Monday, September 07, 2009

La morte de la librarie

The New York Times' Arts Beat blog reported a few days ago on the demise of a popular French-language bookshop in Rockefeller Center, the Librarie de France. The shop will close September 30.

Not being much of a fan of New York City, I've never stayed long enough to find gems such as this one, and I'm sorry to hear of its closing. It's a sad trajectory for independent businesses as it is without factoring in the trends in independent bookselling.

On that same day, immediately prior to the news about the Librarie, the NYT published a story about an English bookseller who met a similar fate. That story was both tragic and amusing, because the bloke who owned the scorned shop placed much of the blame on a charitable organization. I can't say I blame him.

As a bibliophile, I admit to being enamored with the image of a dusty English bookshop with its nooks and crannies. Growing up, part of me always wanted to be Helene Hanff and have some dapper, book-finding Englishman all to myself.

However, I also admit to patronizing, Fnac, Barnes & Noble and Borders (where, I might add, I find the majority of my family's birthday and Christmas gifts on the fabulous clearance racks!). I have patronized independent bookstores, but they tend not to stock many of the specialized-interest books in which I'm interested.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ode to Lutèce

My favorite current show, Mad Men, had its season three premiere last Sunday and the hubby and I hosted a party for our friends to come watch it.

I'd spent a good week watching every episode of season two on blu-ray and exploring the set's special features, one of which is a delightful clip of the great André Soltner, chef and later owner of the much-vaunted restaurant, Lutèce, creating his famous tarte aux pommes à l'Alsacienne.

He is quite charming in the clip - when asked by an off-camera person, "What do you do [for a living]?," he answers, "Today, I am eating!"

The clip moves back and forth between cooking instructions and the story of how Soltner came to be a chef, then immigrated to America where he first worked at Lutèce and later owned it until 1994 (it later closed in 2004). The video is by no means an exhaustive study of a brilliant chef, but it serves its purpose: After carefully watching the clip three times (unfortunately, the blu-ray disc was programmed so that it was not possible to pause, rewind or fast-forward within the special features), I gleaned just about all the information I needed to replicate the tarte.

(One all-important ingredient for the dish's flan, the heavy cream, is mentioned in the clip, but not the quantity needed. This I gathered from a page of Soltner's cookbook that flashes across the opening screen of the time capsule special feature.)

The characters in Mad Men dine often at Lutèce in season two; it is also the location of the infamous encounter between Don Draper and Bobbi Barrett in the women's restroom.

So it's French, it's Mad Men, and I can't resist two things I love together. I made the tarte, it was fabulous, and I can't wait to make it again when golden delicious apples are actually in season!

Tarte aux pommes à l'Alsacienne
d'André Soltner

Part One: Pâte brisée (crust)
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into little pieces (keep very cold)
1 large egg

Mix the flour, salt, sugar & butter with your hands until well-blended. Break the egg into the mixture and combine with wooden spoon.

Remove from bowl and form into flat, rounded piece of dough (on floured board). Allow to rest in refrigerator for at least one hour, wrapped in plastic.

Part Two: Constructing the tarte
Preheat oven: 365° (between 350° and 375°, depending on your oven.)

3-4 large apples (preferred: golden delicious)
sugar (optional)
almond flour (optional)

Peel apples, quarter and remove core. Cut each apple quarter into quarters again. If using a not-so-sweet variety of apples, toss with a little sugar before putting into tarte.

Roll out pâte brisée on floured board to approximately 1/8 inch thickness. Press into moule, running rolling pin over top to get rid of excess dough.

If apples are very juicy (not usually so with golden delicious), sprinkle a light layer of almond flour in bottom of moule before layering apples.

Layer apple slices in concentric circles from outside to middle of moule. Bake on center rack for 15-20 minutes or until apples become soft (test with blade of sharp paring knife).

Part Three: Flan
1/2 cup sugar
2 small/1 large egg
drop of vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream

Whisk together sugar and eggs until sugar is completely dissolved, then whisk in vanilla and heavy cream.

