A memoir of love, life, and recipes from the woman who brought kale to the City of Light
The story of how one expat woman left her beloved behind when she moved to France-her beloved kale, that is. Unable to find le chou kale anywhere upon moving to the City of Light with her new husband, and despite not really speaking French, Kristen Beddard launched a crusade to single-handedly bring kale to the country of croissants and cheese. Infused with Kristen's recipes and some from French chefs, big and small (including Michelin star chef Alain Passard) Bonjour Kale is a humorous, heartfelt memoir of how Kristen, kale, and France collide.
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A Memoir of Paris, Love, and Recipes
By Kristen Beddard
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Kristen Beddard
All rights reserved.
The regional RER train sat on the track at the Gare du Nord station, stripping the romance out of double-decker transportation. It loomed over me, covered in city soot, and let out a big sigh of dirt. A dramatic, French sigh — if it could have shrugged, it would have. I walked into the carriage, searching for a seat that wasn't torn or already taken over by French youths eating McDonald's, or as the French say, McDo. I could not handle that greasy fast-food smell for the next forty-five minutes.
I found a window seat, and an older woman who seemed to have a gentle spirit sat next to me. We politely and quickly said, "Bonjour," rearranged our belongings so they wouldn't touch, and settled in for the journey. My tense body sank into the seat back of springs, broken from the daily grind of commuters, living their lives of métro, boulot, dodo — subway, work, sleep.
As the train pulled out, I cocked my head and looked out the window into the never-ending Paris gray. I was no longer in the postcard version of the city, with the enchanting Louvre and the immaculate gardens. Instead, I was surrounded by graffiti-stained walls, electrical wires crisscrossing overhead, and building after building dissolving into a gray, concrete blur. If I closed my eyes, I could at least block out the somber colors outside, if not the noise of the train and the smell of Le Big Mac.
The RER slowly picked up speed. I was headed to the airport for the second time that week. Four days ago, my husband, Philip, and I had returned from the States after visiting for Thanksgiving. We'd only lived in France for three months, and coming back to our new home after the holiday was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. I told everyone back in America, "Yes, things in Paris are great. I love it!" But was I lying to myself? To them? After spending only a few days in New York City, I was reminded how desperately I missed it. I missed after-work drinks with my girlfriends and the energy of the city. I missed being understood while ordering coffee to go and knowing where to find things in the grocery store. And, most of all, I felt sad that even though we'd only been away for a few months, the city was obviously no longer our home.
I lived in Paris, but the problem was that my life was not in Paris yet. After visiting New York, I realized that it was going to take more than a few months for the City of Lights to feel like it was where Philip and I actually belonged. And now our new home, after a beautiful Indian summer, was dark, cold, and rainy — weather that I would soon learn was more typical than not. My mood followed suit. If Paris wanted to be consistently cold and depressing, then so would my disposition.
The reason I was returning to the airport didn't help my mood either. I needed to recuperate our, or should I say my, lost luggage. Philip's bag had arrived safe and sound, but mine had not. And I had a sneaking suspicion why.
I had yet to find the leafy green in Paris. Not at a single market or at any grocery store. Farmers and maraîchers who sold a wide variety of vegetables didn't even seem to know what it was, and after an extensive Internet search, I'd come to the conclusion that kale was nearly impossible to find.
So while I was in New York, stocking up on the vegetable at Whole Foods seemed like a great idea. If I couldn't find kale in Paris, then I would bring kale to Paris. I reveled in the shopping trip, patting myself on the back for buying bunches of it — grown by my own uncle's farm no less — to take back with us. I chose several varieties of the cabbage, from curly to lacinato to red Russian, filling the shopping cart with glorious shades of green. The height of foliage rose tall, allowing me to breathe in the earthy scent that was not so familiar anymore. I packed each bunch carefully in Ziploc bags, sealing them tight for the twelve-hour journey. I was already dreaming of the salad I would prepare for our first dinner back in Paris. What could go wrong?
The train slowed, about to arrive at the airport, and my palms began to sweat. I could see Philip, a few days earlier, standing next to the baggage claim conveyor belt, his suitcase next to him. After what felt like an eternity, the belt slowed to a stop.
"You had to pack all that kale, didn't you?" he asked, trying unsuccessfully to maintain his cool.
He had a right to be irritated. Even though he would have enjoyed the soup, salad, and smoothies that were floating around on the menu in my head, he was the fluent French speaker, which meant that he was the one who would have to deal with the airline staff — and the line for lost baggage was not getting any shorter.
