(THAT’S FRANGLAIS FOR PARDONNEZ-MOI, SEÑORITA)
I will never forget the time Bunny and I traveled to Paris together. I know I spent some time on arrival in that ville éternelle with my amie personnelle, but things were still in a bit of a fog right then for a spell. That is because we took the trip not long after 9-11. We arrived at Atlanta airport with perfect timing, especially for me, meaning we had time to spare and did not have to race to the departure gate.
Or so I thought (je pense, donc je suis). Because instead of following a crowd through the automatic sliding doors to the ticket counter, we waited outside while the airport emptied. Vide. Seems that at a time when airport authorities were still a little touchy, a UGA fan flying to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl ran up an escalator the wrong way to bypass security, after which all the flights were grounded or placed in a holding pattern while the airport itself was evacuated. You see mister liberty bowler left his son on the other side to go back and retrieve a camera etc etc etc but don’t look down on the dawgs just because they lack an Alabama education--I am a UGA grad myself for one of my own degrees, in fact. Football fans can get a little overexcited even with no NC on the line, and even if they are nowhere close to number 14.
To make a longue histoire short, Bunny and I barely made it to our plane before they closed the doors and the aircraft pulled back from the gate half empty, even though it took off nine hours late and left most of the passengers behind still waiting in the security lines.
So my first memory of the trip itself came after sleeping through Lyon on the TGV train and arriving in Avignon where we had a long lunch in a cafe in sight of the Cathedral in that summer home of the Popes. Now the Popes had it right, because that was living, and no one ever knew as much about indulging themselves. We left all the Grande Vitesse behind lors de descendre du Train.
I don’t even remember what Bunny and I ate for that splendid déjeuner (lunch, for you gringos). I just knew lunch lasted all day and included lots of that delicious Vacqueyras wine of the region. I could do that all the time if my publisher would let me.
But I do remember what Bunny and I had for lunch at Café de Paris in the Lakeview neighborhood of Birmingham. That is because it was only the day before yesterday—on Chinese New Year! (just like our trip to Paris, where we had dinner in the Thirteenth arrondissement— Chinatown!) Bunny can tell you that sometimes I forget what I am saying in mid-sentence because of my convoluted phrasing, which is why I should probably run for President of France. I can be all too cunning, linguistically speaking. My French is not half bad, either.
But let’s get on with the eating. I had the grilled pork chop. That is something you will easily recognize here in America, but I just felt like some meat, plain and simple. And pork I got. One of the main things to note about it is that it came with a stuffed tomato just like the one Bunny made in the cooking class you can read about in What’s Cooking (that girl is starting to get a mind of her own, in case you hadn’t noticed).
The other is that it came with a nice dainty little white pitcher that made you feel you could hold the handle with pinky extended, and it was filled with a thick brown sauce to pour on my chop. Some good ole boys think the French are too finicky but they do have an affinity with the South. Just to prove it, they can call it sauce all they want, but I see through that. The truth is the French invented gravy.
Nobody ever came close to our Gallic friends for mixing blood and fat and hunks of gristle and cooking it down to make a runny coating for a meal. No one except the Chinese, but they were still a pretty long way off because they were lacking the dairy products (though they may make even better use of innards --see Mr. Chen, Birmingham Weekly, Dec. 22, 2011). Similar to what I was talking about in ancient Mexico in regards to El Barrio (see Bham Weekly, Jan 12, 2012), cheese was unknown in China, much less all that butter and cream for cooking. The Chinese just were not into eating curdled, half-spoiled and moldy food products like their European counterparts, or getting their face and fingers greasy, but we do know they were ingenious in the kitchen and that everything the Italians claim they actually copied from the Chinese, like pizza and pasta brought back by Marco Polo (and as we found out a couple of weeks ago, see El Barrio again, the Italians only got the tomato for their marinara from the Aztecs). So they are pretty much culinary robbers, by the looks of it, but Chef Benard Tamburello is planning to defend them in the pages of the Birmingham Weekly, anyway, if he can, but I know you better not leave your wine samples unattended around Chef Benard.
