Until now, I have never had the experience of living(really living) in a culture so vastly different from my own. I’ve travelled, sure. There were 5 weeks in Berlin on a Fulbright Scholarship some years back; there were a couple days in Paris. But for the first time, I’m beginning to see how an experience that once felt like a vacation, an unreal and hazy dream, can become a lifestyle. And with any lifestyle comes the monotony of life, the day-to-day; there are dishes to be done, trash to be taken out, bills that need to be paid. And I’m sure that you’re thinking: yes, but your trash is filled with all manner of evidence that points to your charmed life–emptied bottles of Cotes du Rhone, the rind of perfectly ripe Tomme de Savoie. And if you made such a point, I wouldn’t argue with you. Well, maybe, just a little. I’ll save most of the philosophizing for another time, but for now I’ll just say this: when we hope to derive our happiness from the things we eat and drink, or from the way the light drips off the tops of buildings on quiet mornings, or from the prospect of a perfect peach, we will be let down every single time. Few could ever claim a life of complete peace and endless contentment. But I wouldn’t guess that those few, if you asked them for their secret, would tell you in a whisper that they attribute it all to plates of charcuterie and expensive chocolates. I mean, haven’t you too ever been upset in a fine restaurant? Or haven’t you ever happily sipped awful wine among good friends? At best, what we eat and drink is a sort of cherry on top of our cake of contentment.I hope I haven’t let you down, spoiled your dreams of spending ten months living vicariously in the south of France. We can still do that together–but I just had to be honest, had to say what I’d never read about in any guide book, or ever seen on any episodes of Bourdain.
It makes sense that, just around the time I was beginning to consider what it might mean to live here long-term, Raquelle and I would venture out of the city to have a 3-hour lunch with a 91-year-old Provencal man named “Lolo.” If anyone could show me how to find my way here in France, it would be a supra-octogenarian who had spent his life in the sun, tending to his olive groves, raising his chickens and geese, and cooking and serving perfect strangers for decades.We arrived in Les Baux de Provence in the afternoon. The sun was strong, but it was tempered by constant breeze. We took a bus as far as we could. But when the roads narrowed, we took to our feet, passing old vineyards and Greco-Roman ruins that appeared to have been built yesterday. Along the way, just before we made it to Lolo’s house was the Saint Paul Asylum, the very place where Vincent Van Gogh painted the view of the night sky from his window. This real-life metaphor was not lost on me: that just a stone’s throw from an asylum was a little piece of heaven; that perhaps these two states of mind are not so far from one another. “Much madness is divinest sense,” Dickinson would say.When we made it to Lolo’s place, we were welcomed with a spread of briny olives and cold Ricard. The geese craned their long necks, wondering what all the fuss was about. And for nearly three hours, we were served course after course of good simple food, glass after glass of local wine, followed by a dish of brightly colored plums. When it was all finished, Lolo retreated to the inside of his house, understandably tired from all his hard work. I poked around the rooms, admiring their character and age, the walls of cold smooth stone. It was more like a museum, this troglodytic house, built into the side of a mountain, with a deed so old it was signed with the stamp of Louis XIV. At just the moment when I seemed to forget that this place was someone’s sanctuary, someone’s home, I was startled by Lolo, sitting in a chair in the corner of a back room. I felt inclined to say something, maybe even apologize for invading his space. “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur,” I said. He didn’t look up and he didn’t answer. He was tired. Tired as a man should be after 91 years of hard work and toil. He rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair and he stared off blankly toward the wall. After some seconds passed, still without an answer, I left him there to be alone.
I don’t know how long Lolo will keep this going. The fact that he is up and about in any capacity seems a miracle to me. I must say that I’m glad I got to have this experience–a chance to spend an afternoon with someone who has learned how to live gracefully, at ease, in a way that seems effortless and simple. The next day, my head buzzing with all of these thoughts, I went to the market with the goal of making something simple and effortless, something Lolo might appreciate.This dish, much like the one I posted last week, is another celebration of place. It’s free of being fussy or technical. Instead, it’s a dish that’s all about the goodness of simple things. And it’s the kind of food that, if you’re not in the best of spirits or if you’ve lost your way, might guide you back into the light, might tell you that everything is gonna be ok.
Bread Steak with Summer’s Last Crop (serves 2)
1 large, very ripe tomato, chopped finely, juice reserved
1 small eggplant
1 red pepper
2 small zucchini (or 1 large)
2 or 3 ripe figs
1 loaf of good crusty bread
4 large anchovies, packed in olive oil(sardine-style)
2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
To begin, fire up the grill or place a dry skillet on high heat. Meanwhile, coat the eggplant, zucchini, and red pepper with a little olive oil. Once the grill or pan is hot, place these vegetables down and let them char heavily on both sides. While they char, slice your tomato, making sure to keep all the juices that leak out. Place the tomato in a bowl, along with a squeeze of lemon juice, chopped garlic, some olive oil, black pepper, and a good bit of salt. Chop the parsley and add it to the tomato mixture. As the salt works on the tomatoes, it will begin to pull out more of the liquid, so that it becomes almost like a fresh, cold soup.
Once the vegetables have been well-charred on both sides, remove them from the heat to cool. Once cool, chop them finely and keep them separated. Additionally, prepare thin slices of the fig and set aside. Slice two 2-inch thick pieces of bread, drizzle them on both sides with olive oil, and place them under the broiler to toast up nice and dark.
Once the bread has been toasted, get two large bowls ready. Divide the tomato mixture into the two bowls. Place one slice of bread in the middle of each bowl, atop the tomato mixture. Surround the bread with the chopped, grilled zucchini, red pepper, eggplant, and the figs. Place the anchovies on top of the bread. Then, give the plate a final seasoning with more salt and pepper, another squeeze of fresh lemon, a good glug of olive oil, and perhaps a few drops of tabasco sauce. This dish, to me, is the best way to make the most of the last of what summer has to offer.