30 May 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 15

An excess of crêpes?



Jeanne is ill. — Tea. — Herbal teas. — Cooking for sick people.

My little sister suffered all last night. For my part, I was stunned by that, but Maman wasn’t surprised by it. Why? Because she had noticed that Jeanne had eaten a bit too greedily yesterday evening and that she had eaten too many crêpes. Now, crêpes are heavy, difficult to digest, and it’s necessary, said my mother, never to eat one’s full of them, if one doesn’t want to feel bad.

Despite my mother’s observations, Jeanne ate too many helpings; that is why she was ill. Today, she feels better, but she will not eat anything and will drink tea from time to time, until her stomach is completely back to normal.

It was I who made the tea. Maman serves only black tea, since green tea acts too forcefully on the nervous system. However, she said to me, one prepares good mixtures of green tea and black tea, that one uses especially in order to make a nice beverage, instead of an herbal tea.

Nowadays, I know how to make tea; but I recall that last year I prepared some for the first time, and the result was atrocious. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Imagine, I put the tea into a small saucepan full of water, and I left it to boil for at least half an hour. When I brought this beverage to my mother, who had asked me for it, she cried out, “What on earth is this, Grand Dieu?”

“It’s tea,” I replied.

“Tea? This brownish brew, with its strong odor and bitter flavor? … How did you make it, then?”

I explained to my mother how I had gone about it.

“I understand,” she said, “why you did not succeed. Come back with me to the kitchen, I am going to show you how one prepares it.” So she taught me the good recipe that I haven’t at all forgotten, I assure you. Here is how I go about it now:

First, I pour some boiling water into the teapot in order to heat it, then I throw out this water. Then I place the tea leaves in the teapot, in the proportion of half a coffee spoon per cup, approximately. Then I pour into the teapot a half-cup of fully boiling water, I seal the teapot and I let it rest this way for several minutes. At the end of this time, I finish adding the necessary quantity of boiling water.

The French can be as fussy as the English
about their tea. Maybe fussier.
(This is Mariage Frères, the most chic tea merchants’ shop in Paris.)

The tea that I obtain by this process is a golden yellow, it has a nice flavor and a delicate taste.

“Yes,” you are thinking, “Madeleine knows how to make tea, but does she know how to make all kinds of herbal teas [tisanes]?”

I swear that, as recently as yesterday, I would have answered you no; but, just a while ago, while I was in the kitchen, Maman came to my side and I profited from her presence by asking, in another form, this very question: “Maman, how does one make herbal tea?”

A lime-tree in bloom: Not the citrus tree.
(You may know it better by its German name, Linden.)

“My dear child,” my mother said to me, “all herbal teas are not made in the same manner. Of which kind do you wish to speak?”

“But — of all kinds, Maman. Since I perceive today that, if it is quite useful to know how to cook for people who are in good health, it is no less necessary to know what to do for those who are ill.”

“You are right,” said my mother. “Well, then, voilà: you know how to make tea?”

“Yes, Maman.”

“Well, the herbal teas of lime-blossom [Fr: tilleul], of marsh-mallow blossoms [Fr: guimauve,], of quatre fleurs [marsh-mallow, violet, poppy, and borago], violet, of borago [Fr: borrache], of elder blossoms [Fr: sureau] are prepared in the same manner as tea, because these are flowers or leaves that one uses in an infusion.

Marsh-mallow. No, honestly.
Anyone want S’more tea?

“On the contrary, if it has to do with the root of marsh-mallow, of couch-grass [Fr: chiendent], of seeds of flax or of barley and, in general, of any pieces of stem or of seeds, are brewed, that is to say that one puts these products in water and one lets them boil for at least one hour. You understand, in effect, that the juice of flowers or of leaves is more rapidly extracted than that of stems or seeds, because the flowers or the leaves are more tender and are more quickly penetrated by water than are the stems or the seeds.”

“I understand very well,” I said, “and you will see, Maman, that when the opportunity comes, I shall make use of your good advice.”

“I am quite eager,” my mother went on, “to take advantage of this circumstance by telling you also how one makes a poultice [Fr: cataplasme], a mustard poultice [Fr: sinapisme]. That’s also part of cooking for the sick.”

The easy way out: Madeleine could very well have gone
to the pharmacy to buy a packet such as this one.

“I shall listen to you willingly, Maman.”

“Well, here is how you make a poultice: start with boiling water, rapidly boiling water. On the side, put flax flour in a shallow dish and, on a plate, set out a big piece of muslin. This being prepared, pour a bit of the boiling water onto the flour in the dish, while beating it with a fork at the same time, as if you were making an omelette. The flour begins to thicken, absorbing the water. Add a little more water and continue to beat until you obtain a somewhat light-colored paste. Pour this while it’s still hot onto the muslin that you have spread out over the plate. Carefully fold the material on all sides, and the poultice is made.

“If you want to make a mustard poultice, you proceed in the same manner, but using mustard-flour, which you dilute with cold water, since mustard-flour loses some of its stimulating properties in the presence of hot water.”

“Maman,” I said while nodding my head, “I believe that I have understood very well, but I have the idea that this is something that one can’t really know how to do unless one has tried it.”

This tin of mustard-flour is probably very like what Madeleine kept in her cupboard.

“That is also what I think,” said my mother, “that whether it has to do with caring for sick people or preparing good food, it’s always the same thing: habit and experience are the best teachers…. That does not mean,” added my mother with a smile, “that one should disdain advice, recipes, information. One is so lucky to find them in one’s memory when one has the opportunity to apply them!”


