Mise-en-place: a way of life

It’s no secret. I’m not very good at blogging while I’m working. I’m a freelancer, and the work I do requires full-on attention when I get it. Usually I’ll have three days or a week or three weeks (if I’m lucky), and in that time I (and my partners, if I’m working in a team) have to crack it. You can’t miss. You can’t screw up. This is payday; you have to earn and deserve. That’s it. So taking the time to blog is something I can’t really do, even though I miss it. Today I have a tiny break.

Ironically, as the project was just heating up, I had a post in mind for you. It had to do with the way we work. I heard this story on NPR over the Christmas holidays, and it’s been playing in my head ever since. “For a More Ordered Life, Organize Like a Chef.” At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I do try to work like this. It seems, actually, the only way, often, to get everything done.

Since I’ve had children, I’ve heard myself mutter in self-conscious advice mode more times than I’d like to remember, “The key is organization.” But I think it really is. Everything goes smoother, every one is happier, everything is just a wee bit saner, when it’s all well organized. But that doesn’t come close, not really, to the philosophy explained and espoused by the chefs in this NPR story. It’s all about mis-en-place, the organizational method/mindset used by chefs in the kitchen.

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If you don’t have time or desire to hear the story, the basics are as follows (this includes some chefs’ individual interpretations):

1. Start with a list.
2. Become one with your list.
3. Adopt the preparation mindset—everything ready and at hand.
4. Account for every minute and every movement
5. Work clean—clear your workspace, clear your mind
6. Clean as you go
7. Slow down to speed up, or, as we say in the ad/design world: do it right the first time.

Underlying all this is, in my mind, an eloquent and beautiful way of seeing the world. One of the chef’s expressed it like this: “Time is precious, resources are precious, space is precious, your self-respect and your respect of others are precious.” Amen, a million times.

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Many, many years ago, and some of my closest friends will already know this about me, I used to quote Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife, also entitled Methodical Cook, published in 1860. She starts the book like this, before getting into curing herrings and roasting snipes. I’ve put my favorite part in bold. It cracks me up:

The grand arcanum of management lies in three simple rules:–“Let every thing be done at a proper time, keep every thing in its proper place, and put every thing to its proper use.” If the mistress of a family, will every morning examine minutely the different departments of her household, she must detect errors in their infant state, when they can be corrected with ease; but a few days’ growth gives them gigantic strength: and disorder, with all her attendant evils, are introduced. Early rising is also essential to the good government of a family. A late breakfast deranges the whole business of the day, and throws a portion of it on the next, which opens the door for confusion to enter.

And so that confusion will not enter, I will close this blog post for the day and put my shoulder back to the grindstone. My freelance work continues tomorrow, so we may not hear from each other for a few days. Until then, work well, work clean, and enjoy yourself.

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Welcome to my city

Thank you, New York Times, for showing it off so beautifully.

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“Je suis Charlie”

Everywhere you look today, “I am Charlie”/”Je suis Charlie” in honor of those who lost their lives in Paris yesterday and to stand strong against those who would have us live in fear. There are no other words.

My daughter asked me why there were so many shootings. I started to explain, but in explaining, I realized that there really is no explanation. To try to make any of it have sense is an absurd exercise. I was at a loss for how to tell her.

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Red Shoes R Us

Just before Christmas, the Milan shop windows were full shoes. Red shoes. These oxfords caught my eye. They wanted to dance, or at least attend a very chic New Year’s Eve party.

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I love red shoes, but even as I type that, I realize I don’t currently have a pair in my closet. There is something wrong with that. I probably need to remedy the situation.

If you own a pair of red shoes, you own a story. There’s always one. You put them on and something unexpected happens. Or something unexpected comes out of your mouth. Red shoes give you courage. Their attitude travels from the bottom up.

I have had several pairs of red high-heeled pumps. They were very good friends of mine. And like good friends, they are not divulging any secrets. Around 1983 I saw a pair of red, vintage, satin heels I craved so badly, I couldn’t bear for anyone else to have them. I bought them. I wore an 8-1/2. They were 6’s.

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My daughter went to see a new pediatrician in her favorite pair of red Mary Janes. The doctor, a woman, said, “Hello there. I love your shoes. Did you know, I only wear red shoes?” We both looked down at her feet which were clad in red loafers. She and my daughter have been great friends ever since. When she was three, my brother gave her a pair of red cowboy boots. She wore them with purpose. She did them proud. And she has never parted with them, even though she’s long since outgrown them.

