Category Archives: spring

Toujours, Provence!

“Why not make a daily pleasure out of a daily necessity?”
― Peter Mayle

To live in the South means that you’ve engaged in a benign acceptance of the tangle referred to as seasons. Spring and Summer, capricious as they are, have flings with frost, with storms where the weather drops below wintery ranges. You learn to accept it, petals in snow, pollen frozen to the car, 40 degrees in the morning, 74 by noon, 79 by 3. It’s exhausting to plan a wardrobe of choices that can accommodate the fickleness, my car a repository for sweaters, sandals, emergency nail polish should I have to in fact brave the sandals. 

When this confusing kaleidoscope of weather sets in, accompanied by newly acquired allergies, I sink into books of faraway places, places that on the page are both achingly familiar and new. For the last couple of years, it’s been Under the Tuscan Sun, an enchanting incursion into setting up house in Italy. If you’ve watched the film, you might know about the poppy fields, the sunflowers, the house named Bramasole, but other than that, the two have nothing else in common. (Hence, if so inclined, read this delicious humorous book that will have you start packing with its first chapter.)

This year, I’ve picked up another one, to while away some of the minutes I can snag between grading essays. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, with all the humorous reflections you would expect from a true Brit living in France (read: the charming chaos ensues), and unexpected things: the recipe for the perfect fox cassoulet. (I admit feeling a bit offended!) 

This past weekend was unbearably hot, pool weather really, humidity to make the lungs ache. It a busy weekend too, one with little breathing room, so as Mayle waxed about boar pates, choucrutes, Sanguete delapin et oignons  a “crêpe” of rabbit blood and pearl onions,  I created my own Provence in our midtown Atlanta dwelling. We began with a Saturday brunch with dear friends, in which a caramelized spring onion jam was folded into fluffy eggs with mushrooms, spinach, and a goat cheese ricotta blend. We topped those frittaa slices with Campari tomatoes, small, pearl-like, and incredibly sweet. 

Next were crepes. We filled them with whipped cream, fresh berries, jams, drizzled honey. For added protein, small spicy saucisson, some apple flavored, some andouille. There were mimosas and pomegranate bellinis, and coffee with more whipped cream. We had the French doors open, and true to Southern weather, the breeze that stole in was morning cool, and brought in the fragrance of cherry trees and dogwood. Later, I did get a bit of a sore throat from the pollen, but the fragrance alone was worth it. Our brunch extended like a true European meal over a couple of hours, followed by a few more hours of more coffee and conversation. I felt like myself again. 

Before we set off to run errands, we piled the dishes in the sink, left all the glasses strewn on the counter – things that would normally bother me – and went into the courtyard to lay in the sun and read. I continued with my Provence book, read parts of it out loud to Darren. We drank light sour beers and leftover champagne. I wore a hat. It really was a bit like the French countryside with the fountain whistling its song in the background. 

Sunday was yet again, busy, exhausting. Always too many things to do, too much to think about, to explore, to plan. Church, budgets, cooking for the week, exercise,  lesson plans, more grading. Everyone it Atlanta was at the Dogwood Festival, so the Midtown streets were filled with people eating cotton candy, sipping ices, carrying balloons and other paraphernalia suggesting a carnival-like day.

Once the day permitted us, we hid in our home away from the onslaught, and only left again for one brief trek to the supermarket for prosciutto and a baguette. We made luscious sandwiches, a cultural cross between French and Italian. It was our way of inviting the twilight and the cool into ourselves, of gaining quiet, of absorbing the activity of the day, sorting it into its categories of meaning, laying it to rest. 

I packed my Provence book along with my school materials. It is a boon, something to carry with me through the week, a house to walk into when the world throws frost and pollen at me, when students yawn through the elegance of Woolf, when I need a few minutes of indulgent escape. 

The recipe was taken from the Cozy Apron, and made with love and a few tweaks, a baguette instead of Ciabatta, and I used raw sunflower seeds for the vinaigrette. It was a dreamy indulgence, especially accompanied by glasses of sparkling rose. 

 

Spring

On the final Friday of Spring Break, I went to hot yoga, and for an hour I twisted and sweated and worked and let go. Early spring is chaotic, my teacher said—the weather is chaotic, hot-and-cold, windy-wet-placid-windy, and our lives can reflect that, our bodies can reflect that—and her words resonated with me, in my own season of chaos. This semester has been a complicated series of tight deadlines, of endless paperwork, of snow days and the work that comes with making up for snow days, of grading-grading-grading, of pouring everything I can into my students, while still staying married and somewhat sane.

I’m co-leading a study abroad to China this summer, and what that means is it’s my job to make sure seventeen of the very best students on our campus get their paperwork filled out correctly, get their visas on time, get on the right plane, and spend over a month in China having the time of their lives (without getting bird flu). It’s been much more demanding—and even more rewarding—than I could have anticipated.

But the season has taken its toll on me. I am the kind of person who internalizes stress, who gets everything done, who meets every deadline, but then who crashes physically. I have done this as long as I can remember. But I am getting older now, and I realize that my ability to do this is waning.

So I take breaks. I go to yoga. I slow down. I do my best.

And I’ve been trying to feed myself more vegetables, trying to be better to my body, trying to give it what it needs to repair itself. To restore itself.

This week, we got our first Produce Box of the season, and I was delighted at the return of our weekly vegetables. This week, we received sweet potatoes, kale, tangerines, pea shoots, and the softest lettuce I’ve ever had. So this weekend, I made salads. Tender, sweet vegetables, lots of color, tahini dressing.

The pussy willow in our front yard is blooming, its delicate fuzzy catkins a promise of milder temperatures and calmer weather that surely must be on its way. In the air is a feeling of promise, of renewal, and I cling to this feeling. I can’t wait to be on the plane to China, to be so singularly focused. To put the cold and wet of the winter behind me, to thaw out and let the sun warm me to my bones.

Pussy willows are sometimes used in Chinese New Year decorations (the name translates to “silver willow” and sounds like the words that mean “money flowing in”). They’ve also been connected to Palm Sunday celebrations, and in Latvia, the holiday is even called “Pussy Willow Sunday,” the branches of the plant a harbinger of spring, of new life. Resurrection. A new beginning.

So this spring, I cut pussy willow sprigs and bring them inside. I eat my salads. I go to yoga. I untangle myself from the icy, brittle winter, and prepare for summer. The season is still chaos, and will be chaos until the middle of May, but I know it’s a season. And every season ends.

For this salad, I used the vegetables and toppings I had on hand: lettuce, pea shoots, cucumber, red pepper, red cabbage, toasted cashews, golden raisins. I made this dressing, and it was delightful.

Smoky Lemon Tahini Salad Dressing

Adapted from Bon Appétit

Ingredients:

1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice (about one lemon)
1 garlic clove, grated
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp smoked paprika

Purée all ingredients in a blender, thinning with more water if desired.