Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Walnut Grove Cooking School

Working with foie gras like a champion chef!
The kitchen
6 extraordinary chefs and one pretty darn good eater.

In 2000, Maynard and Benedict two British nationals came to France and renovated an old farmhouse and barn located on an abandoned Walnut Tree Farm and turned it into a cooking school—The Walnut Grove Cooking School. The structures on the property are approximately 200 years old. The barn was converted into a kitchen that is state of the art, with a dining room in the loft, and accommodations in the “old French farmhouse” which are very nice. I think this birthday gift historically ranks number one.

The She-wolf is totally in her element at this school: sauces, appetizers, breads, spices, presentation, etc. It’s all way beyond me. I’m only signed up as an “eater.” It’s a plum of a job. My job is to show up, eat and rave about the food. Every evening features a six-course dinner, the efforts of a kitchen full of fledging cooks and two remarkable chefs. To describe the food as “utterly and completely amazing” would be a gross injustice. I’m inspired and all I am doing is eating.

After coming here, we are committed to doing a cooking trip for Sheila and the girls, either a return trip here, or somewhere in Italy. The Smarty Sistas would absolutely love this. It’s not just the food—it’s the ambience, the accommodation, our hosts and the location. Bon appetit!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lost in Loire

Let me first state that France is RIDICULOUS! The food is ridiculously good. The French are ridiculously gorgeous (and thin), especially, Parisians. The environs are ridiculously beautiful and scenic. This place is ridiculously historic. French (the language) is ridiculously beautiful and romantic. And yes, France (particularly Paris) is ridiculously expensive. “Ridiculous” seems to be the only superlative to describe my sense of France. Every meal has been over-the-top good. We have been dining at great restaurants and bistros, unlike our EF Tours trip to France with the kids in 2004. The standards are so high in France that it’s hard to get a bad meal, but somehow EF Tours found a way. I swear, they must have searched all of France to find the only lousy chefs to feed us. Go figure?!

While Sheila has been taking cooking classes at the Walnut Grove Cooking School in Livre (near Laval), I have been bike riding. We are in the Loire Valley, a UN Heritage site. It is ridiculous in every way. Supposedly this is a birthplace of French cycling. However, by the looks of my loaner bike you would never guess that. The bike I rode to deliver newspapers circa 1967 was infinitely better than the “grandma bike” loaned to me by Benedict (one of the chefs at the school). I shouldn’t complain, but I’m trying to cover some serious ground here in order to make it to certain sites, and this behemoth of a bike is most definitely cramping my style. Hey, at least it has three working gears.

Yesterday I decided to ride to Châteaux XVIII in neighboring Craon. The Châteaux was beautiful to say the least. There was a wedding dinner taking place at one of the outbuildings on the property and the side door to the Châteaux was left open. Seriously what would you have done? In the Southern States people leave their side and back doors open as an invitation for friends and family to enter and make themselves at home. Since I am an American and naturally have an historical bond with the French (yes, we are brothers of the revolution and our sons fought and bled together in two World Wars), I felt it would have been discourteous of me, as a friend, to decline this invitation. Of course, I didn’t go upstairs, didn’t use the bathroom and didn’t forage in the kitchen for tasty treats; nor did I have the audacity to break out my camera and start taking pictures of the spectacular decor. After all invited guests shouldn’t gawk, and typically don’t take pictures when invited into your home do they? However, I thought it a ridiculously generous invitation by this anonymous French friend to invite me into their home, don’t you think?! I felt appreciative to be sure.

I set out from Craon (without map) to explore the French countryside heading generally in southwesterly direction. It was my intent to make a 20 Kilometer loop and back to the cooking school in Livre. I got ridiculously lost. However, because everything was so ridiculously scenic, I didn’t really care. I stopped to take pictures when motivated, picked a couple of apples for lunch, tried to speak French to some French brothers at a village festival in La Selle, and gasped at almost every turn in the road at the ridiculously amazing scenery. I ultimately found my way back to Livre having experienced the French countryside in a most intimate manner. Later that evening the She-wolf noticed the small apples in my backpack, “Where’d you get the apples? Kind of small don’t you think?”

“I borrowed them.”

“How do you borrow an apple?”

"Okay, I stole them.”

“I thought you loved France and viewed yourself as traveling Ambassador of goodwill?”

“Well, I was hungry. I spent 6 hours on my bike and forgot to take any money.”

