On Crepes Suzette, Micro Brews, and Driving in Small Towns
Around the time I proofread my grandma’s memoir, I was trying, and largely failing, to learn how to cook. While my mother was an architect in the kitchen, whipping up a scaffolding of lasagna, strip steak, or strawberry shortcake nightly, the chef trait had skipped a generation. My avocado toast bore resemblance to soggy riverbed moss on wheat-bread. My oven-baked macaroni stuck unpleasantly to the roof of your mouth. Nobody gave me license to set my sights on Crepes Suzette, but a combination of my grandma’s memoirs and unbridled courage compelled me to try my hand.
Similar to most college kitchens, mine was a patchwork of hand-me-downs and appliances purchased cheaply on Craigslist. By senior year, everything from my mismatched cutlery to my toaster oven felt used to the point that we should have junked them. And I, wrung out and chewed up by the small town college student lifestyle, had been feeling like every day at university was another day on top of the trash-heap.
One particularly monotonous morning, when campus felt especially stale, I decided to cook myself Crepes Suzette. It was to become the first of many attempts. A delicate and flaky dessert, loaded with citrusy zest and toasty vanilla, Crepes Suzette originated by accident at a Parisian cafe. A fourteen-year-old assistant waiter was preparing a dessert for the Prince of Wales, at Monte Carlo’s Cafe de Paris. When he burned the cordials at the chafing dish, he thought the crepe ruined and the evening a disaster. However, the Prince devoured every pancake, captured the remaining syrup drizzle with a spoon, and demanded to know the recipe. His guests included a beautiful French girl called Suzette, for whom the Price named the confection.
My grandmother enjoyed a descendent of these very same crepes at Monte Carlo’s during the winter of 1976: the year she, jaded by a small-town existence alongside her ill-fitting husband, embarked on a spontaneous European holiday and didn’t tell anyone she was going. In her memoir, she describes the experience like chewing on a fairytale. “It was as though the very same prince sat across from me, limbs folded tidily and a Victorian grin on his face,” she writes in a dream-state. “I took my first bite of Crepes Suzette then; sugar, butter, and tangerine exploded on my tongue. I imagined he then declared intentions to rename the dish after me: Crepes Judith.”
The chapters of my grandma’s memoir that detail her adventures in Paris represent the section of the book, and maybe her life, that is most vivid, most alive. You have to understand that at the time her memoir dropped into my inbox, I had been beating at the walls, leaving claw marks on the ceiling, practically begging the universe to spring me from Burlington, North Carolina and onto a much more sparkling future. Everyone kept telling me, “don’t wish away your senior year, it flies by!” Much to my dismay, wishing did not make the year go by any faster.
Unable to fund a similarly thrilling Parisian venture, I fled desperately to my grandma’s stories. I started occupying dull minutes by pouring myself in my her memoir, picturing myself walking the streets of Paris, trailing the same cobblestones she did. Crepes Suzette began to represent my full-fledged fantasy coming to fruition; I had convinced myself that a perfect plate of Crepes Suzette would help me escape the same way she had in 1976. It was the only element of my grandmother’s memoir that felt within my grasp, the only piece of Paris I could possibly recreate in rural North Carolina.
My first attempt, as with most things in my life at the time, felt lackluster. I poured too hearty a ladle of batter onto the skillet, and the result was a unhealthily fat crepe. I let the mixture of orange juice, sugar, and spices boil for a bit too long, charring my crepes’ filling. My plating attempt resulted in a lumpy and leaking production, a far cry from the dainty image of Crepes Suzette on Food Network. I shoveled a few bites down my throat ruefully, and chilled the rest.
I, too, felt refrigerated; dormant like chilled leftovers, feeling like I had been there stagnant since the first week I spent pacing this tiny campus. My personality, behaviors, and reputation on day one remained the same on days 68, 97, and 571. I was filling that had boiled too long over a rusty burner. Batter spread too thin over the same worn-out pan.
