Long before thefrancofly had pictures, illustrations, or Paris as its backdrop, I was working as a costume production assistant in New York. Glamorous moments, yes. Knee-deep in snow in one of the brutalist winters to date, where no boots were waterproof enough, about to pass off a bowl of chili to my boss on set, Phillip Seymour Hoffman walked over and asked, “You gonna eat that?”. “No, it’s just keeping my hands warm,” I murmured bug-eyed. Completely frightened, I handed the paper bowl of chili off to Phil and I skipped away as quickly as I could. But for every moment like that, there were weeks were I was lugging around garment bags and Starbucks orders to unknown destinations in New Jersey. Nevertheless, at times like those, I was thinking fondly of Paris. But I had no idea how I would ever make it back. Or let alone, what I would ever do if so.
But what started out as a few foodie musings direct from NYC has morphed into an illustrated snapshot of my new transcontinental exploits in Paris, France. Thefrancofly has transformed into a tremendous creative outlet, reigniting my passion for both writing and illustration. With wider eyes, I am appreciating the beauty of Paris a little more every day, a city in which since most recently I only had lukewarm feelings for. And if anything else, with so many wacky transitions (the phonebook of paperwork, the sky-high price of peanut butter and low-tech downgrades), thefrancofly has become a wonderful source of catharsis, making this new world a little bit funnier and a little easier to swallow.
So dear readers, if the sentimentality has not lost you already, I just want to say thank you for joining me along the way.
My relationship to Julia Child, like those of countless generations, goes back to Saturday mornings on public television. I was never much into cartoons. But I was always first to wake up and tune into the Saturday morning lineup of cooking shows. It was a mixed bag. It was long before superchefs inscribed their names on packaged spice blends and spatulas. Cooking talents came and went. There was Joanne Weir with her poodle perm and her tales of a place called Tuscany. There was Rick Bayless with his shirtless enthusiasm for mole. There was that vegetarian cook with something called seitan. And then there was Julia. I had no qualms with Julia. She was knowledgeable, a little clumsy, and unlike the rest, she had a sense of humor. Gangly and slightly hunchbacked at this point, she had tremendous knife skills for someone so unassuming. And it made for terrific television.
At this point I had never had real French food. And it certainly had a mystique of its own. Crepes were a fancy specialty item covered in whipped crème and saccharin fruit topping on the menus of the local Chicago greasy spoons. And they had a pronunciation all of their own. And I squeamishly tried escargot for the first time at the Chicago staple The Bergoff on a special trip with my family “downtown”. But luckily, Julia was not my only introduction to the cuisine of elsewhere. A big part of my food education is much credited to the adventurous daddy-daughter dates I shared with my father. We drank real unsweetened hot chocolate on silver platters and devoured elegant whipped crème tartes with our pinkies up at Lutz bakery on the Northside. And I was the only adventurous spirit to join him on our first taste of Ethiopian together.
But back to Julia, as my family woke up those Saturday mornings, they would all roll in one-by-one. First my dad, “Oh, Julia! I love Julia Child!” he would say plopping on the couch next to me with his cup of coffee. Then my mom would wander in, “And then you put the chicken in the souuuuuup!” said in her best Aykroyd does Child shrillness. “I’ve been watching her since I was your age,” she would coo, crowding around the tv. Then finally my brother come in and sat down with a bowl of cereal. “Can we change the channel?” Some things never change. But majority ruled and we would all watch Julia together.
Although I never realized any of her recipes at home, thanks to Julia, I started developing a food vocabulary from a very early age. I knew what chervil was although it took me 15 years before I could actually taste it for myself. I encouraged my mom to buy parchment paper so I could pipe merinque like Julia. And meringue was most definitely best whipped in a copper bowl. And I learned that with the right technique, something as mundane as eggs could be an elegant affair at any time of the day.
In college, working at a theatre company in the middle of Maine for a summer, I brought along both ‘Julie & Julia’ and ‘My Life in France’ for a summer reading double feature. Although I did not hear an end of it from my coworkers and roommates, I started piecing together more of Julia’s extraordinary character. In a time with strict social constraints on women, she was a true trailblazer. Whether moving to New York after university to figure it out or working for the OSS long before stumbling upon French cooking in her 30s, her life was not the product of expectations, but guided by her own discoveries and passions. And all in all, it was pleasure to read that there was still a great amount of hope for tall girls with distinct voices like me. Although I cannot pinpoint exactly my choice of moving to France, I relished reading about Julia’s first serendipitous bite of sole meunière. And I subconsciously knew I had to try it for myself.
