Sunday, November 20, 2005


I had barbecue when I was in Kansas City (KC), Missouri, this weekend. It's barbecue heaven there, which, even if you didn't know your history, might be apparent as you land at the KC airport, where black angus cattle graze in pastures bordering the tarmac. The historic cattle drives to the railyards in KC have passed into our national lore, and though the stockyards are long gone from the city, the taste for barbecue remains.

KC-style barbecue is slow cooked over a hickory fire. The meat falls off the bone and doesn't even need the embellishment of sauce, though it's commonly served on the side. After a trip to Santa Fe last year, I became intrigued with dry rub, slow-cooked barbecue and quickly mastered the technique.

The recipe below isn't a KC barbecue recipe. It's a recipe that made its way to New Mexico with Basque sheepherders there. I offer it in tribute to the slow-cook dry rub method, which is worth the trip to the spice store and the time it takes to make this heavenly barbecue.


Dry Rub Ingredients:
1 TB ground ancho or New Mexican chile peppers
2 tsp ground dried chipotle or other medium-hot chile
2 tsp salt
1 tsp oregano, preferably Mexican
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp dried sage

1-1/2 c pineapple juice
2 TB vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced

1-3/4 pound to 2-pound pork loin, spare ribs, or baby back ribs

1) At least six hours before cooking, or the night before, stir together the dried seasonings in a bowl. Place the meat into a plastic bag (or a couple of bags if you're doing the ribs), pour the marinade mixture over the meat, and sprinkle about 1-1/2 tablespoons of the dry-rub spice mixture into the plastic bag. Refrigerate.

2) Take the meat out of the refrigerator forty-five minutes before cooking it. Drain off the marinade and discard, place the pork on a platter, and rub the rest of the dried spice mix onto the meat. Let the meat stand at room temperature, uncovered, until time to grill.

3) Fire up the grill and turn it to a low setting. Place the meat as far away from the source of heat as you can and let it cook slowly for about an hour, turning fairly often until done. If you can keep the heat low enough (300 degrees Fahrenheit), you can extend the cooking time up to two hours, for even better effect.

4) If you've chosen a pork loin, let the meat stand for 5 or 10 minutes to seal in the juices. Then slice thinly and serve with tortillas and your favorite salsa or whatever else you commonly serve with barbecue. Serves four.

I've never mastered cold weather fashion. Had I the resources and the guts, I'd wear fur. In fact, I saw the coat I want in a shop window in Paris last month. I liked it because the fur was on the inside, with an elegant narrow strip facing out where the coat closes in the center. But, fur is frowned upon where I live, and I'm not up for that particular battle.

So, on Friday morning when the cab arrived at 5:50 A.M. for my ride to the airport, I debated. With high winds, only a light dusting of snow cover, and temperatures in the single digits, it was cold. Normally, I'd go for layering, with multiple sweaters and several scarves under the heavy wool coat I inherited from my father-in-law. He was a big man, over six feet tall and close to three hundred pounds. I've never understood how he actually fit into the coat, but I love the weight of it and am glad to have it. I usually then stretch a lime green fleece band over my ears, top it with a bright red wool hat from my father, slip my feet into thick Smart Wool socks and sensible Rockport hiking boots, and complete the ensemble with black wool gloves. It's a comical get-up at best. But, since I was heading to a trade show in Kansas City (KC), Missouri, where it's much warmer, I opted for more fashionable attire--an elegant black top coat, leather gloves, and the new low-heeled black leather boots I bought in France last month.

The cabbie was on time--never a guarantee--and we fell easily into conversation. I'm always intrigued by the stories cabbies have to tell, and I asked mine about the longest ride he's ever been asked to undertake for a paying customer. I imagined he'd tell me about a trip to one of the neighboring Dakotas, but instead, he recalled that when he first came to the United States (from somewhere in eastern Africa), he lived and drove a cab in Nashville. One day, a woman with three large suitcases hailed his cab and asked him to drive her to New Jersey. He wondered why she didn't simply fly there. It would be much less expensive than the $1,500 he'd charge her for the journey.

The woman answered with a long story about high blood pressure and a failed Internet romance. She'd come to Nashville that day to meet the man whom she'd been dating electronically for a year. He had dumped her the minute he met her in person, and she wanted to go back home. So my cabbie accepted the proposition, with the proviso that they would convoy with a friend who wanted to drive a new car to his girlfriend in New York City. The woman agreed, and the three of them set off that day.

