Monday, December 10, 2012

The case of the thieving Wise Men.

So a few years ago, we purchased a Nativity Scene to plop under our Christmas tree.  I had spent a few years before that incessantly whining about how we needed one because my parents have one, and that’s what we always did when I was growing up and we can’t mess with tradition (I’m Catholic when it’s convenient for me). So we drove to Target and bought one.

This made me happy. If I ever get around to buying a mini train track complete with a train to put around the tree, this would make the boy happy; but I keep forgetting to price that stuff out when it’s not the Christmas shopping season, because I’m a rotten wife and only think about my needs.  But this story isn’t about a lousy train track, so let’s get back to the Nativity Scene.

So we bring it home and I remove it from the box and plop it under our tree, remembering to pull down one of the twinkling lights from the lowest strand to peek through the barn window.  Because that’s the Star, you know, The Star, the one the Wise Men followed to find ol’ Baby Jesus hanging out with barn animals. Satisfied, I step back to observe my handiwork and bask in the glow of childhood memories. But something is not right.

Me: “Um, could you come here for a second and take a look at this?”
The Boy: “What?”
Me: “Just come over here… is it just me or are the Wise Men … stealing presents away from Baby Jesus?
The Boy: “What the hell are you talking about?”  (he comes over to take a look. Then...) “WOAH”.

Evidence 1

Clearly I’m not making this up. I mean, I will admit that I have a vivid imagination, but I’m not making this up this time. Take a good look again at Wise Man #1:

Don't think I don't see you, dude. 

So this one is all, “Hey Baby Jesus! Want my frankincense and myrrh?”, then waits until Baby Jesus is taking a nap before slowly backing out of the barn with his prezzies. Except now I caught him and he’s all, “WHAT, WOMAN?”

Let’s take a look at the other dude.

Something strange is afoot at the Circle K.

Take a good look at this. Joseph and Wise Man #3 are the only interested ones here. They’re looking adoringly at little Baby Jesus much like we were all told about in Catechism. Yes, I went to Catechism.  Is that so hard to believe? I told you, I’m Catholic when it’s convenient for me.

Even Mary seems pretty dispassionate here. In her defense, I can see why. She just gave birth in a friggin’ barn surrounded by a cow and a donkey and a sheep. Then all these people show up including some really shiny and bright angels from the heavens, and she’s forced to be nice and accommodate their schedules. Poor woman is worn out and had to do this whole birth thing the old fashioned way because this was long before they gave you epidurals full of yummy numbing medicine. I don’t have kids yet, but you can damn well be sure when my time comes, I’m demanding the drugs. So Mary’s attitude here is totally excusable. She’s having the donkey babysit for a while so that she can catch up on some rest.

But Wise Man #2? Look at him, he’s even got a sly grin on his face, to match his goatee. Never trust a guy with an impeccably trimmed goatee, is all I’m saying.  Dude supposedly hiked for weeks (or was it months? Catechism was sooo long ago) and shows up looking dapper and shiny. They should have known right away he was up to something.

For a brief moment, I thought about returning the Nativity Scene and exchanging it for a more accurate one, but then we decided against it. It’s too funny. Plus, I can imagine how that conversation would go at the Customer Service desk at Target.

Clerk: “And the reason for your exchange?”
Me: “Uh… the Wise Men are up to no good”.
Clerk: “Excuse me?”
Me: “Well take a look here, let’s pull it out of the box so that I can show you”.

The thieving rat bastards. I’M ON TO YOU.

Merry Christmas to all. Or Happy Hanukkah. Or whatever it is that you celebrate; hope you find joy and happiness in the little things like we do.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Almighty Twinkie

I have never eaten a Twinkie.

I get a lot of grief over this from the boy and various friends. They tell me I’m missing out. I tell them, that’s fine, that’s your opinion; but I don’t want to eat one.

I’ve had Hostess products before.  When I was a wee little tot, my grandmother used to buy me those fruit-filled pies. I remember my mom being agitated about that.

It’s not like we had a super-strict food environment growing up.  When we were back in the States, I ate Smurf Berry Crunch and Lucky Charms, but usually during the time when my dad was home because I may have begged for it. For the record, Smurf Berry Crunch is pretty gross; it turns your milk blue. I was allowed that kind of crap cereal in the house as long as I didn’t eat it every single morning. There were also boxes of Life, Cheerios (the plain, regular kind), and Grape-Nuts.  But we were not allowed soda in the house; it was strictly Verboten. If I wanted a Coke, I could get one with my own allowance, but it was hugely frowned down upon. And guess what? I don’t drink soda now and don’t miss it at all. Water and red wine are my potions, in copious and probably equal amounts.

