The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. -- Adam Gopnik

July 29, 2014

Paris in July: The Age of Comfort

Would you have been as hard-pressed as I was to look at this painting {The Declaration of Love, by Jean Francois de Troy, painted in 1735} and see the things in it that were so unconventional, and modern, and 'casual?  The sofa, the dress, her posture, even the fabric for the pillow her arm is resting on?

Joan DeJean's book The Age of Comfort  was on my reading list long before this July in Paris, and even though it started out a little slowly for me, in the end it was a book I returned to happily all month long.

In a nutshell, it traces the transition, in Paris, from the late 1600s to the mid-1700s, from an age of stiff, courtly, public, formal magnificence to a younger, looser, more casual, private, intimate age of comfort, a change that happened  almost  suddenly, first made French taste and style so desirable (everywhere except in England), and affected everything from architecture and house plans to plumbing (ahem) and heating, bedrooms, sofas, chairs, beds, upholstery and curtains, fashion, and even posture and body language. Some of what comes out in the book is how quickly tastes changed, how many of the forms and styles that we recognize today were first introduced in this period {sodas, curtains, side tables, even the idea of curling up with a book). All fascinating.

I love all this stuff, and the book is full of descriptions of furniture and fashion, anecdotes, quotes from letters and diaries (and the newspapers of the day); the writing was intelligent but very readable.  It helps, of course, that this is not the stuff of everyday life, and is filled with odd moments in history {in the midst of all this, the French king, concerned about competition with the French textile industry, declared a ban on -- and let the French police wage a battle against -- importing, selling or wearing the wildly popular  'painted cotton' (on that pillow) being brought in from India, a ban that officially lasted for almost 100 years and was another kind of Prohibition that was largely ignored, even by the younger members of the royal family).

Ironically, ir was members of the French royal family and its court, many of whom were obsessed with interior design,  who both resisted and fostered this change (the Marquise de Pompadour, in the portrait below, became a 'poster child' for the new style). It was fascinating to read about the kings and their mistresses, and part of me wants to go back and figure out who they all were. :)

Joan DeJean has just written a new book, How Paris Became Paris, and that one's on my list now, too.

{Merci beaucoup to Karen, Tamara, Adria and (especially) Bellezza for hosting Paris in July again this year1  I always wish that I could have read, and baked, more, but I always discover something new and wonderful.}

July 27, 2014

Paris in July: Je t'adore...

      In those places where the age of comfort began, the age of furniture got its start. Only a few decades later, people owned more than a few pieces of furniture. And once they did, furniture quickly moved beyond the utilitarian and into the realm of style and fashion. In 1769, [cabinetmaker Andre Jacob] Roubo felt able to pronounce that 'it is disgraceful for one's furniture not to be as up-to-date [a la mode] as one's clothing.' Furniture also entered the domain of comfort. And as soon as these ideas were in place, artists began to depict a new experience:  people in love with their furniture.
      The golden age of French furniture was also a golden age for French engraving. An astonishing number of plates, images that show off the latest ways to furnish a room, as well as various kinds of endearing behavior that furniture seemed to inspire in the first people able to enjoy private life in a private space. This scene features a fashionable woman in her equally fashionable interior. She is looking fondly -- not, as one might expect, at the handsomely turned-out suitor seen in the doorway holding out his hands and gazing longingly at her, but ... at her sofa.  Sofas were then still relatively new, and this is a recent model -- one of two that were vying for sofa supremacy -- and it clearly 'works' with its surroundings, fitting neatly beneath the mythological scene on the wall above. She touches her fan to her face in reverie as she gazes at it, as if lost in her pleasure at the way her interior has turned out.

from The Age of Comfort:  when Paris discovered casual --
and the modern home began
, by Joan DeJean

{I know, but it would be so perfect with the chairs...}

      And last, but surely not least, upholstered furniture and easy seats had become essential to private life, to companionate  moments, to the life of mind. Think of the image the women in love with one of the original sofas:  as she gazes at the sofa, she's holding a letter in her hand; her desk is set up for writing, and sheets are scattered all over its surface. Her beloved sofa is part of an interior designed to favor the development of an interior life....

