply another human being.

This wall never falls, yet she persists. To do so, she has to create a shell which practically nobody but her girls gets through. She's forced into a selfishness in her relations with others, while accepting that this diminishes her in some ways. But it also allows her to deal with France on her own terms, to do the things she wants to do, and, in its egotism, perhaps makes her the amazing writer she was. France's loss, by all means.

There's still the second half of the volume to go, and I'll jump into it soon. But it's a relief to be reminded that it's not just the draconian demands Americans have to satisfy to get a visa, not just the absurd banking regulations (on both sides) that prevents them, effectively, from having a bank account, not just the absurd bureaucracy that stymied me. No, there was, as they say, something in the water.

I fully intend to go back to France as many times as I can in the future, but I know I can never live there. It was there, after all, that I learned an important lesson: that beauty is as important a factor in making me happy as accomplishment and love and good health, and that, furthermore, it's far easier to make happen. I suspect I'll find that principle espoused in pages of Mrs. Fisher's that I still haven't read because a lot of the time, I think we're on the same road.

* * *

Incidentally, one of the really rewarding things I've done since I've been back has been teaching a history of Austin music course at the University of Texas' "Continuing and Innovative Education" program. I learned a bunch of stuff myself, and not just about how to teach it far better the next time around. I'm teaching it again in August, and I guess enrollment is open, because two people have already signed up for it. I know: Texas in August. But the room's air-conditioned, and there'll be neat photos you've never seen, cool music you've never heard, and UT's air-conditioning, which they're paying for. If you've got to be in Austin during August, it's a great way to spend Wednesday evenings.  Sign up! See you there!


  1. Well, there is snobbism to be found in France for sure, or anywhere in Europe....as well as in other places and continents and not so much in the US. Interestingly the same goes for cynicism and sarcasm and skepticism, but it does depend a lot in which circles one moves.

    I woulnd't call it 'there was something in the water' though - it really is more complicated than that. And throwing things into the mix like 'draconian demands Americans have to satisfy to get a visa' only shows that you have no idea whatsoever what kind of demands non-Americans have to go through trying to live in the US. Come on!
    The stupefying banking regulations you don't like are American made too - !!!. You are right regarding bureaucracy, again this goes for all of Europe - the US definitely is less hampered by that. It was way worse before the EU came into being!

  2. Poor reading comprehension there, Anon. I'm fully aware of how the U.S. treats would-be immigrants, even if they're married to Americans, but it's *much* easier to get legal in Germany or Spain than it is in France. Much.

    And, if you'll notice, I said that the banking problem was on both sides. Read the Fisher quote again: this is more than mere snobbism, sorry.

  3. Thank you for the book recommendation. I live in Aix-en-Provence and am always interested in reading other's perspective of the town. BTW, moving to Montpellier in september. Your insights into the city, and restaurant recommendations, were much appreciated. Thanks for keeping the blog.

  4. Those issues that Fisher had in Aix are pretty common in the expat world, no matter where you live. I've still got plenty of friends in Japan who regularly complain that they will never be accepted as an equal (or Japanese, or whatever), no matter how many decades they've lived there.

    These same people also regularly wonder why Japanese people can't be more like them, i.e. there seems to be insecurity and and superiority happening at the same time. I don't know Fisher, and haven't read her book, but just in that one small quote she chose the word 'supermen' to, I assume, belittle the perceived over-arrogance of the French.

    I don't want to say that it's a mistake to want to be accepted, but I do think you're asking for trouble if you want to accepted as French or Japanese. You aren't.

    My experience is nothing like what she describes, and I know plenty of people who feel the same (I also know lots who would agree with her) as me. Saying that there's 'something in the water' is too simple because everyone has their own reality here.

    Now, if you want to talk about something universally irritating, lets discuss the French bureaucracy!

  5. the only question is : did she learn and speak french fluently enough ? A lot of misunderstanding happens all the time, as I remember of the years I lived in the US.
    Funny this opera story : it reminds me of a VIP seat I was offering you one night for thee Opera de Montpellier,but you turned it down quite scornfully, telling that you hated italian opera. Ouf ! it was italian, not french. But still, we were trying to be your friend....

  6. If you read Fisher, you'll see her French was excellent. And she wasn't hoping to be accepted as "French," just as someone equal in sensitivity and perception, which those around her never conceded an American could be.

    As for the opera tickets, I have no idea who you are, and don't remember being offered a ticket, but I generally dislike opera, and the repertoire of the Montpellier company was like an anthology of operas I have no interest in. Pretty much anything written after Rameau bores me, I find the whole bel canto style irritating, and unless I'm getting paid to watch it, I'm going to pass.

  7. But Ed doesn't the long and spectacular history of the eternal stinking badness of french popular music sort of rattle the foundation of this hauteur? (or not?)

    I want to make your cornbread. I have been having such problems with it lately. Being a Louisiana girl I don't know why this is. Yes (!) I have an ancient well-seasoned cast iron pan. I don't know what is happening but it might be the heinous water locally here in the shabby suburbs of LA. Maybe I should order some of the Lamb's meal. When I was growing up in New Orleans cornmeal was most definitely sold in a bag like that (not a cardboard cylinder with a Quaker on it), but I don't know the brand.

    This is Margot Core, btw.

  8. Don't forget: it's not "my" cornbread, it's Mick Vann's. Try the recipe straight, and maybe use cornmeal from a health-food store. I don't know; I'm lucky to have Lamb's at the HEB.

    As for bad pop music, errr, they don't see it that way. You see, the rest of the world is wrong. MFK would recognize the syndrome.


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