I have never eaten at an Olive Garden.

I would like to say that I’ve never had a Mountain Dew, but I got dared to drink one a few years back by a bunch of people who were eye-poppingly incredulous that I’ve never drank one before. I had a few sips then had to get rid of it. I don’t see the attraction.

Someone, somewhere, is going to buy a box of Twinkies today “on principal” even though they haven’t had one in decades.  They’re going to have a Proust moment; suddenly time will stop and they’ll be reminded of sitting next to Timmy Smith at recess while figuring out how to pass Alison Kent a note during homeroom without getting caught.  Cherish that moment. It’s insignificant to other people, but moments like that are instrumental to our mental well-being. 

It is depressing that Hostess is laying off 18,000 employees, especially before Christmas (incidentally, why is it that companies do that, right before the holidays? I’m sure there’s some big fat legal reason and all, but it still sucks).  I hate to see any company that’s been around since Hector was a pup go under.  So I didn’t contribute to keeping that company afloat, but I also didn’t go around telling people not to eat Twinkies and whatnot. Other people have done that.  In this day and age of being aware of what we’re ingesting, people probably stopped buying them. I'm sure there are other contributing reasons for the company's demise.  But suddenly my Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of people moaning and crying about the demise of the Twinkie and vowing to buy every box they can find. Where was that devotion earlier?  A little too late, dont'cha think?

Monday, November 12, 2012


My parents were way ahead of the game back in the 70s.  The house they bought in California 40 years ago came with a Jenn-Air indoor grill in the kitchen. I thought it was the coolest thing ever to have a working griddle/grill right smack in the middle of the kitchen island.  Dad was a pilot, and on weekends when he was home, he’d make us pancakes.  That’s some devotion right there; dude was jetlagged for YEARS, and every single Saturday when he was home, he’d wake up early and make us all pancakes. These days when I visit if we want pancakes, my Dad says, “Oh, you want pancakes? Let’s walk down to Fred’s. They’ve got good pancakes”, (which, indeed, they do).  

Believe it or not, that Jenn-Air is still there and still works great 40 years later.

Their kitchen also came equipped with a second oven, right above the stove. That thing is still there too and it still works. I’m fairly sure that one of my dad’s mottos is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, although he doesn’t have a Southern accent even though he was born in Mississippi and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say “ain’t”.  Meanwhile, I moan and whine about wanting a dual-fuel Dacor with double oven that we’d have to rip out kitchen cabinets in order to fit the damn thing in, that we also cannot afford mainly because I WANT one.  But also because I don’t like our current stove.

There’s nothing wrong with our current stove. It works just fine. Our house in Baltimore had an electric range; and once you figure your way around electric, works great. But when we moved here, I was happy as shit to have a gas stove top because that meant Adjustable Heating! and It’s What All The Cool Kids Have! But it did take me a long, long time to adjust all the baking times on my recipes for cakes and cookies, and especially meringues.  Gas is not ideal for baking and roasting, unless you want to pull a Sylvia Plath move (but please, don’t try that at home. Get help before that). (Incidentally, just to ensure that I got the cause of Plath’s death right as it’s been a couple few decades since I read The Bell Jar, I googled “Celebrities who stuck their heads in gas ovens”, as one is wont to do, and came across this list .  Can you imagine being some contractor going about your day and tearing down a wall only to find Dante’s decrepit body? Good times. Something to tell the grandkids).

When we moved into this house, all of the appliances were kind of meh, and kind of falling apart and on the verge of breaking down. We made a rule that we couldn’t buy new appliances until they broke. For obvious reasons, we both wishfully hoped the stove would kick the bucket, but it was in the best shape of all the appliances. First to go was the refrigerator; that thing was at least 20 years old and the freezer side had been leaking all over the place for months before one day I got fed up with incessant mopping and we went a’shopping. Second to go was the dishwasher, so we replaced it with a fancy-pants one.  Stainless steel finish, of course, to match the fridge. Then the washer filled up one day and didn’t drain out. Murphy must have been watching that day because it happened when I was washing a full load of towels and jeans.  That shit only happens when you’ve got a full load of heavy stuff going on, then you’re forced to spend a grumbling hour or so bent over the bathtub wringing water out of drenched items that weigh a ton. So when that happened, we upgraded to a front-loading LG that I am still in awe over. I love that thing.