July 24, 2014

Paris in July: Edible French

Last week, entre le poire at le fromage, I discovered that Clotilde Dusoulier has written a new book, plein comme un oeuf with some of the food idioms she has collected in writing her blog. For each one, there’s a literal translation, a translation of the idiom, an explanation of the history behind the French phrase, a sentence using the phrase, and a pretty watercolor. And once in a while, a recipe.  This little book is absolutely charming! If you ever find yourself feeling that life is long comme un jour sans pain, spend some time with this book, and you may find that you feel comme un coq en pâte instead. I would never raconte des salades.

J’ai fait mon miel out of getting an early look at Edible French on Netgalley {merci beaucoup}. For now, faute de grives, on mange des merles; this lovely book will be published in October by Penguin Group/Tarcher.

{So you won’t changer de crémerie {change creameries}, all I meant to say was that between the pear and the cheese, I found a book full as an egg with wonderful things, and that when life is long like a day without bread, reading this book might make you feel like a rooster in dough. I would never tell you a salad.  Oh, and that I made my honey out of finding this book on Netgalley, and that, for lack of thrushes, we only need to eat blackbirds for a little while longer. Oui?}

July 14, 2014

Paris in July: La liste de mes envies

Jocelyne is 47, overweight, married, the mother of a reckless son and a silent, thoughtful daughter (and of a baby who was stillborn), the daughter of a father who knows who she is for six minutes at a time and a beloved mother who died, suddenly, in front of her when she was a young girl,  the owner of a not-very-thriving sewing shop in a small French town, and a blogger who is surprised to learn that there is a community of women who follow her.  Her husband's name, ironically, is Jocelyn (without the 'e'); he works in a Haagen-Daz factory, dreams of owning a big-screen TV and a Porsche, and is loving and gentle again, after expressing his grief for their lost daughter by showering Jocelyne with cruelty. Her life is not all that she wanted it to be, but we are told that she is content, that she does not need or want anything to change. The shop next door to hers is owned by girlish twin sisters {the best characters in the book}, who know that they are growing older, but also that neither one will marry if it means leaving the other behind.  Years ago, the twins won enough money in the lottery to open their shop; every week, they carefully choose and play lottery numbers, and one week, they finally persuade their friend to buy a ticket herself.

You can probably guess what happens next, and you might be able (like I was) to appreciate what the author had in mind, when he has Jocelyne fold up the enormous check, tuck it into a pair of old shoes, walk into the Chanel boutique in Paris and out again, and not tell anyone - anyone at all - how much everything will inevitably change. Instead, she writes lists of what she might do with the money, an endearing combination of the day-to day (a new bath mat), the luxurious treats, the practical, the things that she believes her husband and her children would need or want.  Her husband notices, solicitously, that she is tired and losing weight, and takes her away for a long weekend by the sea. Then, the night before he leaves for a training course at company headquarters, he kisses her in a way that feels a little different, and then everything is.

A book that I saved for Paris in July, and a premise, a story, some characters, a problem to love ... and I wanted to. Oh, so ironically, the flowery author's note {this was one of those editions with book club questions at the end} begins 'Have you ever noticed that when you choose something, you often ask yourself if it would have been better to choose something else?'  Easy enough to do with a book, and harmless when it's a library book, and one that I could read astonishingly quickly and happily send back to its shelf.  What happens in the second half of the book is not any less realistic than what happens at the beginning {in both places, things could unexpectedly turn out that way}, but maybe I just want my fanciful, armchair-traveling, bus ride-enhancing, Paris-in-July, reading for pleasure to end with some hope, at least.  Maybe that will happen in the film.

