big food

Welcome Home; or, Back in the USSA

One of the great pleasures of being an expat is going “home”.

You get to be a tourist in the place you are from.

A big trip back is an opportunity to catch up with friends and family, eat all the foods you miss, and (re)introduce your kids to the things you love. My daughter was 4 when we left the states, so she thinks she remembers living in the midwest, but she probably just remembers the stories we’ve told her. It’s important to me that she keep contact with her American roots, so it’s wonderful to reconnect over summer break. It’s also a terrific opportunity for me to appreciate where we come from and see it with new eyes.

Fresh Off the Plane

It takes me three airplanes to get “home”. I put it in quotations, because when I land in Kentucky it’s nearly obvious that I’m not from around here. In the south of France, I may be the most bluegrass-y person around, but when I’m around these parts, I tend to stand out in my style of dress, of speech, and of attitudes. Plus, I just don’t know the local places anymore.

Nonetheless, one thing never fails to choke me up. (This, coming from the woman who doesn’t cry at movies or books or such.) What gets me is passport control. Truly. Entering the US in DC, they have a big line for passport control. First there are self-serve kiosks for checking in; you enter your info and have a photo taken and print out a slip. Then you continue in the queue to wait for the next officer, which takes forever because you can barely stand up after the long flights and time change and the kids are cranky. Finally, he looks through it all, asks a few questions, and then…as he hands back your passport…he says, “Welcome home!” Gets me every time. For some reason, this daily gesture of the passport control officer is deeply meaningful to me. Even just talking about it chokes me up.

Fresh Eyes

Out of the airport and on to the highway…It’s been three years since my last visit in the USA and the first thing that jumps out at me is the cars–they are BIG! In Provence, my Ford Fusion is too big for me. It sits too low and is too long and isn’t the right tool for the job. Here, that same model looks fairly average. Small, even. There are SUVs and Jeeps and great big pickup trucks and luxuriously large autos everywhere. And nearly each one of them is transporting just one person.

Big Big Big!

With all those big cars, the roads also need to be BIG! Long, straight, flat, endless. The lanes are wiiiiiide, with extra shoulders on both sides and maybe even a bike lane. And streets are well-marked, which is handy. In Provence, driving two hours can feel like a strenuous sport–it’s made up of exhausting twisty turny roads going up and down big hills with nary a street sign or guard rail. It takes all your attention. Here in the midwest, you nearly don’t have to think. Smoooooth.

And the parking spots are BIG! And the lanes in the parking lots are BIG! No wonder all those shiny large cars are not yet scratched up–there is plenty of room for everyone to maneuver. Even the little cars in France are generally dinged and scratched and scuffed. Not here. All shiny and new and, well, you guessed it–BIG!IMG_5197

Let’s Eat!

Besides the transportation differences, eating out is the other big area of differences that I am noticing this trip. It is quite a different experience from dining out in Provence.

First, you can walk in anywhere at anytime and eat anything. Almost literally. Where we are in France, there are limited hours of serving and usually only a limited selection of dishes on the menu each day. In the US, the menus are large and larger, and international flavors abound. Every town has a Chinese buffet, sushi bar, and Tex-Mex sit-down. Want breakfast at 3:30 in the afternoon? Then IHOP is for you. Or Bob Evans; even in this seemingly unusual request you have a choice.

Running Hot and Cold

It’s hard to say what you’ll notice as the next difference–the warm welcome or the cold atmosphere? There will be someone stationed at the front door whose sole purpose is to greet you and take your reservation and lead you to your table with menus in hand. Invariably, this greeter is a young lady with a smile and some kind of computer screen in front of her. In France, one is often left waiting about awkwardly, wondering if you should just grab a table or try to flag down the busy waiter. Hoping to not be shunned for not having a reservation. Or is that just me?

Either the big smile or the cold blast will hit you first. Yes, no one does climate control quite like the Americans. There may even be a pressure difference between indoor and outdoor that will make opening the door a Herculean feat. Then the arctic blast hits you. I didn’t pack nearly enough jackets and sweaters for a summer trip home. It takes the breath away. Breath you can see in the meat-locker like conditions.