Appliances that work well are like cars that work well. We beat them up and slam their doors and, in the case of cars, drive them like crap and don’t waste time thinking about them, basically take them for granted.  But when something breaks, we’re screwed. We’re isolated and lost. Also, have you ever noticed that when the fridge breaks down, it’s usually right after you’ve done a massive grocery shopping? When your car breaks down, I can guarantee you that you’ve just filled it up with gas. Yes, I’ve been there too.

So the Dacor range. Sigh. I don’t have the money for it, and can’t justify putting it on a credit card that will take me decades to pay off just because I Want A New One. I’m a spoiled little brat, but even I know my limits.

But ain't it pretty?

Friday, November 9, 2012

where my oldest friend in the world comes to visit and we do a lot of eating.

i've known Caprice since i was 19 and she was 17 and still in high school in Miami. she was my roommate's childhood friend (neither one of us talk to that roommate anymore. she was a total bitch). for years we talked about taking a trip together.  so in the fall of 1998, when i lived in Savannah and Caprice lived in Gainesville, Florida, we were to drive up to Nova Scotia and do some whale watching.  pretty laid back, right? my boyfriend at the time called it our "Thelma and Louise Trip Minus The Body Count". i've only seen parts of that movie, and all i know is that one chick sleeps with the Brad Pitt character and then they both go sailing off what i think is the Grand Canyon in a big ass car with shit eating grins on their faces. i don't know what said boyfriend thought we were getting up to, but it was none of that.  for whatever reason - school, money, but probably money - the plans didn't follow through, so lofty ideas of tooling around the Canadian wilderness evaporated.

over the years, we both moved - me to Atlanta, then Baltimore, then back to Atlanta; her from Florida to Pittsburgh to Baltimore. and even though we saw a lot of each other over the years, particularly when we were both up North at the same time, we never got around to taking that girls trip until now.

our goal: one week to tour Cumberland Island, St Simon's Island, Savannah, then Charleston. and no body count.

wild horses, Cumberland Island.

i can't believe in all of my years of living in the South that i've never been to Cumberland Island, especially when i lived in Savannah.  i had some buddies who camped out one weekend and they came home full of stories of waking up to wild horses walking through their campsite. i thought they had dropped too much acid; but sure enough when Caprice and I were on the ferry as it pulled alongside the island, those horses were there. most of the other people on the ferry were part of some bird watching tour and they were all losing their minds over a bunch of ospreys, so once we got off the ferry we immediately rented bikes to get as far away from them as possible.  i didn't come to Cumberland Island to hear them chat incessantly about "What number are you?", "Oh, i'm 301 as of this morning! i never thought i'd get to 300" (birds, that is). if bird watching makes you happy, then i hope i'm not pooping on your parade; but this group of over-eager binoculared folk were annoying us. having said that, i would have loved to see the looks on their faces when they saw the wild turkeys roaming around the ruins of Dungeness on the south part of the island. i'm not sure they contained themselves physically or emotionally.

once we rid ourselves of the bird people, we scooted away on our bikes and saw maybe 4 other people for the rest of the day. and that was freaking WONDERFUL.

Caprice, deserted beach. Cumberland Island.

miles and miles of empty beach. we sat on a sand dune and ate a lunch of Cheetos and soy and wasabi almonds. it was one of the best lunches i've ever had in my life - even though i think Cheetos are gross on principal and i'll never eat them again.

we biked as far as we could along the sandy roads, and wanted to see wild boar roaming around the north part of the island, but we had a ferry to catch so we grudgingly turned around. the next day, we headed into St Simon's; frankly, if you're not into golf, there's not much to see other than the lighthouse built by Charles Cluskey. i happen to know a lot about ol' Cluskey as i did my senior thesis on him, but that's not interesting to anyone but me i'm sure.  an artist by the name of Keith Jennings carved face sculptures into a few dozen trees in the mid 80s, but there's only one left on public display (the other being on private property, so said the old biddy at the tourist desk).  the trees have grown over the sculptures and swallowed them up, which in itself is kind of cool, in a sad way.