The trip to New Jersey from Nashville is about fifteen hours, and the woman sat quietly in the back seat of the cab the whole way, smoking one cigarette after another. When they stopped periodically for gas or a meal, she refused food and drink, and never once in fifteen hours used the bathroom.

Somewhere in Virginia, the trio ran into heavy fog. Suddenly, a deer leapt onto the road, taking out the headlights of the cab and damaging the front grille. Wanting a police incident report for insurance purposes, the cabbie and his friend pulled over to call for help. The woman became visibly agitated, shaking uncontrollably and demanding that she and her bags be deposited down the road a stretch, where the cabbie could pick her up later. Though perplexed, the cabbie did as she requested while his friend called for help. The police arrived, the cabbie got his paperwork, and the two friends were on their way in short order, picking up the woman at the agreed-upon spot.

The rest of the trip passed without incident. The convoy crossed into New Jersey, and the woman directed them to her suburban home. As they drove up to the house, three large men in black suits--three very large men--moved forward shoulder to shoulder across the front lawn. The woman, completely calm, seemed to be expecting the giants. She stepped out of the car and pulled out her bags. One of the black-suited behemoths stepped toward the car and said to the cabbie, "Get out of here now. And don't look back."

In a flash, it all came together. This was a drop. Drugs, cash, the cabbie could only guess. He took his payment--$1,000 in cash, the rest in a personal check (which later bounced)--turned his car around and didn't look back.

In wide-eyed wonder, I exhaled. "Wow," I said. "You guys see it all." The cabbie chuckled ruefully in agreement. We wished each other safe passage and parted, he to another fare, me to the KC-bound DC9, which roared down the runway, lifting up into the skies as if we weighed no more than a feather.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


These last two weeks, a few friends, colleagues, and family members have expressed relief that I’m no longer in France and am back home…safely. They’ve been reading about and watching scenes of the urban violence that has gripped the French nation since the end of October. My father and I left Paris just as the violence was beginning; we weren’t actually aware of it until our return.

Those around me are kind in expressing relief for someone they care about, me, and in talking about the violence in France, they are bringing up a subject they know I care about, France. I point out that the violence has been confined to the immigrant ghettos that ring French cities. Tourists haven’t been targeted, and they never venture into those areas anyway. But I’m a little puzzled by the shock and surprise, even confusion, that I sense in conversation about the situation in France.

The riots in France come from within the economically and socially isolated postcolonial immigrant underclass, largely African and Muslim, in whose communities unemployment is more than three times the national average. The ugliness of racism, substandard housing, and harsh dealings with the police are daily realities. Additionally, the violence is set within the context of posturing for the upcoming French presidential elections in 2007, in which the ascending tough-talking Right offers what many view as inflammatory, insulting commentary about the immigrant communities in France; the more moderate centrist candidates talk of dialogue and action plans.

In thinking about what any kind of so-called action plan might look like, I’m reminded of the shared philosophy of former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who, in separate venues, both spoke recently of the political and human wisdom of extending generosity toward, of offering opportunities for those who face social and economic destitution. They both point out that, without hope, despairing people, whether rightly or wrongly, often turn to violence. And in many cases, as in France this month, that violence is turned inward onto the troubled community itself.

When I read about the riots across France, I see individual faces in my mind’s eye. Faces like the Arab men at the cybercafe around the corner from our Paris apartment. They run their own small business and are knit into the socio-economic fabric. But I wonder what they might turn to, what any one of us might turn to, had we no investment in the community in which we lived, no hope, no sense of a loving and promising future. I’ve seen it up close. My mother fit this exact profile. Her despair turned inward. She bought a revolver, and on December 14, 2002, pulled the trigger and ended her life.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


For my mother, who would have been seventy-one today

As my father and I help the chauffeur put our bags into the back of the taxi mini-van, the boulangere (baker) and the man from the papeterie (card and paper shop) next door to us step onto the sidewalk on their respective sides of the street to wish us bon voyage. I feel a pang. My efforts to befriend my neighbors in Paris have paid off, and here I am leaving them behind. With a promise to return next year, I step into the taxi, and we head off to the airport for the flight home.