[To copy and to keep]

1. When a person in my family is ill, I shall offer my services to care for her, since I am young and strong and I know how to prepare the principal herbal teas.

2. I shall recall that tea should steep and not boil in water, and that it should be prepared with boiling water in a teapot heated in advance.

3. I shall remember that the tisanes that should steep are: tea, lime-blossom, violet, borage, marsh-mallow, quatre fleurs, etc. …, in general, all those that are made with the flower or the leaf of the plant.

4. I will make a brew when it has to do with a tisane prepared with hard substances, such as wood, bark or the seeds of plants.

5. A flax-flour poultice should be beaten with boiling water and should not be cooked over the fire, in the saucepan.

Borage: Very niiiice!

Next time: Madeleine heads for the countryside!

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29 May 2010

Mark Twain in Bed

His favorite place to write.
(Et cetera.)

The forthcoming publication of Mark Twain’s autobiography, a century after his death, has generated a good deal of press in recent days. This is precisely as Mr. Clemens would have it, for he was a master of self-promotion. Thus far, the publicity promises more than the book itself will provide: most of the anticipated revelations (a sex scandal; a bitter, probably clinically depressed psyche; angry opinions on culture and politics far removed from the banks of the Mississippi) are already well known to anyone who has read even a few key texts, including the Library of America’s indispensable Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches & Essays, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Scholars have been allowed to draw on the manuscript for their work, including three previous books billed as autobiographies. Presumably, however, the complete autobiography, in three volumes and half a million words, will give us more detail, and possibly more insight, than we had before.

Take the vibrating sex toy as an example.

Although the initial report turns out to be an exaggeration (the vibrating device in question was not a sex toy, after all -- see comments section below), we shouldn’t be surprised that Twain had a mistress and took a lively interest in sex. He’s the rare 19th-century author in English to make any sort of public statement approving the practice of masturbation (most notably, “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism,” an after-dinner speech from 1879). True, he was famously devoted to his wife, Olivia, but she was nearing death when he hired Isabel Van Kleek Lyon as his secretary; once Olivia was gone, Lyon stepped forward. A trifle too zealously, perhaps.

We’re allowed to be disappointed that Twain capped off his affair with Lyon by writing a 400-page assassination of her character.* But beginning with Twain’s own carefully engineered public image, most of us have grown up with an idea of him every bit as whitewashed as Tom Sawyer’s fence, and the true colors emerge immediately once we read his work.

Lyon & Twain
Unfortunately for her, breaking up by Post-It Note
had yet to be invented.

Consider that Twain is easily the most visually iconic writer in history. A picture of Shakespeare might just as easily be Philip Sidney or Edmund Spenser (or the Earl of Oxford, for that matter). We describe a certain windswept handsomeness as “Byronic,” and certainly Lord Byron exploited his visual appeal — but he tended to change outfits, whereas Twain’s linen suit was an immutable costume, theatrical and practically trademarked. By it, even today, schoolkids recognize him and draw his picture for their book reports.

The suit, the fluffy white hair, and the droopy moustache belong to Twain alone: others didn’t copy his look (as they did copy Byron’s, and, to a lesser degree in Twain’s own day, Oscar Wilde’s), not least because Twain wasn’t representing an artistic movement. He was representing himself.

His initial success derived from a semi-fictitious representation of himself, not only “Mark Twain” — who was not Samuel Langhorne Clemens — but also The Innocents Abroad (1869), his first and (in his lifetime) best-selling book, in which he depicts himself as a character in the story of the first American package tour to Europe and the Holy Land. The creation and exploitation of “Mark Twain” became increasingly important in the years that followed.

Although public readings were common in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and used by many writers to supplement their incomes, public appearances were for Twain an absolute necessity, his surest means to surmount his recurring financial difficulties. He strove to appeal to an audience even larger than that which bought his books. He had to be funnier in person, more lovable, more recognizable than he was in print: he had to become a market brand.

He succeeded brilliantly, and other celebrity writers who followed him owe a clear (and often conscious) debt to his example. While some might sex things up for 20th-century consumption, the template remained Twain’s. Yet that public image runs counter to most of what we find in the pages of his books. The real Mark Twain was a sophisticated traveler who could get by in languages other than English; his moral outrage and his interest in social justice didn’t begin and end with Miss Watson’s Jim, and they extended far beyond the U.S. borders.

Moreover, quite unlike the Disney-fied cartoon of him we may cherish, he was a randy old cuss. Consider this passage from Roughing It, and its account of Twain’s visit to “the Sandwich Islands”:
At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen. I begged them to come out, for the sea was rising and I was satisfied that they were running some risk. But they were not afraid, and presently went on with their sport. They were finished swimmers and divers, and enjoyed themselves to the last degree.
This is not the work of a writer indifferent to feminine charms. Might he take a mistress? Yes.

Meet the Press: John and Yoko had nothing on Mark Twain.