tree spirit, St Simon's Island

in Savannah, i may have gotten verklempt because it'll always be, in my book, as the best place i've ever lived in my life. it's way more crowded than it used to be, and probably a little cleaner too since my day.  i had my graduation dinner at the Lady & Sons, and even though i'm right up there with everyone else in the free world as we make fun of Paula Deen, Caprice and I still hit up her restaurant before leaving town. the location has changed since my day; it's down the block and now occupies three whole floors of a building.  and who am i kidding: you know going in there that there will be a pound of butter in everything, but her mashed potatoes didn't suck because of that. since i rarely eat mashed potatoes these days, you can bet i gobbled those up, along with mac and cheese and turnip greens. one of life's greatest pleasures is dipping a piece of hoecake into turnip green pot liquor. bliss.

buffet, Lady & Sons, Savannah.

As much as i love Savannah and will always have a soft spot in my heart for it, the food in Charleston was by far much better.  We stayed on Rutledge, down the street from the Hominy Grill, where we ate a couple of times.  one morning, their breakfast special was a pulled pork omelette draped with red mole, and who am i to say no to pulled pork?  we also ate at Octobachi on the corner of Spring and Rutledge, partly because it was less than a block away from where we were staying, but also because i believe the people we were renting a room from own the place.

pulled pork omelette, red mole. Hominy Grill, Charleston.

while shopping on King Street, some long haired hippie kid behind the counter at some shop was all, "Hey! psst. you into ghosts?", which made me giggle because he acted like he was conducting a drug deal. not that i know anything about those. he mentioned that if we kept walking down King Street, at some point on the right, nestled between two buildings we'd see a gate, and when we walked through the gate we'd find a "haunted" cemetery.  so we did walk down the street, and found the gate, and walked down a little alley or lane until we landed in an overgrown, whimsical cemetery, with gravestones falling every which way and mounds of flowers carefully maintained to keep an overgrown (but not too overgrown) look.  i don't know if it was haunted, but it was actually quite enchanting and very pretty. what got us to leave were not ghosts but mosquitoes and sand gnats that lord over the low country.

inside the Unitarian Church cemetery, Charleston

outside of Charleston, we decided to swing by and see something called the Angel Oak that we'd read about in some guide book. i'm quite fond of old trees, but nothing, and i mean Nothing, prepared me for the Absolute Awesomeness of This:

Angel Oak, Johns Island, South Carolina

those of you who know me know that i absolutely loathe the word "awesome" since it's completely overused of late, and used for all the wrong reasons.  does anybody even know what it means? i'll tell you what it means. it means ANGEL OAK, that's what. i don't know how long we sat there gazing at that tree, but i didn't grow tired of it. i guess no one really knows how old it is (they say between 500 and 1400 years old), but i wonder how many people over the centuries have climbed its branches? or took naps under its leafy shade? when i got back home and tried describing it to an acquaintance, all i got in return was a deer in headlights look.  unless you've seen it in person, you won't understand. so, go.

so i wrote this post as more of a diary entry to myself than anything, because Caprice and I live so far apart and only get to see each other once or twice a year anymore. i want to remember these times, the afternoons in our host rooms with me drinking cider and her drinking Bud Lite Lime - although, yuck, Bud Lite Lime? i made endless vomit faces to her over this, much to my delight (yes, i'm mentally 12). i miss my friend and hope one day we'll be able to do another trip, even if we're 75 and crusty and going whale watching.

if you're interested to see them, i took a few more pictures which can be viewed here.

Friday, October 5, 2012

au marché

My mom doesn't understand the enthusiasm i (or anybody else for that matter) have for taking food photos. In fact, the only reason I have just under 400 pictures from my France trip and not more is because of her frustration.  400 seems like a lot, but anyone who takes food photos knows there are several shots of the same thing, perhaps a different angle. Since not every picture actually comes out great, you usually don't take just one picture, even in this day and age of digital photography where we have immediate satisfaction of seeing the results of our good or bad shot.  "You. Always with that camera!", she'd say. So towards the end of my stay, I put away my iPhone to help keep the peace.

Like everyone else, I also want to remember things as they were, and I find myself forgetting details i'd rather not forget. Photos can't capture smells and feelings, but while looking back through the pictures I took while in France, i'd like to think I can still smell the salt air while standing on the rocks, and still hear the shouts of the vendors at the marketplace while they jokingly taunt shoppers and one another.

