Articles by L. John Harris
by: L. John Harris
in: Parisian Culture
You can judge a Parisian cafe by its croque. If a cafe can’t get these simple ham and cheese sandwiches right, what hope is there for their more complex fare? After tasting a dozen croques this summer, I must insist that France place Monsieur and Madame Croque (and the traditional cafe) on the endangered species list.
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Fortunately, the few delicious versions I tasted prove all is not lost. Monsieur Croque is, of course, a grilled or toasted ham and cheese sandwich on sweet white bread — pain de mie — that’s dressed (ideally) with either creamy béchamel or cheesy Mornay sauce. Grated cheese, either Gruyère or Emmental, is layered inside (over the ham) and on top of the sandwich, and then browned top and bottom (with butter) until the melted cheese (with or without added sauce) starts to drip down the sides.
Madame Croque is exactly the same, but she sports a fried egg “hat” on her saucy head. This ever-popular culinary couple celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2001, according to most culinary historians.
The word croque comes from the French verb, croquer, “to bite,” or in some circles, “to crunch.” Hence the awkward translation, “Crunchy Mister.” Here then are the croques I crunched during my recent summer sejour (stay) in Paris — the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve grouped them by price because with the Parisian croque, you generally get what you pay for.
Croques less than 8 euros
Le Duc d’Albret, rue Danielle-Casanova, 6 euros
La Fontaine, rue Cuvier, 7.5 euros
When I came across Le Duc d’Albret, a hole-in-the-wall cafe near avenue de l’Opéra, and saw croques on the menu starting at 6 euros (add 1 or 2 euros for the madame version and Poilâne bread, Paris’ popular upscale artisanal loaf), I assumed it would be a disappointment. Au contraire, it was excellent, toasted (top and bottom) by the owner in a commercial toaster oven while I watched. This croque even had béchamel in the center, giving it a creamy texture. Funky as the setup was, this was a made-to-order croque. As the owner, Madame Madeira, explained to me, “You cannot make a croque in advance.”
At La Fontaine, a friend’s favorite morning mom-and-pop cafe near the lovely Jardins des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement, their somewhat pricier croque set the stage for a string of similar disappointments — most notably croques preassembled (sometimes off premises or frozen), untoasted bottoms and with little if any béchamel sauce to help moisten an otherwise dry sandwich.
What good are Monsieur and Madame Croque without toasty bottoms and gooey interiors and tops? It can be done without the sauce, which was not part of the recipe for the original croques 100 years ago, but sauceless croques need lots of cheese and some butter in the toasting to produce a juicy croque.
Croques from 8 to 10 euros
Le Ponthieu Café, ave. Franklin Roosevelt, 10 euros
Café Dada, ave. des Ternes, 8 euros
Café Les Deux Palais, blvd. du Palais, 9.5 euros
Café Les Mouettes, rue de Bac, 9 euros
Café La Palette, rue de Seine, 10.5 euros
At this higher price point, you’d expect croques at least as good as Le Duc d’Albret’s, but that was not the case this summer. At upscale Le Ponthieu, the Poilâne croque was not toasted on the bottom and there was no sign of béchamel. Too dry!
At hip Café Dada, I boldly sent back the half-toasted béchamel-free Poilâne croque and it came back a bit warmer but far from toasted. A double homicide! At elegant Les Deux Palais, things got even worse — untoasted bottom, commercial sandwich bread, no béchamel and minimal ham. Utterly inedible!
The croque madame at Les Mouettes on charming rue de Bac was decently made, but the fried egg was overcooked. Madame Croque without her runny yolk? Sacre bleu!
At La Palette, in the heart of the artsy 6th arrondissement, the open-faced croque was made on Poilâne’s rustic sourdough bread. It was nicely toasted, but I don’t think sourdough bread is right for a croque (Poilâine’s pain de mie is perfect). The slight sweetness of pain de mie complements the dark nutty flavor of the Gruyère cheese, which may be one of the secrets of the croque’s enduring international success.
Croques from 12 to 16 euros
Café Select, blvd. du Montparnasse, 16.5 euros
Les Deux Magots, Place St. Germain, 12.5 euros
La Closerie des Lilas, blvd. du Montparnasse, gratis at bar
These three celebrated artist cafes on the left-bank, though no longer the center of the avant garde in Paris, are all producing very good croques. The well-made and tasty Croque Select at Café Select is, in fact, a croque madame — there is no choice on the menu.
At Les Deux Magots, the open-faced croque had the distinction of being the only one I had this summer with a béchamel sauce tasting of nutmeg, the favored spice for this creamy white sauce. A pleasant croque.
Hemingway’s haunt, La Closerie des Lilas, did not have croques on the menu, but the night I had dinner there, tiny tooth-picked croque squares, buttery and properly toasted, were served at the bar as hors d’oeuvres. Delicious.
Croques over 20 euros
Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opéra, 20 euros
Café Fouquet’s, ave. des Champs-Élysées, 28 euros
For 20 euros and above, a croque should be everything a croque can be, and much, much more. This was indeed the case at Café de la Paix, a fashionable cafe/restaurant with Belle Epoch interiors and a rich literary history dating back to the 19th century.
The Paix croque tasted like rich pastry; the moist interior, adequate béchamel and a well-toasted top and bottom provided an explosion of flavor and texture. The pain de mie was sliced thinner than with most croques I sampled, to the sandwich’s crispy advantage, and the ham a bit thicker, which gave added flavor and texture. The presentation was impressive: The center was cut out of the croque body and served as a separate “croquette.” Green salad was stuffed into the body’s circular void. Excellent pommes frites came in a separate basket.
