EATING : MY AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
I always put on a few pounds whenever I come back home to visit. Donuts and hamburgers with everything on it (not to mention the fries), milkshakes and pizza; no matter how I try and stick to the salads, fresh fruit and good sense, the pull of the foods I grew up on is too strong for me. My self-restraint melts away in front of each diner, my self-control stays out in the parking lot, withering in the scalding Florida sun as I stroll the aisles of my favorite supermarket and the constant, endless parade of restaurant menus scream out to me, grab me by the arms and shake all reason straight out of my head, luring me with the fried, the barbecued and the cheesy. And the fun of being 16 again holds too great a charm, popping out to a favorite haunt with friends, sitting over baskets of goodies, sipping soda or beer and giggling over old times. But as the jeans get a tad snugger, the zipper that much harder to pull closed, I scold myself for my gluttony, that evil little voice whispers in my ear reminding me how I will feel when I return to France and I try and muster up the courage to shake my head no and wave away the next temptation.
But this trip home, I decided to leave my guilt packed up in my suitcase and indulge! A weekend in New Orleans netted incredible beignets, dense yet airy and oh-so chewy, hidden under an abundance of snowy powdered sugar; pralines and turtles nibbled while on a stroll through the French Quarter; perfect macarons and chocolates at Sucré; fried oyster po’boys prepared by Pierre Maspero’s for an IFBC meal. The traditional Mocha Frappuccino shared with my mom once home on the range and platters of ribs slathered with thick, tangy, spicy sauce and served up with loads of fried potatoes and a cool, crunchy dill pickle, a meal best eaten with at least one of my sons, arrived hard and fast practically straight from the airport. Yes, I have always been a glutton, food my Achille’s Heel, and each time I step out of the airport into the sultry heat of a Florida summer evening a wave of nostalgia sweeps over me, bringing me back to the best place of my youth: food.
You can never go home again, the old saying goes. Yet they also say that every time we return home, we each become the child we were again. The truth lies somewhere in between, at least where I am concerned. I feel older, wiser, foreign, somehow. I never really felt like I fit in here. Surrounded by schoolmates blossoming into tanned, leggy young women, their straight, shiny blond hair flowing down their backs, fluttering in the breeze, pretty, confident and popular I was the eternal pal, the Plain Jane, the ugly duckling; there were lots of hallway “hellos”, yet no party invitations, lots of friends but never part of a group, just one step outside. I also realized that I felt I just didn’t have that much in common with many of these people, never enjoyed the Beach Bunny lifestyle, didn’t feel really at home where I was. I felt marooned. And I yearned for more, something unconventional, something extraordinary. So I packed up and left, returning only occasionally, each visit home from a world more foreign and distant. I truly became a different person, a new woman. I grew and changed, learned new languages and habits, adapted to a new way of life and found a world where I felt comfortable, myself. Yet I kept one part of my American life close within reach, the foods I loved and grew up on. Comforting when I feel too far from my family, familiar when the world around me feels strange and alien.
So when I get to Florida and settle into my old bedroom, something clicks in and the cravings wrap around me like an old sweater, promising me comfort and love like a favorite doll. Food and TV and shopping, the trilogy of what bonds me to my mom, is a fatal attraction, an enticement that I have no control over because it is irrevocably linked to home. From the moment we drive over the bridge, the dark water of the Indian River bobbing lazily below my feet, and the ocean rushes forward, waves crashing up onto the beach appearing on the horizon, the hunger wiggles up and bites me, settling in. And doesn’t leave until each and every wild, fried, sugary craving is satisfied.
And part of that experience of home is reliving my youth… but better. As I now sit with old friends become new over beers and glasses of wine, all the talk of parties and surfing, parties and school events, pranks and parties just flies over my head. I smile and nod and admit that I never attended, never partied or hung out at the beach, never drove up Tropical Trail late at night or crashed at this one’s house or the other. They stare goggle-eyed and tease me and ask how I ever got through those years. Well, honestly, I guess I stayed at home curled up with a good book and ate. But each trip back, I make up for missed opportunities, live adventures I didn’t the first time around, and happily I find friends to pull me into that magic circle and relive our teen years again. But only better. I went to my very first high school football game last Friday night. Sure, make fun of me if you will but the truth must be told. It seems to be almost un-American not to have attended at least one football game while in high school, but it apparently escaped me. No gang of friends to hang out with, not much of school spirit where sports were concerned, I avoided the rah-rah’s and the cheers, feeling less than foxy in front of the oh-so hot pom pom girls, and just was not that interested. But my friend Terri and her husband Fred picked me up and brought me to the game, which we watched from the sidelines (not the bleachers) like the VIPs that we are. The heat eased in the elegant, lazy warm ocean breeze and we wandered around the track that circled the field back and forth, went and ogled the pizza and hot dogs being sold from rickety tents and metal folding tables, the corner of the playing field the most crowded.
