Old Appliances

Our old Cuisinart had finally started to fall apart and I found myself feeling melancholy when I put it out with our garage sale stuff. It was a heavy beast, and only now did I appreciate its weight. The new one we’d bought looked sturdy in its stainless steel skin but was as light as a feather in comparison, and as loud as a jackhammer. It felt like this new one was built to last 2 years to the 20-plus year’s we’d had the old one. I rubbed the old machine’s white porcelain-like exterior and said goodbye.

How many cheese soufflés had this thing helped us make? Cheese pizza toppings? Cheese for French onion soup? Okay so it grated a lot of cheese, among other things.

It also helped us save a cat. One of our cats was throwing up his hard food and losing weight fast. He even turned up his nose at the fancy soft food we tried to give him from the pet store, which was usually a treat.

One night while helping Alex prepare chicken nachos (and grating cheese, of course) Alex and I noticed our now skinny cat looking up at the counter where the rotisserie chicken sat. Even in his state he couldn’t help but be enticed by the smell. I reached for a piece to offer him, but Alex knew better. The chunks of chicken would probably just make him puke again, she told me as she eyed the Cuisinart. She had a better idea.

Even though we had freshly opened Coronas with lime wedges just waiting to drop in, Alex went into immediate care-giver mode. “Take what you want for the nachos, and whatever’s left pull off the chicken,” Alex ordered as she boiled a giant pot of water. “The carcass goes in here,” she said. A flurry of activity followed with some simmering time in between and the whole concoction finally mixed up in the Cuisinart.

Our cat lapped it up like it was gourmet food, and our old Cuisinart was the key in creating this life-saving baby-food-like concoction we called Chicken Slop.

Our new appliance has a lot to live up to.

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Southern Fried

Living in LA we had some of the best and most diverse food anywhere, and we are foodies so we were in heaven. In fact, Alex is such a good cook and home-stylist, that at one time I wanted to pitch a TV show called “Move Over Martha” with Alex as a younger, hipper Martha Stewart.

Moving to Atlanta, I’m sure Alex had her reservations (no pun intended) but she was quick to realize that Atlanta takes its food as seriously as any major city. Just like LA, it has trendy spots with the latest crazes, like farm-to-table; different ethnic areas with signs and menus in other languages; giant world markets like Buford Highway and Decatur Farmer’s, where regular Joes and Janes, and Joses and Juanas, can shop alongside chefs in double-breasted jackets and Crocs who are picking up last minute items for their evening menus. And of course Atlanta has southern food.

In LA, there are a few places that claim to serve southern, but they tend to lean more toward the soul aspect, or the southwest rather than southeast. Tex-Mex is good, but it’s not southern.

In Atlanta, they have southern down: They’ve got shrimp and grits; variations on anything fried, like the green tomato, and of course chicken. In LA, the meat aisle of most local grocery chains is probably half chicken, half beef. In Atlanta it is chicken 60-40, maybe 70-30.

There is great fried chicken at most good restaurants in Atlanta, like Table and Main in Roswell, but the local Kroger grocers have some that competes with all of these. The first time we ate Kroger fried chicken we were in the middle of our move, so an unfair advantage I know—Pizza Hut can almost taste gourmet after you’ve moved a thousand boxes and haven’t eaten all day—but the second and third time at Kroger was unbiasedly just as good. We were so impressed, we started using a soft ‘g’ when saying the name of the place to make it sound more fancy. “Where are you eating tonight?” our friends from LA would ask. “Krozhay,” we would say in our best French accent.

Who knows, maybe “Move over LA” will be my next TV show pitch?

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Billy Bob’s Pine Nuts

2013 was a bad one if you were looking for pine nuts, or a job. I happened to be looking for both. This was still post recession-era America and we probably shouldn’t have even been adding the precious pine nut to our shopping list, but there are some things you just have to have.

My mom turned me on to pine nuts at an early age. Now, I wasn’t a picky eater or gourmand of any sort back then; you could put Mac N Cheese in front of me and dump a can of tuna fish on top and I’d be great. But one day we were at a salad bar, and my mom says “take the pine nuts honey, they’re expensive” and this I understood. Plus, they tasted good.

During the 2013 shortage, even our usual source, Costco, was out. They would usually have these tasty morsels in large containers (as Costco does) at a fraction of the cost of a small bag at our regular grocer.