Once apples have softened, pour flan over top of tarte and bake another 20-25 minutes, until flan is firm and lightly browned. Serve at room temperature (French vanilla ice cream makes a wonderful accompaniment!).

Photo: Tarte maison. Copyright MLG.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Au Revoir to All That

I just finished reading Michael Steinberger's recent book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France. The title caused me to initally think that this book had been written by a critic from the food industry who hated France. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Steinberger is actually a Francophile and was honestly trying to investigate the so-called "crisis" in French cooking.

Steinberger has the enviable journalistic privilege of managing to interview the most famous chefs and food critics in the world, some of whom died within a year or two of his speaking with them. Paul Bocuse, Pascal Remy, Jean-Luc Naret, and the widow of Alain Chapel were among his subjects.

The author does raise some valid points about the changes evident in French culture that began as recently as the late 1970s, and my heart did ache for him in his tale of Au Chapon Fin, a Michelin-starred restaurant at which he had dined with his parents as a child. He later returned as an adult to find the ambiance and food seriously lacking, and later to find the restaurant closed and its host town, Thoissey, wiped from the Michelin guide entirely. He uses this story as a framework for his investigation of France's restaurant industry and, to a certain extent, its food industry, though the latter seems more lightly researched and treated in the book.

Steinberger makes the point throughout the book that many producers of poor-quality breads, wines and cheeses still manage to survive and, in some cases, are edging out their higher-quality competition. I admit to having experienced this aspect of the "crisis" myself.

I was horrified that the only boulangerie in the small town in which I resided for part of my time in France had incredibly dry, nearly inedible bread. Yet this bakery was packed with people every day around 6 p.m with commuters who worked in nearby Tours. Folks who had forgotten to stop at Paul for their bread before coming home settled for this inferior product. I was perplexed that a shop with such bad bread could manage to survive in a French town, but it seemed that enough people in the town put up with the terrible bread to keep it in business. When I inquired about the situation, my host father explained that there had been a second bakery in town that sold much better bread, but it had moved closer to the city since it hadn't attracted enough business out in the country.

Despite Steinberger's vehement argument, I'm still doubtful that there's actually a crisis. In addition to this book, I've read several articles on the subject and none of them have convinced me that it is the cooking that is in crisis. Rather, what is in crisis is France's cultural identity. A government that has denied for years the influences of its former colonists has also denied the changes they've brought to the "French" way of life. When an entire culture changes so gradually, the things that were continually swept under the rug for so many years come as a shock when finally brought into relief.

I don't think that French people value good food any less; they are simply struggling with the issues that Americans struggled with in the 1980s. Women were entering the workforce and trying to manage the juggle between work and family. I like to think that there is more balance in this area today than there was when my mother was raising three daughters and working, but French women seem to still be in the "first generation" of women who spend more waking hours at work than at home each day.

Yes, it's sad to find that supermarkets with their snack aisles and convenience foods have become an integral part of daily life in France, but there will always be those who value freshly prepared seasonal cuisine and who will seek it out.

I would definitely recommend Au Revoir to All That to anyone interested in France's dining industry. I would not recommend it to anyone with a fear of repetitive words: the world 'eponymous' appears about 30 times. That word is just as bad as dry, tough bread.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

La Transformation

When I read about ModCloth's Terrific Transformations Contest, I inevitably thought about the months I spent in France. Now that it's been over five years since I returned from my extended stay in 2004, I've had the time to really reflect on what I learned during that time and how it changed me forever.

I think the main trait that my stay in Touraine changed about me was my level of maturity. Until then, I had never truly lived on my own. Though I had my own dorm room for a few years, I had never been really responsible for preparing all my own meals and figuring out how to live.

The first few weeks were difficult. I had gone to live with a family who had experienced true tragedy: the father had just lost his beloved wife to a chronic illness followed by a lengthy coma. He was struggling to learn all of the household skills that his wife had taken care of for so many years. He was re-learning how to be a father to his 12-year-old son, who himself was learning how to cope with life as a motherless child amidst the awkwardness of burgeoning adolescence.