Some of my favorite market moments include my mom asking the cheesemonger if his chèvre was any good. 

mom: "Monsieur, votre chèvre, est-il bon?"
cheese guy: (incredulous look on his face, hands thrust forward in protest): "Mais, MADAME!"
mom: "B'en, il fallait que je demande". (well, i had to ask).

We also had an interesting conversation at the fishmonger's with a young, tan, and good-looking guy in his chef whites (i'm guessing was Northern European judging by his accent when he spoke English), who worked aboard one of the many enormous yachts moored in the harbor.  He was buying a shit load of langoustines. As we all remarked on how the owner of the yacht and his guests must eat well, he laughed and said, "No, that's for us, the crew. The owner, he won't touch that". And as we watched him walk away making more food purchases for the crew, I couldn't help but think, Where the hell can I get that job?

Seriously, can you imagine? cheffing aboard a fancy yacht tooling around the Mediterranean.  I'm all about that.

I love all the colors of the different salts, sugars, and spices at the spice vendor. And the artichokes could double as floral arrangements. Moseying around through the stalls and buying just what is needed for the day, what a great way of life.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Madame Phillips' Provençal-style tomatoes

I spent the entirety of my stay in the Antibes area. My mom had just come from Le Lavandou and didn’t show any interest in going back, so I’ll have to hit up Jo’s seaside shack some other time.  To be honest, I didn't really feel the need to be elsewhere.  In the very early morning, my uncle Guy and I would walk down the hill into a bakery on the edge of the old town to buy bread for the day, then wander back up the hill with me clutching warm bread and trying very hard not to nibble on the ends.  The roads that early were usually flanked with tons of people out for a run (tourists) or out biking (more tourists).  Then we’d have breakfast outside on the villa’s flagstone patio - toasted baguette, fresh butter that actually tastes like butter ought to taste, with groseille jam and espresso.

Mom is a late sleeper, so my uncle and I spent those mornings having breakfast alone.  He recently turned 80 and is an avid storyteller – when prompted -  and relayed some of his memories about WWII.  The family lived in the Bouches-du-Rhône area of Provence, in between the train station of Miramas and the airbase of Istres; my grandfather, tired of the constant aerial bombardments and food shortages, uprooted the family and moved everyone north to Burgundy. When they first arrived in that small town near Auxerre and as they were walking from the train depot to the hotel, Guy remembers  the first thing they could see were loads of hams and salamis hanging from the window of a butcher shop.  My grandmother, unused to abundance of available food, exclaimed, “Mais, c’est le pays de Cocagnes!” (Cocagnes being a mystical Eden-type paradise where one wants for nothing and things are aplenty).   Guy’s first taste of brioche is carved into his memory as the best brioche he’s ever had, though he admits that it probably can’t have been all that good since the flour was coarsely ground in a coffee mill. His very first orange which he got for Christmas that year – he had no idea what it was, but for the rest of the day took his time eating it, pieces of orange peel tucked between his gums and his cheeks, savoring every moment of it.  Since my grandfather passed away long before I was born, I never knew any of these stories, and never thought to ask my grandmother much about the war when she was alive; so it was a huge pleasure to hear him talk about the old days.

my uncle Guy, waiting for lunch to be served.

The rest of my trip was much the same, wanderings down to the daily covered market, wanderings in the late afternoon for a swim in the Mediterranean, which is much chillier than I remember it to be, but that’s probably because I’m used to swimming in the warmer Atlantic. We ate mostly at home, with my mom doing the cooking. At first, she refused offers of help from me, almost as though she didn’t really trust my cooking skills.  But I persistently stayed by her side trying to figure out her ways, such as why her ratatouille tastes better than mine even though I follow her recipe (I still don’t know – maybe it’s because she cuts her vedge into really big chunks and not the smaller cuts that I do?).   Like breakfasts, lunches were eaten outside as well, with obligatory rosé wine, more bread, usually a large salad with pungent vinaigrette, and some other entrée dish.  Mom made Provençal-style tomatoes a few times – actually, we had tomatoes at every meal, whether a tomato salad, in ratatouille (which my family calls “bohémienne” even though it’s really technically a ratatouille), or tucked away inside the cavities of whole grilled fish.