{I would love to know what someone else thinks, if anyone has read this or reads it someday. It  was just published in the U.S. as My Wish List; I read the UK edition, and liked its title better.}

July 13, 2014

Paris in July: Mini-quiches poulet et noix de cajou

These miniature crustless quiches make appealing handheld bites, which will be nibbled on or wolfed down, depending on the eater. Filled with strips of chicken, diced tomatoes, and crunchy cashews, they are baked until golden and lightly crusty but still nice and moist inside. Mini-quiches are good soldiers for a buffet; they can be eaten warm or at room temperature, and you can bake them up to a day ahead (reheat for ten minutes in a warm oven before serving.
This is one of the books I look through every summer, hoping for something new to make during Paris in July. This may not be the most sophisticated recipe {or even the most French?} but it's one I know I'll make again and again. Chicken, tomato, cashews (!) and tarragon are a very good combination of flavors, one that I would never have thought of.

Do you want to know the best part (there are two...)?  I have fallen in love with our new supermarché, where I shopped this morning for a rotisserie chicken, a gorgeous bundle of fresh tarragon, and the cheese {comté was tres cher, but they had it, and I will try it another time ... along with three 'intensities' of Gruyere}. It almost feels a little Parisian to shop there.

And tomorrow, when I am being very un-parisienne, and having lunch at my desk, eating leftovers. comme toujours, I can drink some Perrier with my mini-quiche and feel tres chic. :)

Mini-Quiches Poulet et Noix de Cajou
adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini:  Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen,
by Clotilde Dusoulier
for twenty-four mini or twelve medium quiches

Note:  These are the measurements from the original recipe. I made a half-recipe, using two whole eggs and about 1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes, rinsed and well-drained), and baked mine in a 'regular' muffin pan. They needed about 30 minutes in the oven.

olive oil or nonstick spray for greasing the muffin tin
leftover roast or rotisserie chicken, skin removed, cut into small dice {a generous cup)
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
four plum tomatoes, halved, cored, seeded and diced
three large eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup freshly grated Gruyere or Comte cheese, about 3 1/2 ounces
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves (or substitute or mix in other herbs, such as parsley}
2/3 cup roasted cashews, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and grease the muffin tin with olive oil or nonstick spray

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the milk and whisk again. Sift in the flour {or just gently spoon it in, a little at a time, whisking after each addition.} Stir in the salt and pepper, and whisk until blended; the batter will be thin.  Add in the diced chicken, diced tomatoes, grated cheese, herbs and chopped cashews.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared muffin tins {harder than it sounds!}. Place the muffin tin on a baking sheet {to catch any drips in the oven, as the muffin cups will be very full}. Bake the mini-quiches for about 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of your molds, until golden and puffy {you'll see them rise above the rims of the muffin cups}.  Unmold them, let them cool for 10 minutes, then serve them warm or at room temperature.
Beaujolais works particularly well with chicken and tomato combinations. ... Pinot Grigio and other light, crisp wines will work well, too.
Are you cooking or baking {or eating} for Paris in July?

July 12, 2014

Reading in the age of comfort

... In the age of magnificence, reading, too, was a stately activity, indulged in by few and confined largely to the ceremonial space of grand libraries.  The eighteenth-century home feature a less imposing, more modern type of space devoted to books and reading. In what was now called a 'reading room,' books were not on formal display in order to impress visitors with their sheer numbers and sumptuous bindings. They were stored instead in built-in cupboards camouflaged behind sliding doors fitted with elegant paneling. These rooms were intended ... 'to induce everyone to come in and start reading,' as spaces in which anyone would feel comfortable sliding back those doors and picking out a book. In some bedrooms, the walls on either side of the bed were fitted out with still more bookshelves. People had obviously begun to curl up in bed with a good book.

from The Age of Comfort:  when Paris discovered casual,
and the modern home began
, by Joan DeJean

Bien sur, we'll need one of these, aussi. :)