Enter me, a somewhat naive 21-year-old college student with big ideas about deconstructing every stereotype that ever existed between the French and the Americans. I truly could not begin to understand what these two men were going through, but I was suddenly thrust into their lives and had to figure out how to make it all work.

The father's expectations didn't quite match the traditional role of an au-pair (he let his cleaning lady go a week before I arrived) and combined with the fact that he was a neophyte at household management and was also emotionally crippled, things did not go well. I had dreamt of coming to France to discover new places and nuances in the language, not to scrub toilets and iron dress shirts.

In short, I couldn't make it work. It was a big lesson in listening to myself and understanding when I couldn't make a difference, or at least not make the difference these people were expecting. I felt like a failure when I informed my host father that I would be moving into an apartment after about six weeks in the house. He seemed almost relieved. I think it had been a strain on him to pretend to be a normally-functioning man for my benefit when he was actually so bereaved and confused about his own life.

But the experience did have its advantages: for the first time, I realized that I was the only one who could direct my own life. I did not have to allow one of the best experiences of my life to be so severely influenced by the misery of an unfortunately tragic situation. Though that sounds selfish, I think it was for the best.

The experience transformed me from a naive girl into a self-sufficient woman. I had to cook and clean for myself; navigate the transportation system; master lingusitic and cultural obstacles and maintain my schoolwork at the same time.

Part of it were successful; parts of it weren't. But I think of that experience as my transformation from a girl into a woman; from a person who'd never left her hometown into a citizen of the world.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Tangible Stimulus

The New York Times reported yesterday on France's stimulus package. I have to admit that it sounds much more appealing than ours does currently - a big flashy project like the Château de Fontainebleau makes for much better publicity than our slow roll out of funds. Sometimes I daydream about what it would be like to live in a country in which the arts are so highly valued.

I don't mean to say that the U.S. doesn't value the arts; it's just that the folks responsible for creating our budgets tend not to put their money where their praise is. Even living in an area as artistically and philathropically rich as Pittsburgh, I wish that there was more government support.

Pennsylvania's governor, Ed Rendell, recently decided to balance the state's budget by pulling funding for an astonishing number of nonprofit organizations across the state. This includes not only traditional arts organizations, but historic preservation groups and libraries as well. It gets very tiresome to hear every few years that our local nonprofits could be in serious jeopardy.

Our local regional asset district, which collects 1% sales tax in Allegheny County for the support of public assets, made the decision several years ago to use a great deal of its money to commit to several large, multi-year projects. As a result, funding for smaller organizations was reduced and, coupled with the elimination of state-level funding in the new budget, I'm not sure how many of them will survive much longer. (This same regional asset district contributed to the funding of Heinz Field and PNC Park, both "public assets" that should be able to support themselves, in my opinion.)

I know that many Americans are suffering in the current economic situation and there are myriad sad and tragic stories as a result, but I think the arts situation is the one that depresses me the most. I'm not entirely convinced that government officials will restore nonprofit funding once the recession is over.

"It is easier to find money for castles and cathedrals, of course, in a country that believes “art is equal to other investments, not secondary,” as Mr. Devedjian puts it." -NYT

Photo: Château de Fontainebleau by Feuillu.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Trouble With Art Historians

I've nothing against art historians in general - after all, I'm one myself - but there's a recurring problem I've found with certain of these scholars: they also think they're linguists.

Many folks assume that because art historians spend their time studying minute details of an artist's life and work, that they are also the foremost authority on the pronunciation of said artist's name. Not all art historians are linguists, and most linguists are decidedly not art historians.

I wish these scholars would realize that there's no shame in admitting that they don't know a certain bit of information. It makes them appear far less stupid to admit this outright than to go about mispronouncing the names of dead Frenchmen on nationwide speaking tours.

Artwork: Jean-Francois Millet, L'Angelus (1857-59).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar Night à la française

It turned out to be a fabulous Oscar night for the French, despite Mickey Rourke's lack of awards. Marion Cotillard was a presenter; Jerry Lewis was honored by the Academy for his humanitarian work; Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior made their requisite appearances on the stars.

