Yesterday passed without any notice; Martin Luther King is not in the forefront of consciousness here. But Barack Obama is, and today is different. The inauguration is front-page news in Le Soir and Le Monde, the Luremburger Wort and the FrankfurterRundschau; there's a 20-page special section in Le Figaro. (The election itself was also huge news: this photo is from Rome, in November.) The bookstore window down the block features 9 titles by or about the Obamas, including the bizarre merchandising tactic of two different French editions--trade paper and mass-market--of Les Rêves de Mon Père.
Driving to school this morning, I was listening to Culture Français radio, as I've made a habit recently, to improve my French. CF is part of France's NPR network; this particular channel's focus is the arts, including performances. On Thursday evenings, when I'm driving to my weekly tennis club, they broadcast radio dramas, which are compelling with a surprising immediacy; it's like walking down a public hallway and overhearing an urgently whispered conversation from around a corner. You sort of have to listen.
On Culture Français there's a lot of debating--passionate and strident, but never yelling--about exactly the types of things you'd expect French intellectuals to debate on the radio: the human condition, the amorality of international trade, the fact that certain stars appear to have left the galaxy; ("Pourquoi?" "Ah, et voilà: la question, exactement: Pour. Quoi."). The word philosophie gets thrown around with a frequency matched only by the different forms of crises (la crise economique, la crise de la guerre, and, my personal favorite, la crise morale). It is from this radio station that I've begun to appreciate the crucial role played by the concept of jamais in French ideology; in America, we simply don't go around saying "never" all the time. But in France, it's apparently essential to stress that when something is not done, is not acceptable, is not moral or ethical, it is thusly jamais, jamais, jamais; the syllables are often drawn out as two distinct words, with an exaggerated pause between them: Ja . . . mais. I can feel the finger, transported over the radio waves, being jabbed in my chest.
This morning, they were discussing Obama. And George W. Bush. Not to mention: (a) George Washington, the père of les Etats-Unis; (b) the only discussion I've encountered of Andrew Jackson since Walter LaFeber's History of Foreign Relations class at Cornell, back in 1987; (c) in a cameo out of left field, Mikhail Gorbachev; and (d) of course, Nicolas Sarkozy; he is always mentioned, regardless of the subject, including those stars that are leaving the galaxy (the French verb is the more voluntary-sounding quitter), though I couldn't decipher how the French president is implicated in that astronomical scandal. The gist of this morning's conversation was that Obama is a true leader in the sense of being a remarkable man, not merely a common man who has been elevated to a position of leadership. The panel were grateful for this sensible shift in American politics, away from the catastrophe of recent years. They jointly lamented the recent American style of common-man leadership.
I'd expected to be touchy about these criticisms; I'd expected that Europeans would blanketly condemn all Americans for our egregious electoral decisions. But in person, I've encountered nothing with which I could take any umbrage; in the media, nothing with which I've disagreed. Mostly what I've encountered is enthusiasm for Obama, occasionally exuberant. In an epicerie in Paris last weekend, I fell into conversation with the proprietor, who was Middle Eastern. He asked me if I was English, and I shook my head. "Je suis americain." This guy then beamed at me, reached out, shook my hand. "Barack Obama," he said, ear-to-ear smile. "Barack Obama!" he reiterated, nodding. When I was halfway out the door, he called to me again, projecting his voice to the crowded sidewalk; people looked up at the shouted name, and smiled. It was as if this guy were thanking me for liberation in 1945.
And maybe that's what it is, for him; maybe today is a new type of V-Day, and not one merely--or even primarily--for Americans. I've no idea where that shopkeeper is from. But I realized, standing outside his tidy little store in a dicey quarter of Paris, that his mother, his brother, his children might live in a part of the world where the American inauguration has far more critical consequence than in America: perhaps life-or-death consequence. There are no bombs falling in New York or Texas or California that may cease to fall when someone new has settled into the Oval Office. American foreign policy is foreign only in America; in the rest of the world, it's simply American.
an american recipe: smoked ribs
We didn't end up going to the International Dinner last Friday night at St. George's School, because we, like many people, couldn't find a babysitter; it's a problem here. But I was somewhat relieved, because everyone at the dinner had to bring a homemade dish from their homeland. There'd be lots of chicken curries and pastas and I assume kidney pies, or whatever it is that British people eat. But what the hell is American food? Someone admitted she'd be bringing an apple pie, because she couldn't think of anything else; but I don't bake. (Alex, in the unapologetic sexism of little people, asserts that all cooks are men, and all bakers are women; Madeline does all the baking in our household.)