What?!

Once seated and holding a multi-page menu that you are barely given enough time to read, you may notice feeling a bit overwhelmed. The music piping through the restaurant is loud. You kind of have to shout over it to converse at the table. That is, if you can get the attention of your table mates–they are more distracted by one of the fifteen television screens within immediate view, each with a different channel playing. And each one with the volume up.

The food comes quickly, there is that to be said for the American experience. You won’t go hungry and you won’t wait long for it. The dishes are BIG too, but not necessarily of the same quality one might expect in France. There are less than Michelin-starred restaurants in France, of course, but even that is above an average American quick-serve fast-casual restaurant. I recently had a tasty salad with buffalo chicken on top. Can’t get that in France–particularly when you consider that the lettuce was frozen. Crunchy ice frozen. Amazing. How is that even possible? Maybe it was sitting next to the air conditioner.

Here’s a Tip for You

Before you’ve finished eating, the bill is dropped off at the table. No long after-dinner conversation, no flagging down the server. And this leads to my final painful difference.

I have forgotten how to tip. I mean, I remember the function and that I’m supposed to, but the whole mechanism is rusty. They bring the check, I look at it. I put my card in the tray or pleather folder. Then they walk. Away. With my credit card. This didn’t used to be so strange. But now that I am used to the credit machine coming to the table side, it feels really weird. Where are you going with that? Shopping?!

They return with a plethora of paper slips. One is for you to keep, one is for the restaurant. I have signed the wrong one three times already. Now, time for some higher math. How much? 10%? 20%? 25%? In Europe, waitstaff get a living wage and healthcare and benefits and can actually survive on what they make. Not so in the US. I had to convince my Irish and French colleagues that the minimum wage for a waiter or waitress is actually $2.13, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It is a complete shame. No wonder that there are restaurants changing this model and they seem to be succeeding wildly.  Thus, in France we don’t tip as much. It isn’t as obligatory as it is in the US. And I am obviously out of practice at filling out the papers and doing the math.

Welcome home! What are your favorite and least favorite things about returning to your home country as an expat?

 

An Expat’s Guide to Serving the British Cuppa

EMILY: As an American living in France, I’ve been introduced to the thriving expat community that resides here in Provence. I am lucky to have developed friendships with people from all over the world, including several lovely and wonderful folks from the UK.

Recently, a friend from Scotland came over. It was a crisp day and I had just put the kettle on for a cup of tea. I asked if she would also like a cup. Alas, as a green tea drinker, all I had stocked in my cupboard was an array of green teas and an errant bag or two of chamomile.

When I revealed this fact, Sal’s face immediately fell. “Oh yes,” she sighed, “I forgot I’m in an American house. Next time I see you, I’ll give you some tea I brought back from the UK.”

After disappointing my Scottish friend with my lack of proper tea, I surveyed my other British friends as to the best tea to have on hand and how to serve “a proper cup.”

To save anyone else from suffering the embarrassment of my faux pas when hosting a British friend for an afternoon, I’ve asked fellow expat and UK native Pippa to guide us non-Brits on how to serve a proper cup of tea.

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The authors, Pippa and Emily, enjoy a cuppa together.

PIPPAWhen I moved to France from England, I discovered that the British cuppa occupies only one corner of a massive tea field, and an invitation for a cup of tea did not guarantee a drink with which I had any familiarity.

So, for the sake and well-being of all the Brits craving their cuppa abroad, I have assembled a list of the fundamentals for serving a British friend a proper cup of tea:

THE TEA

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In the UK, the offer of a cup of tea usually means only one thing: a hot, brown, milky drink. No need to identify it, but sometimes you might be asked, “India or China?” or “Is PG okay?” The former refers to Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong; the latter to a blend (PG Tips in this case). Everyone has their favourite blend: Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, Typhoo, etc. As long as you have one of these in the cupboard, you’re safe.

THE WATER

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The water should be freshly boiled and poured over the bag or an infuser with loose tea. Do not dunk your bag in the water—dunking is for biscuits. Science says about 96°C is perfect, so there!