We were hooked on these little nuts, not just for pesto, but roasted and tossed on top of French cut green beans, roasted and put on a fettuccini dish just before grating fresh parmesan on top, roasted and put on anything really.

We got so desperate, we asked Walmart if they had them. We were in the produce section and I saw a guy with a blue vest nearby. “Excuse me,” I said, “do you guys have any pine nuts?” As he turned around, I noticed his nametag read “Billy Bob.” “What nut?” Billy Bob responded. “Pine,” I said, “they usually come in a tiny little 2-ounce bag for about $10 a bag.” Billy Bob scratched his head and looked around. He saw another blue vest walking by and he stopped her. “Wanda, you know if we got pine nuts?” Wanda tried to be helpful by going through a list of nuts out loud. “We got peanuts, beer nuts, cashew nuts, pecan….” I knew we were getting nowhere slow, so I cut her off: “That’s okay, we’ll try somewhere else.”

But Billy Bob wasn’t giving up. He got on his walkie and put out an APB: “Any y’all know if we got pine nuts?” The responses were all over the place: “Pine Sol is on aisle 23; pine cones are seasonal; pine scent candles aisle 15.” And then a voice came over the store intercom, “we do not carry pine nuts.”

“Well, I guess, that’s that, thanks anyway” I said as we turned to leave. Billy Bob, however, wasn’t done. “For $5 an ounce, I can probably climb a few pine trees and get y’all some fresh ones,” he offered. I laughed and kept walking, but later realized he was probably not joking.

I imagined Billy Bob turning in his blue vest for the life of a farm-to-table pine nut grower and carving out a sign from one of his own pine trees: “Billy Bob’s Pine Nuts.” Of course he’d also sell boiled peanuts out of a trash barrel, and ice cold beer, like any good old boy would.

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HOA’s

HOA’s, or Home Owner’s Associations, are not very prevalent in LA except in condo communities, or further south in Orange County. In Atlanta, you can’t escape the tentacles of the HOA. Gated communities, non-gated communities, it doesn’t matter; you will pay to play.

When we moved into our new Atlanta home we were kind of glad we’d have a group to turn to if we had neighbors doing things that neighbors shouldn’t be doing. In LA, we had a neighbor who ran an energy bar distribution center out of his house. There were large trucks coming and going at all hours. Finally, enough people were bothered by this that the city answered the calls to shut him down. Unfortunately, that just ticked the guy off and he started to deliberately make his place look like a dump.

The problem is that our HOA in Atlanta doesn’t seem to do much beyond approving paint colors and trimming the common grass and trees…. Oh, and harassing good citizens.

The nasty-gram we got when our pine straw started to turn a little gray was our first run-in with this entity. There were no weeds, just some gray-tinted pine-straw. You’d think we had cars on blocks and trash in the front yard the way the note was worded. I called to try to talk some sense into these people, but couldn’t cut through the bureaucracy.

I don’t know how all HOA’s operate, but ours seems to always have too much money. They throw different themed parties throughout the year to spend this excess. They overpay for landscaping, pool-cleaning, and even bill-collecting. I’d rather have a lower HOA bill.

The parties were not really our thing, but since we were paying for them anyway, we tried a few. There was the Christmas party, where someone offered up their house in exchange for free decorating, catering, and after-party cleaning—lots of after-party cleaning; the Easter Egg Hunt, where our nephew got pushed around by little spoiled kids in designer onesies; the Spring Fling with 5-piece band where Alex got hit on by more than one sweaty middle-aged divorcee (and some not-so-divorcees); and the Chili Cook-Off with catering from the local BBQ joint (just in case the chilies weren’t good enough, I guess).

For the Chili Cook-Off, Alex spent days preparing smoked garlic and roasted peppers of different kinds. She simmered the sauce and added just the right mix of beef to bean. Unfortunately, the HOA had hired the local fire department to judge the event (and probably overpaid them to do it). Unfortunate because Alex’s chili was a study in tastes and textures, not a 4-alarm fire. She didn’t win from the judge’s perspective, but the true winner could be determined better by the amount of chili left in each contestant’s pot. See, throughout the night neighbors were free to take samples out of each pot as they pleased. By night’s end, Alex’s pot looked like it was licked clean, where the others were still half-full of congealed red sauce with dry cayenne powder caked to the sides.

That was our last HOA sponsored party. We decided it was better to host our own parties than leave everything up to an overfunded, underqualified board.