This was now my benchmark for a great croque. Although ridiculously expensive, the Paix croque was 8 euros less and more satisfying than the double-decker monster croque at the elite watering hole, Café Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Élysées. Sure, the Fouquet’s croque was enough for four and came with salad, excellent frites and several miniature financier dessert cakes at the end. But the sandwich itself, again on the dry side, does not sit as high in my pantheon of Parisian croques as Café de la Paix’s tour de force.
Will the Parisian croque croak?
Something has to be done to save the Parisian croque! Especially at a moderate 8 to 10 euros. If a good croque cannot be made profitably at that price, it should not be on the cafe’s menu.
There have been stories of late about the official Parisian tourism office’s efforts to boost the sagging fortunes of traditional Parisian cafes by transforming the often arrogant and unfriendly garçon de café into a nicer tourist-friendly fellow.
I suggest, instead, that the grand panjandrums at the Parisian tourism office apply their resources to improving Monsieur Croque, not Monsieur Garcon, who is just fine the way he is. Why not create AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée)-style guidelines for the croque monsieur, as for wine, cheese, eggs and other products?
For a sandwich to be labeled on a Parisian menu as a croque monsieur or madame, it must be:
- Assembled on the premises
- Cooked to order
- Made with imported Gruyère or Emmental
- Butter used in the toasting or grilling process
- Toasted top and bottom
- Contain either béchamel or Mornay sauce
These simple standards would help elevate the moribund Parisian croque (and cafe) to its former glory and help restore France’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of Europe — one croque at a time.
Main photo: Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
La Vie en Rose: Paris is known as the City of Light. But it’s also the city of waiters, and neither the Eiffel Tower nor the Arc of Triumph nor Notre Dame Cathedral — and its gaggle of roofline gargoyles — is more identified with Paris than the garçon de café.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
This black-and-white terror serves croque-monsieur, a coupe de champagne, café crème and a whole lot of attitude on almost every street corner in the city.
But he may be at his most formidable at the classy corner cafe, Les Deux Magots, on Boulevard Saint-Germain in the sixth arrondissement. With its dramatic terrace view of L’Église Saint-Germain, this go-to cafe is the perfect spot from which to muse on this often-misunderstood Parisian serveur (waiter) and his unique contribution to French culture.
Can the garçon be arrogant? Yes! Even nasty? Mais oui. Nevertheless, in all his guises through three centuries of French cafe history, this fellow is always efficient, knowledgeable and never boring. He is often as satisfying as the food and beverage he serves (or more so).
But, le garçon, or at least his persona, is in jeopardy. As reported on Feb. 19, 2015, in the Wall Street Journal, the City of Light’s official tourism office is bent on making this paragon of professionalism “nicer.” To what end? To please tourists, bien sûr (of course).
If the garçon is destined for an attitudinal makeover, it will be, it seems to me, a more fraught transformation of Paris than Baron Haussmann’s demolitions and reconstructions in the mid-19th century under Napoleon III. With Haussmann in charge, Paris lost, tragically, much of its medieval heritage and charm, but gained much more, I believe, in the way of hygiene (a new sewer system) and urban splendor — the grand boulevards, broad sidewalks, parks and the elegant stone apartment blocks we know and love today.
With the proposed sweetening of the garçon, the traditional Parisian cafe may gain tourist lucre, but at the risk of losing its Gallic sizzle, in no small part the gift of the garçon’s trademark sass.
When the dandy meets the butler
The cafe garçon is, after all, intentionally monstrous. A clever, almost Frankensteinian construct, he combines the self-absorbed fastidiousness of the Parisian dandy and the haughty solicitousness of the British butler. The garçon’s costume is no accident.
It was designed in the early 19th century to both function and impress. His many-pocketed black vest holds money, les additions (cafe checks), pens and service accessories such as corkscrews and crumb scoopers. The still-popular bow tie adds a touch of fin de siècle panache. With his spotless white apron (less common today), the garçon appears simultaneously hygienic and striking, even sexy, like a chef de cuisine in his crisp whites.
The mastery of this well-trained professional — of his body, of his trays piled high and of his affect — impresses and, yes, intimidates, but at the same time, seduces. He is better dressed and knows more than his customers about classic French food and wine, and he knows it.
The gargling gargoyle
Is there not, in fact, something about the cafe garçon that evokes that other fearsome Paris “gar,” the gargoyle (gargouille in French, pronounced “gar-GOO-ya”) Think about it: Both are “in service,” one to the secular cafe and one to the sacred church. Both guard their respective terrains jealously. And like the garçon, the gargoyle is a construct, a combination of hoary Gothic chimera and drainage technology — the first deflecting the devil, the second the rain.
Both the French and English words — gargouille and gargoyle — derive from the Old French gargole, which means gutter or waterspout and throat. Which is how gargoyles function at the roofline of large, usually religious, structures: Water from the roof flows through gargoyle’s body, exits the throat and is dumped on the ground several feet away from the structure’s foundations. This protects a church’s mortared stone walls and spiritual purity from the ill effects of “dirty” water.
Rabelais’ literary giant, Gargantua
There is no direct etymological connection between garçon and gargouille. “Garçon” appears in French sometime between 1100 and 1300 — as the Old French garçun, from a proto-Germanic word — and refers to a boy of low class or a young servant. The lowly garçon becomes a waiter in the late 18th century with the rise of the Parisian cafe and restaurant.
The “gar” of gargoyle is from the Latin root and means chatter, or the sounds that come from the throat or gutter. This gives us “gutteral” and “gargle.” And, of course, Gargantua, the young giant in Rabelais’ 16th-century novel. At birth Gargantua cries out for “drink, drink, drink.” His father, Lord Grangousier, noting his son’s huge anatomical features, exclaims . . .