A phone call from the airline had triggered this journey back to the airport, and this time the responsibility was all mine, regardless of whether I spoke the language — which I did not. Philip told me it was my "French homework" for the day, but I was in no position to navigate this situation. It wasn't just the speaking that made me apprehensive; I knew why my bags were stalled and almost a week late, and I still didn't have my carte de séjour to legally stay in the country. Would a few bags of soggy kale get me kicked out of France?
By the time I reached the airline desk, I was so nervous I could practically smell the incriminating scent of spoiled cabbage. "Oui, Madame Heimann," the woman said, pronouncing my married name without the H. I handed her the paperwork and boarding pass. She stared at the papers, at me, and back at the papers.
"Ah, oui," she said, a long, exasperated sigh bubbling at her lips. "There it is," she pointed to her left, turning up her nose with a look of disgust.
I smiled at her sheepishly, signed a form, and, relieved that nothing worse had happened, quickly rolled my luggage into the main hall. I couldn't handle the putrid smell for the taxi ride home, so I opened my bag and discarded the soggy leaves and warm kale juice into a nearby garbage can.
I had a serious problem on my hands. Kale was impossible to find in Paris, and we would be living there for the next five years. Could I go that long without my favorite vegetable? Clearly, my smuggling plan was not going to work. There had to be another solution.
HOW TO GROW YOUR OWN KALE
If you ever find yourself in the same situation as I did and want to stay away from smuggling in bunches of kale in your suitcase, you can always try to grow your own. Traditionally kale is a cold-weather vegetable, and seeds are sown in mid to late July for an autumn harvest that can last through the winter. The vegetable is resistant to frost, although temperatures well below freezing will eventually make the leaves too tough to enjoy (even with a hearty kale massage!). Aside from when you're "supposed" to grow kale, it is an easy plant to cultivate. The seeds germinate quickly, and sprouts will pop up only a few days after being planted. Within sixty days, the plants will be mature and ready for harvest.
Kale prefers a fertile, well-drained soil high in organic matter with a pH range of 6.0–7.5. Consistent moisture will produce the best quality and highest yields. Ideal daytime temperatures are in the 70s°F (low 20s°C) and night temperatures in the high 40s°F (8–12°C). Pests are mainly worms, cabbage loopers, and flea beetles. It is recommended to germinate seeds in a seed tray.
Place seeds 1/2 inch (1 cm) below soil and water daily. Sprouts should appear in about a week. When plants are about 5 inches (12 cm) high, replant them to the ground about 20 inches (50 cm) apart. You can also keep in a planter or a large pot, and the vegetable will produce smaller leaves. Water daily, and keep an eye out for pests like caterpillars! To harvest, pick leaves off the stalk. Leaves typically grow back one more time.CHAPTER 2
To a lot of people, the fact that what I missed the most as an expat was kale seemed ridiculous. And until living in France, I never gave much thought to the vegetable. I never thought that someday I would think, talk, and write about it on a daily basis. Kale is just a cabbage after all! But it's almost like I had no choice. Kale has always been a part of my life because of my mother — she set me up for this. As she liked to say, "You've been eating kale since conception." In the diary she kept during my first year, she clearly wrote out at around nine months, "Kristen tried kale today. She loved it!"
She was macrobiotic at the time, following a strict diet that was high in whole grains — like brown rice, quinoa, and millet — and vegetables — like leafy greens, beans, and sea vegetables — and that restricted animal proteins and processed foods. So kale was not the only leafy green that held a prominent role in our meals. All vegetables were created equal, and did we ever eat our vegetables. Our dinner plates included baked varieties of squash and beets in winter, crisp cucumbers and lightly simmered green beans in summer, and steamed broccoli and cauliflower almost year-round, paired with brown rice or millet and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
On my first day of third grade, while playing a game to introduce ourselves, we had to choose a noun corresponding to the first letter of our first name. I casually chose "kale," not thinking twice about it, until I realized that none of my classmates knew what it was. This was when I began to understand that my mother and I ate differently than the majority of Americans, and that experiencing the flavors, aromas, and textures of different vegetables was something unique we shared.
The summer I turned five was the summer my mother finally left my father. Married almost twelve years, unhappy for most of them, she'd had enough of the affairs, the late nights at bars with his band members, the excessive drinking of Rolling Rock. She was tired of being the only person supporting our family. She didn't need to be with someone who was taking advantage of her, someone who thought her only worth was her money, which was ironic since she wasn't earning much money to begin with. When I thought back over those years, I realized that everything came down to her. She worked two jobs to put him through school, she was at home every day with a newborn but without access to a car, and she kept the family afloat while my father aimed to set up his recording-studio business. I never doubted that he loved me, but he was not there day after day.
