week 18: inauguration day

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
spice rub
hickory (or applewood, or whatever-wood) chunks or chips, for smoking
barbecue sauce
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. 


week 17, part ii: holiday in bavaria

I now know why Germans make all those high-performance cars: they drive fast. The average highway speed seems to be 150 kph, aka 93 mph. It took me a couple days to adjust, at first barely accelerating past the recommended 130; at this, 80 mph, I felt like an old lady on her way to church. When I eventually settled on 155--pretty arbitrarily--I was still being passed willy-nilly, and these passers weren't merely inching by me. And when Germans are not on highways, they're on hilly, winding, insanely narrow roads--old horse paths, now paved. On either type, they need good cars. What I no longer understand is why people buy them in the U.S., where, let's face it, these cars really don't do much good. 

Other things I learned over our week-long Christmas-break trip:
  • The people who work in hotels and restaurants in Germany are extravagantly nice. If I were working at the desk, and I saw my family arrive with our mountain of luggage and our unruly little boys and what has become the shaggiest dog in Europe, I think I might say, "Sorry, no record of your reservation, we're fully booked." But everyone welcomed not only the children but also the dog warmly. In Munich, the woman who served breakfast greeted Sam with a long, tight, surreal hug. And then brought hot chocolate. And then handed out candy. All the while prattling in German, cheerfully unfazed by our total lack of response or comprehension. Plus, no one batted an eye when we walked into restaurants with Charlie. In fact, it would have seemed silly to even ask permission; hunds are clearly expected.
  • The restaurants were fantastic, especially in Munich: the Osterwaldgarten, across the street from our hotel in the Park Slope-y neighborhood of Schwabing, where the goulash was rich and spicy, the schnitzel light and crunchy, the room convivial, the clientele chic; and Spatenhaus an der Oper, facing the opera house, in of course the ritzy part of town where the opera house always is, where they served a fantastic house beer and an equally fantastic sauerbraten with horseradish cream; and Augustiner Großgaststätten in the pedestrian zone, for cakes and a drink at a site where monks started brewing beer in the 14th century, and which now seats up to 1,000 people. When we walked in after the boys' first-ever ice-skating attempt in the Karlsplatz, at 4:00 in the afternoon, almost every seat was taken. Perfect. 
  • The downside to German dining was that the only green thing at almost every meal was a sprinkling of parsley; I heretofore did not know that I could ever want a salad so badly.
  • Two of the most beautiful places I've ever seen were were a medieval walled village called Rothenberg ob-der-Tauber, and a small city called Bamberg. Both spectacular. And before this trip, I'd heard of neither. 
Germany was never on my list of places I've wanted to visit. Maybe because of starting all those wars, and editing all the fun out of the book-publishing business, and my lack of interest in high-performance automobiles, and my suspicion that it's really cold there, and an apparently eternal fashion for eyeglasses that I don't like. I was right about the cold. But I noticed that it doesn't stop Germans from walking all over the place. You see droves of them strolling across open fields when it's 20 degrees, using those ski-pole type things they like to use, pushing strollers, and then probably ending up in superb restaurants in stunning towns, drinking exceptional beer, being friendly to strangers and children and other people's dogs, and in general making me feel like an idiot for not particularly wanting to go to Germany in the first place. 

a recipe: schnitzel

When Sam will agree to eat any type of protein, a certain gauntlet is laid down, because that kid would happily subsist on a diet of exclusively plain, unadorned noodles. With maybe an occasional plate of spaetzle (or, as he calls it, "speckles"). So it was with a combination of surprise, delight, and trepidation that I heard him ask for seconds of Anne's schintzel, at her house in Munich. The trepidation is because I've had problems with sautéing breaded things here; I'm still not used to the electric cooktop, so there's more burning going on than I'd like to admit. But with fresh advice from an experienced schnitzel-maker--thin thin thin cutlets, plus clarified butter--and my own realization that I should just try a lower temp, I've gone at it again, a few times. Not only because I myself love a good schnitzel, but because I really want to keep Sam alive. And now I've come to the right formula: 

veal scallopine or pork medallions, pounded uniformly thin (I use a rolling pin)
salt and pepper
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon heavy cream
lemon wedges, for serving

First, clarify butter: put a stick of it in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, and melt it, skimming any foam from the surface. Turn off the heat and let the melted butter sit for a couple minutes, and the solids will sink to the bottom. Before the butter recongeals, slowly and carefully pour off the melted butter from the top, leaving the solids at the bottom; discard the solids. You now have 3/4 stick of clarified butter. Heat a couple tablespoons of it in a skillet over medium flame.

