Charlie Trotter’s | A Memory

Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes

The entire length of Chicago can be traversed, north to south, by car, of course, but it’s one of our biggest cities, and that can be a challenge. However, the Chicago River, dwarfed by the nearby Lake Michigan, is nonetheless a major waterway. A far more relaxing way to get around is by Chicago Water Taxi.
If you have nothing better to do, there are also regular tours by boat of the city from this special vantage. You do pass under a lot of bridges as there is a bridge about every two blocks (the River divides the vital lakefront of the city from the rest of it). The Lake Street Bridge, which is actually a drawbridge, and is the bridge closest to the only inlet from the lake, which means it’s the only way to get boats into or out of the lake from the interior.
This bridge, and Lake Street, are very near the heart of the Loop, and the fabled Golden Mile. It is about a mile and a half from the Lincoln Park neighborhood, where Charlie Trotter’s eponymous restaurant, and the subject of this essay, was located. (photo: H. Dinin. © 2018.)

The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.

Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.

One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.

Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.

After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.

For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.

Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.

That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.

In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.

Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.

When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.

Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.

Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.

He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.

There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.

Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.

She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.

By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.

In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.

I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.

The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.

His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.

They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.

Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.

No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.

Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.

What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.

There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.

He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.

The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.

I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.

It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.

But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.

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Capossela in a Car Drinking Coffee

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

Dom, my very good friend after what is now more than 50 years, is about to embark voluntarily on an automotive adventure. It will be the second of what he, in what is to me characteristically droll usage, calls an “existential auto trip.” Indeed, so inspired has he been since his first such trek, he has created an entire website, now clearly a personal calling, a vocation, which he also entitled “existential autotrip.” The second word of the title, at least in the Capossela lexicon, is a portmanteau – appropriately enough – that is, a single word.

 

Dom Capossela at Café Pompeii

Our hero – here, closer in age to Lewis & Clark on their Expedition than he is to the age he is now (H. Dinin)

He means these trips, solo flights into the heartland of our great nation, and I mean that in the classic sense of that phrase, “once great nation, still great nation, always great nation,” to be an adventure, an exploration, and a journey into the self as much as it is a bold foray into what William Gass called “the heart of the heart of the country.” In short, Dom is leaving quite soon, that is, two short days from this precise moment of my composition, to drive from Boston, Massachusetts to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and back again. All during the course of a month.

 

He has been preparing for this escapade for months. As much as he is bound up in the increasingly complex business of posting a daily blog, with the attendant responsibility of being the editor of what he now calls his magazine, he must attend as well to the minutiae of assuming responsibility as what he has styled himself – again, drolly – and that is, “Web Meister.” Quite a bit to juggle, especially as he traverses tens, did I say “tens?” when I meant hundreds of miles of U.S. Interstate, not to mention whatever by-ways and diversions he may discover en route.

 

Lewis & Clark

Lewis & Clark (public domain)

The occasion for my writing is not to announce this trip, as he has already broadcast it and adverted to it—even beyond the scope of his domain name being eponymous with his periodic peregrinations—for the edification of his followers. In fact, unless I miss my guess, and I also somehow have missed the intent of his asking me to assume some autonomy in posting relevant material to his blog as I see fit (in order to relieve the burden of his providing daily material, even as he logs his diurnal ration of miles), these words will appear sooner than later on said blog. Rather, as is my wont, being a curmudgeonly sort by nature, and a worrywart, I want to provide at the least a cautionary note to the expectant and triumphant melody it is his wont to warble as he speaks, always with a full heart, of his expedition. Speaking of which, part of his strategy is to emulate, if not literally to track portions of the trail, the expedition of two of his personal heroes, Lewis and Clark.

 

My note concerns coffee. Coffee, not surprisingly, was just one of the provisions that the original Lewis and Clark included in the seven tons of dry goods provisions they packed for their trip (cf: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/what-lewis-and-clark-ate/). But, despite the auroral status in our history as a nation of the Lewis & Clark outing, coffee was already sufficiently American to demand a place of that most American of beverages in the diet of those stalwarts. Imagine trying to map the origins of the great Missouri River without starting the day with a full ration of (presumably) hot java. As Vizzini lisps, “inconceivable.”

 

It is of at least equal moment to me that, according to the PBS food historian, the daily consumption of animal meat on average for each man traversing the Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific was nine pounds. Nine pounds of meat a day, my friends… However let me note that this is not the occasion to ponder the characteristic American appetite for protein in mass quantities. Rather, I’d suggest it is of equal significance that such an atavistic impulse — and a need that could not possibly be provisioned in advance in Saint Louis; they expected to hunt and kill their daily meat ration live — was rivaled by the need to make sure they packed coffee. The existential elixir!

 

But I am here not to laud the heroic virtues of my friend. Suffice it to say that in many dimensions he dares to go where I would prefer not to. Not at our age, not alone, not over such distances, and not in a vehicle with no driver other than myself. Not to mention the vagaries of internet connectivity in the hinterlands of our expansive mainland. And there is the perpetual, the daily, question of what to do when, long about three or four o’clock in the afternoon somehow the cells of my body are utterly aware that it is more or less 12 hours since I lay, suddenly, broad awake, and that it is now time, regardless of what I may be doing, and succumb to their imminent depletion of all energy – a compensatory metabolic state to balance all that bright energy in the middle of the night. In short, it turns nap time long about the same time each day. I’m not saying there are no remedies, even on a lonesome highway, even on the “blue highways” of that famous book of William Least Heat-Moon of 1982.*

 

*A book that also tells of a journey, if I might digress for a moment, though in fact the substance of this diversion is eminently apt, as you will see. Before you get too far into his book-length journey Heat-Moon shares this trenchant exchange:

 

… It was cold and drizzling again. “Weather to give a man the weary dismals,” Watts grumbled. “Where you headed from here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Cain’t get lost then.” [Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, Little Brown, New York, p. 35 (1982)]

 

I hasten to add that I am also not in the least concerned that Dom will encounter the young man’s plight in this encounter (which takes place, charmingly, in a town called Nameless in Tennessee, under the smiling gaze of a poster of Senator Al Gore, Jr.). In addition to planning and organizing down to the last pair of socks his solo expedition’s provisions, with the same fastidious care, down to that last pair of his socks, that the Lewis & Clark escapade required though the one is outfitting himself in the space afforded by the trunk and backseat of a Honda Accord of late vintage and the other is, well, seven tons my friends, and not one ounce of it, we know, was meat. Well, maybe a little beef jerky. But I am getting beside myself, and there is no passing lane here.

 

No, Dom will always know where he is, as he has AAA triptychs, a GPS device, an iPhone, maps, and a destination. What’s more as I infer from our conversations, he has a strong sense that there are no detours or blind trails where one loses one’s way, but in life, with the right attitude, there is only opportunity.

