Sunday, December 13, 2015

In Honor of Grilled Cheese

There are lots of clichés about Paris.   Many are not true, but some are.  Do not call your waiter “garçon”.  This means “boy” in French and it will insult the professional who is waiting on you (fortunately, I knew better then to ever do this).    At the moment, I am doing a very clichéd Parisian thing (or I’m a total poser, depending on your point of view).  I’m sitting in a café, drinking a glass of wine, and writing.   It gets worse.  I have a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in my bag.  I really do.  I checked it out of the library yesterday.  I actually own a copy, but it got left behind in California during the box saga.   I’d never read it, and figured this was the time.   

I’m at a perfectly lit, little corner table.  It’s early evening in December, so it’s dark out, and the Christmas lights are twinkling outside on the little street.   The brasserie I intended to go to, where I was going to have a salad, was closed.   So, I’ve come here instead, to Le Nemrod.  “Nemrod” translates to “nimrod” in English, which is defined as both an inept person, and a skilled hunter.   So, don’t assume you’re being insulted should you be called this. 

I just ordered a croque-monsieur (though at this place, it is called “croque-poilâne”– it’s to do with the type of bread . . .).   So, here is an absolutely true French cliché, and a bit of personal opinion:  if you go to a French bistro, brasserie, café, etc., and you’re not sure what to order, always go with the croque-monsieur.   Always.   

Last spring, I visited Paris with my mother.   The primary purpose of the visit was for me to find an apartment for my family.   I dragged my mom all over, looking at apartments, while trying to make her first trip abroad memorable.   I was incredibly anxious about my impending adventure, and not sleeping terribly well.  In the mornings, we would rush out of the hotel for a quick coffee, but barely any breakfast.   My mom was a very good sport.

Many of the restaurants in the non-tourist areas of Paris are only open between noon-2pm for lunch, and not again until dinner at 7:30 or so.    Having only been in the tourist areas prior to this visit, I didn’t really know this – or I did, but didn’t believe it.   At around 2pm on our final day of apartment hunting, we wander around trying to find a place to eat a late lunch.   We were hungry.  That kind of hungry where you feel a little dizzy, like you’re on the verge of being ill.   Also, I felt bad that I didn’t make sure my sainted, 80-something-year-old mother was fed.  We find nothing at all open.   Really.   We make our way back to our charming hotel (charming means it is quaint and well priced, but no restaurant).  

Just next door to our hotel, is this little hole in the wall café.  You can tell its been there for decades, run by the same elderly couple the whole time.   Leather booths, tiny bar where the locals drop in for their afternoon verre de vin, before they have to go home to face the wife (really, that’s what the one guy at the bar told me).     We had been having our morning café au lait here every day.  Anyway, we see it’s still open, so with a sigh of relief, we go in.  The proprietor recognizes us, but says that there is no food, only the bar is open.   He is a kind man and only speaks French.  The look of us must have gotten to him because he immediately went back to the kitchen, and I could hear him having a discussion with someone.   He comes out and says something to me in French.  All I understand is “croque-monsieur”, and profusely I say, “oui, oui, merci!”

Ten minutes later, we are served hot tea and two croque-monsieurs.  Now, in my head, this is just a grilled cheese sandwich, with ham.   It’s not.   It was this perfectly prepared, albeit very basic, hot, cheese and bread perfection.  Maybe it was because we were so hungry.  Or, that they were so kind to us.   But, the sight and taste of this almost brought me to tears.   It was exactly the kind of comfort I needed at that moment.  It was perfect.  Since then, I’ve never been disappointed when I order this, no matter where. 

The name of the dish originates from the French verb “croquer”, which means “to bite”, and “monsieur”, which means “mister”.   It started showing up in French cafes in the early 1900s, and first appeared in literature in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.   As it happens, Proust was born in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, the precise neighborhood where we happened to be (and where I now live).    I didn’t know any of these details about the croque-monsieur, at the time.  But now that I do, there is a certain symmetry to us being offered that particular meal, at that time.  To me anyway.  It’s the little things.

I started writing this two weeks ago and then got distracted by real life, but I also finished reading A Moveable Feast.   I have a bit of a book fetish.  I buy a ton of them, and justify it by telling myself I’m supporting a dying breed (book stores).   However, I’ve decided that while I’m living here, I’m only going to read books from the library (no, I don’t have a Kindle, and I don’t want one).    I figure this lends itself (no pun intended), to catching up on all those classics I’ve not read.  I decide maybe I’ll start with Proust.  Why not?  I figure I’ll go back to my little café, with my Marcel Proust.  I’ll order a glass of wine.  And maybe a croque-monsieur.

So, I go to the library with the intention of checking out In Search of Lost Time.  It is seven volumes and 4,215 pages.   That is a tremendous amount of grilled cheese.   And wine.

À bientôt, but first, a few photos . . .

Thanksgiving in London!   We saw a "Pleasure and Pain" shoe exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the musical, Kinky Boots.
Christmas market in Reims.
The opera house, Palais Garnier. 
Studying hard during French class.

A visit from some California cousins and lunch at Vins des Pyrénées (legend has it that Jim Morrison frequented here).
A belated Turkey dinner, and our little Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

1 comment:

  1. I missed seeing this until now. Loved your take on the sandwich, the need to eat, frantic time when nothing else will do, but the need to right your body's chemistry.