Saturday, June 30, 2007

In a Paris Cafe, Or: Beware the Sausage Appetizer

I love, love, love to eat when I'm traveling. Whether it's barbeque in the south, seafood on the coast, or tapas in Spain, I am always looking to try out the local cuisine.

My language skills are rudimentary at best; I usually learn a few words in the local idiom, but I generally speak like Tarzan: one painful word at a time, all in the present tense. I hungry now. I sleep now. I buy many shoes now. And since I'm always keen to try new things (except, apparently, a Berlitz course) I often wind up ordering something on the menu that I don't quite know what it is. This gave rise to the human flesh story, which is not in this episode. And it gave rise to the Episode of the Sausage Appetizer.

I was in Paris. (Wow! Doesn't that just sound amazing? That is possibly the coolest thing, ever, to be able to say). April in Paris, they tell you, is fabulous. The stuff of song and poetry, the springtime of the soul. It was not April. It was the last week in March, and Paris was holding on to the bitter damp of winter with both hands. It was FREEZING. It was rainy. It was, in the way only weather can be, miserable.

I did not care. I was in Paris. (Wow!) I was in Paris and I was going to eat in outdoor cafes, nibbling quiche and drinking red wine, even if it killed me, even if I froze off my feet and I had to stump home on my ankles. My thoughts turned to some of the heartier options on the menus, to help stave of hypothermia.

Many of the cafes had "chacuterie" on the menus. I had never had this famous dish of northern France, though I had read about it, and I have what I assume is an excellent recipe for it in my Julia Child cookbook. In the book, it's call "chacutrie garni" - garnished sausage - and the photo showed a comfortingly messy, homestyle platter with fat sausages, pork chops, potatoes, and mounds of saurkraut. You can almost smell the steamy kitchen it came from. I've always admired the concept - it seems like the best sort of beery excess, more food than anyone could eat - but I've never actually made it.

After days of tramping around in the frigid rain, the idea of this warm, homey platter became an obsession. The quiche was very nice but in the evening it was COLD and I wanted that hot food. I found a cafe with the magic words on the menu, and found a seat. It was still, barely, warm enough to be outside. My cane chair was damp, but I had the vision of dinner to keep me warm.

I ordered from the waiter, who looked slightly surprised yet impressed at my order. We confirmed that I only wanted a serving for one - did he think I was on a saurkraut binge? a garni junkie? And he trotted off with my order, leaving me to wonder vaguely why they didn't have the "garni" part of the title on the menu. A Parisian quirk, clearly. I dismissed that thought and observed the man at the table next to me, who was intently smoking a Gitane or a Galoise or what ever it is they smoke there, smoking with such intensity that he was lighting the fresh cigarette with the stump of the old one, and clearly waiting for someone.

His date and my dinner arrived at the same moment, though it was hard to tell who was less pleased. "Chacutrie" in Paris is not the near mythical Alsation dish of my dreams. It is, in fact, a platter of cold sliced sausages of various types. A HUGE platter. It seemed like pounds, like a sausage nightmare, a nightmare where your dish keeps refilling itself. And I, the ignorant American, had ordered it.

So I had to eat it. All of it. Oh, no.

As I plowed through my sausage festival - foie gras sausage, pork sausage, duck sausage, something with nuts - I watched with increasing interest the activties of Monsieur Gitane and his date. You know how you constantly hear that French women are the most seductive in the world, that they are the most stylish and knowing, that they wrap their men around their fingers? This woman was having none of it. She sat down and instantly made a cell phone call, with only the most perfunctory acknowledgement of her escort, and chattered away like an American teenager. Their drinks came. Her phone rang again. More chatter.

I was beginning to sweat from the sausage. There was no way I was going to finish this. There was no way I was going to concede defeat and not finish it.

Monsieur Gitane smoked furiously. His date chattered away, oblivious. I began to feel sorry for him. I definitely felt sorry for me. And also slightly sick.

Finally the table on the other side of me was filled, by a large and florid Frenchman smoking an extremely smelly cigar. That was the final straw, and I threw in the towel. Victory: to the Sausage.

Note so self: invest in a menu translator. And I staggered off, listening to Madame's cell phone chatter as it drifted behind me, into the night.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Airport Lust

This is NOT a hinky post about the mile-high club, or some freaky new use for luggage straps. So calm down.

It is, however, a little strange...

Does anyone else get really excited about the airport? I have to say one of the bitterest disappointments of the post-9/11 era is that going to the airport isn't quite as thrilling as it used to be. Now, instead of getting a knot in my stomach when I think about where I'm going and how ridiculously long it's going to take me - really, I won't sit in the exit row because at hour 7 of any trip, I start thinking about jumping out - I get a knot in my stomach thinking about going thru security and if I left my lip balm in my purse.

True confession - I have been known, in more innocent, psychotic-shoe-bomber-free times, to go to the airport just to watch the planes land. I used to be the sort of person who would meet a friend who had a layover in the airport - and trust me, I live in Atlanta so EVERYBODY did - for a drink, just for an hour, in the airport bar. How could you not? All that hustle and bustle, it made me feel jet-set by osmosis.

