On Food and Being Foreign and a Chance to Win “Mastering the Art of French Eating”

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Food is universal. And whether in Beijing or in Paris, food writer and book author Ann Mah shows us that food can forge connections and food can be a lifeline.

Ann’s debut novel Kitchen Chinese was loosely based on her time in Beijing. Now, her new memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love From a Year in Paris (Pamela Dorman Books, September 2013) reflects her experiences living in the city of her (and many a Francophile’s) dreams, Paris.

The wife of a U.S. diplomat, Ann’s dream comes true when her husband lands a plum posting in Paris. Unfortunately, her dream is put on hold when her husband is sent to Iraq for a year and she has to fend for herself in a new country with nary a support system in place.

Living in a foreign country is never easy. When Ann lived in China, she found herself under scrutiny because she looked like everyone else but she identified with being American. In France, she grapples with the language, deals with the awkwardness of adapting to local customs, faces the challenge of meeting new people, and above all she nurses her longing for her husband.

Not one to wallow in her loneliness (at least not for too long!), Ann devises a plan to distract herself and so begins her investigation into the history and origins behind French favorites like steak frites, cassoulet and boeuf Bourgignon. Through her travels to regions all over the country–Brittany, Alsace, Savoie, etc.–Ann slowly overcomes these hurdles as she meets fascinating people and learns to make herself at home in her adopted country.

Just like its title, Ann’s book is chock full of lessons about food and love. Plus, the stories she regales us with—whether she’s making soupe au pistou with a group of gossipy, middle-aged women or learning the process behind the true cheese used in traditional French fondue (hint: it’s not Gruyère!)—are a delight for both the avid, and the armchair, traveler.

I’ve asked Ann to share some thoughts about her lovely book and her publisher Viking/Penguin is graciously giving away a copy. All you have to do is leave a comment about a favorite regional dish you’ve had while traveling (in another country, in another state, doesn’t matter!) and I’ll randomly pick a winner!

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Ann Mah KGL

Pat: Your feelings of being apart from your husband really resonated with me and this beautiful book came about because of that separation. Loneliness often pushes us to do things we wouldn’t  otherwise think of doing if we were in a comfortable place. Do you think it would have happened if he hadn’t gone to Iraq? If you had a choice, would you do it all over again?

Ann: This book grew out of the year I spent alone in Paris and I don’t think it would have happened if my husband hadn’t gone to Iraq. So, yes, there was a major silver lining to the experience. That being said, as much as I loved writing and researching this book, I wouldn’t choose to be separated from my husband again, especially now that we have a baby daughter.

Pat: You lived in Beijing and then in Paris. Would you say there were similarities in your experiences in the two countries although they are wildly different?

Ann: I think there were more similarities than differences — I loved exploring the regional cuisines of both places — and I noticed that both are quite fond of tripe! In both China and France, I was very grateful to be able to speak the language.

Pat: History and culture are clearly important to you as is evidenced in your book. Each dish in each chapter is painstakingly researched. How did you go about it? How did you find all your subjects to talk to and interview?

Ann: My favorite thing about traveling in France is discovering the connection between place, culture, history and food. I love the way a recipe can grow from the land and be cooked for centuries. I was able to connect with local chefs, home cooks, bean farmers (and more!) via friends and acquaintances — and also via my secret weapon, the local tourist office. French people are very proud of their region (justifiably so!) and eager to share what makes it special.

Pat: You speak Mandarin and then you picked up French quite quickly before you headed to Paris. What was it like learning a new language as an adult? Did knowing the language help with adapting to the local culture and making friends?

Ann: I always wanted to speak French so studying it was a labor of love. I think that’s half the battle in learning to speak a new language. My ability to speak French was invaluable in meeting people and discovering the local cuisine, especially in rural France where very few people speak English.

Pat: You write about all the different dishes with equal passion (even andouillette which you professed not to like). Did you have a favorite?

Ann: I love all the dishes in the book (even andouillette, which I love in theory, if not in taste). My favorite dishes in the book are the ones that were made for me by home cooks — crêpes in Brittany, soupe au Pistou in Provence, and choucroute garnie in Alsace. Granny’s version is always the best, of course!

Pat: What’s it like to be a diplomat’s wife … really?

Ann: I don’t know any other type of marriage, but I suspect being a diplomat’s wife is like being anyone’s spouse — there are ups and downs and lots of compromise. And the added bonus: lots of adventure — and an intimate familiarity with moving boxes and packing tape!

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Don’t forget to leave a comment about a favorite regional dish you had while traveling for a chance to win a copy of Mastering the Art of French Eating! Last day to enter: Wednesday, November 6, 2013.

(This giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada)

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of Ann’s book to review but I am writing about it because I truly love it!

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Pike Place Market Prunes–A Love Story

Pike Place Market‘s neon sign and clock backdropped by a typical grey and cloudy Seattle sky.

Prunes.