Consider, too, his description of “the lascivious hula hula,” from the same book, where Twain enjoys looking at another group of pretty and scantily clad young women. Yet here he also signals his opposition to Christian missionaries, whose attempts to “save” the Hawaiians led, Twain suggests, to prostitution. At every turn, he’s much more complex than we are brought up to expect. (And his views of missionaries, religion, and God would only darken as he aged.) Most of his “Thoughts on the Science of Onanism” are invented quotations (and weak puns that he’d have disdained to use elsewhere), but consider these reflections:
The signs of excessive indulgence in this destructive pastime are easily detectable. They are these: A disposition to eat, to drink, to smoke, to meet together convivially, to laugh, to joke, and to tell indelicate stories — and mainly, a yearning to paint pictures. The results of this habit are: Loss of memory, loss of virility, loss of cheerfulness, loss of hopefulness, loss of character, and loss of progeny.
Satirizing (from the relative safety of France) the sorts of anti-masturbation propaganda that were then dominant in Britain and the U.S., Twain hints to the 21st-century reader that, yes, he might actually be able to think of a good use for a vibrating sex toy. (Had he ever seen one.)

By stipulating that his autobiography be withheld for a century, Twain knew exactly what he was doing. He was protecting his public image (not least from libel suits) and guaranteeing heightened interest in the new book. And if the autobiography should in some way tarnish our image of him, the scope of the damage will be limited — as Twain surely realized. It is clear, for example, that attendance at his public readings will not suffer in the slightest, no matter how the autobiography is received now.

Call me a sucker, but I resolve to read the whole shebang. One of my greatest pleasures as a reader has been that, the more of Twain’s work I read, the more I feel that he evolves along with me. When I was a boy, I needed him as the kindly yarn-spinner of Tom Sawyer and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog”; later, I hailed him as a champion of social causes, a kind of American Zola (which Twain did want to be).

And now that I am more mature, I can accept him as a bitter, godless, outraged, horny, needy, snobbish, peevish, vindictive, depressed, insecure, money-grubbing, sometimes bigoted**, sometimes cruel, always complex old man.

Indeed, I welcome him.

*NOTE: Laura Trombley, in her book Mark Twain’s Other Woman, suggests that Twain was effectively blackmailing Lyon: as if to say, “If you don’t keep quiet about my daughter Clara’s adulterous affair, I’ll publish this — and ruin you.” Whether Lyon would have blabbed is unclear, but in the end, she kept her mouth shut.

**While Twain was famously ahead of his time in his attitudes towards blacks, both in America and in Africa, and towards the aforementioned Hawaiian Islanders, he showed little such enlightenment in his attitudes toward Native Americans (and, for that matter, Mormons, so frequently a target of his barbs that one quickly detects outright hostility). It strikes me as just that Injun Joe is usually portrayed by white actors, since he is ultimately a white man’s idea of an Indian.

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24 May 2010

Martin Gardner

“Seven years and six months!” Humpty Dumpty repeated thoughtfully. “An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you’d asked my advice, I’d have said, ‘Leave off at seven’ — but it’s too late now.”

“I never ask advice about growing,” Alice said indignantly.

“Too proud?” the other inquired.

Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. “I mean,” she said, “that one can’t help growing older.”

One can’t, perhaps,” said Humpty Dumpty, “but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven.”
-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass,
and What Alice Found There

That exchange represents, as the writer Martin Gardner observed, perhaps the subtlest joke in the Alice books, and it’s to be wondered whether I’d ever have understood it properly had Mr. Gardner not pointed it out. Humpty is talking about killing Alice, after all, and even if readers may not understand him, she does — her response is to change the subject as quickly as possible.

Now Gardner himself has died, at the age of 95. (Presumably, murder did not come into play.) That I have not read all of his more than 70 books, on the grounds that not all of his subjects interest me, merely indicates that I am not like him: everything seemed to interest Martin Gardner.

I know him best for The Annotated Alice, a scrupulously detailed work, first published in 1960, in which Gardner unravels the riddles of Carroll’s Alice books. His marginalia are consistently witty, absorbing, and illuminating; their only real shortcoming, as other critics have pointed out, is their refusal, in 1990 — when they were revised, updated, and expanded — to admit Carroll’s most distinguished modern heir, John Lennon. At heart, Gardner may have been too much an old fogey to concede the significance of the Beatle’s inspired nonsense. (So be it: that leaves something for the rest of us to write about.)

Such is Gardner’s scholarship that subsequent studies of Alice routinely cite him, and such his success that a seemingly endless stream of “Annotated” editions of other texts followed, some written by Gardner himself, though few really deserving of the treatment.

After all, how many books are as deceptively dense as Alice? James Joyce at least fires off warning shots to tell you that, when reading him, you will need to refer to outside texts and “concordances,” but Carroll never does. And indeed, it’s perfectly possible to read Alice as most people do — superficially — and to derive a great deal of pleasure from the books, or else to let Carroll’s fantasies flow into our own, without fully understanding either.

Born in Tulsa, trained as a philosopher, and employed as the editor of a children’s magazine (Humpty Dumpty, no less) and as the puzzle editor of Scientific American, Gardner doesn’t seem to have restrained himself from studying and writing about any subject under the sun. He was forever curious — and curiouser.

In most regards, then, he was a dilettante in the best sense, and an amateur intellectual: a cross between a Victorian eccentric and a Yankee ingenious. Both strains are a bit cranky, yes, but there was also something pure and joyful about his mind, and he shared that with his readers, not merely following his bliss but inviting us along for the ride.

One of his favored pursuits was the debunking of pseudo-science. Nowadays, when so many Americans are so avidly debunking real science (or attempting to), and advocating the study of supernatural causes of natural phenomena — and when so many esteem their own, uninformed opinions over any facts, evidence, and expertise — I really fear that we shall not see Martin Gardner’s like again.