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I remember as if it were this morning, seeing a pair of red, pointy-toed velvet Moroccan slippers at an import store in Milan in Piazza Sant’Eustorgio. I wanted them. I didn’t buy them. I regret that. I just know that they would have unleashed unexplored sides of my personality, even if I never left the comfort of my home.

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I believe that red shoes have accompanied us through more first steps, more first days of school, more power lunches and more successful dates than any other fashion accessory in history. They tend to get things started, even if it’s just our own sluggish motors. I know you have a red shoe story to tell. Will you share it?

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[If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Memphis Stiletto Blues.]

Posted in ITALY, WHAT WE WEAR | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Making (It) Up as You Go Along

AN ALERT & AN APOLOGY: This is, primarily, for the ladies. The text, I hope, applies to everyone, but I’m afraid the videos don’t. Most of them are based on white skin; I wish had sources for everyone. I’m really sorry. If you know of some good sources, please let me know immediately and I will include in my next post! Thank you.

Getting older is the oddest experience. As human beings, we advance by sort of intuitively following the scientific method. We ask questions, we posit hypotheses, we create experiments, we observe what happens during said experiments and we adjust them and/or our hypotheses until we see that we’re hitting on some sort of serviceable truth. As you age, you yourself are often the object of the experiment, and you have no choice but sit back and observe what Nature has in store…

Ten years ago, I had the great privilege of creating a book with an amazing writer and friend named Janet Champ. Entitled Ripe*, it’s about menopause and aging in a youth-obsessed society. It grew out of a freelance project we’d taken, but it rapidly evolved into an independent project. Pondering day-in-day-out with Janet the realities of the Hill as she liked to call it, I convinced myself that I was probably perimenopausal myself. I did feel a bit odd, and my cycle seemed a wee bit “off.” Turned out I was pregnant. Oh well. Hormones are tricky that way. But the point is this: I didn’t really know what it would feel like to be menopausal. I was all for bringing it out in the open; I just lacked any personal experience of it.

Part of our research was a survey we circulated amongst friends. One of my dearest life-long galpals, Anna, who used to follow this blog but died November 26 after a tough, sad fight with ovarian cancer, wrote in response to our questions that, no, she didn’t want to seem vain or superficial, but she just could NOT get used to the appearance of her outer self not syncing up with how she felt and envisioned herself in her mind’s eye. I now know what she meant.

“Menopause Make-up: Tips for A Natural Day Look.”
This video is entertaining simply for the open chat that takes place
between the makeup artist and her subject.

I remember first noticing age in my face around 35 or 36. Leaning into the mirror I saw, with a slight shiver, something I’d never seen before. A line or shifting. I don’t remember now exactly what I saw, but I remember my reaction: that is indelible. But, for quite a few years these “surprises” still belonged to the category of “enhancements,” signs of maturation that makes you look seriously womanly. A force to be reckoned with, not to be trifled with. And I continued to not really care.

After both my children were born and bouncing gaily into the roundness of their pre-school and elementary years, the heavy stuff of life (a.k.a. the shit) began to happen—the death of a parent, serious and/or fatal illnesses in dear friends, mysterious diseases in my husband and child both of which turned out to be blessedly curable after long periods of uncertainty and fear. These events made their marks, leaving signs of age that really changed the way I looked. Changed my symmetry inside and out. Changed my general demeanor (though it has largely bounced back thanks to those twin human traits of resilience and forgetfulness). Most shockingly, I noticed that my eyes looked different. A bit sadder. A bit warier. A bit more prone to show fear. Tired.

“Puffiness & Bags Under the Eyes: Causes & Treatments.”
What’s that she says about drinking more water?

It’s not a fetching look. But it happens. So there we are. We bounce back on the inside, regaining at least some semblance of our youthful joie de vivre, but then, uh oh, wait, who’s that person in the mirror who seems to lack it? She didn’t bounce back! She didn’t boomerang? How dare she not?

My response to this shift in reality was to ignore it. I figured that beauty on the inside would acrue to beauty on the outside. Serenity, good health, a sense of humor, blah blah blah would make me radiant despite all that ugly stuff. And besides, I wouldn’t really care. If I felt good and healthy, who cared how my face looked?