 

However, what he also doesn’t have is a particular article of travel gear – though I am not confident of this, as I have only anecdotal evidence on the strength of his testimony regarding his most recent road trip (hardly existential: it was only from my house just across the city line from Philadelphia to his condo on Boston’s waterfront) and concerning a recalcitrant, not to mention, in his word, “flimsy” coffee cup. Well, actually, there’s no reason to beat around the coffee bush.

 

What he said was, and I have it on record, “hot coffee in well of car  cup too flimsy to pull out w one hand,” and, further along, “must bring solid cup w you.” Which tells us two things. He’s got some last minute shopping (or a last minute scouring of the kitchen) for one of those insulated travel mugs. What I call “adult sippy cups.” Which, let me add, in case you don’t immediately infer this, I hate.

 

And, two, he intends to drink hot coffee (or something hot, and I think he’s ambivalent about tea) while engaged in the operation of a moving motor vehicle.

 

clear glass mug with handle

Duralex “Gigogne” Mug

To be honest, I don’t hate coffee. It’s one of my favorite beverages, hot or cold. I suspect I don’t love it quite to the extent of my friend Dom, who seems to love the aroma and flavor well enough, but nothing on the passion with which he loves the temperature of it freshly brewed. I have now witnessed him dispense, from an insulated carafe, brewed minutes before (by me; just so you know) into a very hip glass mug (Duralex, very French) and proceed to zap said portion of existential elixir for 30 seconds on high in our prosumer-grade General Electric microwave oven. This man likes his coffee hot. In case you missed that part of his blog, way back at the beginning.

 

All well and good. I don’t begrudge my old friend his pleasures. His coffee. The temperature of his coffee. His quest. His dreams. It’s his life, not mine. Existential indeed.

 

What I am not ashamed to set down and admit to, here, after all this verbiage, are my fears concerning hot coffee (he mentioned Starbucks, so I know he has go-to suppliers on the road, and I happen to know that Starbucks serves coffee that is, in the American style, freaking hot). And so even with his sippy cup, Dom is disposed to try to handle his cup o’ morning joe while also engaged in other activities. Could we imagine he will quaff while driving? He did imply a requirement of one-handed stability in the vessel containing his coffee while in his car. I can say no more.

 

It could be said I have, possibly, too strong an imagination for someone of my delicate sensibilities. And I have my own take on existential questions – which, even at this late stage, still far outnumber the answers. So all I will say is, knowing Dom will barely have time to have these words register, I think he might consider the pace of his journey yet again. Consider the virtues of starting the day with a quiet contemplation, lingering over a light repast, whatever the resources of Nameless, Wherever can offer for one’s roving petit déjeuner out there somewhere on the prairie or in the inspiring vistas prelude to a view of the Grand Tetons themselves. Consider a nice quiet cup, even as the scalding infusion of Coffea arabica burns your lips, even as you feel the tug of the open road, before you can sense the blistering qualities of the decoction cooling all too quickly under your fingertips.

 

So my final advice my venturesome friend (and to all who would listen). For the road, a nice cold bottle (preferably with a narrow neck and a replaceable cap) of something refreshing; might I suggest water? And for those intervals of contemplation, coffee as hot as you like in a durable container, while seated in a comfortable chair, or chaise, or lounge, a loveseat, maybe, or a sofa. We don’t want that steaming tincture of java to turn (as in overturn) suddenly from being a philosophical lubricant of deep thought to a truly existential rupture providing a gateway to far deeper places in the cosmos.

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French Lessons

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

I have, in what feels like a harmless way, been enjoying observing passively my wife’s dauntless efforts to learn French, conversational French, on her own, using various brands of the most popular form of self-education tools that exist. I mean, of course, computer-based apps, for smart devices and computers.

They seem mainly to work on the principle of going blah blah blah at you in the language with which you are challenging yourself, and you go blah blah blah back, repeatedly. There are exercises, with recursive quizzes built-in to assess progress, wherein variously you listen to a native speaker (they all claim native speakers, and eavesdropping, sometimes I wonder; I’m not a native speaker so I keep my mouth shut… usually; let’s just say maybe some of them are, like, natives of the docks in the old port of Marseille) and try to decipher what they’ve said, or you try to repeat it, phoneme for phoneme.

Your mastery is measured in various ways, and there is regular, if not altogether constant feedback. You accumulate points, or other rewards, receive praise, and are gently corrected. This is the fundamental paradigm of most of these apps as far as I can tell, regardless of whether they charge you, and most of them try to get you to “subscribe” at some point one way or another. Surprisingly some very good software for picking up the rudiments are completely free – after which, frankly, I would move on to a more efficacious methodology even if it costs a few coins in the currency of your chosen tongue.

What else strikes me about these exercises is that one of the essential requirements of the seemingly universal pedagogy deployed is to come up with a reliable steady stream of stock phrases that somehow simulate (or are meant to) the kind of everyday palaver used by native speakers. The classic example (from my French tutelage back in the junior high school I attended in Providence RI) is the immortal, “La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.” We pre-adolescents of the mid-20th century were supposed to believe this is the way genuine French people addressed one another, impossible as it was on the face of it to imagine that our real aunts and uncles would behave in this way such that we ourselves would have occasion to declare, boldly and with confidence, “The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.” In case, that is, some interlocutor should inquire of one of us, “Hey kid, where’s your auntie’s fountain pen?”

There was for me the added circumstantial impediment of my having only one aunt, a widow, at best semi-literate, who was, except for the marriage of my father to my mother, not related to my only uncle, a life-long bachelor. Further, given the proclivities, life style, and stated preferences, not to mention a highly introverted nature, of my uncle, I knew it was impossible, should he ever have indulged himself by joining the holy state of matrimony with a literate woman, he nevertheless would never have countenanced his soul mate poking around his stuff, never mind violating the sanctity of his personal desk, which presumably, further, would likely have been in a room, which he would have kept locked, dedicated to the purposes to which one puts a personal desk.

And who used fountain pens any more in that day and age anyway?

Similar antinomies still occur even in the most up-to-date software products it seems. Developers clearly are facing the same struggle to come up with not only credible dialog that is not merely authentic and idiomatic, but similar to real quotidian discourse that might actually occur between real people who find themselves in real situations doing, let’s face it, essentially ordinary things. One of the first revelations of learning a language sufficiently to comprehend most of what’s said within earshot when you happen to be, let’s say, sitting in a café in the south of France next to a married couple from the next town over on what happens to be market day is that, not to put too fine an edge on it, they’re not talking about Proust. Or Mallarmé. They’re not discussing the finer points of Sartre’s thoughts on Nothingness. They’re not amusing themselves exchanging bon mots by way of noting the advances that feminism has made in La Belle France since the days of de Beauvoir. They’re saying the same inconsequential, mundane, homely, and sometimes largely inarticulate things we all do in what passes for conversation about our basically contained, safe lives as we comport ourselves in the unremarkable enclaves of our quotidian wherever we happen to live, and whatever we happen to utter when addressing our intimates.

