Food for the Soul

Food for the Soul
When people ask me why I wrote Food for the Soul, I fondly recall special events that occurred in two different cities—places that are far removed from one another—and far from Houston, my home. The first place was Philadelphia. I began my love affair with cooking at the W. E. B. DuBois College House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that during my junior year, I invited the only three other African-American Houstonians on campus to my apartment for a soul food dinner. The joy of preparing the meal, the warmth of companionship and the good memories that were evoked around the dinner table made me realize the importance of food in maintaining ties with home when you are away. The second place is the apartment that my husband and I shared when we first moved to Paris. Moving to Paris was the fulfillment of a longtime dream…I was going to live and work in a land where I could perfect my French language skills, revel in gastronomic delights and have the rest of Europe just a few hours from my doorstep. So when I arrived in the summer of 1992, bags and cat in tow, I was in seventh heaven! I immediately set out to explore the plethora of bakeries offering irresistible breads and pastries (my major weakness!), and was equally enthused about patronizing the sidewalk cafés, bistros, brasseries and upscale restaurants that I found on virtually every street corner. As a result of my canvassing, I decided that my favorite restaurant dessert was tarte tatin, an upside-down apple pie created in the late 19th century by one of two spinster sisters known as les desmoiselles Tatin. I made a solemn vow to order tarte tatin at every restaurant that offered it, and soon learned to recognize a microwaved concoction, the edges of which would burn the tongue while the center remained refrigerator cold. I also sampled crêpes at every opportunity. I quickly decided that simple pleasures are the best, foregoing the many fillings offered and declaring the crêpe sucre-beurre (crêpe with butter and sugar) as my favorite. Breakfast breads, called viennoiserie, were another passion, and I soon determined which bakeries in the neighborhood produced the most buttery, flaky croissants and the finest pain aux raisins (literally, raisin bread). The weather was beautiful (a rarity in Paris), my new job was fun and exciting, and I awaited with great anticipation the arrival from the States of my darling Tom. The summer passed in the wink of an eye, and before I knew it, both September and Tom had come. I was excited about sharing my culinary discoveries with him, and we laughed over his insistence that my dessert preferences were all wrong – in restaurants his choice was between the île flottante (a large puff of meringue with or without a caramelized topping, floating on a lake of crème anglaise) and the crème brulée (a dessert flan with a caramelized topping). As for the crêpes, it was obvious to him that nothing could surpass one filled with Nutella (a hazelnut paste), and that my crêpe sucre-beurre could never hope to compete against such a sublime creation. Another joyful month passed quickly, and then the honeymoon period was abruptly over. The Parisians, largely absent from the city from mid-July to September, were back, and in sour moods. The weather turned gray and dismal, and seemed to remain so for weeks on end. Transit and postal strikes rendered daily life a struggle, and our culturally conditioned expectations magnified ordinary frustrations. Tom was beginning to understand the difficulty he would have finding work. And the blissful months of sampling pastries and crêpes and fresh breads at will had come to rest on the hips and thighs, so that my clothes weren’t fitting as they should anymore. I became, in a word, depressed. Then one fateful morning, I woke up and thought to myself that I did not want to eat croissants or pain aux raisins or tartine (a baguette cut in half lengthwise and spread with butter and jam) for breakfast. The only thing that would give me that warm and fuzzy feeling that I needed inside was GRITS! Good old down home southern GRITS! In that moment my mind was flooded with memories of food from home. All the good things from the breakfast table – pancakes and cane syrup, fresh biscuits with strawberries, pan sausage and crispy bacon – came first. Then came a jumble of recollections – Texas barbecue and chili, fried chicken, collard and mustard greens, cornbread, candied yams, smothered pork chops… I smiled at first, because I remembered the contentment that comes with a bellyful of such good food. And then I almost cried, because I didn’t have any idea when I was going to have it again. I immediately thought, “Call home and ask Ma…,â€
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