 

 

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Driving Lessons from a Teenage French Girl

Alex and Ines immediately got back on track as we drove to lunch in Isle Sur la Sorgue. This is a valley town, not a hilltop town, with a big river slicing through it. The Isle is a long spit of land in the middle of the river and town, accessed by bridges on either side. The water is clear and fast with a deep blue-green color reflecting off the bottom.

We ate a typical French lunch of warm sliced goat cheese on top of salad and toast: salad au chevre chaud, recommended by Ines. We noticed Ines asserting more confidence than we’d seen when she stayed with us in the States. After all, she was in her own country with her own language, but she had matured either way. An old Frenchman with little round glasses and a blazer, having lunch with a woman next to us, even seemed to be checking her out the way that only creepy old Frenchmen can.

We paid the bill and walked to a nearby fabric store Alex wanted to see. Back in California at a friend’s of French descent, Alex had seen these simple white sheer cotton embroidered curtains hanging over tension rods instead of curtain rings. The friend had explained that these were great for bathroom windows and windows you really weren’t going to open the curtains on. So Alex was determined to find these here and buy them from the source.

We walked to the first place we saw: Too touristy and expensive, and didn’t have what we wanted anyway. Two more fabric shops were in walking distance, but more of the same. Finally, Alex had the right idea—find the wholesale fabric store these guys buy from, probably off the beaten-track, in the more industrial and local area of town. We asked a few shops and they played dumb. “You’ve got to buy something or they won’t help,” I suggested. A pack of gum and a smile or two later, we got a tip from a nice cashier about a place on the edge of town. The directions were kind of vague, but we would find it.

Driving with a sixteen-year-old as a backseat driver can be tough, but try it in a foreign country on her turf! We had been cruising around Provence for a good 3 or 4 days before picking up Ines, probably breaking traffic laws left and right (I once got a ticket in the mail after an Italy trip for apparently driving in the center of a pedestrian square).

So here we were, with vague directions, trying to find this industrial wholesale fabric place, and we realized we were going in the wrong direction. I saw a street intersecting on the left and quickly crossed the oncoming lane of traffic to turn around: “In France we use the round-about for this type of turn,” I heard from the back. Then when I actually used a round-about, I apparently did it wrong: “in France we use our indicators when exiting a roundabout.” From that moment on I still broke some rules, but I tried to indicate them beforehand so I wouldn’t get scolded by a 16-year-old: “I am running this orange light. I am going right on red. I am going to pass this slowpoke.” These were all new English terms that Ines learned that week.

The wholesale fabric place turned out to be a bust, so we headed home. We passed the Apt pizza joint with the bad attitude and gave them a passing USA, USA chant. Ines wasn’t in on this when it first happened so she just looked at us like we were crazy. Approaching Rustrel, we came up behind an extremely slow car and I made a quick pass, but not before announcing it—Ines may have even learned a curse word on that one.

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Chateau de Merde

The next day we saw old town Apt in a completely different light. This was market day, and it was lined with merchants selling everything from hats to hand baskets, ham to handkerchiefs, haddock to haute cuisine.

We made our way through the throngs and bought some fresh produce: Alex finding purply-pink garlic with 6-inch stems; Jen finding a batch of deep red cherries on the other end of the long table. When I took out my money to pay, the vendor couldn’t figure out who I was paying for; “Les deux” I said, meaning both. “Bravo” the vendor nodded in that French male conspiratorial way. I just shook my head and laughed.

A little further into the market a store caught my eye that sold little placards for mailboxes, or doors or what-have-you. We had two cats at home and Alex was always trying to hide their litter box. Finally she came up with the idea to buy an old French provincial style dresser, cut a hole in the side, put the litter box in and voila: Chateau de Merde. Once we found the dresser, we would need a sign to declare it officially a “House of Shit”. Of course they didn’t have one that read Chateau de Merde, but I thought maybe they could customize one for us.

I struggled to translate this, finally getting my point across to the French sales lady. The lady looked at me a little funny, but said “of course we can order anything you want.” It was expensive, but I was tempted. Thankfully, Alex talked some sense into me: “This stuff is probably made in China. We can find something on-line for half this price.”

And that’s the sad truth about many of the items we found on our trip: “French linen” with the tag cut off which probably had said “Made in China”; “French Truffles” that were packaged in France, so they could officially be labeled “Product of France”, even though the actual truffles inside came from Chinese soil. You really had to look carefully for the treasure and look past the crap… but isn’t that true of any real treasure?

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