So when I finally did arrive in France, I had already been formerly introduced to the edible world of Julia Child. And I am still enjoying most every moment of it. I aspire to treat food with the same amount of patience, dedication and zeal as Julia. And in the spirit of Julia Child, I look forward to seeing where it takes me. So regardless if these sentiments are a little late, Julia Child is still one-hundred years and one day as memorable.
If I have not lost you already, now it is going to get interesting. Walking down the double-sided yogurt isle, I am always perplexed by the plethora of options for seemingly plain yogurt. There is yaourt nature, fromage blanc, caillé, faisselle, séré, yaourt au bifidus, and drinkable yogurt, all made from different kinds of milk. Although technically not yogurt, one of the things I quickly learned to adore in France is fromage blanc, or white cheese. It varies in textures and tanginess, but the style I love has the same texture of a fatty Greek yogurt, but is surprisingly low in fat and calories. How can this be ? Fromage blanc is a simple cheese made by boiling fresh, unpasturized milk and cream with a bit of présure, a fermentation starter. Although its texture is often likened to cream cheese, playing starring role in French cheesecake, its consistancy is more comparable to a high-fat yogurt. Fromage blanc is often on restaurant menus as the sole light option. Served with a berry coulis or honey, it is a protein-packed, simple dessert. I often eat it for breakfast with oatmeal and fruit. Or I will layer fromage blanc, sliced fruit, and maple syrup for a quick parfait. A welcome nudge for Mr. Meat & Potatoes, my husband, to eat fruit.
Speaking of the varieties of fromage blanc, it is onto a reader favorite, Danone’s Gervita. In Gervita’s packaging, a spoonful of this whipped fromage blanc floats among the clouds in a blue sky. It’s a spoonful of pleasure coming in for landing. On the first bite, the mousse melts on the tongue with the smooth, fresh milk taste of cream cheese, then that characteristic yogurt tang kicks in. And then it’s back to the smooth taste of cream again. Although I was a bit surprised the mousse was just a layer on top of a bed of fromage blanc, it is a pleasing flip flop of changing textures and character. Here is a 4-pack that won’t last more than a day at chez moi.
I have seen Gervain Petit Suisse in the refrigerators of most families and all of my serious friends who have a properly stocked fridge. It’s an after-dinner kiddie treat. Although I’ve tried unsuccessfully using a spoon to just dig in, Petit Suisse can be a bit deceiving. The Petit Suisse must first be squeezed out of its container and carefully disrobed of its colorful paper sleeve and served standing tall on a plate. Kids love presentation, eh? With 9.2 % fat content, this fromage blanc is more comparable to cream cheese. Although it lacks the fresh cream taste of Gervita, it has the decadently rich texture of strained Greek yogurt and the tangy punch of crème fraiche. Hence, a perfect accompaniment to all chocolate and fruit desserts.
So there you have it. I love fromage blanc, I like Petit Suisse, and I would marry Gervita. But I think it is all gone.
Paris is begrudgingly hailed by some Parisiens as a Disneyland for Americans. Frankly, it is a moveable feast for all the world’s wealthy gobsmackers. But did you know that EuroDisney is the most-frequented attraction in France? Hands down, it beats both the Eiffel Tower and the new Abercrombie & Fitch on the Champs Élysées. (But don’t worry, I still have seen Parisien women wearing neither sweatpants nor the A&F bedazzled bottom variety.)
Considering my childhood dreams were A.) to convince my parents to take me Disneyworld and b.) become a Snow White impersonator by trade, it was not difficult to enjoy EuroDisney. Regardless of its European sensibilities like Perrier on tap, like any Disney institution, the pizza at Euro Disney is still bad. But how about those Mickey Mouse meringues?
One of the major differences between New York and Paris is the pockets of greenery scattered about Paris. Once getting past heavy, Haussmanian doors with ubiquitous door codes (the right of passage to reach any French person, place or thing), the majority of apartment buildings hide a small garden, most likely amidst parked bicycles and garbage cans.
When I met my husband, I was instantly taken by his own private petit jardin. (“He’s got a car, an accent and a garden! Instant upgrade!”, exclaimed my 2009 self). Living on the ground floor, it fills our apartment with clean air and a terrific breeze from the nearby forest, the Bois de Vincennes. And it allows me to indulge in an urban impossibility, compost. As of late, it is a bit unkempt. Case in point, winter rolled around before we had the chance to cut the grass. Ideally, I would love to plant sweet pea seedlings. However, as any photographer/stylist duo, we utilize gardening simply for impromptu photo shoots. In my one-track mind, dress-up always trumps gardening. Trim a branch, strike a pose.