Que GRAND TU AS & souple le gousier;” that is to say, “How great and nimble a throat thou hast.” — “The Works of Rabelais” (Bibliophilist Society, 1950)
And so he becomes Gar-gan-tu-a, and the basis of our English word, “gargantuan.” It takes the milk from 17,913 cows to satisfy the giant baby’s thirst.
When Rabelais’ epic satire takes the growing giant to Paris, Gargantua is irritated by the swarms of people gathered around him as he leans up against Notre Dame Cathedral. The young giant proceeds to relieve himself and drowns 260,418 Parisians. Protective gargoyles notwithstanding, Gargantua then steals the bells of Notre Dame, which he uses for a necklace around the neck of his giant horse before returning them.
Hommage au garçon
If after 500 years we are still amused by the outrageous exploits of Rabelais’ trouble-making Gargantua, why can’t we embrace, after 300 years of evolving French cafe culture, the classic, snooty garçon de café as he is? Instead of softening the garçon, let’s cast him in hard, eternal bronze.
Sitting on the terrace at Les Deux Magots, sipping on a coupe or nursing a crème, one can imagine a statue of the garcon de café, a gargantuan vertical gargoyle, spouting water into a broad pond located in the place just outside the entrance to L’Église Saint-Germain. Vive le garçon! Vive le café! Vive la France!
Main illustration: The garçon de café and the gargouille d’Église. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us from the luxe cafes of the Belle Epoch (1871-1914) to the louche cafes of its shadowy underbelly, the demi-monde, or “half-world” of bohemian poets, avant-garde artists, students, prostitutes and hustlers of every stripe. These cafe styles straddled the cultural divide between bourgeois respectability and decadent debauchery in fin-de-siècle Paris.
From the late 17th century onward, perhaps in response to Francesco Procopio’s invention of Café Procope (1676) as a showcase for Parisian glamor, fashion and style, the more subversive functions of the cafe as a public forum for radical political, philosophical and artistic thinking found caffeinated expression, even scandal and revolution, in Paris’ growing inventory of cafes.
Coffee as aphrodisiac
In pre-Procope Paris, coffee was primarily an exotic Oriental beverage with powerfully stimulating properties, mostly served in private homes. Doctors of the period even prescribed coffee as an aphrodisiac. Thus, the first cafes to emerge served as platforms for amorous as well as artistic and political liaisons.
By the 19th century, the entry of elegant women from the finest Parisian salons into cafe society proved to be one of the most profound social advances credited to Parisian cafe culture. Women, respectable or not and everything in between, entered at both ends of the spectrum, from high to low. From the chic cafes lining Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards to the seedier cafes filled with artists and poets on both banks of the Seine, Paris’ internationally notorious filles de joie plied their trade to a hungry clientele.
Voulez vous poulet avec moi ce soir?
In French, the terminology we generalize in English as prostitutes (hookers, whores, call girls, street walkers and tramps) is far more nuanced and hierarchical, from the lowest pute, poule (chicken), morue (cod) and grue (crane) to the top of the line courtisane, whose many virtues are brilliantly portrayed in Susan Griffin’s “The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues” (2001).
Veritable celebrities, les courtisanes were also known as cocottes, grandes horizontales and demi-mondaines. Slightly lower in status, perhaps, were the poules de luxe (expensive chickens) and the belles de jour (“afternoon delight”), though I claim no authority in these saucy parsings.
The overlap between sexual and physical hunger is quite literal in French. A cocotte is both a courtesan and a shallow baking dish. Though not to be confused with a coquette, a flirtatious girly-girl decked out seductively in fashionable accessories, both cocotte and coquette derive from “cock” (coq in French), a chicken and a seducer.
Gourmandise and Gourmandine
Perhaps the least known conflation in French of nutrition and procreation — life and more life — are two related words, gourmandise and the more obscure gourmandine.
Gourmandise in English and French is derived from gourmand, which can mean gluttony (greediness) or an appreciation of refined food (delicacies). Older than “gourmet” (early 19th century), “gourmand” (late 15th century) shares etymological links to the Old French gloton.
Note that gluttony is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins. The meaning is nicely explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his list of variations: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, too wildly. I haven’t seen a better definition of our contemporary term in English for excessive gastronomical enthusiasm: foodie.
Gourmandine, a corruption of gourgandine, is yet another quasi-gastronomic synonym for prostitute, mostly found in French literature. In her book on the birth of Paris as the luxe capital of the world (“The Essence of Style,” 2005), Joan DeJean points out that “gourmandine” was also the name of a new (early 17th century) bodice that revealed a woman’s undergarments (lingerie). Her book cleverly connects the birth of haute couture in the court of Louis XIV to the evolving function of the cafe as a showcase for coquettish (if not “cocottish”) women and their seductive à la mode fashions.
Couture, Coco and Colette
The word “couture” is interesting in this context. It means “stitched together” (seam), and contains the root “co” which, as we saw in our previous Café French lesson, indicates in Latin, “with.”
Ironic that arguably the two greatest French women of the arts to emerge in the Belle Epoch period were both “cos”: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954). Never mind that they are co-Gabrielles, too. Their celebrated lives (and romances) bridged that same cultural divide we began our lesson with — the moral depths of Paris’ demi-monde and the dizzy heights of bourgeois Parisan luxe.
Ironic also that couturier Chanel, whose dessins modernes liberated women from their gourmandines, earned a double “coco” (child slang for little chicken) as a nickname. Was this a reference to a lyric from the popular song she notoriously sang as a young cabaret singer, or her experience as a young cocotte (her first marriage was one of convenience, as English would have it), or her early years as an industrious seamstress?