“Whose fault is that?”

“Okay ‘Ms. Judgmental,’ haven’t you read Les Miserables? They had a revolution here a few years ago; they don’t imprison people anymore for stealing to sate extreme hunger. I’m kind of surprised you didn’t know that.”

To set the record straight: The apples that I “borrowed” were not from a commercial orchard. It was a old tree on the side of a sheep pasture. Most of the apples were on the ground already and it was obvious these small, wormy apples were going to go to waste if I didn’t eat them. Besides I was really, really hungry.

I have two more historic rides on my riding agenda: Chateaubriand and Laval. Rides of 80 and 50 Kilometers, respectively. These rides are only impressive when you consider what I am riding. Regardless, the French countryside on bike has turned out to be a ridiculously rich experience--one that I will always cherish. If I get lost in France while on my bike and perish somewhere in the French countryside, my dying request is that the following be placed on my headstone: “The Most Ridiculous Human Compass,” preferably in French.

Friday, September 10, 2010

An Education in Art History at the Louvre

Me at the Louvre vigorously demonstrating that I AM an art snob.

The painting La Nuit by Claude Joseph Vernet prominently hung in the Sully section has always been one of my favorite offerings of the Louvre. Now, let me explain why I am uniquely qualified to comment on fine art.

When I was in college I discovered that I had certain unique and special gifts. I had a roommate who frequently experienced rather bizarre (and usually very vocal) dreams. As a loyal friend, I felt it my solemn duty to heighten his dream experiences by providing colorful commentary and spot-on interpretations as to the meaning of his dreams. All of my roommates were quite impressed with my abilities to interpret the subconscious mind and strongly encouraged me to consider Psychology as a major. However, I felt that a formal education might actually serve to limit "my gift" by stiffling my creativity. I was genuinely concerned that a restrictive and formalistic education would likely impose too much structure on my free wheeling approach to the psychobabble that is "dream reconstruction and analysis." So I stuck with Physical Education and Zoology knowing that if I actually ever got hired as a high school teacher that I would have the ability to spread my unique gifts and influence young minds in a greater sphere. In my apartment complex at Ricks word soon got out that I could, indeed, provide accurate and insightful analysis on dreams. People came from "all over" to have me provide profound psychological insights as to their subconscious. Well, to be precise, it was only two guys who actually sought me out--a guy from room 116 whose dad was a psychiatrist, and this other weird looking dude who occasionally hung out at our apartment and who had been at Ricks for at least a decade working on his AA degree. Regardless, I felt pretty important all the same just knowing that other people recognized by ability to figure out complex and interesting stuff. This experience (among others) caused me to realize that I really do have a knack for getting inside people's heads.

Now, back to the Louvre...As we were strolling through the Louvre, we happened to come across an art professor from some very important institution of higher education (I'm pretty sure that she was in grad school longer than I attended public schools K-12.) She looked nothing like the French hottie, Audrey Tautou, who starred with Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, she was the exact opposite of Mlle. Tautou, who (in the movie, at least) also happens to know lots of cool stuff about art history. At any rate, the She-wolf and I watched this tragically dressed, unkempt humanities expert escort a group of about 10 art history majors through the Louvre. It was fascinating. They hung on her every word. She was the picture of the Socratic method, asking hard questions specifically designed to cause her young disciples to stretch their minds. Her students were failing miserably to keep up with her vast and inexhaustible fund of knowledge. It was truly riveting to watch. I too was briefly taken in with her expanse of knowledge. We followed her around several rooms watching her dispense her expertise like a Jedi knight wields his light sabre. That is, until she she stumbled! As it happened, she attempted to enlighten her cadre of padawans concerning La Nuit by Claude Joseph Vernet. She launched into a great lecture about light and life and the obvious message being communicated by Vernet through this work of art. She explained his background as a Maritime artist, the deep impressions that the Mediterranean Sea made on his psyche as a young man, the age in which he lived and his tutelage under another great Maritime artist, Bernadino Fergioni. She then attempted to pull details of the paintings into this construct and explain the theme of light and what it represented. I was flabbergasted! I had only viewed the painting for about a minute and knew that she was WAY off base. I wanted to scream, "Fraud!" then and there and expose her for her obvious heresies. What she was piling on this naive and unsuspecting group of students was purely, and simply a bunch of CRAPPOLA! I had taken only a cursory look at the painting, but was able to almost instantaneously understand its meaning and purpose.