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23 May 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 14

The Rabid Cow, a monthly magazine:
Cover art by Toulouse-Lautrec



It is necessary to be methodical when making purchases. — How beef is prepared for roasting. — Cooking green beans. — Roast beef. — The art of preparing a meal in advance so as not to be constantly leaving the table. — Basting the roast. — Crêpes. — It is necessary to be sincere.

I already knew (pretty much) how to cook roast of pork, having learned this from Mademoiselle Fleuron, the day that I went back to school to practice cooking with my friends. However, I was not very reassured yesterday morning, at the time I rose, when Maman said to me:

“Madeleine, tonight we will throw a party for Tante Victoire. We will offer her a good dinner, and it is you above all who will take charge of preparing it.”

“Oh, Maman!” I cried, overwhelmed and a bit annoyed by the responsibility that I was going to take up.

“Yes,” said my mother. “Tante Victoire has taught you many things about how to cook, and now or never is the chance to show her your savoir-faire. You yourself are going to choose the dishes that you want to give her to eat. I tell you only one thing, that is that Tante Victoire, having been ill, needs fortifying foods that are however easy to digest. Think about it. You will tell me in one hour what you have decided.”

While Maman was speaking to me this way, I made up my room, sweeping, tidying, dusting my furniture and my bibelots. And I said to myself, “What to do! What to give!”

There came suddenly to my mind a resolution that I had written down quite recently in this notebook. I wanted to reread it. I took my notebook from my drawer and I read: “I will not be dissuaded in my choice until I have seen the resources that are available at the market.”

“That’s it exactly,” I said to myself. “I am going to ask Maman to go right away to the market, and I shall not give her my response until I have returned.”

Maman understood very well the reason I gave her and I took off for the market.

Les Halles, the central market of Paris, exterior,
by Pierre-Augustin Lhermitte

Thanks to the advice I have received from Maman and from Tante Victoire, I have adopted a habit that suits me very well: I make my purchases in the order in which my dishes will be served. Consequently, I buy first that which will be required for the soup, then for the dish that follows, then for the next, and at last the salad and the dessert.

Having no leftover broth from a pot-au-feu and not wanting to make any that day, I bought some sorrel to make a sorrel broth, and at the same time I got some eggs, the yolks of which would serve to bind my broth.

Then I went to the butcher shop. There I was a bit perplexed: beef, mutton, or veal? I decided on a beef roast, and I chose a piece of sirloin. The butcher prepared it for me with care, removing all the little or large skins, wrapping the meat in a sort of fatty membrane, tying it all up, and I carried away my roast.

Les Halles, interior, in a photograph by Marville.
One can see why Zola compared the place to a Gothic cathedral.

With this, I bought some green beans and, for the dessert, a few beautiful fruits. Beyond this, I decided that I would make crêpes, which in our family are always a sign of joyful times.

However, on my way back to the house, I thought: “Why then did the butcher wrap the roast that way?” And I found no good explanation for that.

Upon my return to the house, and after having offered the details of my menu to my mother, I asked her the explanation for this fact.

“It is,” my mother answered me, “so that the meat will not dry out, and will not ‘brown’ too much when it cooks. That which makes the quality of this piece, is precisely that it is tender and juicy. If the fire were to seize it too much, it would grill and the juice that it contains would brown instead of remaining red; thanks to this envelope which preserves it, it can cook quickly and have nothing to fear from a high flame. You did well to take this piece, which is very tender and will perfectly suit Tante Victoire’s teeth, which are no longer young.”

Les Halles, exterior, under construction in the 1850s

Maman then was good enough to tell me that she would relieve me entirely of my duties for the midday meal, which permitted me to use all my time for my glorious evening meal.

I then set about to make an account of my expenses at the market, a thing which my mother has made a habit with me, then I deveined the sorrel, which I then washed and I set aside on a plate.

In the afternoon, I busied myself with the green beans. Those that I had gotten were not very fine. On each side, they bore a few threads that I had to remove. With a stroke of my fingernail, I removed each one from the point to the tail; the threads came off from each side, when there were any.

This being done, I threw them into boiling, salted water, I let them cook half-way and I removed them from the fire to season them later, just before serving.

The afternoon was passing quickly, and I needed to busy myself exclusively with my dinner. I first prepared my sorrel soup. For that, I let the sorrel soften first in some butter. When it was melted, I threw in a bit off lour, then I added water, salt, and pepper. I placed it then on a back burner where it could cook quite gently.

During this time, I prepared the embers for my roast.

For roasting, we sometimes use a shell-shaped pan made of cast iron, where we place the hot coals, in front of which we place the rotisserie containing the roast. This is much better than roasting in the oven. As this was the best opportunity yet to make a good roast, I used this method. I remembered that I would need one quarter-hour per pound to cook the beef roast; so I began to put it on the fire one hour before serving, since it weight four pounds.

“Four pounds!” you say. “That’s a lot.” Yes, it is a lot, but we are six at table; Papa has a good appetite and (I dare to say it without blushing) so do I. What’s more, I have noticed that beef shrinks when cooking, as do all the very juicy meats, and I am quite sure that I have not gotten too large a piece. Besides, a good-size piece of beef is always better, and one can use the cold leftovers the next day.

Mocking the Carnival tradition of the Fatted Cow,
by the caricaturist Cham

While the beef was cooking vigorously before the embers, which I kept hot by fanning, I turned up the heat on my sorrel soup and I prepared the green beans, which I simply sautéed in butter with chopped parsley.

I’m not forgetting the crêpes, and this is how I made the batter.

I put into a salad bowl a half-pound of flour, two egg yolks, three tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of orange-flower water to flavor it.