You don’t really need my Ivy League acumen to compare a pork chop Serge and Evens cook to one cooked by your grandmother, so I won’t presume to educate you except to note that the chop had a dark cast typical of meat pan-fried with a splash of red wine.
You know I usually give a long history lesson on the cross-cultural influences of every cuisine, but that is more or less impossible for France. There is simply too much originality as they can come up with things to eat that we would think was gross if Asians did it, but in the hands of the French it is considered gourmet. Can anyone say escargot? By any other name it is spelled S-N-A-I-L. Admit it, if those TV food guys who look for the nastiest things to eat on the planet found escargot in a market in China, they would call it slimy and everyone would agree. For Chefs Serge and Evens, who are related as cousins (cousins), at Café de Paris, it is in their ADN (that’s DNA to you and me, but the French frequently get things sideways, to the horror of the new girl in town - see El Barrio again).
But that is also why anything French in the hands of Serge and Evens is going to be absolumment délicieux. Which brings me back to the subject, according to that age-old formula: I had the pork chop and Bunny had the Paris Croque Madame.
Now don’t try to tell me, Messieurs-Dames, with existentialist skepticism toward reality, that Croque Monsieur and Croque Madame are nothing but fancy names for ham and cheese sandwiches (rumor has it that is what got Jean Paul-Sartre started, though my guess is he was horrified by some horrid French country girl) Oui, there is ham and there is cheese on them, but the ham is cruder and saltier like Serrano and the cheese is a little stinky compared to our independently-wrapped American slices, just for starters. And the French part of the dish is the laser-like attention to detail while not stifling intuitive methodology, but the bread is browned and the cheese is melted. And the main thing separating this recipe from grilled cheese so far is the incredible French bread. And at Café de Paris there is a creamy white sauce added before everything is grilled and browned together like a panini.
And what separates the Croque Madame is, of course, the hen. Or, at least, the farm fresh fried egg (laid by the hen) on top. At Café de Paris, all the subtle touches to this simple food were done to perfection. As usual, I was lucky to get so much as a bite of it from Bunny.
And since it was Chinese New Year, I could not help notice the parallels between France and China. For every food they both developed sauce, if not gravy.
More than that, the languages sound alike to me, and I should know since I have heard them both, with lots of zhhh zhhh zhhh sounds and crazy Frenchified notions like pronouncing the “p” in psychiatriste (not to mention adding a perfectly useless “e” at the end that doesn’t even make a sound), which is very similar to all the ts- and tz- sounds of the Chinese.
When you ask anyone to name the cultures best known for their sublime cuisine the answer you are going to get is French and Chinese (some say Italian, but that is really Aztec-Chinese fusion). You never heard anyone say Icelandic or even Scottish did you?
OK, so next you are going to tell me the Chinese invented the French Fry, you are bound to say, if I know my readers (I haven’t met such skepticism since I met the country girl at, you guessed it, Café de Paris, but the French are mostly Catholic so an exorcism is possible to restore the feng shui of the space in the place on Seventh Avenue South, where these two French cousins landed in the Heart of Dixie). But the effect of their French food on Bunny is scientific proof enough for me.
She loved her Croque Madame and said zhhhh zhhhh zhhhhh all the way home like “this little piggy” in Chinese--or French, Mademoiselle Bunny, channeling the two best cooking cultures in the world.
And then there were the desserts. You would say “Forget about it” if you were Italian. Oubliez-le is not quite the same. But the desserts were unforgettable, the chocolate truffle cake oozing with rich molten chocolate truffle filling inside a flourless cake pastry. And then we had a crêpe filled with Nutella, which is a hazel-nut crème I learned about from Chef Franklin Bigg’s childhood memories in the Birmingham Weekly, a document I am finding useful today.
The point of all this rambling (though it is not as random as you think—in fact, if you were clever would detect the algorithm of its internal structure) is that Serge and Evens know how to treat you to long, delicious French-style lunch at Café de Paris. You should make like the Pope and spend all day if you could.
It seemed to make Bunny very happy. I think she is--therefore I am, I think.