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  • Writer's pictureAine Dougherty

Week Thirty-Two in France: Mac and cheese bun burgers and Mexican night

Oh, the joys of a daily walk during Spring in Alsace.
A simple but comforting lunch plate.

25/04/2020: Another weekend rolls along, and a rush of nostalgia for the way things used to be hit me. I've been walking the streets of Mulhouse in my sleep, lamenting the tried-and-true places I love (Le Nid, Kohi Cafe, Le Gambri, Crêperie Crampous Mad...) and the intriguing spots I have yet to try, like Les Saveurs de Liban and that one wacky restaurant with an awning evoking the Wild West and touting "spécialités Tex-Mex." Luckily, I am in no way lacking good food, and I cook up some of Grandmom's breaded chicken with my leftover Panko, plus some spiced lentils and haricots verts. The chicken was perfect: crispy and crackly on the outside, juicy on the inside. I may miss restaurants with all my being, trying new expertly crafted dishes that surprise me and settling in to relax at my favorite cafés, but I'm still exercising my taste buds. For our Saturday barbecue night, J.'s brother F. grills up chicken wings, and for the first time, I try E.'s pleasantly bitter endive salad with homemade mayonnaise and lots of fresh-cracked black pepper.

I know – I hope – the world will soon start to seem normal again, but for now, I'm finding comfort in old favorites and new discoveries.

26/04/2020: For Sunday lunch, an aesthetically pleasing casserole filled to the brim with roasted pork and tender, broth-basted potatoes and veggies. For dessert, I presented my homemade clafouti aux fruits rouges, a simple, (too?) dense patisserie made with eggs, milk, flour, sugar and frozen berries (raspberries, blackberries and redcurrants), with a swipe of vanilla mascarpone cream on top. After an afternoon basking in the sun, full of dog cuddles and my first sunburn of the season, we settle in for one of my favorite easy but addictive French meals: a big green salad, a good vinaigrette and as many chèvre chaud toasts as you can possibly stuff in your mouth. The combo of savory goat cheese, tangy crème fraîche, bright-green chives and crunchy carbs rendered them impossible to set down. Before we knew it, all three platters were gone.

27/04/2020: No matter that the weather has been perfect for the past month – it's never too warm for a raclette. By now, you know the drill. Melty cheese (nature, smoked and poivré), potatoes fondants, salty charcuterie and, of course, bread to soak up all that extra cheese. An added bonus is sticking around after dinner to listen to T. and E. read Shakespeare to each other, their voices soothing, inspiring me to one day be that in love and passionate.

28/04/2020: I'm taking a break from my strict madeleine diet and testing out something new for breakfast. Store-bought crêpes with the perfect chew, slathered with a super sweet and floral, millennial pink gélée de coings (quince jelly). But while my morning meal, accompanied by a warm mug of Ricoré, was fairly straightforward, dinner was absolute gourmandise. J. had been warning me for days that he was planning something extra special tonight ("Don't eat too much for lunch. Just wait!"), but I didn't fully comprehend to what extent until he finally called, "À table!" And so I emerged, after waiting two and a half hours locked in my room while he cooked, and I couldn't have be more surprised by what I saw. Homemade burgers with fried mac and cheese buns, he announced proudly, a mischievous smile spreading across he face when he saw my mouth drop wide open. Was I dreaming? Had I somehow transported back to America, the land of grease and excess? It felt like it. His labor of love, his ode to my home country's "cuisine," was impeccable.

29/04/2020: In an effort to do something nice for my body this afternoon after last night's feast, I threw together an easy and bright lunch for the family: bruschetta topped with garlicky French tomatoes and smothered with olive oil, alongside a chicken caprese salad with quality mozzarella and T.'s fresh basil. The relative "healthiness" of our meal must have really kicked my brain into gear, because that afternoon, I sat down, dug deep and actually found some inspiration, getting some meaningful work done. I've been trying not to get down on myself for low pandemic productivity, but I've been telling myself for months that I want to get started on pitching and writing freelance travel and food articles – and for months I've been procrastinating. Today, I organized my thoughts, created a detailed spreadsheet and plan with some of my best ideas, and forged ahead. Yes, it's a small step, and I'm far from actually launching a freelance career, but it means a lot to me even just dipping my toes in the water. Let the good vibes continue with a sudden burst of motivation to follow along on a 30-minute PopSugar work out video. Anna Renderer, I haven't seen you since high school, but you're still just as tough as you were back then... that "toning" video nearly killed me.

One of my students' absolutely fire memes.

30/04/2020: On the very day my contract as an English teaching assistant ends, I received an email from my big boss telling me that my contract has been extended through May, which was a huge deal – it means I can continue my English club while continuing to get paid. Its third iteration this afternoon was an enormous success, only boosting my pride this week – we practiced pronunciation and finished by creating some hilarious memes together. I should have known these Gen Z's were going to make some killer ones. It's so rewarding to create this little community and still feel like I'm helping students from afar. The food tonight was just as rewarding. I decided to introduce this blended French and English family to (my take on) Mexican cuisine, a culture they don't have much experience with, managing to pull off some great firsts along the way. I hate raw red onions with a vengeance, but I've never pickled them before – and once in the brine, they lost their sharpness and transformed into the perfect hot pink, soft but crunchy, sour but sweet topping for homemade tacos. We piled the pickled red onions, homemade guac, sautéed corn, rice and my first-ever attempt at barbacoa-style beef (a very honorable one, at that) on warmed corn tortillas, and I relished the sunny medley of flavors: lime, herby cilantro and tomato-cumin-paprika shredded beef. The only damper on my mood? We skipped dessert. At lunch and dinner.

01/05/2020: I hopped back on the breakfast train today with a generous bowl of Greek yogurt topped with honey and the first nectarine of the season. Although I was worried that my motivation streak would falter and I'd fail, I settled down at my desk today to get even more work done, actually writing an entire pitch for a personal essay – hed, dek and all. (Thanks Medill!) This first big step has me feeling in the zone, whether or not it gets picked up by a publication or not. It's shown me that, yes, I can really do this, and it's given me some hope that I can make my dreams come true. Not to be dramatic. An unfussy night followed, full of homemade pizza and chocolate chip cookies studded with Smarties (French candies similar to M&M's), and we closed out the successful week to the sound of heavy rain falling on the world outside our windows.

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