I thinned this with milk, a manner of making a light batter without lumps. Then I beat the egg whites until they were somewhat firm and I mixed them into the batter: then that was taken care of.

You must understand that all of this was done without my neglecting to check on my stove or on my roast. Thanks to God, everything was going marvelously well, and Maman had the kindness to set the table, everything was ready for the instant when Papa would arrive, accompanied by Tante Victoire, by my brother and by my sister.

”À table! À table!” my father said joyfully. “I have a great appetite.”

“As for me,” said Tante Victoire, “I didn’t eat much earlier today, in order to do honor to Madeleine’s cooking. You are going to see how well I acquit myself tonight.”

“So much the better,” I cried out. “You can’t make a cook happier than by cleaning your plates.”

We sat down at the table, I as well as the others, after I had served the steaming soup.

“Say now,” my father said, “the cook is abandoning her stove.”

A family meal, viewed by Lhermitte

“No, Papa,” I answered, “but I am taking advantage of the lessons I have received. Maman has always said to me that the great skill of a housewife who has no servants is to know how to organize in such a way that she may remain at the table, all the while keeping an eye on her cooking.”

“Indeed,” said Tante Victoire, “nothing is more unpleasant than a dinner at the home of someone who spends the meal away from the dining room. It is necessary to know how to prepare everything in advance, in such a way as not to have to absent oneself except for just the time needed to go and get the next dish. So it is this way, then, that you have done it, my little one?”

“Yes, aunt, everything is ready, I have only to serve … except, however, one thing for dessert….”

“A surprise! A surprise!” cried out my brother and my sister.

“Yes, a surprise. You’ll see what at the end of the dinner. We shall eat the surprise while drinking to Tante Victoire’s health.”

Swiftly I removed the soup plates and the soup bowl, I took them all away to the kitchen, then I brought back the roast with, on the side, the gravy boat into which I had poured the jus.

“I really think,” said my father, “that you have not basted the roast with water, as Catherine did the other day, for her leg of mutton.”

“Oh! No, Father!”

“Go figure, Victoire,” said my mother, “but last week, my cousin Catherine paid us a visit. I had a migraine. That day, Madeleine went to school to see Madelmoiselle Fleuron and I was alone to make my dinner. Catherine offered to roast the leg of mutton. I accepted. And if she didn’t cook it her own way, which consisted of adding water to the dripping pan and basting the roast with that water. I admit that it’s quite economical, but you know well that it’s worthless.”

“Indeed,” said Tante Victoire, “that continual humidity that she maintained would soften the meat and encourage the juice to come out in such a way that, when the meat was cooked, it would seem much as if she had boiled it; it was steamed, in fact, it had neither juice nor flavor. A good roast should be basted only with grease or butter that one places in the dripping pan, unless it is very fatty, and, in that case, it will supply its own grease.”

While they chatted this way, I served the green beans, which, by my faith! looked very good. Unfortunately, they were too heavily salted, which I deplored to no avail, since “there is nothing to do about it,” I said to myself. And I was angry with myself for not having taken greater precaution, to have had such a heavy hand, as cooks say.

“There is however a way to remedy the thing,” said Tante Victoire. “When a dish is too salty, we add a bit of fresh butter at the time of serving. Immediately the piquant flavor is made more bland. However, this will not work very well for broths and sauces. The method is less effective when one is working with fried, grilled, or sautéed foods, as these green beans are.”

“Here is a good thing to bear in mind, Tante Victoire, and I promise you that I shall remember it; since, no matter how I apply myself, that’s where I most often sin; too much or too little pepper.”

“That is because, you see, in cooking, only habit teaches one to use all things in suitable proportions. There exists neither book nor lesson that can give the idea of it. That is why, just as we say, ‘It is by forging that one becomes a blacksmith,’ we could also say, ‘It is by cooking that one becomes a cook.’

And sometimes the forge and the kitchen look a lot alike.

The time to make the crêpes having arrived, I cleared the table and disappeared into the kitchen.

Crêpes are good only when eaten very hot; that is why I had not prepared them in advance.

I melted a fairly small piece of butter, over a high flame, in a frying pan. I had taken care to scour and scrub it in advance, since even the smallest of debris of other foods remaining there would have left me unable to turn the crêpes, which would have stuck.

The butter being hot, I poured into the pan a spoonful of the batter that I had prepared, and I spread it all across the bottom of the pan, while tilting it in different directions. The batter thus formed a thin coating.

My Texas godsons, at the Crêperie Josselin in Paris.

The crêpe cooked quickly, thanks to my high flame. I gave it a very small shake. I perceived that it was dry on the bottom and, with a quick jerk, I flipped it and turned it over; one more minute, and it was cooked. I let it fall onto a plate, where the next crêpes were going to join it.

While, very busily, I pursued this operation, I sensed someone behind me; it was my little sister, Jeanne, who just as quickly ran away, crying, “I saw the surprise, Madeleine is making crêpes!”

There was left only for me to bring them to the table; that is what I did. Everyone tasted them, complimenting me on their good flavor and expressing amazement that I had turned out each one so successfully.

Should I admit it? I had committed a little hoax. I had served only the most beautiful, the most golden…. And, on another plate, on a corner of the buffet in the kitchen, I had thrown into a messy pile those that had not “wanted” to be turned over, those that were burned, those that were undercooked, those that had torn….

Before the praise that they addressed to me, my sincerity was moved. I felt that I should not dissemble any longer. I was ill at ease, just as when one commits a blameworthy action.