Like Coco, our second French “co,” the proto-feminist Colette, spent her early years as a performer. Colette’s most popular novels in English are “Gigi” and “Chéri,” both centered on the lives of cocottes or ex-cocottes. By the end of her life, Colette was living in a glamorous Palais-Royal apartment overlooking Paris (next door to Jean Cocteau!) where kings and queens had lived centuries earlier.
Of course, semantic analysis can’t always explain the fickle and often funny trajectories of history’s ironic narratives; nor why words, like memories, are created, vanish and, on occasion, return. Hard not to conclude, while nursing a grand crème at Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice, where world cinema’s “Belle de Jour,” Catherine Deneuve, often strolls past, that the spectacle we call history is merely our vain attempt at explaining a vast unfolding of incomprehensible coincidence.
Main illustration: Café French: La Cocotte, La Coquette, Coco And Colette. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
La Vie en Rose: Bread and pain. The staff of life and the pain of life. One could hardly imagine more disparate phenomena, n’est-ce pas? Nevertheless, the French word for bread is le pain. Given no etymological connection whatsoever between the French “pain” and the English “pain,” it would appear that this is a random frisson de langue. With a common alphabet of only 26 letters there are bound to be odd bedfellows in English and French. Oui?
Well, let’s explore our little frisson a bit further. Our Café French™ lesson today brings us again to the vibrant Rockridge district of Oakland, Calif., and Oliveto restaurant and cafe, where I am joined for breakfast by Lisa Taylor, a Paris-born linguist, who can shed light on our subject.
Oliveto’s menu, of course, leans toward Italian, but its upscale cafe is one of the few in the East Bay that hints at the spirit of “cabal,” that 19th-century socialist philosopher Charles Fourier believed to be the essence of French cafe society. Where better to conspire over the linguistic nuances of bread and pain?
Breaking bread is a pain
Taylor, who now lives and teaches in Oakland, arrives in an outfit that screams “Paris” — skin-tight pants, a beautiful floral blouse, a skimpy leather jacket and, of course, a perfectly arranged scarf. Evidently, you can take the linguist out of Paris but you can’t take the Paris out of the linguist.
After settling in and ordering — poached eggs and a latte for me; smoked salmon, cream cheese, toast and tea for our linguist — I present Taylor with my understanding, admittedly meager, of a symbolic link between le pain and pain in Christian doctrine.
When one “breaks bread,” le pain (pronounced “pan” with a soft “n”) does not feel the pain (la peine, pronounced “pen”). Yes, but when scripture speaks of Jesus Christ as “the bread of life” and then, on the cross, as “broken bread,” well, that’s another story. The agony of the cross is, ergo, the agony of the bread. Now fast forward through Christ’s resurrection and the birth of the church to the liturgy of Holy Communion where the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ are symbolically ingested.
Here Taylor, a lapsed Catholic, stops me short. “French Catholics believe that the body and blood of Christ are literally, not symbolically, present in the bread and wine.” She then translates the French saying, Nul pain sans peine — No bread without pain. “We take our bread and our pain very seriously!” Taylor clarifies one more minor point. “The cultured French would never break bread with their hands,” she says. “They cut bread with a knife, and usually on a diagonal.”
Our server delivers our beverages and while we sip, I take notes as Taylor, fluent in five languages, ventures into etymology. The French word “le pain” has its roots in Sanskrit and Latin. The Sanskrit pa (long) and nis (to feed or nourish) evolved into Latin as panis. And when we break bread with another, we are copains — friends. The co is from the Latin cum, meaning “with” — with bread. In English, the word “companion” literally means bread mate.
How you say it matters
My perfect poached eggs arrive along with Taylor’s silky smoked salmon and thick Philly cream cheese. Taylor takes a piece of Oliveto’s levain toast and holds it up. “The word ‘levain’ is pronounced with that same nasally vowel sound as ‘pain,’ ” she says. “It sounds the way a French baby cries, ouin, ouin. English and American babies go whaa, whaa.”
Taylor emphasizes the importance of correct pronunciation. “If you don’t pronounce zee words correctly,” she says charmingly while spreading the cheese on her slice of toast and layering it with salmon and cucumber slices, “your server may not understand what you are ordering and express dédain.”
French words like le dédain (disdain), le lapin (rabbit), vingt (20), and of course, le pain, are all words that contain versions (ain, in, ing, etc.) of the 40 ways to write the ouin, ouin sound in French. Taylor also advises getting the French articles and genders right. “Order la pain instead of le pain and you could end up with a plate of lapin.”
Speaking of rabbits
All this talk of pain, le pain and le lapin stimulates Taylor’s childhood memories of the little chocolate rabbits she consumed during Easter services. Aha! More links. Broken bread is resurrected as chocolate lapins. Easter’s rituals were associated by early Christians with the pagan celebration of spring, and rabbits are symbols of both fecundity and resurrection. The female rabbit’s prodigious procreative capacities are evident in her ability to get pregnant twice in the same season, carrying two litters simultaneously.
Finishing off my délicieux repas, I’m feeling rather pregnant myself. I announce in my best French: “Je suis vraiment plein” — I am really full. (It’s the ouin, ouin sound again.) Taylor, laughing, corrects me. “Plein is not used for human fullness. Rabbits can be plein, but not people. Your pockets can be full of money (pleines de monnaie) but you are repu — Je suis repu.”
“Oh,” I respond. “So if I eat too many chocolate rabbits it will be Je suis repu de lapins en chocolat. But if I buy a box of chocolate rabbits, it will be Une boîte pleine de lapins en chocolat.”
“C’est ca!” Taylor responds.