Let me explain. In the first picture above, I am pointing to the focal point of this painting. It's hard to tell because of the illegal flash that Sheila used to capture my pin-point analysis. However, if you look closely at the second picture it's clear to see what I am pointing to--a fisherman! Everything else in this work of art is rendered superfluous when you consider this fact. The light of the moon and the soft glow of the campfire? Diversions for the real theme of this masterpiece. Clearly the fisherman is the largest human form in this painting. This communicates something about how Vernet viewed his Maritime world. The fisherman is naturally tall and rugged. He is looking away from the frivolity and warmth of the fire. Indeed, he is a mighty historical figure! He has obviously spurned all else to pursue his passion. He is fishing at night because for centuries "men of the rod" have know that "the bite" often times comes on best in the darkness of night. Yes, he knows that the darkness of this night is his friend. The purpose of the light in this painting is to enhance and provide depth and texture to his objectives. Captured in this masterpiece is the warm light cast by the moon over his shoulder to encourage and brighten the lonely night. In considering the nonsensical and heretic interpretation provided by our so-called art expert at the Louvre, the words of Shakespeare immediately came to mind, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." Say what you will about "shape and lines," "color and composition," or even "historical context," for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the relevancy and message of La Nuit could not be clearer: "I fish therefore, I am." And to think people waste so much time and money studying art history, when an amateur with a keen eye and a clever mind was able to comprehend in seconds all that Vernet was trying to communicate in La Nuit! After sharing my most outstanding and fresh insights with the janitor at the Louvre who spoke very little English, I was seriously wondering if the Louvre might possibly be interested in pursuing my obvious talents for interpretative art analysis, despite not having a formal education in Art History. Following this post, I suspect that members of my vast worldwide readership might even start a petition for me to be bestowed with an honorary degree in some field of humanities. If so, I would appreciate a doctorate degree of some kind, preferably from some smarmy sounding European University because my Juris Doctorate from a University in Utah somehow just doesn't make me feel all that smart.
In reality, we loved the Louvre. We were inspired by the grandeur of man's artistic achievements and felt incredibly small and insignificant in the shadow of these monumental works. The edifice of the Louvre itself is an amazing showcase for what man can envision and create. And yes, I do prefer my interpretation of La Nuit!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Edward Cullen in Paris, or Why Can't I be the Wolverine?

"I prefer Brunettes." Edward Cullen, Twilight, Chapter 8, p. 194.

Sheila at Angelina's. We couldn't get in on our last trip to France. To be sure the hot chocolate is world class. The only thing that even comes close is Salish Lodge near Seattle, or maybe Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood.
"You smell so good in the rain." Edward Cullen, Twilight, Chapter 17, p. 361.
"Yes, you are exactly my brand of heroin." Edward Cullen, Twilight, Chapter 13, p. 268.

Most people view themselves quite differently than people around them. I know this is true for me, but have difficulty understanding why this is so. I earnestly believe that I am good at human relationships and that I know something about women. And yet, mysteriously almost every memory I have of my relationships with women (including my wife and daughters) are fraught with confusion and misunderstandings. What's up with that?!

I desperately want to be viewed by my wife as rugged and mysterious; complicated and deep. I think this is why I am so fascinated with the character, the Wolverine. He is so full of angst and conflict. Yet, he is passionately committed (and capable) of protecting and providing security to the women in his life. Although I really want to be viewed as the Wolverine (at least in my wife's eyes), everything about who I am betrays that notion. I suppose the first time I tried to put my arm around my wife set the stage for our relationship and illustrates this point. I sensed that Sheila wanted me to put my arm around her on one of our first dates, but wasn't quite sure. The anxiety built, as I mulled it over, "Should I?" or "Shouldn't I?" It was one of those moments where the decision became larger than what was at stake. The tension built in me until it finally exploded in a disasterous ending. As I made the decision to put my arm around her, I did so in such a quick, awkward and jerking motion that I elbowed her in the jaw, almost knocking her out. I'm pretty sure the word "smooth" did not register in her mind at that exact moment. I would love to tell the story about when I first encountered the clasp of her bra strap (post marriage of course), but am afraid that it might scar my children for life, so they will just have to wait until after I am dead and read my more private personal journals--if they dare!

