Pays de Bama

Chilton County peachesThis morning we had the remainder of a basket of peaches from the weekend. They were ripe and ready to be eaten; some had been bruised and dented and their time was nigh. I put them in a dish with some eggs, sugar, cream and a glug of sherry, and made a crustless tart. It was a “French France” kind of thing to do. You have these counters laden with beautiful produce you couldn’t resist buying at the market — striped bio tomatoes from the hippie organic gardeners, round courgettes, peaches, nectarines, olives, a slice of this, a little packet of that — but it’s hot and there are flies and food does not last so in addition to les salades one must also do a little cookery.

You have the bits of cheese, the bag of baguettes in varying degrees of freshness. Thing is, the recetes of the maison are in French and they are someone else’s cookbooks, so you must do what you can without making yourself too crazy. There are certain basic good things that can be done without planning or trying too hard, such as sauteing sweet onions and baking things with cream. The bread becomes bruschetta, panzanella, bread pudding, croutons.

But for us this summer, the peaches are from Chilton County and we are not in France, but Alabama.

A land of contrasts.

If you drive two blocks to west, you will come to a major crossroads which has a mall with competing flagship regional department stores — one with Khiels and a decent costume jewelry department, the other with a Mac counter and a good shoe department. Across the street is “the bad Wal-Mart,” (this is not a reaction against Wal-Mart; the good Wal-Mart is to the south, the nice Wal-Mart west); the down-market supermarket (where we do our big weekly shop, because it is cheaper and, ironically, has the best cheese selection, go figure); a pay-day-loan/sell-your-gold-jewelry-for cash outlet and a gun shop.

The other corners are occupied by chain restaurants selling American food (bland, salty, sweet, overcooked) in an institutionalized version of cozy and possibly harking back to European old countryness and down-home, respectively. This intersection attracts hordes of pigeons and one day I saw a hawk swoop down and grab one.

You might think, well, both the South and the South of France are hot, but that’s about all they have in common. Okay, we don’t have any Roman ruins, or weekend markets in the real full-on market sense, and there is, sadly, not a tradition of local wine making, but you can do the seasonal produce thing; we have farmers markets and even farmers.

Last summer, arriving to the horror of supermarket cheese, chicken injected with water and broth, and bread with high fructose corn syrup, we kept looking for things we wanted to eat. We found local chevre, a bounty of okra, melons, tomatoes, Vidalia sweets (onions) and corn (which you can’t really get in France, because they grow it as agricultural feed not really for people),  and then we found the farmer who would age grass-feed beef for us and from whom we now buy chicken and eggs, collecting them from a storefront church.

Last fall, as we went to collect our meat from the deer processing place, and my daughters ran off to see the pony and the goat, I thought this is the kind of experience that if we were having it in rural France would be picturesque and the kind of thing vacationing columnists would brag about in The Guardian/NY Times travel section, but because it is in semi-rural Alabama, not so much. The urban readership would not be charmed by the taxidermised bird/raccoon/bobcat/bear/bass diorama or the rack of pamphlets decrying divorce and abortion, nor that our grass-fed, organic meat all bore the message, “Smile, Jesus loves you.”

But I doubt that if my French were of a higher standard that the friendly tomato farmer we met at the outskirts of the tiny French village we went to, who thought we were Belgian (!), would necessarily share my viewpoint on all  topics.

And really, as you do in the kitchen of your holiday house in French France, you make do with what you have. When you shop, you sample what looks good. Sometimes you end up with a breaded cutlet of pig’s foot, or, whoops, cheval hachette. Sometimes, in Alabama, it will be birthday cake flavored ice cream. And, if a nice glass of red wine and some really good aged goat cheese from Vermont allow you to forget where you are, go vote. Where else would you have a ballot that offers you a propane amendment?

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