The only thing I cook that's American, as people in Orient know, is ribs. And I'm not ashamed to admit that two of the primary elements of my ribs are store-bought, and filled with I'm sure an ungodly array of horrific chemicals: jarred barbecue sauce and packaged spice rub. In the distant past, I used to produce home-made barbecue sauce, and mix up my own spice rubs. But I discovered that what I love about barbecue sauce is ketchup, whose ingredients label is depressing, combined with a bunch of other stuff that's not especially uplifting. So why bother? The same goes for the spice rub, which revolves around garlic powder, an ingredient that's otherwise not permitted in my pantry. So I've found packaged products that I like (Bone Suckin' jarred sauce, and some rub in a brown-paper bag that I buy at the Wayside Market in Southold) and I tell myself and anyone else who'll listen that it's the cooking method here that counts: a half-day of wood smoking.
pork ribs, baby-back or spare, dealer's choice
hickory (or applewood, or whatever-wood) chunks or chips, for smoking
cider vinegar mixed with water, or a bottle or 2 of beer, for basting
First thing in the morning, prep the ribs. First, use pliers and a dry kitchen towel to remove the thin veil of silvery membrane that covers the bone side of most racks. If what you've got are spare ribs, they probably have a flap of meat on the underside, which you may want to trim off; I happen to like this meat, but apparently some people don't. Now wash the trimmed racks, pat them dry with paper towel, and cover with the rub, evenly coating everywhere and, of course, rubbing it in. Pile the racks in a platter, cover with foil, and let sit in the refrigerator until lunchtime.
Before you eat lunch, set your wood to soak, submerged in water. I do this in a stockpot, with a plate pushed in to keep the wood submerged. Wood chips need soaking for just 20 minutes or so; the bigger chunks could really use 45 minutes or more. I prefer the chunks, because they smolder for a longer period before they turn to ash, meaning you don't have to replace them as often, and also I can just rest them on the heating element of my grill (the chips, on the other hand, need to be enclosed in something); but chunks seem to be harder to find.
I use a gas grill. This, as well as my packaged sauce and rub, betrays me to be a rank amateur, which I don't deny. But I still contend that my ribs are good. So anyway, after lunch, place a handful of wood chunks clustered together on the heating element of the grill, under the grate; alternatively, for the chips, use a small disposable baking pan, folded over to enclose the chips, then poked with holes using a sharp knife, to allow the smoke to escape. Set the heat to high, so the wood gets hot enough to start smoking. Then reduce the temperature, keeping the flame only directly under the wood, to maintain smoke; I find that 225 degrees is the lowest temp that will maintain continuous smoke. Place the ribs on the grate away from the flame; the ribs can be piled atop each other and rotated occasionally, but they should not be cooked directly over the flame. From time to time, baste the meat with the vinegar-water mixture or beer, and move them around the grill, so you feel like you're doing something (and, more important, so other people notice you doing something, thus making this appear to be more work than it actually is).
Let this go on for 3 or 4 or even 5 hours; the longer you smoke it, the more smoky and cured the meat will get, eventually tending toward ham. When the wood has burnt away and is no longer smoking, replace it with new soaked wood. Finally, 30 minutes before you want to eat, use a basting brush to cover the ribs in sauce. Let cook for 10 minutes, then apply another coat, and cook for another 10 minutes. Then spend some time to carve the ribs: separate the racks into 3- or 4-rib portions, then run the knife 75 percent through the meat that separates each rib, to make them easier to pull apart; these are not fall-off-the-bone ribs, but are firm, chewy, smoky, and flavorful.