photos by Lizzie Kerman
When I was about 25, I went to Paris to cooking school. My uncle had a contact that had found me an apartment in the 15th arrondisement and I moved in in September.
Those first weeks were terrible. The apartment was new, kind of tacky and lame. Not at all that dream I had of living in someone’s 17th century attic in the heart of Paris. I remember feeling completely out of my element as far as language as well. As my mom always said, I was like my long-departed (for New England) dad. I never wanted to talk to anyone in a foreign language until I wasn’t going to look like a fool.
Even though I had spent a summer in France in high school and taken some college French, my head was filled with Serbian and German. I have always felt that the problem with learning more than one foreign language is how to keep them all up front in your head at the same time. When I was speaking mostly French, that’s what was in my head. Once I spent time learning Serbian and traveling the then Yugoslavia, I had trouble finding the French.
So those first days in France were rough...incidents of opening my hand with random coins and having sweet cashiers collecting what they needed from my palm. Having the most unspeakably rude experiences at the post office. And being taken in hand by Parisian grannies. If you stand still for more than a few minutes in most parts of Paris, there is always a lovely older lady ready to give you a hand and wait patiently while you butcher their language.
When I first arrived, I took a French class to get my sea legs again. And I practiced thinking in French and not translating conversations with people I spoke to on the street into English before getting the meaning. That is a real trick. You kind of have to turn off your inner translator and be willing to absorb without having everything be perfectly clear.
I started walking. Partially because I was often lost at the beginning. And I was shy about the metro and bus. I walked and walked and walked. All over the city. I went miles and miles. I had a journal-- post college for diary. I found this recently as I was cleaning out our house to make room for my mom’s things and it was appalling. I know we should feel nostalgic for those 20’s, but I am so grateful to have let some of that angst go in the ensuing years.
I also cooked. First I went to cooking school and worked as an intern (stagiare) for the school. Then I worked as a private chef in the British Embassy.
I didn’t have a kitchen of my own, but especially at cooking school, I was able to make truly delicious food from supreme ingredients. I’ll never forget my final exam from school---I had to make a recipe from a basket of ingredients. I was so anxious. The chef told me the recipe in advance but told me “now there is no margin for error. Everything must be perfect.” Pan seared turbot with a puree of artichokes with beurre blanc.
My favorite dish from cooking school is probably tarte tatin. I love it partially because my beloved Chef Fernand Chambrette taught me, partially because it is a recipe he taught me without many measures written down.
Chef Chambrette’s Tarte Tatin
one tarte tatin pan or a largish heavy cake pan
Granny Smith apples (Chambrette used golden delicious but I have found that the ones I can get don’t hold up to cooking and keeping their form)
Put thick slices of unsalted butter along the bottom of the pan. Then put enough sugar in the pan to go to the bottom of your fingernail once you stick it in the sugar.
Then peel, core, and cut the apples in half and very tightly pack the apples on top. I like to pack them straight up for more appleness but many folks like to put them upside down so there is a lovely round apple top. I like to make sure they are packed tight enough that they are still full once they have melted some.
I start this on the stove. I cook it on the stove until the sugar and butter begin to pretty evenly caramelize. You will need to jostle the pan so that the hot spots don’t leave you with burnt sugar.
I cook it until there is caramel beginning to soak into the apples. I have been known to pull one apple out so that I can see what’s happening.
I then let it cook slightly and roll a piece of pie dough on top. Put it in the oven for 30-45 min. I do peek to see what is happening under that shell.
Then take it out of the oven. Let it cool some but not so much that it won’t un-mold. Then turn it over onto a plate. If you have some apples stick, just carefully scrape it onto the top and it should be fine.
My pie dough recipe, for what it’s worth:
9 oz flour
6 oz unsalted butter--- you could do 2 oz lard, 2 oz butter, 2 oz crisco
1/4 cup ice cold water
I put the flour and cold butter in the food processor and make sandy. Then add the water and mix til it just forms a ball. You might need more or less water depending on the weather and the type of flour you use
A couple of years ago, I got really sick. So sick. And I never really get not-working sick. If it had not been for my mother and her pretty constant nagging, I probably would have died.
I thought I had a kidney stone. I was coming home from speaking on a panel on local food and I suddenly felt just awful. Thought I initially was getting one of those fast stomach things. And then, in the middle of the night, I had pain. So bad it was worse than labor (although memories of labor are shaky).
Now there are several points during this journey that I look back as moments I could have certainly made different choices. For example, if the pain is so bad you wonder if you are dying, this is a time you could call an ambulance. Or, if you were me, have your husband drive you 2 minutes to the emergency room.
Yeah, so that’s not what I did. It passed so I felt better in the morning. My mother hounded me into going to the doctor. They told me I looked like hell. Gave me meds for a kidney stone, shot for pain, sent me home.
Fast forward to me three days later, still sick. Fever maybe getting worse. Looking green. My mom sat in my bedroom and told me I was going to the emergency room. And, again, I made a different choice. Wasted time by calling the attending on call at the hospital. Asked him what the criteria should be that would send me to the hospital vs. waiting it out at home.
In the end, my mom MADE me go to the emergency room. She would not hear of no. And she made my husband drive me. And she saved my life.
And this often reminds me that life is more fragile than we think it is. At the ER, I was baffled when the resident looked so relieved to tell me that my organs were functioning. It never occurred to me that I was really sick.
And I would love to say that that sickness taught me to live better, worry less, and make every day count.
But I am still me. I fret like crazy, usually at 3am about things I cannot change immediately and certainly not change in the middle of the night. I spend too much time engaged with my children in arguments about socks and what’s for dinner. I forget what I enjoy besides work.
And I worry that I did not nag my mother enough like she did for me. I am sad I didn’t push to have mom in the ICU or realize she was ill. She was so stoic, she seemed fine to me. And maybe that’s just what she wanted.
