I remember very clearly the first time I tasted French food. I was 11 or 12, that part’s a little hazy. My mom was dating this Texas oil tycoon and we were living out some weird pretty woman scenario. He took us to a restaurant called The Mango Tree. At the time this was the fanciest restaurant in our tiny sand bar of a town, Cocoa Beach. It was a dream to me, the little white trash metal head that I was. Somehow, I had already started developing a taste for things far beyond our monetary reach. I marveled at the fine linens and crystal. The fact that I was allowed to drink wine with the adults, slurp down escargot smothered in garlic butter and eat duck breast that had the most perfectly seared skin and tantalizing shade of pink amazed me. They even served single cigarettes after the meal, and yes, people actually used to smoke in restaurants when I was young. The beautifully written French words I didn’t understand and the whole concept of eating this way made something stir inside of me.
After that dinner my mother saw how affected I was and tried her best to nurture this tiny seed of culture in me. This can be hard to do in town like CB, which is pretty much a waste land left to philistines and strippers. She started by renting me my first foreign film, a French movie called My Sweet Launderette. The story was about a gay couple who owned a laundry mat. Much of it was lost on me because of the titillating sex scenes in the launderette. My first foreign film and my first gay erotic film. My mom was way ahead of the curve, you could say. What I did pick up on was the tone of the dialog and the rhythm of the language. The expression of passion and the defeat of heart break. It spoke to me in a way that no other film ever had. Oh la la. I was hooked.
My mother usually worked two jobs to make ends meet. When I say we were white trash, I mean it. I grew up in the welfare lines and have actually eaten government cheese. I ate free school lunches and wore second hand clothes. I learned to smoke, have sex and do drugs before I even knew what all of that really meant. We were scrappy gypsy people and we moved nearly every year of my life during that time with my mother. I have to hand it to her though, she always found a way to make it work. No matter how bleak the scenario, we had a home, I was fed, educated and taught how to live on a shoestring. Through all that, my mother found a way to nurture this strange affinity for luxurious eating in me. She scrimped and saved every year to take me to a restaurant of my choice for my birthday. It was almost always Cafe Margot, which was two towns away. At the time, it was really upscale and meant half a month’s rent for us, major bucks in our house. It gave her such joy to do this for me, and for me it was sheer and utter gastronomic bliss. My dreams were made of pate‘ and wine, velvety sauces and decadent desserts. No other kid my age gave a damn about such things and it was around that time I really started to pull away from my peers, in general. I built a small, wobbly dream of leaving home and moving to France to write. But, life had other plans for me.
Somewhere along the line, I left home far too young and I lost sight of my dream to move to France and write short stories. I got weighed down by menial jobs and paying the bills. Bad relationships, drug abuse and recovery, followed by more heart break in the form of death, and then, more death. When I finally leveled out, I snapped out of it and just went to work, slept, ate, shat and lived a “normal” life for a bit. It was then that I remembered that I once had dreams– fanciful dreams of seeing the world and tasting as many different things as I could. So, I picked up my dreams and dusted them off and reshaped them into something that was more reflective of the woman I had become.
Part of that dream was culinary school, where I met some truly amazing people. People who helped me set myself free and held up a mirror so I could see who I really am. This may sound dramatic to some of you but I think so many of us have a hard time really connecting with ourselves and we spend all of our time looking for validation from other people. True freedom is an illusive notion to so many of us, and it has a hefty price, but I can say it is absolutely worth it. It is truly a gift if a person is fortunate enough to meet people who just let you twist and yell and scream and laugh as loud as you want.
Two of those people, for me, are Courtney and Diane. Two woman vastly different in age, appearance and backgrounds. Two women, both searching for their freedom and their passion. Two women who spent countless hours on barstools, dance floors and talking food with me. Two women I hold very dear to my heart for totally different reasons. Diane reminds me of my roots, reminds me to be humble and go with the flow. She shows me how to see people as they are and always work hard to be happy and honorable. Courtney teaches me to stay sassy and confident and swing my proverbial dick around when I need to. She helps to remind me that I set out for the moon and dammit that’s exactly where this fucking ship is going.
As the end of school was approaching and we got to planning, I stuck my finger on the map of Bangkok and Diane set her course for Italy. Courtney was waving in the breeze trying to figure out what to do, and Diane and I put the full court press (ya see what I did there?) on her to get her ass to France. She hemmed and hawed but when she bought her ticket I quickly followed suit and said, “Sister, I’ll see you in a month in Paris!” And just like that 20+ years of yearning was about to be fulfilled. With Diane just a hop skip and a jump away, we made plans to convene in the City of Love, the roots of our culinary education.
The day I arrived in Paris I was a mess. Just having left the states for what was an indefinite period of time. Leaving a new relationship, a failed marriage, and most importantly decades of friends behind. I arrived exhausted and bewildered and terrified to face my dream for real. Courtney welcomed me like the bubbly, golden, midwestern angel that she is. I tucked myself into her tiny apartment and slept in odd spurts till she got off service at 2am. Then we took a walk, just down the street from her house and we were in the middle of the Louvre. 3am in Paris, and it had started to rain ever so slightly. I was humbled and shaken. How had this white trash high school drop out ever managed to launch herself to this place? Truly amazing. Courtney asked me if I was cold, and honestly, I couldn’t feel it. All I felt was high.
We spent the whole next day just walking, touching, seeing, tasting and bathing in the light that only shines that way in Paris. I watched my beautiful friend navigate her way confidently through her new city. I felt such pride to know her and be a small sliver of her magical journey. It helped reignite the spark in me that had set me out on my own journey. Diane joined us the next day and the trio of odd balls was once again united, but this time in PARIS! We drank, we ate, we ogled men and women alike. We talked shit and criticized the food. We ate one of the worst French meals any of us had ever had and we wandered, lost and barefoot, through the streets. We argued and annoyed each other and slept on the floor. We made up and saw an opera and ate more baguettes. We arranged a surprise birthday for Courtney and had an experience none of us dreamed we would have had 11 months earlier. It was perfect in its imperfection. My mother would have whole heartedly approved.
To my sisters in culinary arms, I love you. Thanks of your confidence, your reassurance and your insanity. I can’t wait to see where we meet up next.