And with that, our poly-lingual fashionista rises, kisses me on both cheeks and strides off. Alone again at the table, I order another latte and scan my notes. I feel the relief that always follows the intensity, and vague humiliation, of my Cafe French™ sessions with Lisa Taylor. My brain is full — Mon cerveau est plein.
Main illustration: “Bread, Friends, Rabbit and Pain.” Credit: L. John Harris
Yes, meatballs are here again, those eternally returning spheres of gastronomic delight. Not high on anyone’s culinary sophistication list, meatballs have an earthy attraction that seems to come and go through the years. Now they are back big time with Michele Anna Jordan’s collection of meatball marvels, “More Than Meatballs” (Skyhorse, 2014).
“More Than Meatballs”
“From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between”
By Michele Anna Jordan, Skyhorse, 2014, 176 pages
» Click here to buy this book
The more-than-ness of the book puts the traditional meatball in a broad culinary context, as the subtitle —”From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between” — suggests. There are more than 75 recipes, plus variations, so you can imagine just how far Jordan has ventured.
Yet the soul of the book remains the traditional meatball — named thus for good reason: Try making a meatcube, meatpyramid or meatcone. Even those words look horribly wrong! No, the meatball is a culinary merger of form and function no less perfect than its mechanical relative, the wheel.
The only other cooked product of man’s hungry genius that rivals the meatball for salutary simplicity and earthy economy is, I believe, the omelet. Curiously though, the omelet works inversely to the meatball: Omelets begin life round (the egg) and leave it flat. The meatball starts life flat (chopped meat, poultry, fish, etc.) and ends round.
Of course there are flat-sided meatballs: sausage and hamburger patties and the monolithic American classic — meatloaf. These more-than-meatball entities are what one observant aficionado of this class of foods, the eminent European artist, writer and restaurateur, Daniel Spoerri, has labeled “the premasticated” — chopped animal-based foods. The ancient Persian word for meatball — kufteh — means, according to my sources, “chopped” or “ground.”
Context is everything
It was actually Spoerri who introduced me to meatball-ogy. After absorbing his postmodern deconstruction of the meatball in “A Dissertation on Keftedes” (keftedes, a Greek variation on the Persian kufteh) in the 1970s, I reprinted the work in a collection of Spoerri’s food-related texts, published as “Mythology and Meatballs: A Greek Island Diary Cookbook” (Aris Books, 1982). The dissertation is full of learned and charmingly funky discourse on the social history and symbolism of the meatball in the context of world gastronomy.
But Spoerri’s material (Newsweek called it “a Dadaist sampler of culinary oddments”) seems a bit beside the point when we are truly hungry and a well-made bowl of sauced or souped meatballs, steaming hot and redolent with spice, is placed in front of us. For example, there’s Jordan’s meatball and pasta dish of Spanish descent, Sopa de Albondigas y Fideo, from the chapter titled with meatball-in-cheek irony, “Context Is Everything.” It’s a perfect dish to warm the soul on a cold winter’s night.
Out of context, served “neat” as Jordan puts it, the book’s mother of all meatballs is, logically enough, The Meatball (see recipe below), an “Americanized Italian immigrant,” writes Jordan. It is made from ground pork and beef and mixed with grated cheese, egg, onion, red pepper flakes, nutmeg and clove. Jordan adds that this meatball, as good as it is on its own, lends itself to almost any context: in classic spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce; in lasagna; in soups; or as part of sandwiches and sliders.
Optionally, these balls can be wrapped in caul fat — readily available now at trendy butcher shops — for added richness and succulence. Jordan’s introduction of caul fat — the stomach lining of pigs used as a casing for the traditional flat sausage patty in France known as the crépinette— makes for a perfect “coverup” for The Meatball and many other versions in the book. The very good step-by-step photographs of caul-wrapping technique are helpful to the novice caul wrapper.
Using caul connects Jordan’s creations to the ancient “minces” wrapped in pork omentum (caul) one finds in meatball compilations dating to ancient Rome, including the classic cookbook attributed to the gourmet, Apicius — De Re Coquinaria (“on the subject of cooking”).
Karma goes around, too
After decades in and around the food world, it’s starting to dawn on me that I have a karmic relationship with the meatball. First with Spoerri’s Dissertation, which inspired one of my first Foodoodle cartoons, “The Global Meatball” (see illustration). And now with Jordan’s “More Than Meatballs.”
I first met and worked with Michele Anna Jordan when she approached me in 1988 with her groundbreaking manuscript for “A Cook’s Tour of Sonoma” (Aris, 1990), the first of her many fine cookbooks, many of which are coming back into print. Spiraling forward through the decades, I was delighted by the opportunity to connect with her again, this time providing the foreword (without compensation, I should add) to “More Than Meatballs.” How could I resist my meatball karma?
Although I didn’t know it when I took on the task, it appears the humble, global, historical meatball is, as Jordan explains in the book’s introduction, back in fashion, and apparently for some time. And not just on restaurant menus and kitchen tables. There are now meatball-themed food shops and food trucks popping up across urban America and a new Guinness World Record for a meatball at more than 1,100 pounds.
“More Than Meatballs” is just the latest, and surely one of the best, examples of the meatball’s enduring power to please and sustain. Jordan puts it better than I could: “Yes, meatballs are on a roll, a rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s dance! Let’s have a ball!”
Prep time: 25 minutes (45 minutes if you are grinding your own meat)
Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size
Total time: 35 to 65 minutes
Yield: About 32 small or 16 large meatballs
1 cup torn white bread, from sturdy hearth bread, preferably sourdough
3/4 cup milk or white wine
1 pound grass-fed beef, ground twice
1 pound pastured pork, ground twice
1 small yellow onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dry Jack, or similar cheese
Black pepper in a mill
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
2 large pastured eggs, beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, or 6 ounces caul fat
1. Put the bread and milk or wine into a mixing bowl and use a fork to crush the bread and blend it into the liquid. Set aside for about 15 minutes.