An additional deficit to these language learning software apps, from my perspective, is, as well, that there’s not much effort given to giving a clear sense except by inference and that blasted continuous repetition of phrases in that stilted scripted language they’re teaching you – which within the specifics of my particular observation is not French, but near-French, Simu-French – about what the cultural norms may be of the societies within which real French is unself-consciously the, pardon the expression, lingua franca of everyone, from the elite to the hoi polloi. Which is to say, there are some ways in which it’s polite to speak to others, especially mere acquaintances and strangers. And let’s face it, there’s no reason to learn French intensively and immersively for casual reasons (though I know there are some otherwise temperate and good-natured souls who pick up other languages as a hobby, with no prospect of ever actually putting them to active use). Not unless you own property in France which you hope to enjoy on a regular schedule of visitation, or you’re ex-patriating yourself for reasons about which it would be certainly a rude and presumptuous intrusion for me to inquire, or you are marrying into a family of exclusively native French speakers and who, your intuition alone so far has told you, are OK kind of people, maybe even your kind, and you’d like to converse in something other than an impromptu sign language plus an awkward mutual but inadequate command of the limited vocabulary of Franglais we all seem to share, plus a lot of smiling while engaged in eye contact of the most earnest sort. Because Franglais is good, maybe, and mainly, to find yourself a toilet in an emergency and for getting ketchup for your frites.

You do want to learn the language so as to reveal some finesse and sensitivity for it, even if your motives are purely touristic however, and intended not only to smoothe your sojourn in a foreign country as a visitor, but to enhance the pleasure of actually being there by having an ability, however limited, to engage with natives in some polite conversation where you might compare views about such matters of universal interest as the weather, or the beauty of the countryside, or the tender yet toothsome je ne sais quoi of the volaille forestiére (chicken breast, hunter style) you ordered with such aplomb and confidence. In short, there are few people insensitive enough or so supremely self-possessed as not to care if they come across as a dork or, worse (though sometimes the sadly stereotypically expected behavior of an American in virtually any EU member country), as an exuberant kind of gorilla with a talent for what resembles the power of intelligible speech.

These thoughts occurred to me today, as I happened to be musing on this on my daily commute to the local bakery, in the context of trying to come up with ways to encourage my wife in her thoroughly successful efforts so far in learning a language using such sometimes tragically impaired tools. Her efforts are heroic and deserve not just encouragement but assistance of a kind based more solidly in the real world of the France and its people with which we have become familiar in an affectionate way through our regular visits.

What I thought, as I encountered, among other things, some of the usual sights along the way, and had to deal on the road with some of the usual impediments one encounters on the highways and byways of rural Provence, was how much deeper would be the experience of gaining mastery of conversational French if it addressed some typical sitations with what someone might actually wish to say to the individuals one encounters randomly, if not serendpitously on such rounds.

So, here are some phrases I came up with, just this morning, that I’d like the neophyte speaker of basic French to tackle. And let them decide how much more fulfilling it is to be challenged by these phrases.

Bicyclists (in summer especially there are many many of them on these country roads and the rules of those roads requires, in fact, that motorized vehicles must honor their right of way – I’ll leave it at that, otherwise my language might get unduly colorful):

“Hey, can’t you and your gang of eight manage to ride single file on this road?”

“I’m not sure you realize this, my friend, but you and your buddy there on the side of the road with no shoulder, having a cool drink of water, are practically invisible in the shade in this blinding sun. I came close to sending you flying.”

“Say, my ancient friend, I know very well you have the right of way, and I must pass on the left at least five feet away from you, but I think if you meander up the hill in the middle of this two-lane road you may be putting yourself in danger. I do worry. So, move over, if you don’t mind.”

Personal Needs (you will quickly note a theme here):

“I am so sorry to disturb you during your cigarette break, especially as you are the only waiter in this restaurant, but I wanted to bring to your attention that your washroom has no toilet paper, or soap. Oh, and you are out of towels.”

“I am sure it is very rude of me to comment, but might you consider putting a sign on your restroom door warning people that there a few centimeters of water on the floor they might wish to avoid?”

Cuisine

“I did want to tell you how fascinated I am to observe that your chef has figured out how to add some crême fraîche to every dish you have on offer.”

“Would it be terribly inconvenient to indicate in the menu – you can even do it only in French – that all of your salads include pork lardons and chicken gizzards? I appreciate these added bits of savory protein, but your portions are so generous, I would be happy to eat only the vegetables.”

Fellow Bewildered Tourists to the Region

“Well now, my good fellow, I see you are a little lost, as you entered the cramped parking area of the bakery in your large luxury car in the wrong direction, and have managed to make it impossible for me, in my little compact rental, and this other stout fellow, a local resident in his tiny van with his dog, to remove our vehicles, even though we have finished our purchases and wish to go home. But I’ll just sit here as I have plenty of time. I am sure you will figure out how to extricate yourself, and good luck my good man, as you do so.”

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Nice — The City Where Nothing Happens

Approximate Reading Time: 19 minutes

It lives for tourism

Written in August, 2005, and since published as a chapter in my book, Same Difference, published by Bertha Books (available on Amazon). Obviously, without having to say too much, things eventually do happen in Nice, making it impossible to write like this again.

The streets in the Old Town are worn along the paths the visitors take, in packs, in groups, couples and singletons. This wear is most evident where the streets are paved in stone, whether cobbles or whole slabs. The stone has taken on a patina that can only result from untold short lashes from strips of leather the size and shape of, well, the sole of a shoe. Sidewalks have the contours of old river banks or natural terraces on hillsides, stone as smooth as pebbles rinsed by a million tides.

Watching visitors walk is the lowest common entertainment. We in the United States have either lost the ability, or never yet discovered it, to simply sit and watch our fellow humans move about, irrespective of caste, class, social advantage. To the European it is the basic social pastime. In this way, life as a passing parade is metaphor made real.

The modern city of Nice is founded, in many respects, on this notion. Tobias Smollett discovered Nice, its climate, and its Italianate ways, for all intents and purposes, as a potential benefit to the northern sensibility—the hardest to please at that—Smollett’s sensibility: that of the dyspeptic curmudgeon. He unleashed, from the instant of his publication at the end of the 18th century, a torrent of humanity that ran through the streets of Nice, even through different sovereignties, until today.

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, except for the World Wars—especially at critical times, for example, those times when the Axis and the Allies decided to bomb the shit out of each other, going and coming, retreating or advancing, the SS taking particular care to burn bridges, and barns, etc.—Nice has rarely seen a significant drop in tourism.