Fascinated by the whole American eating thing, the myths and the realities, the traditions and the shocking eatables I read about from afar, all that I wanted to capture and write about, as the smells of frying and grilling waft up and around me, tickling my nostrils and my fancy and urging me to eat, I decided to take photos of the foods that typified this culture, all that crossed my path. Outdoor festival and fair food in my city of Nantes has similarities with this American experience, yet the grilled, spicy merguez sausages stuffed in a chunk of baguette and slathered with mustard followed by cones of fried, sugared churros are balanced out with crêpes hot off the griddle, platters of succulent raw oysters and steaming bowls of marinated mussels. Not so here… as I casually walked up behind this stranger and kindly asked him if I could snap a picture of his hot dog (only to be scolded and laughed at by a shocked Terri), as people lined up for boxes of pizza and ice cream treats, a delightful and surprising announcement boomed over the loudspeaker exciting me and titillating my curiosity more than my tastebuds: right after the game, fried oreos would be sold from a special food booth in the church parking lot across the street right after the game. Whoopie! Who would ever have thought that I would come even remotely close, find myself face to face with any one of these incredible, uniquely American battered and deep-fried foods that I have been reading so much about with shock, amazement, amusement and, need I add, disgust?
Terri and I impatiently waited for the end of the game and immediately ran across the street like two high school girls looking for a hot party with hot surfer guys. The smell reached us as we made our way across the dark parking lot, the bright glare of the overhead streetlamps creating brilliant circles of blinding sunlight on the black tar. We pressed into the crowd pushing towards the folding tables lined with frosty sodas and bottles of water. Red tickets clutched in our hands, we watched as the hot, sizzling breaded snacks were lifted out of the bubbling oil and nestled into white paper napkins one by one. We waved two tickets and nodded as the church lady held up two and we walked out of that parking lot, back towards the car staring with disbelief at our treasures, afraid, truly afraid to be the first to take a bite. After taking photos in the dark, we dared the other to be the first, laughing at ourselves and at our own fear. Then finally, finally, we both bit into this culinary curiosity at once, chewed slowly, savored, and finally, eyes closed in pleasure, admitted that, in fat, they were pretty tasty. And as I relished the experience, as I wondered that I was eating and enjoying this fried oreo, I thought to myself with a smirk on my lips: “What’s next? Fried butter?”
I baked for my mom. She buys muffins from the supermarket bakery, blueberry or chocolate chip, and eats one every morning for breakfast. And have I told you that she has an enormous sweet tooth, one that may shock and surprise anyone who sees her frail body and bird-like eating habits. And chocolate is at the top of her list. So when she bought me a small cookbook of Cupcakes & Muffins I selected the perfect morning treat to bake for her: Chocolate Blueberry Muffins. And perfect they were, light and delicate, tender and just moist with the pop of sweet blueberries in every bite. Just the way mom loves her muffins.
CHOCOLATE BLUEBERRY MUFFINS
From Cornerstones’ Cupcakes & Muffins, slightly altered
1 ¾ cups (220 g) flour
4 tsp baking powder
Heaping ¼ cup (30 + g) unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
1 cup (250 ml) milk
1 large (American extra-large) egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable/canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup (about 125 g) fresh or frozen blueberries
1/2 cup (95 g) semisweet chocolate chips, optional
¼ tsp ground cinnamon, optional
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a standard 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake papers.
Sift the flour, backing powder and cocoa together in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar. Stir in either the chocolate chips or ground cinnamon if using. I added neither. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.
Whisk together the milk, oil, egg and vanilla then pour into the well. Blend well then fold in the whole blueberries.
Divide the batter evenly among the 12 lined muffin cups. Use a soup ladle to make it easier and cleaner.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until puffed and set and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the muffin tins from the oven and allow to cool on a rack for 5 minutes before removing the muffins from the tins and allowing to cool completely.