2. Add the beef, pork, onion, garlic, Italian parsley and cheese to the bowl and mix well. Season generously with salt, several turns of black pepper, red pepper flakes, and several gratings of nutmeg and mix again. Add the eggs, mix well, and then knead for a minute or two until very well blended.
3. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or as long as overnight.
4. To finish, cover a sheet pan with wax paper.
5. Use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop to form small meatballs or a 2-ounce scoop to make larger meatballs; set each ball on the wax paper.
— If using bread crumbs, put them into a mixing bowl, add a meatball, and agitate the bowl to coat the meatball well. Set it on a baking sheet and continue until all are coated.
— If using caul fat, spread the fat on a clean work surface and wrap each ball.
6. To cook, pour a thin film of olive oil on a heavy skillet set over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot add several meatballs, being certain not to crowd them. Cook for about
45 seconds and then agitate the pan so the balls roll. Continue cooking until the balls are evenly browned and have begun to firm up, about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on their size. Set the cooked balls on absorbent paper and continue until all have been cooked.
7. To serve neat, return the meatballs to the pan, reduce the heat to very low, cover, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes for small meatballs and about 12 minutes for large ones, until the meatballs are just cooked through. Transfer to a platter and serve hot.
Main photo: Fresh Herb Meatballs are among the recipes featured in Michele Anna Jordan’s book. Credit: Liza Gershman
La Vie en Rose: Île Saint-Louis, one of two small islands floating in the middle of the River Seine and hyped in travel literature as “a peaceful oasis of calm” in the heart of busy Paris, is anything but. A tourist mecca, bien sûr (of course), filled with snazzy shops and restaurants — and home to the legendary Berthillon ice cream — the scene is more Coney Island fun park than Parisian island oasis.
Our Café French lesson today takes us to the island’s trendiest cafe, Café Saint-Régis on Rue Jean du Bellay. Just across — via the Pont Saint-Louis bridge — from Paris’ other natural island, Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame resides in all its gloomy Gothic glamor. The Café Saint-Régis is what I would call faux belle, refurbished to evoke the gaudy Art Nouveau atmosphere of Belle Epoque Paris, with gaudy prices to match. It can be, like the island itself, cloying.
Living in a Parisian broom closet
Whatever joie de vivre Parisian cafes provide their devotees — like me — I’m just not buying it today at the Saint-Régis. Lest we forget, cafes have their dark side: Revolutions and assassinations have been plotted, even launched in Parisian cafes throughout history, and the despair-laden philosophy, Existentialism, was hatched in Jean-Paul Sartre’s favorite cafes after World War II.
My dark mood today is more ennui — that perfect French word for melancholy — than despair. I’ve been staying in a very small apartment on the island — much smaller than the rental agency photos indicated. So I vegetate (call it work) in the island’s cafes to escape domestic claustrophobia, something apartment-dwelling Parisians have been doing for centuries.
The only joie of note at the Saint-Régis today is triggered by my waiter waltzing (literally) around the cafe with his broom — a push broom, a smaller version of the broom type we use in the U.S. for exterior cleanups. I could write a whole treatise on France’s bizarre broom methodology: In short, the French push, they don’t sweep!
A broom ballet on Rue Jean du Bellay
Googling broom history and etymology — in both French and English — I come across our lesson’s homophones, le ballet (the dance) and le balai (broom), identically pronounced — bal-ai.
Aha! My waiter, dressed in formal cafe black and white, is executing un ballet de balai — a broom ballet. Ennui morphs into bonheur (happiness).
But back at the apartment, my mood darkens again. The sight of the kitchen push broom leaning against the wall triggers gloom, not cafe joie. Maybe this is just a case of generic Island Fever (la fièvre de l’île), or the oppressive weight of French history that floats over the island like a giant bejeweled crown.
A whole lot-a Louis going on
Everywhere you go on Île Saint-Louis there are references to King Louis IX, the island’s beloved Saint Louis. Bridges, streets, hotels, churches and cafes carry the name or variants. Even the word régis in Café Saint-Régis, means “of the king.” My corner cafe/brasserie where I go for my morning petit déjeuner is Le Louis IX. It was Louis XIII in the 17th century, dubbed “the Just,” who developed the island’s urban plan — it had been a cow pasture — and named it in honor of Saint Louis.
À propos royal sobriquets, several of the 18 Frenchmen who have served as King Louis have earned less-flattering nicknames. In the ninth century there was “the Stammerer” (Louis II), in the 10th “the Lazy” (Louis V) and in the 12th, “the Fat” (Louis VI). You could say that the French have had a love/hate relationship with their mostly House of Bourbon Louises.
Honestly, I’m surprised there was never a “Shrimp Louis.” The likely candidate would be King Louis XVII, son of guillotined King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Never attaining the throne after the revolution, the Dauphin died in prison at age 10. He didn’t live long enough to earn a snappy moniker.
Speaking of salads
If I thought my one-bedroom apartment was small, I was corrected at a dinner in the chambre de bonne (maid’s quarters) of Paris guidebook author Annabel Simms, an English expat. Her book, “An Hour From Paris,” is a perennial seller in Paris and is designed to take tourists out of crowded Paris for memorable day trips.
The fifth floor studio walk-up on the island’s main drag, Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île (of course), is equipped with a tiny wall-mounted kitchenette — two burners, under counter fridge and sink. “And,” Simms boasts, “no microwave!” Simms, who is currently working on a cookbook geared to simple French apartment cooking, serves me her version of Elizabeth David‘s “Salade Parisienne,” from “French Provincial Cooking” (1962), composed of fresh vegetables, hard-boiled egg and slices of room-temperature roast beef, dressed with a vibrant vinaigrette. Simple, delicious and perfect for a warm summer night.