But the Frenchman who stole the evening had to be Philippe Petit with his Oscar-balancing act. He gave the best acceptance speech of them all - at least, far better than the cringe-inducing, painfully long speeches of many of the foreigners who accepted last night.

Hint: If you can't say much more than "I'd like to thank the Academy", then you shouldn't even try to wow us with your linguistic pyrotechnics. Marion was pushing it with her fem-bot reading of the teleprompter while presenting Kate Winslet with the Best Actress award. French accents are cute, but usually only when they're free-flowing.

Photo: Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

Monday, February 09, 2009

Le retour de Mickey Rourke

I finally saw The Wrestler this past weekend. In a word, it is AMAZING. Though I've never been familiar with lead actor Mickey Rourke's career and have never gotten closer to professional wrestling than watching Slim Jim commercials in the early 90s, I am fascinated by this film.

There's absolutely nothing French about The Wrestler - it's a truly American film in every sense: plot (washed-up wrestler woos washed-up stripper); setting (New Jersey, blue-collar capital of cinema and rock & roll alike); soundtrack (mind-blowing 80s hair metal and a Springsteen special). I mention it here* because it's become well-known, especially since the film's release in December 2008, that the French were the ones who never gave up on Mickey Rourke. They've believed in him since his debut in Diner and, like his Wrestler character Randy "The Ram" Robinson's fans, their critics and audiences stuck with him though his own bout with the 90s doldrums, long after American critics gave up on him entirely. "The 90s fuckin' sucked!" Randy and stripper friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) emphatically agree in the film. Both actors would probably agree with that statement even off-screen, considering the hard knocks their careers each endured during those years.

Rourke at one time blatantly said that the French stuck behind him all those years because they were more cultured. I can't defend that exact statement, but it does sound like something I'd say myself, so I can't blame him for it, either.

Personally, several things stood out to me in the film:

I was immediately struck by the parallel career trajectories of both Randy and the metal bands that provide the film's soundtrack. Quiet Riot, Ratt, Cinderella and the rest are poster children for glory days that have been usurped by drug overdoses, health problems and infighting.

During one poignant scene, Randy attends a "legend signing" event that draws far from a crowd. After schlepping his Polaroid camera (for photo ops, $8 each), faded VHS tapes and sweatshirts to the event, he stares around the room and sees that the heart attack he's endured is nothing compared to the wheelchairs, colostomy bags and canes of his peers.

I was also impressed at how Rourke and director Darren Aronofsky were able to make the audience care for Randy. He seems like such a nice guy that it is painful to watch him screw up every good thing he tries to establish in his life, and also to realize how much he's screwed up before the film even begins. As Bruce Springsteen sings at the end of the film, Randy truly is a "one-trick pony" who decides that it's too late in life to turn his back on the only ones who care about him - his fans.

The film has had its French premiere but doesn't arrive in theatres there until February 18. When it does, I'll be perusing the reviews to see what Rourke's biggest fans have to say about his most acclaimed performance ever. I'm sure we'll be hoping for a Best Actor Oscar win on both sides of the pond.

*You have no idea how happy it made me to realize that I could include a reflection on The Wrestler on my blog. From the beginning, I've tried to keep this site strictly franco-centric.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Encore une fois

"How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life." ~Katherine Mansfield

I'm back after a very long hiatus.

I made this blog private two years ago because I had reason to believe it was being used to "spy" on me,* but I've revived it mainly due to the hole in my heart.

No, I haven't developed a medical condition over the past two years; it's simply been far too long since I've been in la belle France. A two-week honeymoon in French Polynesia certainly did help, but that was nearly three years ago. Our economy is so bad that I'm beginning to worry that I'll never make it back to my beloved castles, cheeses, pastries and wines.

It is my hope that writing about France regularly again will help with my heartache.

*I think I have my own private Javert!

Photo: Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, Indre-et-Loire, France. Copyright MLG.