“Glowing, Youthful Makeup for Mature Skin.”
This woman is loaded with wrinkles,
but look how gorgeous she is with and without makeup?

First of all, serenity, good health and a sense of humor don’t stop a clock. (It bears mentioning, too, that I’m not always as serene and good-humored as I’d like to think.) Second, I cared more than I thought I would care. Like my friend Anna, it began to bother me that the outside didn’t seem to belong to the inside. It began to bother me that what started out as a concerted effort to “rise above it” became an invisible slide into a sort of giving-up. And giving up doesn’t look very good. It looks about as good as a comfy old, grey, slouchy sweater. (And come to think of it, I own quite a few of those.)

Somewhere along the line I just didn’t care enough…I don’t know if it happened with the crazed multi-tasking life of the modern, working mother. But I want to care again. I don’t want to turn back the clock, or become the painted laughing stock of the neighborhood. I just want to care enough…about myself.

My skin, thanks to genetics, has fared pretty well. But I need to pay attention to it. I need to give it and all the other parts of me fresh veg and fruits. I need to exercise religiously to keep all parts of the engine in decent working order (mostly the mood). I need to hydrate hydrate hydrate. (And I don’t like to drink water!)

“Anti-Aging Tips: Eyes, Brows & Lips.”
The point here is to not let yourself become invisible
which is sometimes tempting, I find.

But I also want to look good. I want to look something like the way I feel. I want there to be “lightness” on the outside. A message that I care about myself. An accentuation of the positive.  I want my children to feel encouraged by the way I look, knowing that their Mum has as much energy as they do, and that their own female futures don’t necessarily spell  D-R-A-B. I want my husband to be greeted with a face that doesn’t look tired of it all. I don’t think I’m a candidate for plastic surgery. It is just not my thing. No surgery is. But I would like to at least have a vague idea about how to apply makeup to this face of mine. And to be honest, I’ve completely forgotten how. What used to work, doesn’t anymore. 

I have, however, finally found someone who—I think—has a real clue about it all. Her name is Lisa Eldridge. She’s a serious British make-up artist, and she offers instructive advice about how to deal with everything from teenage acne to “The Menopause,” as she calls it. (I love that British “the” tacked on. It makes it sound like the name of an ocean liner. “Lovely lady…she’s taken off for an extended journey on The SS Menopause.”)

“Ultimate Beautifying Makeup that Suits Just About Everyone.”
I’ll try this next time I have to go to a wedding.

So here she is, scattered throughout this post, demonstrating how to make-up all sorts of faces. She’s respectful of all phases of a woman’s life. She’s knowledgable and she’s thorough. She’s often a bit more heavy-handed than I would be,and I could never afford to use each and every product she recommends, but there are some principles in there that can be applied with products we can all afford in a way that feels right to us.

In the days when I supervised lots of TV and photoshoots, I used to love watching the makeup artists. Their craft isn’t about tastelessly slathering on pastes and goos. It’s about approaching the subject with a respectful love and bring out the beauty that is theirs naturally. They dab and massage, mix colors carefully, observe and transform. In their free time, they used to make us up, and I never walked away from those appreciative eyes and those tenderly dabbing fingers without feeling more beautiful.

I guess that’s what’s at the heart of this. Learning to look at ourselves with loving, caring appreciative eyes. So much easier said than done. I’d love to hear how all of you have faced your own aging processes. What your beauty regimens consist of. How you protect your skin. If you were makeup. And if you do, what? Any tips? Secrets? Please let us know. We are all in this together. And if you’re anything like me, you find it easier to appreciate other women’s beauty than your own. So being some of the “other women” in my life, I’d love to hear from you.

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*Isn’t that funny? You can get a used copy of RIPE from Amazon for 1 cent. (I guess that’s what they mean when they tell writers not to quit their day jobs.)  I also have many new copies at home that I’d be happy to give you if you’ll pay for the postage from Italy. Let me know.

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Look back. Go back.

The Fisherman always says—so I assume it’s an Italian saying although it might just be his—“Look back. Go back.” He means, if you practice the ritual of looking back as you’re leaving a place you love, you will be there again.

Raised on heavy doses of Greek Mythology, I can’t help but think of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and I wonder if maybe he hasn’t gotten his own much more rigorous classical training confused. (He’s a son of the ex-Roman empire for God’s sake. They take their classic literature and its antecedents very seriously.) Or maybe he’s just ignoring it.