The longest decline was a kind of interregnum, between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Nice converted itself from a winter resort to one of the most popular summer destinations for Europeans. First it was Western Europe. Now the Eastern Europeans are beginning to make up for shortfalls in tourist business, especially since the advent of September 11, 2001. The better part of half of the Americans who used to come to France simply stopped coming. The American wave began in the 1920s, and with the inflated economy of that period came the sybarites, the sophisticates and the cinéastes. The depression put a temporary end to it. And then the war, of course.

Nice and the Riviera were occupied by the Italians, until they surrendered in 1943 to the dismay of the Nazis, who then had to divert what were dwindling resources to contain the bumptious and unruly French of this quarter. At the end of the war, even with the destruction wrought by the retreating Germans, who plundered and ruined what they couldn’t carry out, tourism began to pick up almost immediately.

The film festival at Cannes, started before the war, established itself quickly as an institution. Thereby the romantic allure of the Côte d’Azur was extended even to the movie-going bourgeois masses of the United States. Reconstruction instigated development, and a boom in housing and tourist destinations attracted more and more Americans (and other Europeans of course). Fact: in the late 50s, the airport at Nice processed barely 495 thousand passengers a year; by 2003 this figure had swelled (along with the facilities) to over nine million annually. It’s the second busiest airport in France, but these numbers stagnated just as the 2000s began.

The denizens of Niçois tourism began wringing their hands publicly about two years later, when they sat up and noticed that the declines had not abated, but were worsening. The vaunted 35-hour work week mandated as strict law eroded even the strictly French portion of the annual summer invasion from the north. With shorter weeks, and with the famous Monday holidays, generously distributed throughout the official state calendar, more and more citizens have elected to take many very long weekends—four day workweeks, and four day weekends. People still have six weeks of vacation, but the four weeks in summer? They stay home, or they indulge in ever greater numbers in another French pastime, little known to the rest of the world. Americans in general, if they have any picture in their minds at all about the stereotypical Frenchman, it is either of the city-wise, ill-bathed, cologne-sprayed sophisticate, or of the peasant farmer, redolent for other reasons; either image is a profoundly ill-informed fantasy about the “other,” but that’s a subject for another chapter, if not a book. The French now go camping. Or, as they say in French, le camping.

Back in Nice, in broader terms, the most conspicuous living remnant of the impact of foreign tourism is one of the most beautiful seaside boulevards, dedicated to the pedestrian, on the planet: the Promenade des Anglais (yeah, the English, that great nation of dapper boulevardiers…), and devoted entirely to watching, if not other people, then the great Mediterranean Ocean as respite. Incidentally, in one of those curious linguistic notes, and despite my parenthetical cynicism just above, I should make clear that for many years “Anglais” was used as a generic term, like Kleenex® for facial wipes, for “tourist,” no matter what their nationality. In this regard, given the mutual antipathy of the British and the French, Promenade des Anglais may be less an honorific distinction than a caution. Sometimes it seems, from the behavior in some establishments in Nice, tourists, especially non-Francophones, are viewed as being about as disposable as Kleenex.  I leave the broader implications of the simile to the reader.

The Promenade is seven kilometers long, well over four miles, and crowded every summer day, and even more so at night. All for the sheer pleasure of watching and communing with, though always at some distance, other creatures. That is unless you are the victim of a near miss by a rocketing and barely clad roller-blader. For all that, recall that when the British discovered and, inevitably, overran Nice (at least so it seemed to the neither fully-French-and-only-barely-Italian natives), they positioned the enclave as a winter resort. Nice, in other words, has proven itself the year round as a sanctuary for people-watching.

One of the great time-killers still, and more precisely, is woman-watching, and more particularly in summer when there are more women in the streets and they are bereft of layers of clothes.

The commonplace to the point of truism—and beyond to cliché—is that French women seem to know innately how to present themselves. It may be true. It is true, of course, but it is no more informative to observe and articulate the thought than it is to observe similarly that French restaurants with any number of Michelin stars (and many with none) know how to make a satisfying presentation of any part of the bill of fare. [American restaurants of a certain caliber imitate this tradition; they will always be followers, as the French precede them by decades, if not centuries.] And as any restaurateur, chef, or woman can tell you, presentation is the main part of the effort. We must work with the meat the lord gives us; how it looks after being prepared is another discipline in art.

The strongest evidence of the innate sensibility of French feminine esthetic is in the young women, who, of course, have the bodies one might expect would best express it. Rather they have the bodies that require the least nuance, artifice or attention. This merely saves them time, I imagine. It makes them absolutely no more and no less alluring than older women even as they enter adulthood, then a certain age, and then well into the late middle years. The inculcated sense of themselves that the culture breeds in French women renders them alluring well into what in other white-skinned countries would be a sloppy nonage. In France, it seems to me, seniors (despicable word) and the elderly (how did an adjective become a mass noun like “cattle?”) are largely undetectable as such.

To digress, I’ll say also: in this context—the hegemony of the white-skinned tribes­—Nice stands as a symbol of a state. It is technically still the Comté de Nice [we tend to forget in daily discourse that a “county,” a political division, derives from the differentiation of one tract, ruled by a count, from another, ruled perhaps by another count, or a duke, or an ancient invention of the chief ruling agent of federation, a king or other national head; thereby we perpetuate largely political distinctions of what we superciliously call “the dark ages”—some 1400 years ago; and we wonder why our politics don’t seem up to the times; I’ll mention further that the term from which “count” is derived, comes, is actually Roman, and so even older]. Nice has seen periodic changes of leadership, rulership, or political affiliation for centuries. Allied to the dukedom of Savoy, and later to the nation-state of Piedmont, and other times to other Italian nation-states. I don’t know if the urge to “present” herself derives from more northerly habits among the gentry, or if women just generally have this instinct.

Nowadays in Nice, the more well-to-do women do serve as a largely unconscious source of humor, at least to these easily amused eyes, and that’s despite the age of any of them. Anyone wise enough to visit Nice in the winter, of which company I count myself, sees a different city. No less the resort—Nice weather is always temperate, if only just so, at its worst. Snow is incredibly rare. The coldest daytime temperatures in winter are in the 50s (Fahrenheit).

Nevertheless, and especially, it seems, on sunny winter days the haute bourgeois sisterhood takes the air, but never without an ankle-length fur, and spike-heeled pumps. Outside of Gstaad, where else and for what reason would they get the chance?


Lunch.

By five minutes to noon tables full of Asians at the most bald-faced of tourist restaurants along the Cours Saleya have tucked into their mid-day meal—half-consumed. Even as the produce vendors of the daily marché make brisk final sales to the natives, so all of the fish portion is gone from the salades Niçoises of bus loads of citizens of Japan, gustily consumed while staff still set banks of surrounding tables with place mats, silver, and salt and pepper service. They have plenty of time to prepare for the noon rush, and can handle getting slammed by a mini-tidal wave of Japanese with a hunger for Italian canned tuna on a bed of mesclun.

