Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lost in books

For as long as I can remember, I've loved books. My maternal grandmother worked at Harris Elementary School, at the time the only elementary school in my hometown. She would bring home discarded books for us. I used one of those books to teach my sister Cindy to read. My mom always read stories to us kids in the evenings. She is seldom without a book. The first brand new book I remember receiving was one in the Bobbsey Twins series, a Christmas gift from my cousin, Jeff. I don't know how old I was, maybe eight or nine. I do know that I loved that book. Since then, I've spent more money than I care to think about on books, new and used. I have shelves full of my favorites. I have given away many to the Durham Academy annual book fair. I've lent ones I love to friends and students, sometimes returned, sometimes not. And to be honest, I have probably borrowed a few that I have not returned to their rightful owners. I've read assigned books- middle school, high school, college, faculty summer reading books. I remember a few of those assigned books that had an impact on my life and way of thinking-- Les Misérables by Hugo in high school for an independent English class (Jean Valjean is my hero), Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton for my freshman history course in college, All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque for the same history class, Lust for Life by Irving Stone (the beginning of my love affair with Vincent Van Gogh which lead to my desire to visit Arles). Students always seem to dread assigned books, my own children and my advisees at school telling me that they do not want to read books that they have to read, books that are chosen for them. I always read or reread the 7th grade summer reading book so that I can talk to my advisees intelligently about it (The Little Prince is this year's choice- I own a 1946 edition of Le Petit Prince autographed by Saint Exupéry's sister). I try to convince them to give the books that are chosen a chance... they will probably be more interesting than they think.
We have had very interesting authors come talk to our students about their books. I've met Gloria Huston, a writer from Western North Carolina and author of the Little Jim series, in particular The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree set in Spruce Pine and Ji-li Jiang, author of Red Scarf Girl about her life in China during the Cultural Revolution at Durham Academy. I've been to readings given by Doug Marlette (I proudly own autographed copies of both of his novels), Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton and Jill Connor Browne. I recently missed one by David Sedaris at a bookstore in Raleigh and am still whining about that.
Books have long been a very important part of my life. I even convinced the BFF to haul a duffle bag full of them to me across the ocean last September because I didn't have anything interesting to read in English. (She has since informed me that she will never do that again!) Having friends who can personally select a book for me and take great pleasure in presenting it to me is one of the joys of my life. Martha truly excels at that. So did Gail Walker, my late friend and colleague. Until her funeral, I thought I was the only one she bestowed paper grocery store bags full of used books upon! Silly me. She just had a knack for selecting exactly what I liked to read, even if I didn't even know the author yet. When my dad died of cancer, she brought over carefully selected books to get me through the sadness by helping me escape it.
And for the most part, that is what reading has always been for me- my greatest form of escape. The drawback to this, other than many nights of lost sleep reading in bed until the wee hours of the morning, is that I tend to get wrapped up in the lives of the characters whose life I am following. Case in point is the book I almost finished last night/this morning. (I finally shut the light off at 2:00 am, willing myself to go to sleep and leave the last chapter until today.) On the surface, I have nothing in common with Kim Sunée, the author of
Trail of Crumbs. She was an orphan in Korea, abandoned at the age of three and adopted by a couple from New Orleans. She never felt as if she belonged there, however, and escaped as soon as she could, leaving the U.S. for Europe, landing in France and becoming the mistress to the founder of L'Occitane en Provence, the company based in Manosque.
I suppose this is where our lives intersect, mine and Kim's. She moves to Provence. In an early chapter of the book, she writes about stopping in Cassis, the village pictured above, for lunch and a glass of Cassis blanc. I had the incredible luck to do the same on a beautiful day late last fall. Kim is quite an accomplished chef, having learned from her New Orleans grandfather. I, too, spent hours in my grandfather's kitchen as a child. I can still summon the smell of his beef stew. Kim is searching for her own identity. She only truly feels at home in the kitchen. I feel her pain and want her to find herself and her own sense of self-worth, apart from the men she meets and depends upon to take care of her. At the end of the book, she is on her own. I now feel the need to google her to see what she is doing.
Characters in good books do that to you. They become friends. They "tame" you, to quote the fox in
Le Petit Prince. Therefore, you are responsible for them forever. "Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé."

While at the beach, I saw a huge fig tree, with the figs just beginning to ripen. It made me think of this wonderful dish we made several times in Arles.
Bon appétit!

Muget en Papillottes de Feuilles de Figuier
Grey Mullet in a Packet of Fig Leaves
(from Chef Érick Vedel)

For 6 people

Preparation time : 20 minutes ; cooking time : 25 minutes

This dish can be made as one large fish, or, you can chop the fish into individual serving sized slices/steaks and make individual papillotes. – adapt the cooking time as necessary.


1 grey mullet or another firm-fleshed whole fish of approx. 1.5 Kilo, (3 lbs) from the sea (I’ve also done this with already cleaned, fileted fish from the market- no worry about bones that way!)
3 large onions
8 fig leaves
8 leaves of fresh sage
1 tsp of anise grains
olive oil
sea salt

Clean and scale the fish, wash it under running water, tap it dry and remove the filets, if necessary. Depending upon the size of your fish, you can do this as one long filet, placing half the ingredients on the bottom and the other half on top following the directions below. Otherwise, make two layers, using the following method.
Cut the onions in rounds. Wash the fig leaves under cold water and pat dry.
Take a large pan (a cookie sheet works) that can hold the filets. Cover the pan with a sheet of aluminum foil double its width. Lay 4 of the fig leaves in the middle of the foil, place half the onion rounds neatly spread out on the leaves, place 4 of the sage leaves evenly spread out, sprinkle a few of the anise seeds on the savory bed and then lay the fish filets, skin side down, on it. Lightly salt the filet, drizzle olive oil on it, sprinkle a few more anise seeds on its flesh, and lay 3 of your sage leaves there. Then place the second filet, flesh side down, on top of the first. Sprinkle the rest of the anise seeds, the last of the sage leaves, the rest of the onions on top, cover with the fig leaves, and wrap well in the aluminum foil to seal.

If working with the whole fish, place in the oven and bake at 375F/180C for 45 minutes, till the flesh is just done, still tender and moist. If working with individual sized portions, then reduce the time by half to a third, to 15-20 minutes.

Serve immediately.

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