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Orpheus and Eurydice, by George Frederick Watts

If you don’t remember the story of the lovers tragically separated on the day of their wedding, let me, well actually Wikipedia, refresh your memory (the underlining is mine):

In her efforts to escape [a] satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief… travelled to the underworld and… softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone…who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.

It seems then, that at least in literary terms, looking back is a no-no. It prohibits you from moving successfully into your own future. Ditto in real life, I’d say. Unless you can look back with a non-longing remove, the past is likely to lure you out of the fullness of your own present tense. I have a hard time with this, personally. The past is so easy to embroider, simplify and quite frankly rewrite. You can remember events unwinding with a seductive perfection that didn’t actually exist at all. Looking back is dangerous enough; doing it with rose-colored glasses is calamitous and addictive.

But back to the Fisherman’s good-bye ritual. So strong is his conviction that no ill will befall us as a result of the over-the-shoulder glance, we all look back intently until what we’re leaving vanishes out of view—around a corner or beneath cloud cover, depending on our mode of transportation.

LOOK BACK

Saturday we said goodbye to France. I bid a heart-heavy “until next time” to every single object in the house that I love. Dark corners, emptied drawers, the bathroom mirror, the antlers with the mistletoe, the spider by the door. And then, outside, to the ramshackle potting bench I built two summers ago, the compost pile and the wintering plants. Personal goodbyes doled out silently, wordlessly along with those pregnant glances that beg each and every thing to “stay safe.”

We packed into the car, lugging our last items, and we looked—back. At the house. At the gate. At the rain falling. And then it was all of Burgundy diminishing into a rear-view mirror until next time and me hoping that my Fisherman was right. There is something powerful in believing—hoping—something so strongly that eventually you know it will happen as you foresee it.

Forty minutes down the road, we remembered that we’d forgotten to shut off the gas in the house. We turned around and went back—wish fulfilled in the way we least expected it.

It was a long day.

Posted in FRANCE, TRANSITIONS | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

A presto.

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Well Hung

Remember that scene in Mommy Dearest, when the Joan Crawford character is screaming at her daughter about wire coat hangers and how much she can’t stand them? Edited, it basically goes like this: “No… wire… hangers! … What’re wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you: no wire hangers EVER!? … Wire hangers, why? Why?”

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I confess: I too hate wire hangers. But I didn’t realize how much I hated them until I found about 20 old wooden ones in the barn before we restructured it. Beautiful. Simple. Perfect. Like the classic yellow number 2 pencil. Or the unbeatable wooden clothes pin. Functional. Built to last. Pleasing.

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They even tell stories in beautiful typography. Once upon a time…a dress in a Paris boutique hung here. Once upon a time…a shirt was laundered and pressed in the Netherlands. “Like new,” in two languages. A bilingual coat-hanger. If only they could really speak.

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The stories would be rich, murmured in French, Dutch and English. Tales of hard-trodden sidewalks and hours in the office. Night flights on PAN-AM tucked inside leather luggage alongside romance novels and fire engine red lipstick. Sequins spelling disaster on a rainy night. Shoulder pads in, shoulder pads out, the decades pressing on. And yet, what were they doing in a barn? Abandoned to a life of cobwebby country living, until rediscovered by a hectic family of four with a particularly appreciative mother. No…more…wire…hangers!

Posted in FRANCE, IN THE HOUSE | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Fisherman’s Wife (or, Why I can say “Pike” in Three Languages).

I am married to a fisherman. In some households that constitutes widowhood: a spouse abandoned, while the other stands next to a stream or river or sea. I’m most usually only a Sunday widow. But it’s OK in the extreme. When he’s happy, I’m happy. And fishing makes him deeply happy in a way that I can’t. Marriage comes to this: making space for those things that fulfill the other. No?

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I can’t say that I share his passion for fishing in the same hands-on way. I don’t. But I do love fishing from a philosophical distance. I admire and deeply respect it as a pass-time. Any activity that requires sustained stillness, patience, observation, instinct, and an abiding love of nature speaks to my heart. Any love that brings out the best in you, allows you to be no one but yourself, and seduces you away from the lures of modern, technological life and consumerism wins it.