At any rate, I have spent most of my marriage trying to make up for missteps and clumsy moments. For the She-wolf's 50th birthday I wanted to do something "over the top"--something that screams, "I AM Spartacus! I AM the Wolverine!" So, my daughters helped me with this awesome surprise to take Sheila to France for cooking lessons. In anticipation of this trip, I envisioned myself with my wife in the romantic environs of Paris and the Loire Valley, being smooth and sophisticated, rugged and mysterious, witty and get the picture. In order to make my vision a reality, I found dozens of Edward Cullen quotes from the Twilight series. I tried to memorize them, thinking that I would impress my wife when I quoted them at just the perfect moments. That was my vision. My reality? Mostly awkward and very "cringy." I couldn't remember my lines. I choked. I found myself fumbling with my cue cards; in short, I felt like a bumbling 7th grade boy hopelessly trying to impress a 9th grade girl. Ouch!

At times, its tough to be a man of such vision--a vision that almost always exceeds my grasp. To be more specific, yesterday I was holding the She-wolf in my arms while standing on a bridge overlooking La Seine and was inspired. I had her in my arms, all I had to do was deliver the line...This was going to be "a moment." While she was gazing into my eyes, I was going to deliver the kill-shot: "Do I dazzle you?", the simple, and yet powerful line, which is loved by all Twilight fans. Unfortunately, "Do I dazzle you?" came out something like, " I, uh...dabble you?! No, that's not it! Do I, uh...diddle you?! NO, NO!...Damn it, what was that verb?! Hold on a second..." I fumbled in my pocket and consulted my "Vampire's Guide to Lovers' Cheat Sheet", (which I had meticulously prepared in advance) chock full of cool Edwardisms, found the right quote and belatedly delivered my lines, "Do I dazzle you?" Needless to say the moment was ruined, there was no spontaneity, and no impact. I was crushed. The She-wolf, however, was understanding; she kissed me passionately just the same. For some reason that seems to defy everything my brain tells me, she loves me despite my goofiness, my bumbling manners and my constant miscues. Although I will never likely deliver the lines as expertly as the trained actors in the movies that I see, or for that matter as brilliantly as me in the amazing visions in my brain, I fortunately have found a woman who apparently loves me for simply trying to be the Wolverine.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A 35 Year Old Garden Revelation

One Saturday when I was a young man of high school age, I was working with my mom in the garden and I noticed that she was repeatedly giggling to herself. I asked her, "What's going on? Are you okay?" She replied, "I'm fine. I keep remembering things that were said last night at my high school reunion that made me laugh." As a young kid, I was entirely oblivious to my mother as a distinct person, separate and apart of her as "my mom." However, that experience caused me to begin to view my mother in a different light. For perhaps the first time, I saw her as a woman with the same dreams, hopes and emotions that she felt as a young girl. We have since talked about this event and I am convinced that even at age 80, there is a special place in her heart and mind for her life as a young debutante walking the halls of South High School, with handsome, athletic boys chasing her, hoping for just a chance to hold her hand.

Okay loyal followers of my vast worldwide readership, stay with me forward from that garden revelation 35 years ago to my high school reunion just a week ago...I came home with the biggest smile on my face. Thank you Leslie Aspiazu and the Intro Girls who put on such an amazing night! It was not just the opportunity to talk to old friends that made it such a great evening, it was really the powerful emotions created by the memories of youth: hopes, dreams, fears, loves, anxieties, etc. that made me smile. Sheila was a real sport to accompany me. I was disappointed that certain very close friends weren't able to attend: Scott Pierce, Keeko Georgelas, Guy Tuft, Ron Anderson, Burt and Cathy Ringwood to name a few. However, I had a chance to visit with Jerry Hirano, and listen to the Hart brothers (yes, they talk just as much as they did in high school), and dance with Sydney Young and Lori Day (woohoo!) I think Lori Day wore that tight dress just to remind all of us "young men" that we STILL don't have a chance with her! Ha! Some things never change.

At the reunion, someone handed me a copy of the following football picture. I'm No. 59 and Scott Pierce is No. 75. Scott actually had serious football skills--size, speed, strength and agility. Me? To be honest, I wasn't all that good at football, but my coaches played me because I liked to hit people. At my age, I'm a little bit embarrassed to admit that I'm still very proud of that fact. At my reunion, the Hart brothers and I tried to recreate this play based upon this single frame. Then we reached deep into the corners of our memories and were somehow able to recreate the entire football season based upon this single picture--well maybe it was the football season that we now remember as middle-aged men. Hmmm...maybe I really was as good as my memory suggests?!