I wish I had kissed my mom goodbye when I left to take one of my kids to sports. I didn’t want to give her my kids’ colds. I wish I had gone to have dinner with her more before she died. Most of all, I wish she were here, even for a second, to know how much we loved her and how we are doing okay without her so she shouldn’t fret.
Grandmother’s Brunswick Stew
Get a pot big enough to boil a chicken. Chop (not fancy or fine) 2 carrots, 1 onion, 2 stalks celery, and fresh thyme. Put a bit of butter or oil in the bottom of the pot and sweat the vegetables. (Sweat generally means cooking them some without really browning, until translucent)
Add a chicken and 8-10 cups of water or chicken stock (depending on the size of your pot). Cook til the chicken juices run clear. I often under cook the chicken just a shade (cooked but pink-ish) since I am going to add it to the stew. However, do what works for you.
I use a pair of tongs and a kitchen fork to remove the chicken from the pot. As soon as it’s cool enough, I pull the chicken off the bone, taking care to get all the gristle and skin. Leave the chicken in large pieces and set aside.
Continue to reduce the stock in the pot. Add the bones (but not the skin from the chicken) to this. My mother always added a couple of bouillon cubes as well.
When my Grandmother made this, she used the creamed corn that she and her cousins “put up” in the summer and froze. I like to use fresh white corn.
8-10 ears white corn, taken off the cob (also be sure to get the milk off the cob and add it to your stock)*
2 pkgs butter beans (about 4 cups)---I get these from Brinkley Farm and use either butter beans or cream peas
2 cans whole peeled tomatoes or 12-14 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
fresh cayenne pepper or red chili flake
2 onions finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
In a smaller pot, sweat your onions and garlic. Add the tomatoes and butter beans. Add stock from your chicken pot to cook the beans. Cook 20 min or so, until the beans are cooked. Add chicken pieces of a size that suits you. Add the corn. Cook for 10-15 min for everything to marry. Add more stock if needed. Season with salt, pepper, Tabasco, Red pepper flake or fresh cayenne.
I often marvel at how this is a perfect stew for winter, but is best made either in the late spring or summer.
* some people like to add the cobs to the stock for 20 or so minutes to help with flavor. I worry about them making things bitter before I remember to pull them out. I use the flat side of a knife and run it along the side of the cob, getting any juice/milk from the cob along with any extra meat hidden in pockets
How do I remember my grandmother? She lived in a small town in Eastern North Carolina, in a house on Church Street that backed up to a big garden. As with many things in my life, some of my best memories of her include food.
I remember her crying when her pecan pie didn’t set. I remember her chicken salad sandwiches (crusts cut off) with fresh tomatoes and her bread and butter pickles. I remember that my mother loved her braised cabbage with peppery pork tenderloin.
Every family gathering to this day is filled with both wonderful food and adult beverages of all kinds. We have evolved from bourbon and water drunk at the sink to beers to, thanks to my cousin Chrish, wine of all kinds.
My grandmother was my favorite growing up. After I turned 5, she deemed me old enough to learn to play cards. Gin rummy, obviously. We would play together against my mother. My grandmother always won. In the afternoons, when it was too hot to do much else, we would sit at the table and eat blister peanuts and play cards. Sometimes, my grandmother would have her ladies over for lunch to play actual penny-ante poker.
If she liked the ladies, she would make shrimp salad in lettuce leaves with a side of cucumbers in vinegar or lovely Better Boy tomatoes. Or maybe her really delicious Brunswick stew with a little tiny diced fresh cayenne pepper on the side.
Does everybody have a family like mine? Food obsessed, prone to excess of all kinds, full of storytellers and odd ducks. Loud and messy and funny.
I have an idea of writing a blog about my life, through food and stories. My stab at seeing whether I could write a book or not. I’ll share recipes, stories that I hope won’t mortify my family members or call them out, but will remind us of where we came from and offer some food on the side.
What has been most on my mind lately is my mom’s passing. I’m finally getting around to selling her house and it has brought a lot back from her funeral a little over a year ago. What would I say about my mom’s funeral? The most I have cried and the most I have laughed in a long time.
Service where I was sitting in the front row. Bad deal since I suck at such things. I was basically the one supposed to stand and sit like I “knew” how to do. But a combination of general shock and my lack of attendance at church meant those behind me were stuck. Do what they knew to be right or try and not make me look ridiculous? A true Southern dilemma. Kind of funny if you think about it.
Barbecue lunch with the family and all the lovely folks who cared about my mother. I hesitate to say “sweet” mother. Because she could be sweet, but only if you deserved it. And she could be equally cutting and snide if that was called for as well.
Drinking and snacks at my cousin’s house. The last time I will be at that wonderful house next door to where my mother and Uncle Joel grew up. And taking the teenagers for a quick “driving lesson” in the cemetery, where we laughed so hard and drank wine in the back seat while they maneuvered our cars around. We took the flowers from the service and took them around the decorate the graves of our various family members.
Ending with oysters at the Sunnyside oyster bar. I remember eating there when I was little. The hot sauce poured out in coffee pitchers. The oysters shucked and dumped into little side bowls. Our kids did what many of my cousins’ did; they ate chicken in the lounge with the pinball machines and the bar. The only thing missing was my mother, who would have loved it. And maybe my grandmother.
My Grandmother’s chicken salad--
(forgive me as she never used a recipe for this)
chicken breast and thighs, boiled not to death, with ALL the skin and gristle removed
4 stalks of celery, cut lengthwise and then diced in an organized fashion
salt and pepper
shot of Tabasco
Mix to your taste but remember that moderation is a good thing. And you can’t take
something OUT but you can add more. That goes especially for mayo, salt, and lemon.