I managed to smuggle home some of the local pink garlic  – US customs didn’t take it – or should I say, I didn’t own up to it and kept a very straight face when customs asked me if I had any fruit or vegetables in my bag.  The papery skins of the garlic are pink, while the flavor is much stronger and earthier than the garlic you can find around here.  I’ve been using it in nearly all my dishes since I got home, but usually only a fraction of what I’d normally use, since it’s more powerful.  Mom used it in her baked tomatoes, and I use it in this recipe.  I also use a few pinches of herbes de Provence, which is not necessary, but I use it since I have an abundance of it from hitting up the spice vendor at the market, plus a tub of my Dad’s own made from drying his own herbs.

my Dad's own herbes de Provence blend

This recipe is more of a guideline than anything, and I’ve written it in the French style, where there ingredients are not listed at the beginning of a recipe but instead incorporated in the text, so hopefully you’ll play along.  I think I’ve mentioned before that my mom doesn’t measure a thing, just pours stuff in and lets the magic happen. The older I get the more I have been leisurely not measuring things (except for baking, where a laid-back approach is unadvisable and you owe your success more to science than to magic). I used 3 tomatoes because that’s what I had handy around the house, but feel free to adapt to however many tomatoes you want to make. Usually two tomato halves serve one person.

Mme. Phillips’ Provençal-style tomatoes

Cut tomatoes in half through the equator (I forgot to take a picture of this, so you are all subjected to my doodle). Salt them liberally then place them cut side down in a sieve or fine mesh strainer and let them drain for about 20 to 30 minutes.  You can skip this salting and draining step, but it does help get some of the liquid out in advance.


Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium high heat.  Place the tomatoes cut side down into the pan and let them sear and caramelize for about minutes. Remove them with a spatula or slotted spoon and place them into a baking dish.  

You should have some tasty tomato bits on the bottom of your pan, so splosh in a tablespoon or two of either balsamic or red wine vinegar and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the tomato bits and incorporate in the vinegar. Let this cook for maybe a minute, the pour over the tomatoes in their dish.

Mince up some parsley (about ¼ cup when you’re done mincing) and toss into a small bowl along with a big fat clove of garlic that you’ve minced up, ¼ cup of breadcrumbs ( I use panko, but use whatever you want;  Mom uses breadcrumbs from day-old baguette), a couple of pinches of herbes de Provence (if using), a couple of pinches of kosher or sea salt, and a couple of pinches of ground black pepper.  Toss in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil and mix it all together.  Liberally coat the top of each tomato with this seasoning and drizzle each with a teensy bit of olive oil.

Toss into a warm oven – maybe 300 degrees F to start with – keeping an eye on it so that the top doesn’t burn.  If it cooks too quickly, turn oven down to 275 F and let it sit there for an hour or so – the longer, the better because the tomato will confit and caramelize on itself and the flavor will get all concentrated. I’ve seen recipes where they tell you to toss the tomatoes in the oven for a short period of time, but that doesn’t work for me. Low and slow is the way to go here, so hopefully you’re not in a rush.

Your kitchen should smell ridiculously good by this point. Remove from the oven and serve hot, warm, or room temperature. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn't know you left open *

One of the things I love about France, and Europe for that matter, is that you can be walking around what seems like a modern town, turn the corner and WHAM run into something way old. For example, the apartment building where we lived when I was in high school dated from the mid 19th century – which by Paris standards is not really all that old because there is always something much older nearby; I didn’t really notice that our building was old because it was smack dab smooshed up between two modern buildings.  You’d think that the combination of old and contemporary would be visually crazy, but just look at how Rome makes it work.  And that’s how Antibes is.

Antibes has a medieval wall along the coast and a very small old village full of wee little streets one can barely fit a car through, the whole surrounded by new growth. The villas on the Cap d’Antibes, which is like a jut of land, a finger separating Antibes and the newer, louder, much more crowded Juan-les-Pins, are all contemporary; but even they lead up to the top of the hill where a medieval church sits complete with a very rocky and steep Stations of the Cross (Chemin du Calvaire) that pilgrims still use to crawl up on their knees and bare feet ( I walked up part of it, and even in Tevas I had a hard time in some areas). History is everywhere; you breathe it in and mixed with the salt air from the sea, the chant of the cicadas, it’s wonderful.

