Cooking and Singing Don’t Mix

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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.

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Language Barriers

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Hmmm. What to post? There’s not a lot of new things going on with my shop right now, and I haven’t been cooking much of interest lately.  I thought I could tell a story, since it has been a while, but I always have a hard time deciding what I want to tell about.  Something about my childhood?  About my time in France, or my married life or my crazy boys?

How about France.

Whenever I think about my time in France, the story of Boris always pops into my mind first.  If you have known me for any length of time, you know the ridiculous tale of Boris, but I feel like it needs to be written down for posterity.  I haven’t asked my roommates from France if I can tell this, so I will try to tell it from my own perspective.  They can correct me if I err.

So the last time I wrote about France, we were just settling in for our year abroad.  We had moved into the seminary dormitories and had explored, to some extent, the charming city of Aix-en-Provence.   We were registered at the nearby language institute for foreign students, and I for one, was eager to begin my studies.

One of my chief worries was the language barrier-  that it would be very difficult to communicate with anyone, either at the seminary or the school.  But I needn’t have worried.  In fact, the opposite problem presented itself.  Instead of a language barrier forcing us to communicate in a new language, we soon found that almost everyone we encountered spoke English to some degree, and were eager to practice their English with us.

The language school we attended introduced us to a huge variety of nationalities.  People from Italy, Sweden, Uganda, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Japan and Korea, just to name a few.  And they all spoke English.

Even at the dorms there was a good mix of nations.  There was the seemingly strict and intimidating British man who was the seminary administrator (and little did I know then, my future father-in-law), a very handsome Canadian fella we called “Gorgeous Gabriel”, a cute little Brazilian lady who could whip up an amazing meringue by hand, and then there was Boris.

Don’t let his name mislead you.  He was not from Russia, but from Germany.  He stood about 6 foot 5, had close cropped blond hair and blue eyes, and was a friendly enough guy.  He also spoke English very well, but with a predictable German accent.  That was the only predictable thing about him.

Part of seminary life included a communal kitchen where everyone did their best to share the shelf space in a few old refrigerators, and cook together over the tiniest little gas stove imaginable.  I did a lot of the cooking for the three of us, and was usually the one who used up the small propane tank hooked to the back of the stove.  Then it was my duty to go and inform the administrator (of whom I was slightly afraid) that I needed another tank.

The first time I met Boris was in the kitchen where I had run out of propane halfway through baking a batch of muffins for breakfast.  He made a quick friend of me by offering to go get the refill tank himself.  He returned with it and I finished my muffins while he started in making his own breakfast.

I wasn’t paying attention to what he was cooking until he sat down to eat.  The other girls had come down by that point, and we, and everyone else in the kitchen, were simply staring at him with mouths agape.  In front of him was a bowl full of yogurt with granola on top.   Next to that was a plate with several fried sausages and some cheese.  Lined up in a neat row above his bowl were half a dozen hard boiled eggs, with a baguette roughly torn in half and generously buttered next to them.  And believe this or not, there was a pot of pasta and some sauce boiling on the stove for whenever he might have finished his first several courses.  He easily downed all of this remarkable feast while we nibbled our little muffins.  We soon found that he ate like this- three times a day!

He was a very loud talker, and walked into any room very abruptly, slamming doors behind him.  He always gesticulated wildly when he talked, and I distinctly remember one evening, his marching into the common room, waving a pair of socks in the air, and declaring angrily that his new socks “Ver alvays leafing fuzzles in between his toes!”

His German accent was a source of amusement to us, and I admit we often entertained ourselves by trying to get him to say the word ‘weather vane.’  Without fail, he always pronounced it ‘feather wane’, and then he would storm off when we got the giggles.  But one of my favorite memories of learning about different nationalities was the in-depth discussion a group of us had one night about cartoons we had all watched as children.  I grew up watching the Smurfs, and I knew that the Smurfs were European in origin, so I mentioned the cartoon, thinking we might have something in common.  All of the French people in the room started snickering at the word, and tried to pronounce it themselves.

“Quoi? What are Zee Smoooorffs?”

“You know, those little blue men?”

“Ahh! Oui Oui!  You mean “Les Schtroumpfs!”

Then it was our turn to laugh at the ridiculous word.

Just at that moment, Boris charged into the room, wanting to know what the laughter was about.  We tried to explain the conversation, and he had the most puzzled expression on his face until it suddenly dawned on him what we were talking about and he hollered out-

“Ach Ja!  Die Schlümpfe !”

The laughter lasted a long time after that one.

But the best story about Boris happened late one evening, after we had all finished eating dinner.  We were drying the dishes, when Boris, who was the only other person in the room, suddenly announced that he wanted to speak to all three of us.  We were a bit startled at the commanding way in which he said it, and even slightly alarmed when he walked over to the kitchen door and locked it!

But we quietly sat down and waited for him to speak.  He paced the room energetically for a few minutes, making us even more uneasy, and then suddenly burst out with –

“I like you.” (pointing energetically to me on the left)  “And I like you.” (pointing to ‘E’ on the right.)  My friend ‘N’ in the middle he completely ignored.  The stunned silence that greeted this statement was, I hope, understandable.

He elaborated.

“I vould like to date you both, but I can’t decide vich.  It is like a clock in my head going- tick, tock, tick, tock.”  From the direction in which his head was tilting back and forth, it appeared that I was tick and ‘E’ was tock.

“Efery morning,” he continued, “I come down to the kitchen and I see you (pointing at me) cooking breakvast and I think, ‘Ja, I will marry her and haf hot meals every day and maybe someday haf nine children.’ ”

More stunned silence.

“But then, I see you come down (pointing to ‘E’) and I think to myself, ‘Ach, she is so beautiful!’ And so, you see, I can’t decide”

At this point, my poor friend ‘N’ tried to excuse herself from the proceedings, seeing as she was not needed, but he told her to sit.  Apparently the ball was in our court now, and we simply stared at each other in disbelief, trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves.

The rest of the meeting didn’t go well, seeing as, believe it or not, both of us turned him down.  In the end he got angry and I don’t know how it might have ended if he hadn’t seen one of our good friends walking by the window and quickly stormed out of the kitchen.  When our friend entered, out burst our strange tale, a bit hysterically if I remember correctly.  He assured us that he would keep an eye on Boris, and that maybe we should keep out of his way for a while.

But Boris did a good job of keeping out of our way, until he found a different living situation that would suit him, and us, better.  I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye, but I have always kind of wondered. Whatever happened to Boris, the man who couldn’t decide between tick and tock?