Sunday, January 28, 2007

It was fun to read the interview with former French Road neighbor Jim Harrison in the NY Times this week. As always, the Times writer revealed as much about himself as he did about his subject. I was laughing at the video that accompanied the article, when the cameraman shot a long still of Harrison's pack of American Spirits sitting on the table, like they were some sort of key to the mystery of how to be an awesome writer. Later that night, I laughed again seeing a pack of the same brand cigarettes on the corner of a blackjack table. Maybe they are also the secret to awesome double downs.

Although the Harrisons lived up the road from us for many years, I never met Jim. I enjoyed his writing too much to want to meet him, but I sold eggs to Linda and kept an eye out when they were searching for stray dogs. I never really knew that he was a well-known writer until one slow winter night at the casino when I saw guys in scarves walking around. Guys in northern Michigan don't wear scarves unless it's 12 below and blowing forty, and even then they take them off indoors. Eventually one of the guys in scarves sat down at my blackjack table and I asked him where he was from.

"Paris," was the reply. "In France." Like I couldn't figure that out! They turned out to be in town filming a documentary on the cranky writer guy up the road, who was quite well known in Paris. In France. The French guys were very funny gamblers, laughing when they won, laughing even more when they lost, teasing me to use my rusty high-school French. They were not in a hurry, just thrilled to be here.

Cooking gourmet food in an ordinary kitchen is pretty French. Cooking local, homegrown food is pretty French, and it happens a lot on French Road, too. Right now my culinary quest is veering between recreating a Thai basil sauce that I ate four years ago in Soho and finding ways to cook the 3-year-old spent laying chickens ("old biddies") in the freezer. I find myself on sites like Cha Xiu Bao, where the recipe for Chicken and Conch Soup with Honeydew Melon starts out "Get an old chicken -- they have much more flavor."

I won't make this particular recipe, since I have no conch feet, but it's helpful to realize that those tough old birds would be sought after by many cooks. Not American cooks, for whom chicken is a meal that can be prepared and consumed in less than an hour, but slow cooks who remember the old food.

In the NY Times video, Harrison sounds like my Grampa Lee, talking about how most Americans have never fed a chicken or held a pig or petted a cow. Or my husband, when we are slaughtering chickens, complaining that I don't pluck feathers half as fast as his mother did. "Nobody could pluck a chicken faster than my grandma. She'd grab it, dunk it, then pfft, pfft, pfft, she was done and on to the next one!" Someday I might measure up.

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