The conversation drifts toward my host’s mixed reviews of her island oasis lifestyle. She’s been living frugally and productively on the pricey Île Saint-Louis for more than 20 years and avoids the expensive touristy spots like Café Saint-Régis. “I love their baby Spanish sardines served in the tin with the lid rolled up,” she admits, “but I’d rather go to the cheaper Café Lutèce next door with its terrace facing north towards the Seine and the quieter right bank.”
The next day, back for a farewell crème at Café Saint-Régis before heading back to the States, I ponder Simms’ somewhat cloistered life on Île Saint-Louis. It’s telling that over the course of decades on the island, Simms has built her career as a writer in Paris based on a book that encourages tourists to get out of Paris. After only three weeks here, I’m ready to get out, too. Or is that just my Île Saint-Louis ennui speaking?
Main illustration: “Broom Ballet.” Credit: L. John Harris
La Vie en Rose: As a sensitive and hungry boy, I learned valuable life lessons from the classic series of children’s books by Howard R. Garis featuring Uncle Wiggily Longears, an elderly, kind and wise rabbit. In each illustrated story, Uncle Wiggily takes on the vagaries of life in his forest habitat and solves a social or personal problem within his community of furry critters.
I can recall one episode with gastronomic implications. As best as I remember it, a young squirrel or possum with a taste for candy gets a terrible tummy ache that Uncle Wiggily helps to cure. At the end Uncle Wiggily concludes, “Too much of anything is not too good!”
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
Mark Twain’s taste for whiskey
Uncle Wiggily’s lesson in hunger management is like a Hallmark card version of Mark Twain’s earlier drollery: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Truth be told, Twain’s version, despite wise Wiggily’s input into my early childhood development, comes much closer to the true “gastronomical me”: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good food is barely enough.”
Which brings me circuitously to our next Café French™ lesson: the curious linguistic connection between biological and aesthetic taste (goût in French, pronounced goo), and the ailment, gout (goutte in French, pronounced goot), caused by too much taste for rich food and alcohol.
It’s all Greek, Latin, Old French and Anglo-Saxon to me
The use in English and French of the same words — taste and goût — for both aesthetic appreciation and perception of flavor — is deeply embedded in our two languages. As Voltaire, the French Enlightenment thinker, explained in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), the English language “… is a copy of ours in almost all the words which are not Saxon …”
The convoluted etymological links between French goût and English taste, and between French goutte and English gout, are no mere accident and took millennia to develop. Here is a cursory Café French glossary:
Goût (FR): From the Latin gustus, Old French goust = Taste. “Gustatory” in English and “gustative” in French come from the same sources. By the 18th century, goût was associated with aesthetic taste in France.
Goutte (FR): From the Latin gutta, Old French gote = Gout and Drop. It was thought as far back as the ninth century that this inflammatory ailment was caused by little drops of viscous humors seeping from the blood into the joints causing painful swelling — a theory close to the modern explanation.
Gout (ENG): Derives from the Old French gote (see goutte). Again, note Voltaire’s comment above about the origins of many English words.
Taste (ENG): From the Vulgar Latin tastāre and the Old French tast = Touch. The Old English smaecken — to taste — derives from the German schmecken, which translates as “to taste, try, smell, perceive.”
But why the same words in English, French and most other Romance languages for both aesthetic and physical taste? The complex etymology is well-documented, but I have not found an acceptable answer why our sense of taste — the human faculty least associated with art with a capital “A” (the fine arts) — is used as the metaphor for discerning, as Voltaire put it, “the feeling of beauty and defects in all the arts.”
Our other senses are, in fact, used in some contexts to describe aesthetic taste: You can have an eye for design and an ear for music. But you can’t have an eye for music or an ear for sculpture. Why then does “taste” apply so universally?
Is it because when we taste something, we bring the object of that sense (food and beverage) into the body itself, which, I would argue, renders taste unique among the human senses in being more sensitive? This is a simple explanation I can live with. After all, bad food can kill you. Bad paintings just make you sick.
Uncle Wiggily meets Voltaire in Paris
Voltaire’s ideas about taste emerged at a time when Paris had become Europe’s capital of le bon goût — in art, style, fashion and gastronomy — during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Ralph Lauren of French monarchs. The cafe had arrived as the chic nexus of good taste (both kinds) and the go-to spot for that new, exotic beverage — coffee. But cafes mainly catered to a small Parisian elite in Voltaire’s day. “Taste,” he noted, ” … like philosophy, belongs only to a small number of privileged souls.”
Today, the cafe serves good taste to a much broader swath of souls; less privileged perhaps, but still human. So, imagine for a moment that Uncle Wiggily had ventured out from his forest to travel to Paris with a group of young furry souls — chipmunks, possums, bunnies and bear cubs. They are seated at Voltaire’s favorite cafe, Café Procope (established in 1686 and still going strong), happily nibbling on wedges of quiche and sipping cups of chocolat chaud. The elderly, kind and wise Uncle Wiggily Longears would, of course, be admonishing his charges in his best rabbit French, “Trop de quoi que ce soit n’est pas trop bon!” Too much of anything is not too good …
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris
La Vie en Rose: Bitter brews, perfunctory pâtés, questionable quiches, insipid salads and tepid tarts? Has the Parisian cafe lost its culinary luster? Well, yes and no, but from my hard-core cafe-lover’s point of view, it really doesn’t matter!
