February 24, 2023
Dear Frenchly Readers,
Scouring the news this morning, I am hard pressed to find something that could, even when twisted toward the light at just the right angle, be considered good. The war in Ukraine rages on, more gun violence, a train full of chemicals that crashed in Ohio, contaminating earth and water and air, and the disturbing preponderance of PFAS, a collection of over 10,000 chemicals called “forever chemicals” used in flame retardants, foams, wax paper coatings, waterproof clothing, dental floss, cheese wrappers and more, are being found throughout the world. The front page of Le Monde this morning states, “‘Forever chemicals: In France, nearly 1,000 PFAS-contaminated sites are largely ignored.” The first line continues, “The contamination of the European continent by per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS), ultra-toxic compounds that are persistent in the environment, does not spare France.” And the map of contamination across France is devastating. (For what it is worth, Le Monde is doing some of the best reporting on PFAS I have seen, anywhere.)
After reading that article, I found myself thinking about the French notion of purity in cooking: butter, milk, cream, pristine vegetables and meats—never overly adorned, modest amounts of garlic, onion, thyme, wine, pepper, salt—always just the right amount. The French belief that you should eat good, whole foods, round meals, little snacking, and that, in doing so, you shouldn’t be overweight or hungry, instead just right. And yet when you take such a pure belief system and begin to realize that it might be contaminated not by outside forces, but instead from within, by invisible monsters we cannot see and yet have created by our own hand, it is despairing. (That is a not-so-technical term that I stole from my older son when he was five and told me it was the monsters he couldn’t see that worried him. I used it as the title of the epilogue to my book, Modified.)
So many of us, me included, want to believe that France remains pure, in so many ways.
And yet, I often think, just when despair threatens to overtake, of a line from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was from Maine: “But what a shining animal is man, Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that, For worse than that must follow — yet can write Music; can laugh; play tennis; even plan.”
It is the “even plan” part I dwell on this morning, as I look up and out my window, the sun glinting on trees that look as though they were covered with sugar last night. So many of us are actively looking for ways, big and small, to solve the problems we, as humanity, have inflicted upon ourselves and the creatures we share this planet with. A few years ago, I designed a water filter for my house, that had no plastic and would endeavor to filter out as many toxins as I possibly could. It was not an easy process, or cheap, by any means, but we chose clean(er) water over sexier projects that might have made our old money pit of a house cooler, sleeker, nicer. Will it filter out all PFAS? Probably not. Was it a step toward a fix? Most likely for some chemicals, yes. Every day, we are all presented with choices that can do more harm or do good, depending on how we go, like eating less meat, or choosing to find another winter sport other than downhill skiing which uses enormous amounts of precious water and energy to make snow or finding out about a local program that takes your plastic food bags and makes them into lawn furniture, or recycles your old face masks. The planning part, the part that sets you and me apart, is that we are able to ask ourselves how much it will hinder or help our lives if we do or don’t do x. And if we can live with it; or even rejoice in it, then x possible. This simple math equation must always be in our minds, not to punish us, but instead to give us options.
And when all else fails, play some David Bowie and just Let’s Dance. (That video can only make you smile!) In 2025, you can go see over 80,000 of his personal items at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
À cuisiner, regarder et lire çe weekend:
We have a new Bouffe today, from novelist Kate Christensen. As you likely know already, she creates her French recipes with easy hacks exclusively for us, then writes about them so that we can do it, too. What I love about this recipe the most is that she peered into her fridge, found very little, and yet came out with a spinach soufflé. I love the spirit of adventure she brings to her cooking and also the plucky attitude of, “it’s what you do with what you got,” too. I can’t wait to try this soufflé this weekend. (Everything she makes looks sooo good!)
Last night, I brought her spirit to a side dish for a simple roast chicken: I thinly sliced potatoes, and inspired by a French gratin, layered them in an oiled cast iron pan with spring green onions, sprinkles of salt and pepper and thyme. When I got to the top of the pan, I poured a generous soupçon of cream on top and put the entire thing in the oven, covered until the potatoes were tender. Then I grated cheese on top (I used Parm–it’s what I had–but any hard cheese is good; Gruyère would have been better) and browned it. It was the perfect, mellow accompaniment to the chicken and a salad of winter tangy greens including radicchio, chicory and kale (with a Philip Ruskin salad dressing of French mustard, salt, o.o., and balsamic). Even my little boy ate two slices. You don’t always have to follow a recipe, have it all perfect in front of you, take long lengths to make it just right. Remember the French are very good at simplifying and creating the sublime out of the purest, simplest, and most minimal of ingredients. And if pure nowadays is a relative term, we can still try.
And, aha, I found a good-ish and fascinating article: this group is saving seas turtles in New York and feeding them squid snacks, though at least one turtle (#7) isn’t fond of squid! Again, in the mental math equation: picking up logy sea turtles and rehabilitating them = good work!
Ok, get outside, even if it drizzles. And, later, with a glass of wine, dream of spring trips to Paris or Provence (I got to write the Paris one, with a soundtrack; and Keith Van Sickle wrote the Provence one, where he spends half his year).
Joy is infectious, so plan for that. And if you need to do the math equation in the planet’s favor to balance out that plane ride you took, whether for real or just in your mind with that imported glass of wine, I am sure you can plan a way. Remember we can be shining animals when we want to be!
Image above from the Forever Pollution Project.
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