That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Pike Place Market. Not golden Rainier cherries blushing with rouge; nor freshly-foraged morels hiding under a light dusting of dirt; or, the blinding flash of silver-skinned salmon soaring overhead.

I first encountered Pike Place Market in 1992, a year of many firsts. It was my first time in Seattle, and in the United States. It was my first autumn. It was my first year at the University of Washington.

Everything was frighteningly foreign and excitingly new at the same time.

I was attending day one of the international students orientation organized by FIUTS (Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, it’s a great organization btw) and a trip to Pike Place Market was on the agenda. Besides a hike to the Ice Caves, the market excursion was one of the highlights of the weeklong orientation. That morning, I was nodding off during most of the presentations thanks to jetlag and also because they were, quite frankly, boring.

After lunch, a group of us headed downtown on a Metro bus: Annie, our soft-spoken group leader from Taiwan; Sabine, a German Claudia Schiffer lookalike, all blond hair and mile-long legs; Top, a Thai guy who went everywhere with his camera slung around his neck; Yuki, a bubbly Japanese girl with curly—very curly—hair; Luwei, a smart and sassy Indonesian; and Hsin, a Singaporean gal who became one of my best friends.

We dropped off at Westlake Station and Annie told us our first stop was Pike Place Market. I didn’t know what to expect. In Singapore and Indonesia, markets were wet, dark, dirty places teeming with crooked vendors, squawking chickens, and foul odors. They weren’t my favorite places, let alone tourist attractions!

As we approached the market heading west along Pike Street, the “Public Market Center” sign loomed in the distance. As we drew closer, my eyes grew rounder and my jaw dropped.

People were snapping photos left, right and center and everyone seemed more interested in browsing than bargaining. The market was sparkling clean (relatively speaking) and the only aroma my nose sniffed out was that of summer’s last chance peaches mingling with the fresh sea scent from Elliott Bay.

The market is always busy, no matter the season or day of the week

I stopped to pet Rachel the Pig. I jostled with the crowds watching grown men play with fish. I marveled at the glorious blooms grown by Hmong farmers. I oohed and aahed at peaches, apricots, squash, Brussel sprouts–all fruits and vegetables I wasn’t accustomed to seeing at a market.

Hmong farmers grow and sell the most beautiful blooms year-round

As we were wandering the market, I spotted a stall selling deep purple, almost black, oval orbs with wrinkly, leathery skins. Prunes! I don’t know about you but when I travel I always have issues with you-know-what so I lingered, perhaps hoping to absorb the fruit’s magical properties via osmosis.

Prunes and lychees together at the market, what a juxtaposition!

I hesitated to open my mouth. Just the day before, I had an embarrassing (if only-to-me) kerfuffle at the University Bookstore. I had asked the sales person if they sold “cohk boahds” in my British-inflected English and I repeated myself several times before I realized what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t pronouncing my ‘r’s.

“Corrrrk boarrrrd,” I trilled. Only then did her eyes register a flicker of understanding. Who knew English could pass for a foreign language?

I took a deep breath, pointed to the prunes and squeaked, “Half pound please.” Then I grabbed the brown paper bag held out to me and shuffled off in a hurry.

I dug into the bag and brought a prune to my lips. I was so startled I stopped to a halt. This was not the rubbery-medicinal- Sunsweet-supermarket kind of prune I was used to. This prune was pillowy-soft and tasted of sunshine and sugar. It had obviously spent its last days happily basking in the sun, concentrating as much of its pluminess/pruniness as possible.

By the time we left the market, only seeds remained in the brown bag as evidence. I enjoyed those prunes immensely, and needless to say, I achieved my initial goal.

The stall I used to buy my prunes from is no longer at the market. Now, I buy them from “From Garden to You”

It’s been 20 years since my maiden encounter with Pike Place Market. Since then, I’ve returned to the market again and again, and brought home salmon, strawberries, tulips, Dungeness crab–all the bounty the Northwest has to offer. They’ve all been fresh and fabulous. But it’s only prunes that I always make a beeline for, if not for nostalgia’s sake then just because.

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This post is dedicated to my friend Jess Thomson (yes, this is a disclaimer, I know the author) and her new book Pike Place Market Recipes (Sasquatch Books, May 2012). Jess compiled 130 fresh recipes, many from market vendors and restaurateurs, and tossed in smart tips and tricks for utilizing the varied products the market has to offer. For everyone who’s had the pleasure of visiting Pike Place Market, it’s a wonderful way to bring the market home with you, whether you visit every week or once in a lifetime.

I wish I could share a recipe with you but there are no recipes using prunes in the cookbook (I know, whaa?!). But what I can do is share Jess’s cookbook with one lucky winner.

Do you have memories of Pike Place Market, or how ‘bout them prunes? Just leave a comment and I’ll pick a winner through some complex randomized system, or just by eeny meeny miny mo-ing.

Winners will be announced on June 30th!