Eventually, enough was enough. Gathering all of her strength, my mom moved us away from the post-steel-mill south side of Pittsburgh that lined the Monongahela River. We left the remnants of what the city used to be: yellow factories, empty, dead, and rusting. In 1989, there was nothing clean or respectful about Pittsburgh, and the same went for my parents' marriage. I'm sure my father would say it all differently, and there are always two sides to every story, but that is what I remember.
And then it was just the two of us. We were headed to the quaint, almost country-like village of Sewickley, northwest of the city along the Ohio River. It was in the school district where my mom taught kindergarten. I remember the big evergreen-colored truck from the day of the move. My grandmother unpacked all of our kitchen stuff. My great-aunt wore one of my tutus on her head to keep me entertained. My mom cried. We drove the thirty minutes to our new home in her silver Camry. The stick shift churned as each emotion pulsed from her heart to her limbs: anger — shift — despair — shift — exhaustion — neutral.
We settled into a duplex apartment not far from the train tracks. I had a bike and a backyard with a new swing set. I met a few neighborhood friends, and we built a clubhouse in an old garage. I remember being happy and well fed. To this day, I don't know how she did it. The strength hidden behind her eyes, bloodshot from crying, still astounds me.
My mother never stopped cooking. She never stopped nourishing me. On Sundays, her face would disappear into steam from simmering carrots, celery, and onions, as she prepped our soup for the week. Her food processor held a prominent spot on the kitchen counter, mixing homemade sauces. The kitchen always smelled of tahini. She showed me, leading by example, that real food is the right food. It is the only food. No matter what my mother went through emotionally, I never felt it. She pushed everything negative aside, especially when it came to cooking for us.
My mother's devotion to healthy living and eating began in 1977, two years into her marriage, when she took her first yoga class at a local YMCA. She immediately felt different. Yoga led to yoga friends, which led to vegetarian cooking classes, which led to a deep interest in and practice of macrobiotics.
The purpose of macrobiotics is based on the Chinese philosophy of keeping the yin and yang of the body in balance, and certain foods are better at balancing each. Kale happens to be one of the best foods for balancing the yang and detoxifying the blood.
Now, thirty years later, a lot of people consider macrobiotics a crazy food fad for the rich and famous, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna. And rightly so, considering how much time, effort, and energy goes into doing it right. My mom did it all herself, without a personal chef, grocery shopper, or food delivery service. She was that passionate.
Although she never admitted it, I think a big part of her devotion to living such a clean life was about control. While the rest of her life with my father was in flux, she could at least control everything she put into her body. Spending hours in the kitchen was her escape. It distracted her from the real issue at hand.
It wasn't just squash and cruciferous vegetables that my mom and I shared together. As a young child, during her daily yoga practice, I would sit on her back while she relaxed in child's pose or make my own attempt at cat-cow pose. We took summer trips to visit one of her yoga friends in Rockport, Massachusetts, where I spent my days climbing over rocks and searching for mussels in the Atlantic. We took impromptu weekend drives to my uncle's organic vegetable farm in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. He and my aunt would be out in the fields before sunrise and back after sunset — early pioneers of the organic food movement. I'd tiptoe behind my cousins as they ran through the greenhouses barefoot, my soft "city mouse" feet, as they called them, unable to keep up on the sharp gravel. We made sure to pick the sweetest blackberries and find the crispest green beans for our midday snacks, which we ate sitting in the kale fields.
My mom and I also spent hours at the East End Food Co-op, one of the only places in Pittsburgh where you could buy organic produce in the nineties. Crunchy, granola-type customers would wear tie-dye and overalls. The entire store always smelled of wheatgrass, and the scent of wet, fragrant dirt would grow stronger as we made our way to the glistening produce at the back of the store. I snacked on fruit leather while my mother bagged greens. I watched her pick and choose between collards, swiss chard, and dandelion greens. I laughed as she shook the condensation off the bouquet of curly kale into my face.
So even though I knew it sounded silly, not being able to find kale in Paris really did affect me, so much more than I could have expected. It had nothing to do with not being able to recreate a trendy New York City restaurant's kale salad or make a homemade green elixir. Kale was comfort. Kale was my childhood. Kale was my mom.
In Paris, as an adult and a wife with a kitchen of my own, what and how I cook is very much the same as what and how my mom has always cooked in hers. Like her, I keep my pepper next to the stove, bag my carrots the same way, and flick water off my fingertips in a similar quick motion. But without kale, something was missing. I could not imagine building a healthy kitchen — or home — without it.
Excerpted from Bonjour Kale by Kristen Beddard. Copyright © 2016 Kristen Beddard. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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