Yes, Paris’ fall as the world capital of fine dinning and its efforts to revive are well-documented. The most recent, and fairly gloomy, report is by Mark Bittman in his July 22 New York Times piece, “French Food Goes Down.” Bittman is a bit late to the funeral. The media discourse on French gastronomy has brightened of late, and Nicholas Lander’s April 25 column in London’s Financial Times has even hinted at a renaissance of fine dining in Paris.
In any case, fine French food — dead, alive or somewhere in between — has never been the draw of the Parisian cafe.
Joie de Starbucks
It’s true that traditional cafes in Paris, and France generally, are closing in growing numbers. Young cafe-going Parisians and tourists, if not older, die-hard loyalists, are opting for food-trendy, Internet-friendly (Wi-Fi gratuit or free Wi-Fi) alternatives. These include, incredulously, American fast food and coffee chains like MacDonald’s and Starbucks.
Most traditional Parisian cafe owners would rather close up shop than give out their Wi-Fi (pronounced whiff-ee) passwords. Or so it seems. Last summer, I had to swallow my pride (and their “handcrafted’ lattes) and head to Starbucks to access a signal. I was conducting an online interview with Leonard Pitt, the Berkeley-based author of “Walks Through Lost Paris” (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006), a fascinating visual guide to Baron Haussmann’s architectural transformation of 19th-century Paris.
Pitt responded from his computer at the cafe in Berkeley, California’s French Hotel, across the street from Cali/Frenchie Chez Panisse. Working from my computer at Starbucks Odéon, the irony seemed absurd and a little painful. Pitt is a passionate proponent of a cafe-centric lifestyle over the work-ethic culture of Puritan-influenced America. “Nothing better symbolizes,” writes Pitt, “the congeniality, the rhythm and sheer joie de vivre we ache to recapture in life than the cafe.”
Well put, Pitt! But one man’s joie de vivre is another man’s (or woman’s) morning coffee ritual, writing studio, business office, evening gathering spot or flâneurian observation post. And often, all the above and more. The Parisian cafe is more than the sum of its parts.
Our Café French™ lesson today is based on my cafe-centric stay this June in the heart of Paris’ cafe-rich 6th Arrondissement — a perfect location for reflections on the traditional cafe’s basic functions. (See “Parisian Café Index” illustration.)
Wake up (se réveiller) and smell the coffee
When I go to a cafe to wake up with a café crème, the least important criteria for me is the coffee’s origin, quality or, I confess, taste. My critical connoisseur’s brain is still asleep even if my legs can get me there. So, I began each day at cafes within a few minutes walk of my apartment on rue Madame, mostly at my café du coin (corner cafe), Café Madame. There is nothing exceptional about Café Madame — they serve a typical petit déjeuner (decent coffee, acceptable croissant or buttered tartine, reasonably fresh orange juice) — except its convenient location.
After my morning coffee and a short stroll through the nearby Luxembourg gardens, I would arrive back at my apartment awake and ready for work — reading, writing and sketching — before heading out again to another cafe for lunch and more work.
Working (travailler): reading (lire), writing (écrire), sketching (faire des croquis)
Any cafe can be a working cafe, depending on one’s personal requirements. Kaaren Kitchell, an ex-pat novelist, poet and “Paris Play” blogger combines her daily one-hour walk with her writing and editing projects, so her cafe must be at least a 30-minute walk from home. Her other criteria include a quiet ambiance and, ergo, few tourists. “The French know how to modulate their voices,” says Kitchell, “Americans and Italians don’t.”
Chacun à son café! Ex-pat Paris author, tour guide and bon vivant, Terrance Gelenter, prefers to work in crowded and noisy icons, like Café de Flore. Every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Gelenter holds “office hours” on the ever-popular terrace for his tour clients and visiting Anglophone writers, artists and musicians. His newsletter, “Paris Through Expatriate Eyes,” offers restaurant and hotel reviews, travel tips and a calendar of arts events.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
Where better than at a cafe to talk? The cafe inhabits a middle world between public and private space, unlike bistros and brasseries, where spirited talking inter-table is welcome, if not required. For the 19th-century Impressionists who broke from the stifling restraints of the Academy, the cafe became a salon where they could engage in debates over aesthetic issues (with the help of addictive amounts of absinthe).
One artist, however, presents an amusingly downbeat view of the cafe’s talking function. That would be the legendary Marcel Duchamp, as quoted in “Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews” by Calvin Tomkins:
“In the case of the Impressionists it could be a very useful thing — one artist would say a word that caught the imagination of the others, that’s true. But it’s a very, very artificial thing … full of new words and flourishing language and so forth, but no actual exchange and no understanding of the other one’s ideas.”
The inscrutable, tight-lipped Duchamp famously abandoned art and art talk when, in mid-career, he withdrew into the silence of chess competition. Which brings us to our final, nonverbal, cafe functions.
Watching (observer) and resting/napping (se reposer/sommeiller)
Much has been written about the cafe’s observational function. It’s as if the cafe, invented in 16th-century Istanbul, was destined for “… the eminently Parisian compromise between laziness and activity known as flânerie!” as 19th-century playwright Victorien Sardou was quoted in Edmund White’s book “The Flâneur.”
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As for resting in cafes, it’s a touristic necessity after days filled with shopping and sightseeing. But napping? Well, I admit it’s a conceptual stretch. Nevertheless, while sketching one afternoon at Les Deux Magots toward the end of my summer cafe immersion, I drew three tables pushed together with a man sleeping on top. A visual punchline for my illustration of the cafe’s functions. Come to think of it, for us older, diehard cafe loyalists in search of that elusive joie de vivre — or, at least, an occasional afternoon nap — it’s not a bad idea.
Main illustration: The basic functional modes of the Parisian café. Credit: L. John Harris