Tag Archives: longing

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. 

 

Whatever We May Lose

It has been seventeen years since my family emigrated from Romania, leaving behind all that was familiar and simple, for a country where, we believed, milk and honey flowed unabashedly. Where material prosperity would mean generosity of spirit.  Where celebration would be the course of every day reality.  In some ways we have found it to be so, although the initial disenchantment that follows all desired things inevitably came, and had to be embraced. And in the embracing of that, we found a new home. But this is a story for another time…. 

Of the many things my adolescent self didn’t anticipate, longing was the most surprising of all, longing for what had been the only home I knew. A place where poverty and plenty intersected in bizarre and beautiful ways. A place where the queues for milk or bread were hours long, where butter and bananas were luxury, but where the summer markets spilled over with sour cherries, radishes the brightest fuchsia, watermelon so sweet it made the brain hum with happiness. I loved the markets as a child, the toothless women selling bunches of spinach and spring onions, lily-of-the-valley bouquets. I loved the voices of people haggling for tomatoes the size of cantaloupes, arguing over whose blackberries were the ripest, and I would sneak away with the boon of a wild strawberry to satisfy my never-ending child hunger.

After the markets came the best part: my mother magically turning what I saw as disparate ingredients into beloved dishes. Stews with bright vegetables and sparing meat, to which my father would add red or green chilies for a bit of burn. Soups finished off with luscious dollops of sour cream, dill or parsley. 

On the weekends, my mom would ask what we were craving, and my predictable answer was potatoes or matzoh ball soup (yes, I was strange little kid). 

Though childhood has now slipped, and the mother country has faded a bit into the stuff of stories, the longing for its familiarity still catches me unawares. I turn a corner sometimes and smell bread baking, and I am in Iasi again, walking home after waiting in line, clutching a plastic bag which is slightly melting from the heat of fresh bread. 

Or I walk into my parents’ now house in a quiet suburb of Charlotte, and for a moment I am back home, where my mother’s golden head is bent over a pot of steaming soup, and her voice exclaims in delight that the spherical matzos are weightless as clouds. I sit at the table, and turn eleven again, asking for seconds and thirds, not worrying about calories or nutritional value, but intoxicated with this moment where my soul and body become satiated, before the hunger sets in again.

I make this soup for my husband, for my friends, some of which don’t know where Romania is on a map, but who eat this cross cultural dish, and for a few minutes share in a small thread of my childhood, and whatever I thought was lost, comes back to me fuller, sweeter, and more complicated than before. 

Smitten Kitchen has a gorgeous matzoh ball soup recipe here which, from all the ones I’ve researched, comes the closest to my mother’s.

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.
 –Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping