Not until I’m in Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland and a stopover on my 12-hour trip home, do I feel like I’ve awakened from this dream. Two people sitting next to me in the terminal are spiritedly discussing (in English) what they had eaten for lunch. For the past six months, I have not overheard a single conversation that I could entirely understand. What a treat it was, and I hadn’t even known. It was a chance to daydream, imagine what they were talking about, get excited about the few words I could recognize, or just tune out. At home, I won’t have this luxury.
As soon as my feet touch American soil, I am quickly reminded of the things I have missed. Aside from the wonderful friends and family who have supported and encouraged this crazy adventure, I have missed American customer service—businesses, waitresses, shop owners who contend for their customers’ satisfaction—not because it’s the right way, perhaps, but because it’s what I’m used to.
One of my first “meals” back home is a breakfast wrap from Starbucks. After paying and then waiting a few minutes, an employee nervously informs me they have run out of the sandwich I ordered. He recommends a different sandwich (his personal favorite) and hands me a $5 gift card, thanking me for my patience.
In France, bakers might close their doors when a neighbor stops to chat; a fishmonger might not open his shop because his vacation turned into three days instead of the expected two. The French work to live, but they don’t allow work to interfere with a good time. Unfortunately, if you’re the one picking up two baguettes, or if you’ve promised your dinner guests (arriving in one hour) a bowl of steaming mussels, you’re SOL. In America, we live to work, which is great for the consumer and a business’s bottom line, but perhaps we forfeit a bit of a relaxed, joyful lifestyle.
I’ve shared many special stories and recipes from the people who quickly became so dear to me and who, for the rest of my life, will remain cherished friends. In parting, I’d like to offer some of my favorite tips and tricks, learned from some of the finest gems in France:
- Copper and cast iron pans maintain heat best (and if you ever find a steal on antique copper – don’t think twice, just buy it)
- If your pot is about to boil over, blow on it
- Always wipe off your knife blade after you sharpen it
- Don’t whisk a dark wine sauce – it will lighten its color
- Salted water boils faster
- Peppercorns won’t burn as quickly as ground pepper will, so use crushed peppercorns on meats instead of ground pepper
- When making vinaigrette, let the salt dissolve in lemon juice or vinegar before whisking in oil
- If you rinse onions in cold water, you’ll cry less as you chop
- You can wear tennis shoes with red lipstick, but only if you’re in Paris
- The coarser the salt is, the more salty it will taste (because there’s more surface area)
- White vinegar will clean anything, and works particularly well for clearing clouded glass
- To test if the meat is done, insert a very thin needle into a piece of meat, then press it against your lip: A cold needle means the meat needs to cook more, but a warm or hot needle says the meat is fini!
- The best way to crush peppercorns is between two pots
- White sauces should never have herbs in them
- Blanching helps remove impurities from ingredients
- Serrated knives are most dangerous
- If you’re trying to quickly pour out a bottle of wine (limited circumstances, I understand) flip it upside down and swirl it in a circular motion – it will quickly flow out
- When you serve soup, fill the ladle, then tap it back down onto the soup to prevent drips as you transfer the liquid to another bowl
- Collect the remainder of leftover red wine into a large jar to start making your own red wine vinegar – let it sit for about a month.
- If you find yourself with cold feet in a 15th century house, without heat, in October, put a hot water bottle at the foot of your bed to keep your tootsies toasty
- Table salt, which is processed so it tastes metallic, is a quick way to ruin anything. Splurge for great salt, and maintain a collection ranging from fine to coarse.