THE POT

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If making a pot (God bless you!), you should warm it first with boiling water. You don’t want to mess with the temperature!

THE CUP

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Seriously, tea tastes different whether it is in a china, glass, metal, plastic, or cardboard cup. Of course, needs must, but I’m sure it’s obvious which works best with the British cuppa.

THE TECHNIQUE

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Leave for a minimum of 30 seconds. I’ve found three minutes is quite nice. I’ve just finished a cuppa that stewed for eight minutes, but I have a weakness for “builders tea” (strong and sweet enough to stand the spoon up in it and put hairs on your chest—pardon the imagery).

Important Note: Do not squeeze the bag to speed up the process! It makes the tea more bitter. You can swirl it if you want. Carefully.

THE MILK

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I was always taught that best practice is milk first. A member of my family once had tea with Prince Charles (oo, get us) and confirms that even he’s a “Miffy.” This avoids staining or scalding the cup and it means you do not have to stir if you don’t take sugar.

However, this has to go by the wayside if making tea from one bag in a cup. You can’t put milk on a bag! So, it is only relevant to tea made in a pot. And no, I’m not going to bother asking whether you should add milk or not! We are talking about the British cuppa here—you only omit milk if you have an upset tummy or are a student.

THE SUGAR

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If you take sugar, like me, and ignore the dentist, boring old white sugar is the best. Sorry, but brown sugar, caster sugar (sucre en poudre), fake carcinogenic sweeteners, etc. do not taste the same as white granulated sugar (sucre crystal).

THE BISCUITS

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Biscuits are a necessity for the full experience. There are so many to choose from and every Brit has their favourite (Hobnobs, Bourbons, Custard Creams, Jammy dodgers, Digestives, etc). My favourite: Rich Teas, to dunk. Some consider dunking bad manners, but why else do such bland biscuits exist? Normally you don’t want anything too fancy disintegrating in your cup, but each to their own, I say. Just remember to provide a teaspoon.

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So, there you have it. I’m sure opinions on such a fundamental topic will vary and, of course, adapt your tea-making for your own needs and those of your guest. And please don’t stop initiating us in the wonderful, alternative global pantheon of hot beverages—new experiences are all part of living abroad after all. But I don’t think you can underestimate the magical effect of a good British cuppa on a Brit abroad: the instant relaxation and warm mushy feelings of gratitude and friendship.

Hmm, after all that, I think it’s time to put the kettle on.

Adventures in Food: American Baking in a French Kitchen

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When we first arrived in France, my kids embraced French cuisine with gusto. I was delighted at all they were willing to try. They tasted escargot, coq-au-vin, mousse de canard. Some they even liked! (Massive amounts of butter and garlic can make almost anything palatable.)

But, after a few months, they were craving a bit of Americana—a literal taste of home. So, we settled on baking a family favorite: chocolate chip cookies. It seemed easy enough, after all, in the U.S., we had baked chocolate chip cookies dozens of times. A lovely hour of family baking time followed by deliciously warm, gooey, chocolately cookies.

My first indication that this was not going to be the easy, fun family activity I was imagining came at the grocery store. A quick sweep of the store rendered my basket half empty. Eggs, salt, butter, sugar – check, check, check, and check. But I stood immobilized in the flour section, pondering the several different types. Which one was all-purpose flour? And what is this numbering system…45, 55? And where on earth are the chocolate chips? The brown sugar? What do they call baking soda here?

After two more fruitless tours of the grocery store, I purchased the items in my cart and decided to return later. Back at home, I spent 30 minutes conducting online baking research. I needed number 55 flour, the French equivalent for brown sugar is called Vergeoise, and while chocolate chips did exist, they tended to come in small bags and were crazy expensive. The recommendation was to chop up chocolate bars to create your own artisanal “chocolate chunks.”

Armed with this new information, I went back to the store and was able to finish getting the remainder of the ingredients. But back at home, I was confronted with a new challenge: conversions. How many grams are in a cup? How many grams in an ounce? What’s 350 degrees Fahrenheit on a Celsius oven? More online researching while my children waited patiently. Just kidding…they really were not at all patient.