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Have you heard of Paul Quinnett? He’s a psychologist and avid fisherman who writes books about both psychology and fishing. (Pavlov’s Trout: The Incompleat Psychology of Everyday Fishing, Darwin’s Bass: The Evolutionary Psychology of Fishing Man and Fishing Lessons). He is too quotable for me to limit him to a line or two here. But perhaps the line he’s chosen to introduce his book, is a more than adequate starter. You can imagine where it goes from here:

Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing
it is not fish they are after.     —Henry David Thoreau

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This is no doubt true. My husband is a catch-and-release fisherman only. He brings nothing home but a mysteriously nourished peace of mind. And that being the case, there’s no protest I can offer that really stands up. When I “nag” at him about fishing, what’s really bothering me is not his absence. It’s that I have nothing in my own life that gives me precisely that satisfaction, and for the same combination of reasons. When he fishes, he’s “gone.” Do you know what I mean? Gone. Away. On his own. In a meditative state of release.

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Our house is full of fishing books and magazines. Carved primitive fishes from barrier islands and third world countries. Fishing paintings and prints from God knows when or where. An antique German print I bought on Third Avenue in NYC. Fish my children painted him for his birthday before they could speak properly. Indonesian “secret message” fish. Sugar spoons shaped like fish. Bottle openers with scales and tales. Fish-adorned porcelain and plates collected at vide-greniers scattered around Burgundy. Mounted, antique pikes. Fishing rods. Reels. Bait, new and antique.

Don’t tell him I said this, but I rather love it.  The paraphernalia. The stuff. The years of collected knowledge. I feel at home with this other love of his, even if I envy her even-keeled temper and her steadily seductive ways. Maybe, as many women manage to do, I will actually become best friends with her. Maybe, I’ll pick up a rod one of these days and see what the love is really all about. Until then, I’ll watch and love fishing from afar.

fishing wife

 

Posted in AROUND US, FRANCE | 8 Comments

If We Are What We Eat

I confessed to a good friend of mine just yesterday that I felt stuck, lacking direction and waiting rather impatiently for my personal fog to clear. She gave me the best advice a girl could give: to enjoy the fog and find my inspiration in it, to “dwell on the fleeting, nonsensical things” that emerge. At a time of year when we are mad to locate definition, precision, a clear way forward, these words were pure liberation to me. So I share them with you now, in the event that you too are feeling in limbo. (Thanks from the bottom of my heart, DD.)

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So, into the fog we march. No world problems solved. No career leaps choreographed. No particularly clear sense of what lies ahead. But I do know what our last meal of 2014 will consist of, and two main elements are just light and fluffy enough to fill the gaps here in my last post of the year. In Proustian fashion, though, I have wonder if food, laden as it is with associations, memories, history and emotion, can ever really be that light and fluffy.

The two ethereal but not necessarily superficial foods in question are GOUGÈRES and MERINGUES. I’m sure you know about meringue. It’s been sitting on top of pies since forever. But here in France, they are the way my mother used to make them. Big, verging on monumental. Simple (why should they be more complicated). And perfect. You can team them up with fruit, chocolate or—most decadently, in my book—whipped cream, but being a meringue-lover-slash-fiend usually don’t bother. I just crack them apart and eat them shamelessly, crumbs falling where they may, while I lose myself in what I consider to be one of the culinary wonders of the world.

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I’m getting very ahead of myself: the meringues come after dinner. Before dinner, we will have champagne and gougères, lovely light…gee, what are they exactly? They’re not bread. They’re not cakes. They’re not muffins or custards or soufflés. Yes, here we go: they are puff pastries. Savory—as opposed to sweet—puff pastries that hide bits of gruyère cheese inside their lofty interiors. And what makes them lofty? Well, once again, I suppose it’s the eggs. We’re talking culinary transformation once again. Edible miracles.

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Which brings me to a point I didn’t realize I had. What better to eat on the last night of the year than foods which symbolize and embody transformation? So I’ll have faith in universal possibility—no, probability—of change, enjoy my New Year’s yummies, and wish for us all a New Year of new experiences, new understanding, and new versions of our selves. Deliciously, mysteriously and beautifully transformed.

If you’re interested in giving these treats a try, here are a couple easy to follow English-language recipes for GOUGÈRES (Alain Ducasse) and MERINGUES (Nigel Slater).

Posted in FRANCE, SAVORING | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments