Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Today was my last day assisting La Chef. She's invited my father and me to dinner before we leave, but that will be a social event--no students. We'll make lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes) that evening, a very French dish that La Chef rarely makes in class. Americans aren't generally interested in eating rabbit.

Today in class, we make a veal roast as the centerpiece, doing only a little shopping at the local market in the morning. No stop at the boucherie or the caviste on the way home--La Chef has purchased everything but the cheeses, carrots, and bread the day before.

The students today are a congenial group who hit it off right away: a middle-aged man from Victoria, B.C., a retired woman from Manhattan, a woman from Berkeley who is in Paris to look for an apartment, and, arriving late, a mother-daughter pair from New Jersey. They're here to celebrate the mother's fiftieth birthday, and the trip to Paris--complete with cooking class--is the daughter's birthday gift to her. La Chef tells me to stay behind at the Metro station to wait for them. We'll catch up with the rest of the group at the cheese vendor's stall.

When the mother and daughter finally surface, they practically throw themselves into my arms in relief. They've only just arrived the day before, with multiple delays and a wake-up call this morning that never came through. I orient them to the day's activities, and we meet up with the rest of the class to finish our shopping and head back to La Chef's kitchen to begin our work.

La Chef doesn't have to direct me much today, since we've got our system down, and she remarks that, when I leave, she's going to miss my efficiency and ability to second-guess her. I'm going to miss her warmth and generosity, and all the good food we've been making.

Along with the veal roast, we peel and slice carrots to cook slowly in a bath of butter, honey, and an exotic Moroccan blend of twenty-four spices called Raz el Hanout. It's my job to brush off all the dirt and moss from a large bag of rich yellow girolles (chanterelles mushrooms) that we'll saute for a side dish. Then we dip small crottins de chevre chavignol (rounds of goat cheese) in egg, then in breadcrumbs, and saute them in olive oil to serve atop a bed of mixed greens dressed in a light vinaigrette. For a final touch, we assemble the fixings for a roquefort souffle, melting the cheese in the roux before folding in the egg whites and pouring the mixture into individual ramekins. To accompany the meal is a Bordeaux that comes from the vineyard of La Chef's vintner friend. We end the meal with La Chef's famous chocolate-apple tart. She praises the Valrhona chocolate--a French chocolate from the valley of the Rhone River--which she uses exclusively.

Oddly enough, none of the students has opted for the afternoon tour of Les Halles, though by the end of the meal, they all want to buy tart pans and a year's supply of the intriguing Raz el Hanout. La Chef has other commitments, so she asks me to take the class to the spice store for her and to then direct them to Dehillerin, an iconic kitchen supply store. I would go with them to Dehillerin as well, but I have a massage appointment late in the afternoon and will have to hop on the Metro as soon as we're done at the spice shop. La Chef has called ahead, so the owner of the shop is expecting us when we arrive. He explains the long history behind Raz el Hanout. Every corner spice grinder in Morocco has a unique version, blending his own combination of spices. The mix came to France through the Arab conquest of Spain centuries ago, the cultural influences of which drifted north into France over time. Said to have aphrodisiacal powers, Raz el Hanout was also traditionally used for medicinal puposes, especially for women after childbirth.

We say our farewells, and I head to the Madeleine area for my appointment at L'Espace France-Asie (EFA, or France-Asia Space), where O. will give me my weekly traditional Thai masage, followed by a treatment of medicinal herbs that warm slowly in a small electric heater at the foot of the futon on which I get my massage. I arrive a few minutes early, as does a trim fellow about my age in a business suit. He is a little flustered and talks to the receptionist about the awful traffic he encountered on his drive over to the EFA. She advises him to ride his bicycle next time, and he replies that he doesn't want to die young.

I laugh out loud. The idea of riding a bike in Paris at rush hour, fighting with cars, scooters, and pedestrians for space on the narrow streets seems ludicrous, especially if, like most Parisian cyclists, you choose not to wear a casquette (helmet). I mention my thoughts on the subject to the fellow, and as we drink the green tea served by the receptionist, we fall into conversation about physical exercise in Paris. I ask about lifting weights, and he launches into a description of his wife's routine at her gym: weight lifting, stretching, swimming, and yoga. I tell him that I do all those things at home too, but that yoga and stretching have become difficult lately due to a painful strained hamstring muscle.

He tells me not to give up. Pain, he says, is ninety-five percent psychological. From there, we're deep into a philosophical discussion of consciousness and the extent to which the human experience of what we call reality is centered in the mind or in the body. I see his point: the mind and the human emotional perception of being are powerful energies, often underestimated in the industrialized Western world. But, I muse aloud, we're both here at the EFA to tend to the five percent of experience that is entirely corporal. When O. calls me for my massage, my stomach grumbles, reminding me of the recent pleasures of a satisfying repast. And I'm glad, in that moment, for my corporal incarnation.

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