I fly a lot, and so I still get a great deal of enjoyment out of the airport. I love to watch the people rush around, tickets grasped tightly in their hands, carry-ons packed to bursting, and wonder where they are going. I love the USO greeter who meets the soldiers at the terminal entrance, when they come back from whatever God-awful tour of duty they've been on. I love watching the faces of the folks waiting to pick up their relatives at the officially sanctioned greeting spot, by baggage claim. And I love mocking what their relatives are wearing when they get there. Reallly, people - pajamas are meant to be worn by CHILDREN on airplanes. If at all.

But my favorite thing is to scan the departure boards as I walk towards my own gate - because it's ALWAYS the last one - and look at the names of the various cities, and daydream about a trip to this place or that. Sometimes, the city listed is less evocative than others. Kansas City, for instance, inspires a daydream of about 14 seconds. But coming home from my recent trip to Spain, after two weeks away from home, I looked up at the departure gate next to mine and saw: LUXOR, Egypt. Home of the Valley of the Kings, King Tut, and the epicenter of Egyptian history.

And for a second, my imagination was filled with sand, camels, the hot desert wind, and Howard Carter looking through a chink in the wall and whispering, "I see wonderful things..."

Now, to even consider changing my flight home for a flight to Egypt was completely insane. I had been gone for weeks already, I'd been in Chicago for two weeks befor that, I was just about broke, and I was literally dying to get back to my own turf and eat enormous quantities of American food. I got on my flight to Atlanta and a very happy homecoming, and told myself I didn't miss anything at all.

But still....

"I see wonderful things...."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Take A Bath

"Baths, women and wine may ruin our bodies, but they make life worth living" - Roman Gravestone

One of the most fascinating holdovers from antiquity in Southern Spain is the Hamman, or Arab Baths. These baths are actually descended from the Roman bathhouses, and were picked up by Islamic culture with it's emphasis on purity and ritual bathing. There are ruins of Arabs Baths in several cities in Andalusia, my favorite being in Ronda - a nearly perfectly preserved bathhouse, complete with roof pierced by skylights and niches for steaming.

I was surprised to find that there were still functioning Hammans in several cities along my route - Cordoba, Granada, and of all places Madrid - where you could experience the timeless ritual of steaming, bathing, and massage. I was determined to live my inner Arab princess and enjoy a day at the baths.

It should surprise no one but me, but I didn't manage it. Somehow I kept putting it off to the next day, the next day... there was so much to see! And to my dismay I never did go.

I have come home, however, determined to re-create the Hamman experience at home as best I could (in keeping with the Constant Holiday philosophy). I did some research on the web to get an idea of the proccess, and consulted my copy of Tony Perrottet's excellent book on eastern travel (both modern and ancient) "Pagan Holiday", from which the above quote comes.

The point of the Roman or Hamman Bath is not just cleanliness but relaxation and even socialisation. People often went to the baths in groups in ancient times, and the proccess could take all day, with meals, exercise and beauty treatments part of the experience.

For my own "home-style Hamman" I've taken to filling my tub about a quarter of the way with hot water and bath salts, both to give my feet a good soak and to fill the room with the gentle steam that is a feature of the bath (unlike the strong heat of a sauna). One website suggested placing herbs in the hot water, which I plan to try. After washing my feet and legs, I can either fill the tub the rest of the way and soak some more, or switch back to the shower and use my best smelling bath gels and scrubs. The scrub down is an integral step in the bath experience, and leaves you feeling soft and incredibly clean.

I finish off with a liberal rubdown with a scented oil, instead of a lotion, to seal in all that moisture and make me feel more authentic. Sadly I have had to do without the full-body massage that closes a real Hamman bath, but I'll have to talk to my boyfriend about that. One never knows. I'll never get him in a turban, though.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Why is it, when you sit down in a restaurant, and you hear the guy in the booth behind you saying, "I don't care if they don't like it, that's the way I'm gonna do it. 'Cause that's just the Kind Of Person I AM." - why do you instantly know the the kind of Person He IS, is an asshole?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


I'm on a job in North Carolina for a few days, and my favorite part of coming up here is the opportunity to - I think "glut" myself is the word I'm looking for - on barbeque. As mentioned in a previous post, I just spent two weeks in Spain, and despite the delicious food there, I came home insane for American food. Chicken wings especially. And barbeque. Oh, God, barbeque. I don't want to get all Anthony Bourdain on you here, but honestly, pigs can die happy, knowing that they are serving a nobler end.

In Georgia we have the sweeter, more tomato-y sauces, but in North Carolina they do a thin, vinegar based sauce that is very tangy and delicious. We've been here for one full day and have already had a great barbeque meal at Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill, where the chopped pork is smooth and delicious, with one of the best vinegar based sauces I've had. Highly reccomended. Skip the subpar sweet potato biscuits, and make up the calories with extra pork or the equally tasty fried chicken.