God bless the Japanese. They’ll be finished and back to patinating the pavement or filing into their mammoth tour buses long before the city crews have begun to use high-pressure water hoses to clean the marketplace pavement after marché at 1pm. And the rest of us, enjoying a leisurely Provençal meal, will check our pants cuffs to see if we’re getting splashed. We never are.

So, as lunch hour begins, the produce market ends. Throughout the course of the Cours Saleya, lining both sides of the broad courtyard for a distance of perhaps 300 meters (three American football fields plus the distance from home plate to first base), jowl-by-jowl, are restaurants. They alternately offer much the same fare. It’s either seafood, or Italian food, or Italian seafood (to differentiate it from Provençal styles of cooking, which predominate, understandably, no matter what the ingredients).

The nearer the Opera House, at the western end of the Cours, the greater the chance that there is, in the style of clothing stores on New York’s lower east side, “pullers-in.” They carry a stack of cartes, in American, “menus,” somewhat redundantly, as the way is festooned with stanchions and tent cards displaying the bill of fare, and often, if not invariably, in six languages—and if so, it’s a good indicator not to take a table, not because the food is not good, but because it’s only not bad. The translations can be a good laugh, however, though they degrade your perception of the generally commendable food. You won’t likely ever be disappointed in a meal in such places, especially if you make no pretensions to having a fine palate, but you are guaranteed never to be impressed.

Variously, these sidewalk promoters are either the patrons, the owners or, at least, the bosses, invariably men, or they’re comely young women. I always presume the latter are related to the proprietors, nieces, daughters, granddaughters or cousins. I do know their smiles end at their teeth, and they seem, predominantly, to be ill at ease. The men wear impeccably clean shirts, blue or white, opened two or three buttons at the neck, black trousers, sincere hostly smiles, and they are sometimes festooned themselves with what appears to be at least half their net worth in gold, in the form of chains, and rings, and bracelets. What we call “bling.” The women often display, unself-consciously, décolletage. I have never really gotten beyond this to notice if there is a complement of metal adornments.

Another rule of thumb: the less bling, or the less visible cleavage, the better the experience. If the patron is wearing a suit, it’s a white cloth restaurant, and you won’t get away for less than 80 euros for lunch. Though you also will not be exposed to an attempt, however gentle or subtly seductive, to pull you in from the pavement.

The best of these restaurants is perhaps 100 feet from the end of the Cours, which ends at the base of the hill at whose top is Le Chateau, whose presence and grounds are a signature landmark not only of the Old Town, but of the whole city—antedating by some centuries Mr. Tobias Smollett. The restaurant, with no one outside to pull you in, is called Le Safari—the exotic name being, somehow, characteristic. It suggests you will have a different experience, and you do, not merely because of the quality of the food (though it is mainly the quality of the food) and the air of jocularity and camaraderie of the staff, mainly men, and, almost to a man, lifelong professionals. In over ten years of regular periodic visits, and many meals, I have seen few faces change. Perhaps it suggests that the hunt is over. Or, of course, it serves adequately merely as a hip name—nothing about the place suggests even remotely the dark continent, wild felines, elephants, giraffes, or swift-footed cousins to the deer. And particularly not on the menu, which is strictly Niçoise.

I am safe, I think, in my estimation of the place as the best, and not only because of a native presumption. The magazine Saveur thinks so also, having cited the restaurant several times, and naming its pizza as “the second best in the world.” I don’t know whose they consider the best, but I know the pizza at Le Safari, among its many Provençal specialties, is really very good, and I’m not afraid to dispute Saveur were they wrong. I offer no cavil over first and second place.

It also seems a matter of proof of the proposition that Le Safari shows no signs of any consciousness of this designation, though there are framed copies of accolades and encomiums they have received in print. There are also, even more numerous, works of art.

Le Safari is also invariably mentioned in the guides of any worth as one of the places worth a stop in Nice, which is a major restaurant city—as one would expect in a city of 400,000 or so, whose main commerce is tourism. Not a starred restaurant mind you. Not even a restaurant to take note of because of the inventiveness or finesse of the chef. It is merely a place that has very good cooks in the kitchen, very good service staff, and a reliable and invariable menu of Niçois and a smaller number of Provençal classics, wood-grilled fish, and pizza baked in a wood-fired oven (a pizza one of whose secrets is the use of a cheese called cantal, from the Auvergne, as opposed to mozzarella).

Not to expound a formal theory, but perhaps to draft a note or two towards such a thing, I think there are maybe three modes of judging what a restaurant is up to, in culinary terms. There are restaurants whose aim is to show distinction through innovation—invariably the chef has a reputation and it is a reputation for concocting new dishes, discovering new ways of combining familiar ingredients, or for merging the techniques and ingredients of cuisines otherwise foreign to one another—so-called fusion cuisines are the latest example of the latter. This is a style particularly prevalent in the United States, where we now see Asian tapas, and where we will no doubt someday see Swedish-Polynesian specialties on offer. More prosaically, perhaps, there are restaurants who offer exemplars (or such is the usual goal) of classic dishes whatever the cuisine—once again, it’s an American type, the steak house, that’s a prime example. Another is, of course, the classic French bistro, whose bill of fare was memorialized long since: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, etc.

Finally, there is the restaurant that cleaves to a cuisine, more in terms of technique than in terms of a fixed menu of classic dishes. Hence we have Mexican, or Japanese, or even French restaurants with a revolving bill of fare. No set list of dishes, but a carte that varies with the season or the source of supply.

In France you often see the phrase on the menu of more serious restaurants, “selon arrivage,” which means, essentially, according to what’s arrived—it could refer to what’s at the market, but often as not it means at the dock. Fish are the least predictable of stocks, and some fish, especially on the Mediterranean, and especially according to the season, are expensive not because they are rare, but because they are particularly elusive and fishermen bring in what they catch. The result in a restaurant is that you will be offered this fish or that, cooked in a manner determined as suitable by the chef or the cook (in concert with the patron) or cooked according to the manner dictated by the design of the kitchen. At Le Safari, which features signs that announce you are dealing with wood-fired grills, to complement those wood-fired ovens, what you get is grilled fish.

It’s only right, as the easiest way to cook a fish, or any piece of meat, is on a grill over an open flame. If you have ever grilled fish, and in particular the whole fish (merely gutted and scaled), you know this is a deceptively simple operation. And so, what is right, in this case, is not always great. At Le Safari, and not in any singular way as I speak of it at such length as an exemplum—as well as speaking of it as the best of breed of the kind of restaurants you find along the Cours Saleya—you get great fish, usually grilled, but often prepared well in other ways. For example the fritto misto (Italian for “mixed fried”), consisting of slices of squid, several shrimp, with heads and tails (and small enough to eat them whole) and a huge mound of what is unfortunately called in the ‘States, “white bait” (that is, the fry of ocean fish, also eaten whole, because the entire thing is no more than an inch and-a-half from head to tail), comprising a tiny masterpiece, and served in a manner that is just short of kitsch. It’s in a scalloped bowl fashioned of a deep-fried crêpe, and garnished with slivers of marinated hot pepper and garlic.

