I love sewing y’all, but sometimes I need a break. Sometimes I like to get back to the writing part of my blog. I really do enjoy writing. It is a stress relief for me, and my fingertips are currently needle-shredded. So here is a little story I wanted to post last week, around Thanksgiving time, but I was just too busy doing Thanksgiving.
It’s another story about my time in France, and I like it because it includes my love of cooking, my love of singing, and, well, my love of talking about my time in France.
In the past, I have blogged about how I started dabbling in the kitchen around the age of 12. But my passion in those early years was for baking, not cooking. I hardly ever tried making things outside the realm of refined carbohydrates, so that by the time I found myself in a foreign country at the ripe age of 18 and in charge of feeding myself, I was pretty much limited to spaghetti and sandwiches. My two roommates, having known me to show up at my high school with bread or cookies to feed the entire student body, probably assumed that I knew my way around every corner of the kitchen. They were mistaken.
Our first essays into the culinary world were laughable at best. I think the biggest problem we had was that instead of trying to learn how to cook with the traditional French ingredients readily available to us, we were constantly trying to mimic the foods we missed from home. I remember at Thanksgiving, we got so homesick for American food that we ventured out to find ‘Kennedy’s’, a small store that other foreigners had told us about. This little store sold imported American goods at outrageous prices. A can of pumpkin for pie cost about five dollars. Tiny jars of Jif peanut butter, boxes of jello and graham crackers just about broke our food budget for the month. And don’t even ask how much they wanted for a package of Oreos.
One such memorable episode was around Christmas time, when one of the girls insisted she needed Cool Whip for a traditional dessert. We set out in search of the precious artificial dairy whipped topping (Kennedy’s being closed) and had to settle for some unknown substance called Crème Fraiche, which came in a similar looking container. It was a surprisingly good substitute!
I learned something else about cooking while I was in the culinary capital of the world. If you want to cook good food, it is going to cost you, no matter where you live. We lived in the dormitory of a seminary with lots of broke students, and there wasn’t a lot of haute cuisine going on in that kitchen.
After a while, and to my surprise, seeing as I was always puttering around in the kitchen, I was often asked how to make things by the French students. My biggest surprise was when a friend of ours, who was in charge of student social events, asked me to help him oversee a large and important dinner party for the students and the visiting board of the seminary. In my naïveté (and I must admit I was flattered) I agreed.
We made up a menu. I don’t precisely remember everything we decided to make that night, but I do remember we decided on roasted pork. I figured that would be easy enough even though technically, I had never attempted to cook a pork roast. But I was pretty sure I had seen my mother do it once or twice.
While all this was going on, there were other things preparing for the seminary board’s visit. One of those things was a choir concert. My friend ‘E’ and I had joined the tiny little seminary chorale earlier in the year and had been trying, without much success, to understand the French both in the music and coming from the choir director.
There was also a bit of culture shock coming from the style of the music. I had grown up as, shall we say, a musical conservative. As far as religious music went, my family was strictly classical and believe it or not, my first real exposure to American contemporary Christian music was in that little chorale. (Just try to imagine Michael W. Smith in French).
The final song for the concert was a piece that I really didn’t care much for. In my humble opinion it was corny, overly dramatic, and had way too many unnecessary key changes. (I think there were seven in the last two pages, each one climbing higher into the stratosphere) There was also a lengthy solo involved, that would require the soloist (gasp) to walk around the stage and sing all of those ridiculous key changes directly into a microphone held in her hand! It was a huge leap away from Mozart and Mendelssohn so dear to my heart, but you guessed it. I got landed with the solo.
Dreading the fact that it was also in a language I was far from mastering, I tried to decline, but to no avail. So there I was, slated to finish up the concert with a melodramatic bang and cook dinner for the whole seminary on the same night.
Things went fairly well that day. Between prepping food and last minute choir rehearsal, I was on my feet most of the day, but things were coming together. I even managed to fit several large pork roasts into the miniscule oven that we had to use. Everything was roasting and simmering that should be roasting and simmering, the tables were all set, and I just had time to run and get dressed before the concert. I changed, ran a brush through my hair and slapped on some lipstick. But just as I got back downstairs, I thought it would be wise to check on the pork one last time.
I raced into the kitchen, grabbed a potholder, opened the oven and yanked out the pork-laden oven rack a trifle hastily. Before I realized what was happening, a wave of scalding, simmering water and pork drippings came sloshing out the side of the pan and deluged the oven, the floor and my startled legs. I yelped in panic, both from the pain in my shins and from fear of a huge grease fire. I grabbed some towels and started frantically mopping in every direction.
Thankfully the pain in my legs passed quickly and I think the nylons I was wearing were the only thing that saved them from severe blistering. I cleaned up the mess as fast as I could, knowing that I was already late for the concert. But as I raced out of the kitchen I knew that something had to be done about my legs. Grease soaked and smelling of pig, they had to be attended to.
My shoes were full of drippings as well so that I slipped and slid all the way back upstairs only to be met with another dilemma. My slicked up shoes were the only dress shoes I had. There was only time to do three things. I kicked off my shoes, peeled of my burn-prevention nylons and grabbed my roommates shoes. I raced to the other building, shoes in hand, where the choir was lined up waiting. I gasped my apologies, dropped the borrowed shoes on the floor and tried to slip into them.
People- it was like that scene from Cinderella where the ugly stepsisters are trying to force the glass slipper onto their bony feet. The shoes were two and a half sizes too small.
But alas, the choir was already on their way out to the stage and I had no choice but to wedge my toes in as best I could and toddle my way out after them. That concert was a misery. Not only were my feet in agony, but I had all the dread of that solo to come. And come it did.
I made my way to the front of the choir as best I could, considering my swollen and blood-deprived feet. The microphone was slippery in my greasy hands that I hadn’t had a chance to clean properly, and there in front of me was a room full of austere looking (to my nervous eyes) board members. I stood there in my too-small shoes, fully aware that I was about to butcher their language in a song that I was almost too embarrassed to sing. But the show had to go on. I focused on a spot in the back of the room and got through every last key change. It was done at last.
The rest of the evening was kind of a blur. I think the dinner turned out pretty well considering; even that treacherous pork. But my poor roommates shoes- they were never quite the same again.