By Sarah Souli
The supermarket lights were fluorescent, but this is always the case. The milk was unrefrigerated, stacked in blue boxes. Too many potatoes. The dried fruit came in tiny packages, 3.50 euros for a handful of plastic wrapped prunes. Bienvenue en France.
Four days earlier, my uncle had killed himself. He left his breakfast – a still steaming bowl of coffee, a piece of buttered toast- and hung himself in the garage. My aunt found him there. She hadn’t eaten yet and wouldn’t for days.
It took me two subways, one plane, one train and a forty minute car ride to get to my aunt’s house in Brittany. My boyfriend at the time took me as far as the plane. On his way back to our home he texted me: “Guess who I just met on the C train? Norman Finkelstein, and we shook hands!” I turned off my phone.
I could only stay for three days. It was my first death, and my first time cooking for my family. There was nothing to eat in the house that wasn’t pre-packaged. My aunt is not known for her cooking, and my uncle was not known for his palette. Couscous in a can, saussison sec, cheese still cold from the refrigerator- this was most often their dinner.
By Sarah Souli
Whenever I spot a cooking scene in a book or a movie I pay extra attention. The characters are being fed! The last one I saw was magical: it happens right in the middle of the three-hour long epic love story, Laurence, Anyways, by the young and talented Xavier Dolan. He was only twenty-two when he wrote and directed this film. The scene is simple: Fred, short for Frédérique, has just received a book of poetry published by her former love, Laurence. She reads it in the kitchen as she stirs a pot of something that resembles crème anglaise. She stirs, she reads, she stirs, she reads, she forgets the crème anglaise, and I won’t tell you what happens next. But the moment is heartbreaking. Mostly because Dolan has an eye for visual poetry. Fred never cooks and we rarely see her eat (in one restaurant scene she slams her fist on a plate, shattering the dish, in another she leaves before ordering food), and yet here she is, one hand on a wooden spoon, the other holding love poems. It comes as no surprise that she leaves the kitchen shortly thereafter.
I almost made a crème anglaise, just for the sake of it, but then I would have had to make a chocolate cake, or îles flottantes. Instead, I leafed through French cookbooks, and fell upon ratatouille.
(crust from Vegetarian Everyday, filling inspired by the same recipe)
Although there are many possible fillings for quiches (it’s the perfect repository for haphazard leftovers), I’ve never thought of playing with the crust and custard base. Then I came across a recipe in Vegetarian Everyday that called for no dairy and no flour. The main substitute was coconut, and I was entirely skeptical but intrigued. I tried. The result is magnificent. In fact, the quiche is resting in my kitchen at this very moment and I keep cutting myself another slice. It is light and crisp, so a third helping does not feel decadent.
When we lived in Australia we drove to a spiritual retreat five hours away from Melbourne. The last stretch was on a narrow and sinuous road along a cliff that without fail made me nauseous. Some years we stopped on the side while I hung my head out the door and gulped for air. The retreat was a meditation and yoga center with a beautiful farm where young men and women farmed for a month or two before moving on. There were wooden bungalows with no private bathrooms or one-floor apartments lined side by side resembling a flat motel. My mother and I were early risers. She wandered off to meditate while I sat in the large kitchen where the cooks prepared breakfast. The kitchen was located in a gigantic roundish building with a domed ceiling. On one side there was a lounge area with tables and chairs and sofas for reading. On the other side was the communal eating space with long wooden tables. The kitchen bordered one side of dining room with a counter upon which pots and plates of food were displayed. I would sit on a table inside the kitchen and watch the cook quietly at work for the 8 a.m. meal. He was an amateur astronomer and owned a telescope. At night he showed me planets and stars. The owners, a married couple, founded the retreat after sharing the same dream one night. They liked to recount the story of this mysterious energy. The husband told us about his travels and of healers in the Philippines who removed cysts without touching bodies.
I was fortunate to work in Paris during the months of June and July. Though my father is French and I was somewhat raised in France, saying that France is my homeland or first home always feels vague and a little false. I learned French grammar when I was twelve. I grew up eating rice syrup on toast instead of nutella. I still feel a strange combination of intense familiarity and detachment when in Paris. Paris is less sprawling than Melbourne (where I spent my childhood), and less cluttered and erratic than New York. Strangely, at first glance, it is indeed familiar, but as the days go by the city reveals unknown dimensions and layers to its temperament. Paris in the winter is a harsher place, the days are short and I feel mildly vampiric as I hurry along the cold streets seeking thick hot chocolates. In the summer, the city blooms and relaxes, it quietens and expands into long evenings of late sunsets.
I need to live in a neighborhood to become familiar with its stores, parks, restaurants, and the inhabitants of its streets. The neighborhoods I’ve lived in I can navigate with my eyes closed. But I am lazy, and it takes effort to push beyond my radius of comfort and venture into another neighborhood. I was living in the fifth arrondissement this year, a twenty-minute walk from Gare de Montparnasse where I can take a train to Rennes and visit my grandfather and cousins. I was steps away from the Luxembourg where I found constant excuses to cross through its beautiful alleyways or circle its high fences in the evenings when the streets are quiet and filled with the strong smell of plants and the chug of sprinklers. The same occurs with food, I have a list of regular favorites. I so contently eat baguette (tradition or banette) with salted butter, a slice of comté cheese and ham from the charcutier that by the end of my first week I often feel as if I’ve ingested an entire pig. There is the decadent falafel of rue des Rosiers that explodes with color and flavor upon your first bite, there is the tang of buckwheat in the galettes at Breizh Café, there is the richest, densest chocolate cake (I was told it carries ten eggs and a kilo of butter) at a small restaurant close to the Place des Vosges, there is the lemon cream al dente pasta of L’Altro, and so on. But this time, I looked for other places. I walked until my heels turned hard and heavy. By the time I sat down to eat I barely had the patience to wait for uneven French service. Though, miraculously, glasses of crisp white wine were happily delivered to the hungry patrons. These calmed our roaring bellies and by the time food arrived we were singing.
Yesterday, we hosted a homemade dumpling party in our garden to fundraise for our new nonprofit, China Residencies. The process of wrapping dumplings by hand is one of the most interactive and delicious forms of cultural exchange, aligning perfectly with our mission to help more artists experience China firsthand.