I’ve also had at Le Safari an excellent mille feuille de morue, characteristically Mediterranean. Mille feuille is a term usually reserved to pastry, as it refers to a kind of dough, called pâte feuilletée, wherein the dough is repeatedly folded over on itself and rolled flat again, creating many layers or “leaves” (feuille is a leaf, a mille is a thousand). It is also a generic culinary term, meaning any layered dish. As a dessert, mille feuille is specifically layers of flaky pastry and cream or custard.

Morue is French for cod. However, you will discover that cod is also cabillaud. The same fish. Except for reasons that in some ways take a book to explain the fresh caught fish is cabillaud, and generally it’s the version that’s dried, or dried and salted (like the staple of many Spanish, Portuguese and Italian dishes) and referred to by some version of the Spanish word “bacalao” that the French call morue. Another Provençal classic dish, brandade de morue (also served at Le Safari, but of course) is a divine melange of revived salt cod, garlic, olive oil, and milk, all of which is creamed together to the consistency of very finely mashed potatoes. Brandade de morue is spread on thin toast while still warm and is the food of the gods of the big waters.

Mille feuille de Morue is the same, but re-engineered, and built from many of the same ingredients, yet whole, without the milk, as a short stack of slices of potato interspersed with large flakes of the cod. Simple, toothsome, yet engrossing, and a lesson in the ways that a basic list of components can be combined, and recombined, to bespeak, as I say, an entire cuisine.

Le Safari, though it has its adherents and admirers (and more importantly for the patron, it usually fills up both for lunch and dinner, except in the winter months when, admittedly, sitting outdoors, even in Nice, is not always inviting, though it is entirely possible), and has received its share of favorable reviews, is not in the league of restaurants that garner stars from Michelin, toques from Gault-Millau, and possibly not even olive branches from Guide Gantié. There are several places in Nice that attract the attention of those who have appointed themselves guardians of the French culinary firmament and the constellations therein.

One place in particular is sui generis. Not touristic at all, indeed, it may be anti-touristic, it has an interesting history that is not only, to me, characteristically French for its detailed idiosyncrasies, but generically Niçois. It’s worth the telling.

The name of the place is La Merenda. Merenda is itself a nonce word, a Provençal term, as it is speculated by Jacques Gantié in his guide (elsewhere it is asserted with certitude to be Italian), for another native term: casse-croûte, which in an English-French dictionary means “snack.” You mainly see it on roadside signs, possibly hand-painted, near nondescript places that are often deceptively unnoticeable; you learn which ones to take note of. It’s usually not about snacks at all, as Americans understand them, but about going native to eat. In short, casse-croûte is a wholly informal way of saying, “good eats here.” The word literally means “broken crust” as in, I break bread in this joint with my nearest and dearest; my friends any day of the week, and my whole family in the shade of an oak or a plane tree or an elm (hard durable woods all of them, from long-lived trees giving plenty of shade) on a Sunday afternoon for the big meal of the day.

The reputation of La Merenda was established by the couple who founded it, M. & Mme. Jean and Christiane Giusti. He was a man obsessed with making perfectly a very short list of Niçois classic dishes, all of them concocted of the humblest ingredients: the freshest vegetables (but only certain ones, like squash, tomato, eggplant, onion—the staples of a Mediterranean diet), garlic, lots of garlic, and not just the fruit of the squash vine, but the flower—a bright yellow trumpet with petals of tenacious integrity that stands up to stuffing and frying, salt fish, which is called not morue (though brandade de morue is eminently Niçois), but stockfish—and that’s French, pronounced exactly as it’s spelled in English, and so forth, and I may or may not get to the “and so forth.” There are other dishes, and, true to form when that form is the preconceived notion we have of the French and their willingness to consume with gusto all parts of an animal, these dishes constitute for the American palate adventures in dining. These include the parts at the opposing ends of a beast—calf’s head cheese (not to be outdone in the United States, where this delicacy is shaped around the head of a hog), for which see any compendious cookbook, the feet of young sheep, as well as the lining of their stomachs (known more prosaically as tripe, and better known in Italian recipes as built around the tripes of the cow), though the feet come into play in a dish that finds its roots in Marseilles; in Nice they serve, obviously enough, “tripes à la Niçoise.” To make it succinct, we speak here of the cuisine (if you are still comfortable with this designation of close encounters with ingredients of the third kind) of poor people.

On the other hand, let me just say that the rule of thumb these days (six years into the third millennium) is that you should expect to spend 65 euros per person for a meal and wine at La Merenda. And remember, they don’t take checks or credit cards. The cooking had better be good.

When it came time for M. Giusti to retire he found the perfectly unlikely successor. Dominique LeStanc, as a very young man, had already scaled the Matterhorn of culinary challenges. He wore the toque of executive chef of the kitchen at the most revered of rooms in the most revered of Niçois old guard hotels—the Negresco, in all its fin de siècle splendor (and a landmark on the Promenade des Anglais for its instantly recognizable Moorish turret atop the corner entry). The Chantecler (literally “rooster,” which happens to be as well the avian symbol of France) was then a two-star Michelin restaurant (gaining as well, it almost goes without saying, three Gantié olive branches, and as many symbolic toques from Gault-Millau). No one, but no one, would say Chantecler was, and is, not a great restaurant or that LeStanc was not at the top of his particular game or would not stay there indefinitely, given his tender years—he was 36 in 1996 when La Merenda changed hands).

To make a long story short, he threw all this over for a tiny restaurant with barely 24 seats (more precisely stools, not chairs—you fit more people in that way) packed like grilled sardines on too small a plate, on a side street off a side street in the old town, at the gateway to the long stretch of tourist traps. He threw it over to offer, without many variants at his disposal, such refinements as pissaladiére, the Niçois pizza whose topping consists only of what can be best described as a marmalade of onions, cooked so slowly as not to color, and garnished with black olives. So pure is the LeStanc version of this ageless dish it dispenses with the ingredient that gave it its name. Pissala is Provençal (if it is not, in fact, Ligurian, or older) for fish, that is, more specifically, fish sauce, manufactured from fermented fish, anchovies usually. And the pissaladiére at La Merenda has none, no fish sauce, no anchovies—hence it is, in fact, a tourte de Menton. One could go through every dish ever served, through a rotating menu on which only a few of these dishes are mainstays, and describe an equal purity, or a level of fastidiousness and exactitude, not to mention art, in its preparation, as to produce, dish after dish and day after day, the ur specimen of such a dish.