All around Antibes are these tiny little medieval and Renaissance towns perched on hilltops, whose buildings look as though they can barely hang on lest they crumble down the hill; but clearly these ancient builders and architects knew what they were doing. The town of Mougins, for example, settled way up on a high hilltop has buildings that are older than dirt and apparently some of the best restaurants around (although I didn’t get a chance to eat there, but I’ll take my mom’s word for it). My mom, my uncle Guy, and I wandered Mougins’ serpentine streets a few days before their annual Festival de la Gastronomie began, so we watched as workers were setting up tents and chairs, peeked into several of the many art galleries, meandered into the church to light a candle for my aunt Suzanne.  I found myself taking pictures of everyone’s front doors. Each one was different; in shape, size, texture.  Some were huge, and some looked as though a human being could barely fit through the opening. They all seem surreal and magical; a few intricately carved, others bare and whitewashed.  

I wonder who lives behind these doors? Are the insides of these homes just as miniscule and magical as I imagine them to be? These little towns resting and suspended high above are all full of quiet mystery. 

* Quote by John Barrymore

Monday, August 13, 2012

where i will roll around in unpasteurized cheese and gorge myself on rosé.

Some news: I am going to France three weeks from today!  I can barely contain my excitement.

I haven’t been back since 1998, when I stayed for three months – two in Paris and one in Provence and on the coast with family.  This time, I bypass Paris completely – there will be other times, plus I need to take the boy one day.  This time, I’m meeting up with my mom who is flying there today.   I only get to stay one week, so I’ll have to cram in as much as I can during that time.  

Goal: to ingest as much unpasteurized cheese products as I possibly can.  

But one of the things I am most looking forward to is to visit a wee little restaurant called Chez Jo on the wee little beach of Le Layet in the area of Le Lavandou in the Côte d’Azur-Provence area.  One must take a downward path through tall pine trees to reach the beach as you are serenaded by the cicadas.  Actually, the beach itself is a nudist beach mostly populated with German tourists, who love that sort of thing.  But off to the right is an open-air restaurant (where, obviously, one must wear clothes) and it is outstanding.  A man named Jo ran the place, a big gangly man in overalls with no shirt, who would operate the outdoor wood burning oven and cut whole live lobsters in half with a machete, much to everyone’s delight.  There they serve enormous gambas (the local shrimp which are indeed huge).  Jo was quite a character, and I was really sad when recently mom told me that he’d passed away.  But apparently, Jo’s daughter keeps the operation alive, and i’m dying to meet her.  I hope she is at least half the character that her pops was.

All this while imbibing local rosé, which if I remember correctly (and I’d like to think I am) does not contain sulfites; therefore no fear of a hangover, so we all drink it à go-go, all day and all night.  In the afternoons on the way home from whichever beach we’d go to, we’d stop by one of the local wine stands and fill up a bunch of empty bottles with as much rosé as we could drink for the night.  I can almost hear the cicadas sing me their lullaby, welcoming me.

Growing up, we always vacationed in Le Lavandou because a lot of my family lived there or had homes there.  This time I’m not going there directly, but stopping first in the Cap d’Antibes for a couple of days, where  a cousin has generously loaned us her villa.  I don’t know Antibes at all.  My French family is from Provence, so relatives stuck to the areas they were familiar with.  My mom also likes to spend a fair amount of time in Saint Tropez because she likes to spot celebrities and walk up and down the old town harbor to ogle the fancy yachts moored there.  Me, I could give a shit.  Give me an out of the way place where the locals go and where the wine is cheap. That’s my thing.

There might be a day in the Marseille area to visit my last living great aunt who’s in a nursing home. One of her sisters owned a bar on the Marseille port, and my mom worked there as a teenager.  I don’t think she much liked working there because the only thing she ever says about that experience is that she always got her ass pinched by all the rowdy sailors.    A few years back, three of my cousins who live in the States went to Marseille and reported back that the bar is still there.  They went in, ordered a drink, and giddily announced to the new owner that their grandmother used to own the place; but the owner didn’t seem all that interested in their story.

All this to apologize to those of you who follow me on Twitter… I am going to get super annoying as I prepare for this trip.  Sadly, the boy will not be coming with me, and I feel terrible about that – I long to show him the clear blue waters, to hear the lilting Provençal accent, to pluck a sea urchin straight from its watery hidey hole and eat it on the spot.  I’m coming back, Motherland. Be prepared.