“Do not compliment me so much,” I said, “I do not deserve it.”

And I recounted my little misadventures.

(Actually, this is Denise, heroine of Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames)

“Now there is a fine thing,” said my father, “you are perfectly right not to accept praise that is not your due. These crêpes are no less excellent, and we esteem them more highly.”

Tante Victoire and Maman were of the same opinion, and as for me, I found myself relieved of a burden that had begun to weigh upon me.

The meal ended gaily. Maman, who has the habit of making homemade liqueurs, brought out some black currants and cherries in eau de vie, of her own fabrication. And we drank to the health of Tante Victoire.

A short time before going away, Tante Victoire took me aside and said to me, “It is very nice of you, Madeleine, to have thought to prepare a little surprise for dessert, not because of the crêpes and the pleasure we took in eating them, but because that proves that you think of others and that you seek to be nice to them by every means. If you continue thus, you will become a good housewife and mother later. Let me kiss you and tell you that you give us pleasure.”

How agreeable were these words to me! Truly, I do not believe that any prize I have ever received at school, in recompense for my work, made me prouder than this praise coming from a person whom we love and whom we esteem so!


[To copy and to keep]

1. When I go to the market, I will make my purchases in an orderly and methodical way, which will assure that I forget nothing.

2. I will watch how the butcher prepares the meat that he sells to me.

3. I will make an accounting of my marketing expenses as soon as I return to the house.

4. When I have a very fancy meal to make, I will prepare in advance everything that I can, in a way to be sure that everything will be done properly at the right time.

5. I will not base the roast except with the jus that it gives off or else with grease or butter that I have put in the dripping pan.

6. To de-salt a dish that is too salty, I will add to it a bit of fresh butter at the moment it is served.

7. I will accept only those compliments that I deserve.

8. I will seek to be agreeable to those who surround me by preparing for them from time to time little surprises, which will prove to them that I am thinking of them.


Dishes prepared with beef.

94. In everyday cooking, beef is used particularly, whether boiled for pot-au-feu; whether en sauce, accompanied by vegetables and diverse condiments; whether cooked on the grill, as a beefsteak; whether roasted on a spit or in the oven.

95. Boiled beef. — Boiled beef coming from pot-au-feu may be served:
1) Au naturel [plain], and eaten simply with coarsely-ground salt, with mustard and with pickles;
2) Accompanied by some sort of sauce;
3) Ground, in meatballs;
4) As a salad.

“What Is the Fatted Cow Thinking About?”
More Carnival mockery, this time by Caran-d’Ache

96. Beef en sauce. — One of the most frequently used sauces for eating boiled beef is miroton. To make miroton sauce, first slice some onions; “brown” them in butter; when they are golden, make a “roux”; add broth, salt, pepper, chopped parsley; add the beef cut into slices and let simmer for a good half-hour. When serving, add a bit of vinegar or a spoonful of mustard.

97. Beef à la mode is prepared with a nice piece of beef round that has been stuck with lardons. Place this piece in a stewpot with several bits of bacon, both fat and lean; four or five medium-size onions of which one has been stuck with a clove; some carrots cut in slices; a garlic clove and a bouquet garni. We also may add a calf’s foot, so that the juice that emerges will help to bind the sauce better, but this is not indispensable.
A small glass of eau de vie may be added, as well. “Moisten” with water or broth. Salt, pepper, then seal hermetically in the stewpot and let cook five to six hours over a very low flame. You must not uncover and stir the pot except as rarely as possibly.

This was the mascot for the 18th-century Restaurant du Boeuf à la Mode.

98. Beef kidney makes a very economical and nourishing dish. Here is how to prepare it:
Remove from the kidney all those fragments of grease that stick to it. Cut into fairly thin pieces and dust with flour. Melt some butter in a saucepan. Before it browns, throw in the floured pieces of kidney; stir a bit, then promptly add salt, pepper, and red wine just enough to cover the meat. Stir a bit and let cook for twenty minutes.

99. Beef kidney, like veal kidney and mutton kidney, should always be cooked rapidly, otherwise the kidney will harden and lose its juice.

100. Grilled or roasted beef. — Beef destined to be cooked on the grill is called beefsteak. The pieces used for beefsteak are: fillet, sirloin, entrecote [cut from the rib], and the tranche grasse [round].

101. To cook a beefsteak, rub it with oil or with butter, salt it with finely ground-salt, and place it on the grill over very red coals. When the beefsteak is grilled on one side, turn it to the other. We know it is cooked when the juice beads on its surface.

102. Often beefsteak is served on a plate at the bottom of which one has placed beurre manié with some chopped parsley.

103. Roast of beef is ordinarily taken from the fillet or the sirloin. When we wish to make its flavor more delicate, we lard it with very fine pieces of bacon.
Put the roast on a spit before a high flame which will seize the meat rapidly.
Turn it fairly often so that all sides of the meat will face the fire. When it has thoroughly seized everywhere, begin to baste it so that it will cook without drying out.
Shortly before serving, salt it with finely-ground salt, and from this point, do not baste it any further. Serve with the jus on the side, in a gravy boat.
Count on a quarter-hour of cooking time for each pound. Roast should be eaten rare to be good and fortifying.

104. TripeTripe is nothing more than the membrane of a cow’s stomach. [NOTE: The word used here is gras-double, rather than the customary tripes.]
Tripe, having been cooked in water, is cut into small pieces, which one “browns” in a frying pan with a large handful of chopped onion.
Then “moisten” it with a bit of broth, add salt, pepper, and let “simmer” for about a half-hour. When serving, add to the sauce a bit of vinegar and mustard. This dish should be served and eaten very hot.