These include head cheese in gribiche sauce, beignets de fleurs des courgettes, pâtes au pistou (or, quite simply, pasta in pesto sauce, except, of course, pistou is pesto on this side of the French/Italian frontier and so it consists solely of basil, olive oil (though the oil for La Merenda is brought in from Liguria, two hours away across that frontier) and garlic: no nuts and no cheese. Shall I continue? I’ll continue.

This concentration on poor people’s food (which happens, at its best, to cost what a corrupt lobbyist can afford to drop for lunch) derives from the characterization universally applied to the “native” cuisine of this modern city-state. All of Provence pretends it is a region of poor people and paysans, farmers or, as the word suggests, peasants (whereas it truly refers only to a native of the many pays that have always comprised the expansive collection of hundreds of them that we call France—pays is usually translated in French 101 as “country,” but it’s mainly one community, possibly a borough or commune, a town, a village or even a hamlet, culturally or geographically distinguished from any other, by language, custom, cuisine, dress—and so a paysan is more accurately a “homie”).

Unemployment is high in France (as it is in all the de facto socialist democracies of western Europe: specifically Germany, France, and Spain, among the most productive economically), and I am sure many people suffer some deprivation.

However, in Nice, for all the well-worn streets and the superficial dinginess that it actually shares with all but the most luxe of communities and towns that make up the Côte d’Azur—amusingly always understood as the playground of the wealthy, especially foreigners, if not in particular the celebrities, the players, and the hordes of essentially anonymous stinking rich—with all the great food, with the fur-clad gentry, the banks of hotels cheek-by-jowl, and the perpetual slow crawl of well-maintained vehicles along the Promenade des Anglais, no one ever appears particularly to be suffering.  But then, how can one suffer in a place where nothing ever really happens?

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Jazz on a Summer Night, A Sample

Approximate Reading Time: 1 minute
Jazz in the courtyard of the old village of Fox-Amphoux, 4 July 2015

Jazz in the courtyard of the old village of Fox-Amphoux, 4 July 2015

In rural France (indeed, in the whole country), even the tiniest villages and hamlets turn summer into a music festival. Our little village features, among other genres, jazz. We’re lucky to have some enthusiastic performers, some of them very accomplished amateurs, others professional musicians now semi-retired, as are so many of the local inhabitants.

This past year, timing being everything, we were able to catch at least one show. The favorite venue, in the courtyard in front of the 13th chapel fills with folding chairs that are gathered around the 600 year-old micocoulier. It just so happens that courtyard sits directly in front of our little house overlooking the village center. So we would always have ringside seats, schedule permitting. I decided to haul out some fancy kit I have, essentially a state-of-the-art recording studio, complete with high resolution microphones, meters, etc. that fit into a case that looks like a shaving kit.

Here’s one song, to whet your appetite. Things get a little dodgy in the higher registers, but the singing is heartfelt, and the entire 2-hour plus concert was a pleasure… It’s a song you may recognize: Samba Saravah…

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Jake

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes
Jake

Jake

[unpublished profile fragment: 22 October 2002; travels to U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas]

Jake is a smart kid. Not the kid you want your kid to be necessarily, more the kid you wish you had been. He is from Montgomery, Alabama, as ignominious, if not notorious, a place as Providence, Rhode Island, or Newark, New Jersey. But he comes, given his roots and the far-reaching peregrinations of his young life, with the onus/appeal of an accent, from the unmistakably deep South, unmistakably American.

“I know I look 15, but I’m 24,” he tells you, and in case you are not aware of the advantage, he tells you about it. When you tell him that the real advantage will come when he is 50 and looks only 32, he readily agrees. The advantage is the sort, the only sort, that counts in a man’s life, when all accounting is done – for bartenders, artists, poets, politicians and nuclear physicists – the advantage with women. Jake implies he has been with many, and among the sweeter, indeed, was one where the age differential could only have been equitable if the female, in this case at age 44, had suffered none of the gravitational influence that terrifies all women living West of the Greenwich Observatory, East of the International Dateline. As he talks about it, the corners of Jake’s mouth twist slightly at the sweet memory. He reveals the true burden of his youth in not hiding the pride he feels in having been with what less imaginative people would call “a real woman,” and leaving the distinct impression as well that he had the stuff, his unblemished complexion notwithstanding, his 20-plus year deficit notwithstanding, to leave her satisfied. And gravity played no part for either party.

As you pull out a stool at Bobby’s Bar in one of the many arcades that provide cool passage between Main Street and Waterfront Highway in Charlotte Amalie, and when you ask if he is Bobby, as he rises from a stool on the money side of the small bar that juts into the main walkway, furtively snuffing a cigarette and slipping behind the bar, he tells you, not that he is Jake, but that he is “Bobby’s bitch,” and he works here for five dollars an hour, seven days a week. Bobby is “traveling,” (as he does, it turns out, periodically; working a month, and traveling a month, apparently for pleasure – the remittance man with the best justification in the world: he is padrone, boss, sole owner). There is a kind of swagger in all this, and you know, jaded Northeasterner that you are, that he means the “bitch” part, not in the way it’s meant at Walpole prison or in Boston’s south end, but in a kind of urbane ironic way. Jake is clearly a master at creating a sympathetic resonance with any customer, including two grizzled middle-aged white guys, stragglers of some sort, toting imposing professional-looking cameras and clearly not from any cruise ship – all cruise vessels being temporarily absent from the usually teeming Charlotte Amalie harbor. To hustle tips from tourists with excess discretionary income, especially in tough times, is a craft that even the most tender-faced must master. Jake knows this is a good job, even at less than the U.S. mainland minimum wage. He gives a tutorial in staffing tourist bars in the West Indies. Among the competition, there are at least two bartenders, spelling one another, by weekday, or day part. However, Jake insists on taking on all barkeep duties. He likes having things behind the bar his way, everything in its place – essentially as Jake defines it.

We are the only customers. It is 11:30 in the morning after all, yet appropriate for a first cocktail, especially in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where, for many, rum is a breakfast drink. Jake launches into a rap that, in retrospect, is clearly well-practiced. We learn that he has traveled: for one, to Dallas, for an extended visit after college. In Dallas, despite his youth, he worked hard, tending bar, befriending the bar owner, and endearing himself (not to mention proving his value) sufficiently that the untimely death of his friend led to a recall by his boss’s widow, and the subsequent bestowal of 30% ownership of the establishment for a mere ten thousand dollars. Every month, Jake still receives a direct deposit of 30% of all revenue. It’s clearly better than a Fulbright, a kind of bibulous McArthur grant, acknowledging the genius of his native acumen and hosting skills. Dallas has become for Jake, a life goal: a “great place,” his objective for settling down, and, once he has accumulated the requisite cash, the place where he will leverage his value by buying out the place.