My children have often wondered how I convinced the She-wolf to marry me. I am sure that many astute followers of my vast worldwide readership have wondered this same thing. As Sydney often says, "How did YOU (pointing to me) get THAT (pointing to her mother)?!" Well, let me assure you all that it was not Jedi mind games or voodoo or some type of freaky mind control, it was my hair (and as I remember it, amazing social skills). As proof of my skills, style and panache, I offer exhibits A and B, which were kindly sent to me by the very victim in these exhibits: Miss Kris Laycock, who is now married to Bob Weeks and is busy with her 8 children and 9 grandchildren! I offer these exhibits with apologies to Miss Laycock. Apparently, I am willing to throw her under the bus to prove a point--that at one point in my life, I was, in fact, able to convince another very pretty, popular and nice girl to date me. Haa!

Now my best memory of Exhibit A is as follows: I am leaning over a very nice dinner table and undoubtedly saying something charming, witty and intelligent. Note the look of confidence on my face, my cool demeanor and my casual body language. Miss Laycock? Well, she is clearly impressed with my skills as well. She is smiling demurely and probably thinking, "Wow, what a lucky girl I am to be dating such a cool young man."

As I suggested this likely scenario to the She-wolf, she helped me remember what probably actually happened the evening Exhibit A was created...I had amazing hair and lots of confidence yes, but in reality, I probably pestered young Miss Laycock to go on a date with me. She probably realized that I would continue to stalk her until she relented and agreed to go on ONE date, knowing that if she went with me it would ALL be over soon and she could go back to her normal life sans Darrell. In the picture, I am exhibiting great confidence yes, but I am probably saying something very awkward and insipid. Miss Laycock? Well, she is smiling, trying not break into hysterical laughter and create a scene. Note the slight turn of the head, indicating she is modestly repulsed and is clearly thinking to herself, "Only one more hour. C'mon, you can do it Kris. It will all be over soon, and someday you will look back on this night and laugh." Yes, Miss Laycock is amused that someone would actually have the audacity to wear such a hideous tux, and is probably mildly impressed that despite wearing such a ridiculous outfit he apparently possesses the chutzpah to believe that he really is ALL THAT.

Next, please note Exhibit B. More of the same in terms of my memory. I genuinely like how I looked, especially the hair. I seem confident and happy that Miss Laycock is smiling and has her arm around me. What more could a young man hope for?! As I reminisce about this picture, I am most grateful for my knowledge of the resurrection and the eternal promise contained in Alma 11:44 that "there shall not be so much as a hair of their heads lost." Miss Laycock? Undoubtedly more of the same according to my interpretation of this picture. The She-wolf's interpretation is slightly different... Indeed, Miss Laycock is feeling more of the same, except that by now she has endured a dance, a dinner and a long, long evening with the guy in the baby blue tux, clown-sized bow tie and wildly ruffled shirt who miraculously seems to believe that he really is ALL THAT. All she can do is smile for the camera and hope for a better date...someday.

Regardless of whose version or interpretation of these pictures you choose to believe, on one recent night, I was a young man again, with the same dreams, hopes, desires, loves and anxieties that I felt in high school. Like the experience of my mom in our garden following her high school reunion, I felt the powerful emotions of youth and my life and experiences at South High School. (As a post script, I promised Miss Laycock that I would "try" not to embarrass her. I hope I have succeeded and that this puts a smile on her face too!)

Friday, September 3, 2010

What's in a Picture?

Below is a picture of me in high school wrestling the National Champ of Japan. Jerry Hirano's mother worked tirelessly with me prior to this match to be able to speak a few words of Japanese to my opponent. Little did we all know that I would later serve a mission to Japan, become a Japanese linguist in the Army, teach high school Japanese, and in general make Japanese language and culture such a big part of my life. In the picture, I was just trying to score points against a very good two-time Japanese National Champ.

The pictures from this match have come to mean more to me over the years, not just because it was a very cool thing to be part of this All-Star wrestling team, but rather because of who I can see in the stands: my sisters, Jan and Nikki (both of whom are deceased), my parents, friends, family members and members of my ward who came to see me wrestle. I didn't realize it as a young man (or perhaps I failed to appreciate) how much support I had in life. Considering all of the support and help I have received from people who love me in life, if I ever I fail at anything I will be left without excuse.