On the airplane, my father and I eat the sandwiches and the sables (sugar cookies) the boulangere had packed for us that morning, watch movies on our individual video screens, and try to sleep. Now and then, I crawl over my father into the aisle to stretch and make a walking tour of the cabin. In the back of the plane, two seated flight attendants look up as I come toward them, move their legs to make room for me to squeeze past, and go back to their woeful tales of debt and family treacheries. Looking out the window from my seat, I wonder if home will seem any different. Or will it be as if I’d never left?

My father is a man of the moment. When we set foot on American soil, he’s left Paris far behind. Walking out of the customs area and toward our connecting flights, he stops a complete stranger to get the details of the World Series, which took place while we were in Paris. I’ve read in Le Monde that the Chicago White Sox had won, but he wants more than that. And the young man my father grabs is friendly and obliging. He tells us about the games, and by the time we finally part, he’s shared half his life story and gleaned as much of ours. I know I’m home. Immediate intimacy is not the French way.

My father and I part with little sentimentality. We hug and agree to call each other when we arrive home. I watch him as he heads off to catch his flight. He doesn’t look back, though I watch him until he’s out of sight.

The final leg of my journey comes with a West Virginia accent. The man in the row behind me is from that state and is terrified of flying. He informs anyone who will listen—and that’s half the airplane, since he’s talking at top volume—that he’s got ahold of his seat cushion, just in case we go down. As we land, safely, he exhales with obvious relief and exclaims, “My God! It’s flat as a pancake here! Donch’all have any mountains around here?”

Home doesn’t seem to have changed much, but I can tell that I’m seeing it differently. I’d somehow overlooked what a friendly lot we Americans are, easy with strangers, quick to laugh, sure the fellow next to you will want to hear your tale.

And when I return to work two days later, people do want to hear my tale. They ask about the cooking, the weather, traveling with my father. Peggy, hired just before I left, has an office next to mine. She loves Paris and wants to hear the long version. So I tell her of not just loving, but of being in love with Paris, of the joy of speaking French and deepening my mastery of the language, of learning new culinary techniques, of exploring new corners of the city. She interrupts me mid-sentence. “My,” she observes. “You’ve got such a glow!”

Her words catch me off guard. They take me back to the final conversation my sister had with our mother, just two weeks before our mother’s death. In that conversation, on the phone, my mother had said she hadn’t always known what life was all about. “But,” she told my sister, “I’ve come to see that it’s all about radiance.”
My sister expressed shock. “You’ve always known that!” she insisted, trying to impress this fact upon our mother. “You taught us that.”

My mother lived a life of radiance from start to finish, never going half measures on anything. It’s true that her glow was dark, as often if not more than it was brilliant, but she always shone. And to the extent that radiance is a form of love, of being so full of something that the surfeit comes out as brilliant energy, I sometimes think I can feel my mother’s radiance, from the other side, and I want to believe that today, on her birthday, as on every other day, she can feel mine.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Souffles are a quintessential French oeuvre, which, when inflated to perfection, give the cook a sense of mastery, if not triumph. La Chef says that most Americans request a souffle as part of the menu. A chocolate dessert souffle is an easy way to fulfill that request as well as to satisfy our national obsession with chocolate. If you follow the instructions, have the right equipment, and practice faith, your souffle will rise to the heavens before your very eyes.

1 cup milk
4 oz Valrhona chocolate (or an equivalent bittersweet chocolate such as Scharffen Berger), broken up into small pieces
1 oz sweet butter
2 TBSP flour
4 eggs, separated
1 pinch salt
1-1/2 oz white sugar
powdered sugar (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat the insides of 6 individual souffle ramekins with melted butter and set aside.
2) In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, remove from heat, and add the chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted.
3) In a separate medium saucepan, melt the butter with the flour. Cook for 1 minute, then add the chocolate-milk mixture. Stir over low heat until thickened, without letting the mixture boil.
4) Remove the pan from the heat and add the egg yolks one at a time, mixing thoroughly.
5) Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, adding the white sugar a little at a time when the whites are almost fully stiff.
6) Fold the stiff egg whites carefully into the souffle mixture in the pan.
7) Fill each ramekin about 2/3 full with the souffle mixture.
8) Place the ramekins in the hot oven (475*) for 2 minutes. Then lower the temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake until risen (about 15 minutes). It's best not to open the oven while the souffles are cooking, though you will want to peak through the oven glass occasionally to supervise their progress.
9) When inflated to perfection, remove the souffles from the oven and serve immediately. If you like, you can sprinkle a little powdered sugar on top of each souffle just before serving.

Serves 6.