Two more days, so 4 more opportunities for NC-style que. Unless we start eating it for breakfast. Not, really, all that farfetched...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cookbook of the Week

I - like, I'm sure, many people who like to cook - have approximately eleventy-million cookbooks in my collection, not to mention stuff neatly clipped (read: torn) from every cooking magazine on the planet, or at least the ones that I can afford the subscription too. And I often, often think to myself, "What on earth am I doing with all of these things? I'll never use them all. Ooh, look, the new Mario Batali is out - better order it."

And so the collection grows. To avoid them becoming a collection of paperweights with food stains, I instituted a policy of selecting one cookbook a week to cook out of, thereby forcing myself to wade thru them and actually put them to use. And I enforce this policy strictly, about twice a year. But that's twice more than I would be if I didn't have a policy, right?

So to expand on my already feebly enforced regimen, I'll give a review each time I do a new one, even though some of them are ages old and I bought them on for a dollar. Someday, when I confound all expectations and write a book, I hope someone will buy it on for more than a dollar. Someone, say, other than my mom.

So! On to the cookbook of the week, which this week is "From Tapas to Meze" by Joanne Weir. I believe it is the second, revised, edition, and it's one of the dollar-on-Amazon ones, so it's not exactly hot off the press. It's really good. My favorite type of eating is tapas style, where you order one of everything on the menu at a small plates restaurant, and you and all of your friends get to eat a bit off each other's plates, which you would have done anyway. But at a tapas place it's expected, so you don't feel like a complete pig. Then you all gasp loudly when the bill comes. So I'm always pleased to be able to do tapas-y things at home, but with an eye on the dishes I usually only make one or two.

All of the dishes in "T to M" are very Mediterranean, so there is a lot of olive oil and lemon - nice and refreshing since it's summer, but choose the dishes wisely or else everything you eat all week will taste the same. The recipes are also mostly simple, and lend themselves to substitutions- I've done her baked squash soup with sweet potatoes, and her grilled tuna with green olive relish with chicken and black olives, and anything with goat cheese in it with anything that isn't goat cheese, because goat cheese is, sorry, disgusting.

On the downside, because the recipes are all of that Mediterranean style, there's a little repetition. Weir has three variations on salad with oranges, black olives, and red onions. Does anyone need three variations of this? Does anyone need more than, hey, there's some red onion and some oranges in the icebox, let's go to town? No. But three there are. Also, she's a bit fonder of salt cod than I am. I strongly suspect salt cod is one of those things Europeans only pretend to like, to make Americans feel inferior.

Rating, 1-5: 3, but only because of the orange salad thing. Otherwise a four.

There you have it, the first Cookbook of the Week. And actually for next week too, since I'm not quite done with it. But next week we will discuss the best cookbook of all time, which is Julia Child's "The Way To Cook" which is terrific and should be titled, "Mastering the art of French Cooking Without Wasting Time on Jellied Poached Eggs and Aspic, and Other Gross Things Even French People Won't Eat."

Now I have to go check Amazon. Maybe Mario is on sale.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Car in Europe: Yea or Nay?

So, I've just returned from a two week trip of Andalusia (Southern) Spain, and for the first time on a trip like this I rented a car. (Full disclosure: actually I once rented a jeep for a week in Belize, but as there were no buses - nay, barely ROADS - it doesn't count) Usuallly I make use of the excellent public transportation system available, but since I had a lot of ground to cover, I decided to go mobile.

The Verdict? Undecided. It didn't really cost me that much more to rent the car than to take buses/trains wherever I wanted to go, and it WAS quicker, if you didn't factor in the time lost while (frequently) lost. Fortunately there are apparently no traffic police in Spain, so my occasional (constant) flouting of No-U-Turns, red lights, and Pedestrians Only signs went unpunished. (One afternoon I got so frustrated in trying to reach a parking garage thru the maze of donkey-wide, one-way streets that I simply gave up and drove completely across a pedestrian plaza - just cruised right past people at cafe tables, old men on benches, small boys peeing in fountains). And I did like being able to pull right up to my hotel and dump my bag, instead of getting off in some train station halfway across town, then humping my gear uphill (it's alway uphill, isn't it? usually both ways) to the hotel. And I definitely didn't miss dragging my gear to said train/bus/mule station, only to find I'd just missed the last ride out for the night.

On the downside, I got taken to the cleaners by the parking garages - in Madrid it was 20 euros a day to stash my car - and I spent a lot of time worrying that something would happen to the car itself that I would have to pay for. I made some unwise driving decisions - at one point thinking I could drive from Seville to Tarifa at night, realizing after an hour that the directions were too confusing to deal with in the dark, and having to go back to Seville. I used taxis just as much in the actual towns as I would have had I not had the car, since the streets were so narrow and difficult to navigate. And the car gods wreaked their revenge on my liberal interpretation of the law by guiding me to the one illegal parking space on a square in Ronda, resulting in a trip to the impound yard and a 60-euro fine. Those whom the gods will destroy, they first make park in a tow-away zone.

So all in all a mixed experiment. My next trip may give me the opportunity to test it again... we'll have to see.