Next time: Jeanne ate too many crêpes, so ... Madeleine learns how to make herbal tea — and poultices!

Read more!

22 May 2010

‘Disappointment’ Greets News of Nominee’s Sexuality

The current, completely heterosexual Court.
Straight stud John Paul Stevens (front row, second from left) is retiring
in order to sow a few wild oats, if you know what I mean.
(Look out, ladies!)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the aftermath of White House assertions that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is heterosexual, gay activists and Justice Clarence Thomas spoke out this week, expressing their disappointment.

“President Obama has missed another historic opportunity to affirm the equality of all Americans, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group. “To have restored the representation of our community to the highest court in the land would have sent an important message to the world, at a time when our rights and freedoms are under assault from all quarters.”

Kagan: Not even amicus curious.

A spokesman for Thomas, whose own sexual habits became an issue during his confirmation hearings in 1991, told reporters that “the personal lives of judicial nominees should have no bearing on the process. Associate Justice Thomas is deeply saddened that we seem to have learned so little from the indignities he was made to suffer,” said Langdon Silver, a Thomas aide.

Kagan is President Obama’s second nominee to the Supreme Court, as well as the second unmarried heterosexual woman who totally looks like a dyke, following Sonia Sotomayor, who was confirmed to the straight court last year.

Sotomayor: Man-eater

“Our hopes were raised yet again when it appeared that the President had gone to Central Casting and asked for a lesbian,” Solmonese told reporters. “And yet again, our hopes have been dashed. It is shameful that our community will continue to go without representation, as we have done since 2005, when Chief Justice William Rehnquist died.”

Solmonese added, “And everybody knows he was just gay-for-pay.”

“Associate Justice Thomas believes he could have learned a great deal from Ms. Kagan and Associate Justice Sotomayor,” said Silver. “He was looking forward to watching them go over briefs and receive oral arguments in chambers; he believes it would have been illuminating to see how they handle their cases.”

Thomas: Has it really been 19 years?

“It’s just so misleading,” Solmonese concluded. “I mean, Jesus, if these women are straight, can we at least get them a make-over? No wonder they can’t find a man! I couldn’t, either, if I looked like them!”

In a prepared statement, a White House spokeswoman affirmed President Obama’s “longstanding commitment to equal rights for all heterosexual Americans, regardless of race, creed, or country of origin.”

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20 May 2010

Useful Expressions

Une gueule d’atmosphère: Arletty
in Carné’s Hôtel du Nord

Jonathan Wheat, a boyhood friend from Goliad, has launched a new blog in which he recounts his adventures in preparing dishes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Recently, he wrote that he wished he knew a good French curse word to use when expressing his pleasure at how well something turned out. (He settled for an American word.) I suggested the correct vocabulary (putain, see below), while suddenly aware that many of my own readers may not know the word, or other, related expressions. Because it turns out that many French people will not know what you mean when you curse in English, no matter how loudly you do it.

MERDE (noun, feminine singular) is the one curse word I learned from my high-school French teacher, Carlene Klein Ginsburg, who proved to be as practical as she was progressive. Because it’s true: people in life don’t say, “Zut, alors!” nearly so often as they do in textbooks. (Indeed, I get funny looks whenever I do say, “Zut.”) The French equivalent of “shit,” merde is what you exclaim reflexively when something goes wrong; you may also say, “Merde, alors!” or “Oh, merde!” And in a musical context, you’d say, “Merde!” before a performance, as the equivalent of “Break a leg!” (In front of small children, say, “méringue,” instead or, when referring to actual excrement, say, “caca.”)

PUTAIN (noun, feminine singular) is probably the most widely-used curse word in the French language, give or take merde, with which it is often linked: putain de merde. Literally meaning “whore,” it can be used to express surprise, anger, approval, or disapproval in almost any circumstance, from the bedroom to the kitchen, from the highway to the sidewalk. Example: Ce putain de portable ne marche plus! (This damned cell phone doesn’t work anymore!) The abbreviated word pute refers to an actual whore. Not exactly polite, putain isn’t terribly outrageous, either, closer to “damn” than to “shit” or “fuck” — for most people, anyway. (In front of small children, say, “purée.”)

ESPÈCE (noun, feminine singular) is a seemingly harmless word meaning “specie,” “sort” or “kind.” But use it carefully. If you ask the baker for “une espèce de baguette,” she’ll think you’re stupid (because everybody should know what kind of baguette to order) — but she won’t mind. Refer to her as “espèce de boulangère,” however, and she’ll slap you. Not really a dirty word but a potent device for turning almost anything into an insult.

Bite schön? Louis de Funès (top) and Bourvil,
occupying themselves in La grande vadrouille

BITE (noun, feminine singular) refers to the penis, usually belonging either to the speaker or to you, depending on where you are and what you are doing. Less frequently used than the word queue, which is quite a bit stronger, and literally means “tail.” Unlike the American word “dick,” bite is not used to address a stupid or irritating person; however, it does explain why the French are so amused whenever a German says, “Please.”

CON (noun, masculine or feminine singular) is the word you’d use to address that stupid person who was irritating you earlier. Derived from the Latin word for a woman’s sex parts, it’s frequently attached to the adjectives pauvre and/or petit, and it’s adapted in the nouns connard (masculine) and connasse (feminine), especially when you are driving a car. Con can also be employed as an adjective, as in C’était con! (That was stupid). The word is so widely used that I sometimes forget how rude it is; I once shocked Denise Boutrit with it at the dinner table. And I’m not the only one who slips up.