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Back to the baking bowl and we were a whir of activity. Alas, I had no electric mixer, so we had to cream the butter into the sugar using a fork. My children thought this was super fun for roughly 30 seconds before this tiring exercise became solely my  responsibility. Chopping up the chocolate bars was also solely my responsibility. Adding to the “fun” was trying to avoid chopping up the little fingers that kept reaching to steal the bits of chocolate.

Ah! Now to baking. Eagerly anticipating the wonderful smell of baking cookies filling my home, I tried to put my cookie sheet in the oven. I say “try” because the darn thing wouldn’t fit. All of my American-sized cookie sheets were too wide for my French-sized oven. “[CENSORED],” I whisper-yelled to myself. Back to the store…

Furnished with a new, smaller cookie sheet, I was ready to go. While this new cookie sheet fit my oven perfectly, it could only fit six cookies at a time. And I only had one. So, I had to bake three dozen cookies, six at a time. It was going to be a long night.

I finally wrapped up the whole process at about midnight, hours after my children had gone to bed. Alone, exhausted, in a completely dark and silent house, I tasted my first France-made American-style chocolate chip cookie.

It was delicious.

American Chocolate Chip Cookies Designed for the French Kitchen

I used the Martha Stewart recipe. You can find the original here.

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Ingredients:

  • 285 g (1 ¼ c.) beurre, room temperature (butter)
  • 250 g chocolat noir, chopped (dark chocolate)
  • 250 g chocolat lait, chopped (milk chocolate)
  • 450 g (3 ½ c.) farine de blé type 55 (flour)
  • 6 g (1 ¼ t.) levure chimique (baking powder)
  • 6 g (1 ¼ t.) bicarbonate de soude (baking soda)
  • 12 g (2 t.) sel (salt)
  • 200 g (1 c.) sucre en poudre (granulated sugar)
  • 330 g (1 ½ c.) vergeoise blonde (light brown sugar)
  • 6 g (1 ½ t.) arôme vanille (vanilla extract)
  • 2 œufs (eggs)
  • 1 bottle of Provence rosé (wine)

Directions:

  1. Set out your butter to reach room temperature. Check your cookie sheet. Does it fit in your oven? Do you have more than one? If you said “yes” to both, congratulations! You’re already ahead of the game! Have a glass of rosé to celebrate while you wait for the butter to soften.
  2. Chop up the chocolate bars. Little bits of chocolate will shoot everywhere and when you accidently touch the bits, they will stick to your hand and melt. Avoid wearing white. Have another glass of rosé as you ask yourself why you didn’t shell out the extra money for those tiny bags of chocolate chips.
  3. In a bowl, combine and whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  4. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugars on medium-high until light and fluffy, 6 minutes. If you haven’t had the time to buy an electric mixer because the expat life means having to rebuy everything that has a plug, then you can also do this using a fork. It will take far longer than six minutes, so fortify yourself with another glass of rosé. Your children will not be interested in helping you with this task.
  5. Reduce speed to medium-low and beat in eggs, one at a time. Beat in vanilla. Again, you can do all this using a fork. You will begin to question everything in your life. Your children, sensing your distress, will offer to help. They will make an unholy mess. You may have another glass of rosé.
  6. Mix in flour mixture just until incorporated; fold in your chopped chocolate.
  7. Using a large spoon, form balls and drop dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Laugh to yourself that Martha Stewart is so naïve to think you would have parchment somewhere in your house. You have no idea where you would even find parchment paper at the store—for goodness sake, it took you 20 minutes to find the fricking baking soda.
  8. Refrigerate dough for 1 hour. Your children will hate this step. They will be livid. You pour yourself some more rosé.
  9. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
  10. Bake until edges are light golden brown, 17 to 18 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and try not to eat them until they’re cool. Ha, ha, just kidding! Dive into those suckers right now, even if it means burning your fingers and tongue. You’ve earned every delicious bite.