The calamity that comes is never the one we had prepared ourselves for.
– Mark Twain, Letter to Olivia Clemens, August 16, 1896
I woke up at quarter past five, as I usually do, yet with the first hints of a headache and a sore throat, only wanting a hot cup of coffee. I grabbed my phone and stumbled into the bathroom, as I usually do, fumbling to turn off the alarm before it had a chance to go off and then touching the icon that will pull up my emails, the emails that have come to me during the night as I slept. I was inundated with mentions on Facebook, each tag coming to me via email, inundated with private messages sliding down the face of my phone in blue and white. “What’s going on?” I thought, the oddest things rushing through my sleepy brain. And I tapped the first one to see what was what.
“What happened in Paris?” I burst out of the bathroom trying desperately to understand the messages lighting up my screen. Something happened in Paris! Attentats! Jean-Pierre rolled over and grabbed his own phone. “It was bound to happen, we all knew it. It was only a matter of when.” And he began scrolling through the French news alerts as I flicked open Facebook.
Horror and shock followed quickly by a deep, painful sadness. I am a peaceful person, hoping naively that people can live side by side in tolerance and understanding. An ideal world, I know, that doesn’t exist. When something like this, terrorism, an act of pure evil, happens, evil, pain, death inflicted on humans by other humans (fellow humans) for no reason at all, I, like each of you, experience an overwhelming, raging profusion of emotions. We feel heartbroken, utter sadness, anger, frustration. We feel naked and vulnerable and helpless. Our hearts swell with grief and pain, love and compassion for the victims; our hearts swell with indignation and hate against the perpetrators of such unthinkable, heinous acts. We sit glued to the television, ears pressed to the radio to follow the events.
We all, each one of us, try and make sense of it. Some twist it all around and politicize it. Others turn it on its head and spew hate and intolerance, something – being hateful and intolerant – they who perpetrate these killings do, the very things that horrify us. We cannot allow ourselves to become the very thing that we despise, the very thing that we are condemning! We must hold on to our humanity, our compassion, tolerance, and love. We may be dizzy with empathy, sadness, anger, horror, and confusion, but I know that none of us want to lose ourselves in gross generalizations, to forgo that which makes us better than they.
Breakfast carried on as usual, yet the mood was subdued, the diningroom hushed but for the crackling and spitting of the fire, the darkness of the morning seeping in through the windowpanes tainting the normally cosy ambiance just this side of grim. Our guests sat quietly eating, sipping coffee or tea, and scrolling through the news and messages on their telephones. Laughter, when it did come, seemed oddly out of place yet a relief, that sign of life. We, after all, were still here, and needed that confirmation, like pinching oneself. We stood in the kitchen and whispered about Paris as we organized the day ahead of us. And we were thankful for the mundane, those little things, the gardening, making jam, chatting with my sons, serving wine to our guests in the late afternoon, the warmth of the day that finally dawned for us, the workaday, earthly things that kept us tethered to the here and now and allowed us, for just a few minutes here and there, to forget what had happened the evening before. To forget that it was so very close.
We here in France carry on even as we grieve. We move through our days with smiles on our faces yet feeling changed, different, empty, as if we have lost a loved one. We accept that this was a one-time event, yet know that it can happen again anywhere. But everything, life, keeps going on. And it must! Because we are, and should be, driven forward by hope, not by fear. And by naively hoping that people can begin to live side-by-side in tolerance and understanding.
At such a time, I have decided to share Jean-Pierre’s recipe for Boeuf aux Carottes, Beef with Carrots; this may have been the best thing he has ever cooked for me and is synonymous with comfort. The last time he made this, I had just arrived home from the airport, weary, exhausted and feeling terribly despondent. I had just returned from New York and my last visit with my brother before he passed away. And when JP ushered me through our front door after that interminable flight and a sleepless night, as he set down my luggage in the livingroom and guided me into the kitchen, he placed a plate of Boeuf aux Carottes in front of me. Fragrant steam rose and curled around my head, satisfying and luscious, at once lifting up my spirits and awakening an appetite long gone. Although rarely in the mood to eat after a long voyage and even less inclined after such a sorrowful trip, his Beef with Carrots soothed my soul, each mouthful of meltingly tender beef and sweet carrots in a rich wine sauce simply made me feel loved, safe, and home.
Sharp changes, adversity, affliction in our lives are mellowed by good food, the bumps and pain and doubts softened by a wonderful home-cooked meal. Jean-Pierre’s Boeuf aux Carottes is one of those dishes that will ever be associated with those times in my own life when changes or loss have disrupted a daily routine or threatened to turn everything ordinary on its head; a wonderful dish infused with the goodness of so many generations of loving mamans yet ennobled with my husband’s culinary magic, elevated to extraordinary by his own wonderful, modern twist on something homey and comforting. His Boeuf aux Carottes lies somewhere between a Boeuf Bourguingon and Boeuf Mode yet capturing his recipe to write down in black and white and transmit it to you is difficult. This is a recipe best made au pif, by instinct, by feel, to taste. Here is a simple guideline to follow and to adjust as you see fit: adjust the quantities of meat, wine, carrots and seasoning, serve over pasta or add potatoes into the stew alongside the carrots, cooking until tender.
- 28 oz (800 g) beef for stew, cut into 5 or 6 large pieces
- 2 medium yellow onions, peeled, cut in quarters and sliced
- 3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed or coarsely chopped
- 3 to 4 Tbs (45 to 60 g) margarine
- Handful – or about 1 heaping Tbs (30 g) – flour
- 1 bottle dry red wine (about 2 cups/500 ml for cooking and the rest for drinking with the meal)
- Scant cup (200 ml) tomato coulis or purée
- Bouquet garni or loose dried herbs (thyme and bay leaf)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- One bouquet or bunch baby carrots or about 1 ½ lbs (750 g), peeled and sliced into coins
- 1 lb (500 g) fresh or dried pasta, preferably something thick or shaped to help scoop up the sauce
- -or- about 1 – 1⅕ lbs (500 to 750 g) fingerling potatoes
- In a large heavy pot or Dutch oven, melt the margarine. Add the chunks of meat and brown on all sides. Add the onions, the garlic and the handful of flour and continue cooking, stirring and tossing until the onions are tender and the flour-coated meat golden.
- Add about 2 cups of red wine or until the liquid covers the meat not more than about halfway. Heat just to the boil.
- Add the tomato coulis or purée, the thyme and bay leaf, salt and pepper and then add enough water just to cover the meat. Bring to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 1 hour 30 minutes.
- At the end of the 1 hour 30 minutes, add the carrot coins and continue to cook for another 45 minutes to an hour, adding water only as needed. The meat and the carrots should be beautifully tender and the wine, water and juices should have reduced and formed a nice thick sauce. Add more water to thin out if desired. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
- Serve over pasta (noodles).
If reheating any leftovers just add water to keep the sauce and meat from burning and to make sure there is plenty of sauce.