CUL (noun, masculine singular) is another gift from the Romans, meaning “anus” and also used to describe the entire posterior: “ass.” Thus the memorable phrase attributed to the great actress Arletty, explaining her liaison with a German officer during the Occupation: “My heart belongs to France, but mon cul est international.” When spoken, the word is indistinguishable from the letter Q, providing generations of French people with infinite hours of hilarity. And according to mon ancien maître, the late Henri Boutrit, the Nazis tended to pronounce the name of the town Angoulême as “Encul’aime,” roughly meaning: “Love to get fucked in the ass.” Some day I may write a detailed scholarly study on the French use of profanity to relieve the psychological pressures of the Occupation.

Un cul d’atmosphère?
Arletty in Le jour se lève

SACRÉ (adjective) is used as a mild curse when used before a noun to modify it, so that ce sacré chat is the equivalent of the English “that darned cat.” When used after the noun it modifies, sacré simply means “sacred,” and ce chat sacré is probably Ancient Egyptian, rather than knocking over your garbage pail. This turned out to be a godsend, if you will, for the translators of Monty Python: the Holy Grail is le Saint Graal, but the movie title is Sacré Graal!


Certain Anglo-Saxon curse words are pretty widely understood. The French tend to say, “Damned,” and they think that “shit” means “hashish,” but, especially among young people who listen to American rap music, they get “fucking” absolutely right.

Whenever you are in polite society and need to swear, it’s always a good idea to have memorized a selection of the colorful curses of Captain Haddock, from the Tintin comic books. (See illustration below.) “Tonnère de Brest” and “Sapristi!” are his best-known and most-used exclamations (though sapristi isn’t original, being derived from antique French). Quoting Haddock may not make you feel better, but French people will applaud your wit and cultivation.


BAISER is a verb literally meaning “to kiss” but nowadays used almost exclusively to mean “to screw.” Now that you know this, you will never, ever make the mistake of telling a small child, “Va baiser ta grand-mère!”

BORDEL, meaning “brothel” and also used to mean “mess,” it stands alone as an exclamation expressing indignation. Example: Bordel! Tu veux pas me foutre la paix, toi? (Christ, give me a fucking break, will ya!)

CHATTE can refer either to a female cat or to a woman’s anatomy: “pussy,” in other words. Isn’t it lovely when two cultures agree on something?

A truly exquisite piece.

CHIER, a verb meaning “to shit,” is also found in se faire chier, meaning “to be bored or annoyed,” as in Tu me fais chier avec tes histoires à la con (You’re annoying me with your idiotic behavior). Along with PISSER, it’s Rabelais’ favorite verb. A CHIOTTE is a toilet; a CHIOT is, by pure coincidence, a puppy.

CONNERIE, derived from con, means “foolishness” or “fucked-up situation.” It is absolutely vital to remember your orthography here: maçonnerie (masonry) is not ma connerie, and explaining that you’re foreign won’t remove the mason’s fist from your mouth.

COUILLES are testicles, though the word itself is feminine. A CASSE-COUILLES is a ball-buster, and usually feminine, as well — in practice, anyway.

EMMERDEUR, derived from merde, is a profoundly annoying person. Feminine: EMMERDEUSE. Example: Qu’est-ce qu’elle m’emmerde, cette emmerdeuse! (How she annoys me profoundly, that profoundly annoying woman!)

ENCULER, a verb I mentioned above, is used to lend real force to your command. Sometimes it’s not enough simply to tell somebody to go and get fucked (Va te faire foutre); when you say, “Va te faire enculer,” you can be sure you have made your point.

La Nana de Manet se cache les nénés.

FESSES are butt-cheeks, which explains why the French were so restrained in reporting the death of Fess Parker a few weeks ago. A FESSÉE is a spanking.

GARCE is a bitchy woman, while a SALOPE is a slut. Please observe the important distinction between the two.

GOUINE is a feminine noun meaning “lesbian.” Whether it’s pejorative depends on who’s saying it and how much they’ve had to drink.

LOLOS are breasts, as in Elle a des gros lolos, hein? (She’s got big tits, doesn’t she?). NÉNÉS also means “breasts,” as in Cette nana a des beaux nénés! (That chick has great tits.) Such a music to this language!

Par contre, les lolos de l’Olympia se voient bien.
The presence of the chatte on the right is no accident, by the way.

PÉDÉ, from pédéraste, isn’t usually an insult, and gays sometimes use it to describe themselves: Moi, chui pédé (I’m a fag).

TAPETTE used to be a perfectly respectable feminine noun used to describe any small object — from mallets to flyswatters — used to hit something else. Now, however, it’s an extremely pejorative term for a homosexual man, and gays don’t use this word to describe themselves. If anybody calls you this, he is typically drunk, belligerent, and in a dark alley near a bar. You have two options: run away, or punch his lights out.

ZIZI is a childish word used to refer to sex parts. I’m told that it’s used with boys and girls, though I’ve never heard it applied to a girl. It’s rather sweet, though. Naturally, the French couldn’t simply adopt the English word “wee-wee.” Think of the confusion that would cause!

Pierre Cambronne: One of Napoléon’s generals at Waterloo.
According to legend, he rejected a British call to surrender with the response “Merde!” — now celebrated as “Le Mot de Cambronne.”

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