Season the meat with salt and pepper. In 3 shallow bowls, put (1) some flour, (2) the eggs beaten with the cream, and (3) breadcrumbs. Dip each veal slice in the flour, then the egg, and finally the breadcrumbs, shaking off any excess of each coating. Place the coated veal in the hot butter, and cook for a couple minutes per side, until golden. This will probably have to be done in batches: pounded cutlets take up a lot of surface area in the pan. So replenish the butter as needed, between batches, and wipe out the pan of any fallen-off coating, which will burn if left in there; make sure the new butter you add gets hot before adding new cutlets. Keep the finished cutlets warm in a low oven while you finish the others. Serve with lemon wedges.


week 17, part i: pictures of little boys in germany

Christmas Vacation (top to bottom) outside the castle Neuschwanstein, in Bamberg, in a beer hall, ice-skating in Munich, and warming up with hot chocolate mountain-side.


week 16: christmas in luxembourg

At first I avoided Auchan, which is a breed of store called, fantastically, a hypermarket. I was intimidated and somewhat revolted by the Wal-Mart-esque proportions of the place, its associations with economy-size bins of Doritos and the economy-size people who consume same. Plus, I was confused about the parking situation, worried that what I was driving into would turn out to be the private garage of an accounting firm. And it's in a mall

But then I discovered that at Auchan's terrine counter there are 30 choices; it might be the only store in this country that stocks passionfruit puree; they sell Bresse chickens. I still don't much like shopping there--too big, too much of a production, too distracting. But when I need something at all specialty--a turkey, prosecco, whatever--I head to the centre commercial, park on the -2 parking level, and bite the bullet. As I did on the morning of Christmas Eve, to ensure that I could find (a) the proper accompaniments for foie gras, and (b) frozen corn and baking powder, both to make corn pudding, to serve with a standing rib roast instead of Yorkshire pudding, which is too last-minute-y and I think somewhat pointless.

Boy what a mistake. I sensed trouble when I could barely find a spot in the garage, but I assumed these were last-minute gift-shoppers, madly grabbing toys and electronics on Auchan's second floor; I was headed to the food, on the first. But I was wrong: it was a goddamned feeding frenzy. In Seafood, the staff were handing out freshly shucked oysters; dozens of men were gathered round, slurping away, while their wives waited at the counter to buy crates full of French coast oysters. In Wines--the size of a large Manhattan shop--the crowd was three deep in Champagnes. It was impossible to get your cart into Produce, so people left their carts around the perimeter, much like a park-and-ride commuter situation. There were three different sections in the store with large displays of foie gras and its accessories, including special knives, toasts, jams, salts, and dozens of choices of the engorged livers; people were grabbing half-pounds hunks willy-nilly. It was like a whole country desperately laying in supplies for Martha Stewart's house arrest. Hypermarket indeed.

But none of these people was Martha Stewart. Rather, there's a certain type of woman in Luxembourg who at any given moment seems to constitute an impossibly large percentage of the overall supermarket crowd: she's sixty years old, grim-faced, bespectacled, and built like a linebacker. She's got her elbows out and her dander up, and this battle ax looks like she will happily ram you with her shopping cart filled with 100 pounds worth of pork and potatoes. Wherever I turned, there she was, daring me to try to navigate around her. 

Back at home, I found little boys chomping at the bit for tomorrow. I never before realized how much Christmas Day is nirvana for little boys; I certainly don't remember feeling the way they clearly do. But it was still the eve, grownup time, so I preheated the oven for the giant hunk of roast beast, and put the foie gras and its wine in the fridge, modulating temperatures all over the place. 

a recipe-assemblage: foie gras

Of course, foie gras is not for everyone. Our dinner guests had never had it before, and one of them, I suspect, will not have it again. But I love it, and served it thusly: 
  • The foie gras: chilled, then removed from the fridge 30 minutes before eating. Sliced 1/4 inch thick with a sharp knife that's wiped clean in between slices.
  • The bread: rounds of brioche, toasted. 
  • The sweet: a wine jelly such as confit de Monbazillac, spread on the toast before topping with foie gras.
  • The garnish: a few grains of coarse sea salt. 
  • The wine: Sauternes, chilled and thawed on the same schedule as the liver. 
Et voilà!