Among his travels is a sojourn in Japan of three and a-half months, where he sat “doing nothing,” waiting on his girlfriend who was in the island empire doing something indeterminate. In some essential way American, peripatetic (that most American of qualities), this young wanderer has, nevertheless, never been north of Memphis. And so, your native Boston remains a someday destination. You can only suspect that if there were a dollar in it, or perhaps a woman, the visit would occur.

Jake has been in Saint Thomas for 14 months, living in Frenchtown, one of the communities that make up Charlotte Amalie, the great sprawling tourist mecca and native ghetto where it seems the population lives in a kind of dignified squalor. Frenchtown is, by any account, not squalid. It is a white enclave. Given his venturesome history, and his taste for edgy experiences, it’s a little bit of dissonance to hear that Jake has elected such quarters. Or maybe it’s that quite simply, when it’s time to go home and get some rest, he wants no excitement, or surprises. Only a later interview could clear this up, and you make a note to ask him at a later opportunity [which never does present itself].

When you ask for a place to eat, not the usual tourist haunt, but a place where locals eat, Jake first mentions the obvious – well-known, unimaginative “safe” places for bourgeois tourists to congregate and consume familiar fare, as if all were adherents to the philosophy of “accidental tourism.” When you press for a name where the local fare is featured, Jake, almost apologetically reminds that he is in the habit of helping out his buddies who run several local favorite local eateries, but he does offer the name of Cozzin’s, a short walk away on Back Street (and, as it turns out later, what amounts to a sanitized version of local specialties, plus the usual offering of tourist fare: salads and burgers, with table cloths and laminated menus – you’ve been directed by Jake to what is no doubt another buddy’s place, and the closest no doubt that he can offer to what you’ve requested without compromising his loyalties). You can take the baby-faced white boy out of Alabama, you can take him around the world, but in the cultural plane you can not take him far at all.

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Some Loose Rules of Thumb for Americans in Rural France

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

(inspired partially by Satchel Paige’s advice on “How to Keep Young”)

  1. Everyone moves at his or her own pace. You might as well do the same. No one is slowing down or speeding up for you, I assure you. They’ll get out of your way, if you’re polite about it. The corollary, even in the dead of night, in the middle of a village, is do not ever just step into the roadway to cross.
  2. No one is giving you the stink eye. Unlike Americans, Europeans have no trouble looking other people in the eye, or at least in the face. This is especially true of the French. They’re not sizing you up. They merely assume, if they don’t know you, that you are in the same state of mind as they. Cautious, guarded, and disinterested. And don’t worry, the French see you, and they’re not looking through you. It’s the Germans who don’t see you, and the Brits who look right through you.
  3. There is no such thing as a place in line. Everyone gets to be first, if they can manage it. There is no etiquette. Just step to the front like they do, and watch your elbows. The shopkeeper or vendor will decide who gets attention. If you’re a stranger or a tourist, forget it.
  4. The roads are much narrower than ours, and the cars, generally smaller. The trucks and buses don’t look it, but they are too. The advantage the French have is, they are used to it. You’re not. Amazingly they won’t hit you. Just don’t hit them.
  5. People on bicycles think they are the only ones on the road. This is because they have a priority. Don’t threaten them with your car. And use your directional signal when you pass them. More likely than not, there’s a car approaching in the opposite lane.
  6. Don’t hand a merchant a 50-euro bill for any sale less than 20-euros. They will always ask if you have anything smaller. So if you do, keep it out of sight, or you’ll make an enemy for the rest of your stay, or the rest of your life. Whichever is longer.
  7. Give a merchant exact change if you can. You will make a friend for, well, see Rule 6., above. Otherwise, those eensy beensy copper coins? They actually use them. If you don’t give them over, they’ll be handed to you. You can tell a merchant really likes you when he or she rounds the total down to the nearest euro.
  8. Don’t look back, because you can be sure someone is gaining on you, flashing his high beams. They’re not pissed or perverse. They just go at a faster pace than you, and want you out of their path. So move.
  9. They’re used to making fast moves with their smaller, faster, more maneuverable cars. They’re not trying to side-swipe you when they return to the lane after they pass. That’s just how they drive.
  10. Eat anything you like. It’s all good, and far better for you than the usual in the U.S. As long as you stay out of the fast food outlets. If you go to France and eat at McDonald’s, you’ve just spent a lot of money for no good reason. And I’m talking about the plane fare and the hotel. Not the Big Mac.
  11. The French, especially in the South, have been eating healthier than you, for a lot longer than you. Don’t get snotty when you tell them you’re a vegan and they seem not to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t eat whatever, just say so. You’ll still eat well. The French consider it an honor and a duty to make you comfortable and satisfied.
  12. Don’t ever raise your voice. At best, it just demonstrates you’re an American. At worst, you’ll be completely ignored. They hear you. Try a few simple words in French, in a normal tone of voice. It’s magical. Otherwise, see Rule 1.
  13. Don’t ever imagine that there’s anything remotely like marché in the ‘States. They do this every week, all year, year after year, and it’s as festive and uplifting for everybody as any Fourth of July. Get into the spirit of it, and enjoy yourself. There’s no cheaper way to get entertained, spend an entire morning amusing yourself for nothing, buy better produce, fish, cheese and meat, and raise your spirits. In the meantime, all those vendors are making a living and enjoying themselves while they do. Do you?
  14. If you think the coffee is bitter and strong, it is. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just a different palate. Just do what every American does and order a “café crême,” which is actually a cafe au lait. You can order a cafe au lait. They’ll simply repeat, “café crême,” and bring you the same thing, even as you have assured them you’re an American (or, at worst, they’ll mistake you for a Brit). If you order it after 11am, they’ll know you can’t be anything but an American, because no one drinks coffee with milk in France except for breakfast. You could get tricky and order a noisette, which literally means “hazelnut” though this has nothing to do with it. It’s a an espresso with a tiny shot of steamed milk. Saves you a euro, or more, and gets rid of some of the acidity. Might also allow you to get away with appearing French.
  15. No one eats dinner before 8pm. Not if they’re French.
  16. At someone’s home, if you’re lucky enough to get an invitation to visit and share a meal, show up ten minutes late, and it’s perfectly cool, often preferable. Show up late for a restaurant reservation and you may find yourself without a table. Go figure.
  17. Get used to dogs in any place that serves food and drink, inside or out. If you don’t like it, don’t go out. And even the most humble bistro will probably bring your dog a bowl of water, unasked.
  18. Large supermarkets and malls increasingly exclude dogs. Assume it’s the infernal Americanization of a great country that managed to get along nicely without us, until about 70 years ago.
  19. You’re not French. You will never be. You’re an American in France. Admit it to yourself, then forget it, and enjoy yourself. They actually like Americans. Can’t say as much for others.
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