A Friday night, and I felt just fine.
The first full week of school fatigued me, but not so utterly as usual. In years before, I reached late Friday afternoon with a pounding headache and no desire to do anything, other than go home and flop on the couch. But those were the days before the celiac diagnosis. Now, an elated energy, a surge of enthusiasm, and an even, peaceful feeling all daythese are the rhythms of my life now. And this year, I have vowed to not bring home a single piece of grading, but stay at school instead, working in my corner office, the light falling through my window. So far, so good. I haven’t left later than 4 any day. And when I do walk up the steps to my lovely upstairs apartment, I feel relieved. My second life begins.
Usually, I begin cooking, right away. After all, late-afternoon light can be particularly heartbreaking in the autumn, and I don’t want to take photos in the dark. So I wash my hands, put on some bouncy music, check my email, and start chopping and checking recipes. Within a few moments, school feels remarkably far away.
And there were a hundred connections, laughter, and a connected walk around the neighborhood with my senior writers, in silence, for half an hour. I do love teaching.
So I left school on Friday afternoon with a song in my heart, kicking at the golden leaves on the sidewalk like I was in a movie montage moment.
Happy at last, the images show. And besides, I knew I was headed to Francoise’s house for dinner.
I’ve already written about my adoration of Francoise and her dear family here. I don’t want to babble too much about how happy and grounded they are; how capacious in kindness their house feels, even if the physical layout isn’t big; how I love Francoise’s joyful French gesticulation and Adrian’s calm demeanor to balance each other; or how utterly in love I am with their stupendous children, smart and enaged without a whit of arrogance. They are, besides my own dear family, my favorite family in the world.And besides, Francoise was making roast chicken.
When I walked in the house, there were cries of “Shauna!” The girls ran to hug me, and I danced on the hardwood floor to embrace the two adults. Late-afternoon sunlight beamed through the windows, landing on all the countertops, so I knew I had to take photographs, immediately. With them, I feel comfortable, so I laughed with them as I bent close to the cheese platter (handmade in France, with a little slot to fit the knives) and take photos of it in the the liquid light. But when I showed them this photo, they stopped laughing.
Thank goodness my temporary lactose intolerance, induced by the celiac, has now drifted away. I couldn’t imagine an evening with Francoise et al without little nibbles of delicate, squishy, creamy, so-good-I-start-to-moan cheeses.
Camille and Selene danced around the kitchen. We all snacked off the fresh guacamole and corn chips on the counter. And Adrian, bless his heart, made a cornbread, with cornmeal and gluten-free flour. When he told me they had bought GF flour and tried this recipe, just for me, I wanted to cry with gratitude. Those of us with food allergies and intolerances know what it is like to have people disregard you, make fun of you, and insist on feeding you the offending food, “just in case you’re no longer allergic.” To have someone ask about the biological reasons why I had to be lactose intolerant for awhile, and care enough to make sure that I had great food that wouldn’t make me sick? It made me want to kick up those golden leaves again.
And then there was this fennel, which was simply dressed in olive oil, organic lemon juice, salt, and pepper. It took me a few minutes to see it (the cheese seemed to seep into all our minds), but when we did spot it, the plate was full for only a brief time. The girls and I dipped our fingers into the plate, over and over, until Francoise had to tell us to stop. We had to leave some for the table. But they were more addictive than French fries. I’m not kidding.
I love how Francoise switches back and forth between French and English, the French becoming more frequent and faster as the evening proceeds. The girls understand her, Adrian understands her, and even I’m starting to understand her. It feels fluid, being with them.
One more check on the “haricots verts” in the pressure cooker (I’m coveting that one), and then it was time for dinner. We sat down, with orange juice and enormous smiles. Succulent slices of roast chicken. Golden-orange drippings, infused with paprika and the chicken cooking. Simple lemon fennel. Crisp green beans with sea salt.
And after dinner, the girls practiced pratfalls on the hard wooden floors, their socks sliding, their faces never hiding their bounding energy. Francoise and I recounted favorite pratfalls from our lives and laughed so hard we cried. Adrian did the dishes in the kitchen and listened with a benevolent smile. And later, as we talked about the uselessness of gyms, the pitfalls of cable tv, and our definitions of success, we sipped on tea made from sage and Moroccan peppermint, which Camille had grown in her portion of the garden. With a dollop of chestnut honey.
It doesn’t take much, really. This was the first night in two months that I hadn’t cooked at all, and it was lovely (and strange) to take a break. The food was certainly not fancy. We were all pleasantly tired on a Friday night. But the tastes were sensational, and the company even better.
That’s all I need: great food, much laughter. and being with people I love.
“This is basic French cooking,” she told me, with a wave of the hand as though, of course. “It’s perfect for guests. In fact, you would have this for Sunday lunch, and have guests over.” I’d be at that Sunday lunch every week if I could.
1 whole chicken, anywhere from 3 to 5 pounds
1 white onion, sliced
12 or more garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
bouquet garni of rosemary, thyme, and sage, tied with twine
°Remove the fat from the chicken, but leave the skin.
°Place the whole chicken in your favorite roasting pan.
° Scatter the sliced onion and as many garlic cloves as you can take around the chicken.
°Lay the bouquet garni around the chicken (later, you’ll tuck it inside the chicken)
°Smear the top of the chicken with olive oil.
°Sprinkle paprika over the top of the chicken, liberally. Come on, pour a bit more.
°Scatter sea salt around the chicken, but NOT on it.
°Place the chicken in a pre-heated, 400* oven. Cook for twenty to thirty minutes, until the onions begin to carmelize.
°At this point, pour a glass of water around the chicken, then baste the chicken with this water.
°Lower the temperature to 350*. Cook the chicken at least another hour.
°In the last half hour of cooking, rub sea salt into the chicken (this will salt the chicken without drying it out).
°Move the bouquet garni to the inside of the chicken.
°You’ll know when it’s done. The chicken will fall apart a bit. (Technically, it’s when you poke a fork into the leg and the juices run clear.)