On evenings when I felt most confined to my four-sided existence, my grandma’s memoirs became a treasured coping mechanism. I fled desperately into the part of my imagination that has always been best at daydreaming fabricated realities. I saw myself in Europe taking in the sights beside her, and in my most dangerous fantasies, my escape seemed so feasible I almost felt that I became her.
Not a single ingrown resident of La Crosse, Wisconsin could picture my grandmother Judith Kirkhorn sitting at a bar in London with two gay encyclopedia salesmen. Frankly, Judith herself wouldn’t have been able to conjure that image until she was teetering on a wooden stool, elbows sticking to cocktail spillage on the bar, with Cliff and George on either side of her. They were emphatically feeding her impractical fantasy of taking the next plane from Heathrow to Paris and telling nobody of her whereabouts - especially not her estranged husband.
“For Christ’s sake,” Judith exclaimed, before quickly remembering to lower her voice, keeping her midwestern accent under-wraps. “I don’t even know anybody in Paris. Where would I stay? Who would I talk to?”
“Your imagination is lively enough,” Cliff said. “I’d imagine you’d have the best time simply talking to yourself.”
“And I should just imagine myself a cardboard box to stay in as well?” Judith scoffed.
“Cliff,” George said. “Let’s give her the name of that dodgy little inn off of Rue de Vaugirard we stayed at two summers ago.”
“Oh, yes,” Cliff pulled a pen from his pocket and reached for the nearest napkin. “Just make sure to lock your door. The innkeeper is a bit nosy and he’ll poke around your bags if you let him.”
Judith slammed her head against spread palms. “If I make it back to Wisconsin alive, Mike is definitely going to kill me.”
“Mike won’t be in the picture for much longer,” Cliff reminded her. “Make the most of your shared bank account while it’s still shared.”
Judith chewed a fingernail while Cliff and George waited in anticipation. 1976 had seen a frigid autumn in La Crosse, vegetable orchards sugary with snow power. Judith’s mother was always the last of the agriculturalists to fret over blustery weather. “Crops turn out better when they come up in storms,” she said. “They taste hard-won, tenacious.” Judith was the only farmer’s daughter in La Crosse who persistently felt that all vegetables tasted the same. Like peat and acid and early mornings on her hands and knees.
Her husband, Mike Kirkhorn, was a journalist, relentlessly star-crossed chasing this lead or that. When Judith was 20 and in deep infatuation with Mike’s arrogant cheekbones and knowledge of the world, she didn’t realize that her slapdash marriage would also include marrying the Wisconsin Tribune. During the honeymoon phase, Judith loathed the Tribune. It kept Mike away over long weekends, and working well into midnight through the week. Now, a year and a half in, Judith had come to appreciate the Tribune. As long as it kept Mike on the road hunting down front-page news, there was no reason for him and Judith to get a divorce.
Judith spent her time in two ways, either bickering with Mike over anything feasible, or discerning, under the watchful eye of her mother, which beets were ripe and which weren’t. When the opportunity to go to London with Margaret Anne cropped up, she snatched it, held it against her chest. She cradled it in fists so tightly that it couldn’t slip out of fruition, and only eased her grip when she was buckled into her first overseas flight. Then her hands were full with miniature bottles of Grand Marnier.
“Margaret Anne bought her return ticket stateside,” Judith said after she awoke from her reverie. “She’s back at the bed and breakfast, packing up.”
“And your return ticket?” George quirked an eyebrow.
“I haven’t bought one,” Judith admitted as a sly smile crept across her face. “I didn’t really plan on going back."
Cliff and George, giddy after sharing two pitchers of Guinness and Judith’s lifelong dream, walked the American all the way to the airline ticket office. The last remaining employee was about to close shop, but after a helping of persuasion from a charming farmer's daughter and two gay encyclopedia salesmen, the he agreed to help Judith arrange a one way to Paris.
Dressed in a conservative black turtleneck, a tea length beige skirt, and her impression of someone who knew exactly what they were doing, Judith arrived at the airport via black cab. She had left her larger suitcase at the front desk of the bed and breakfast for the weekend, along with a sentimental letter thanking her one time friends Cliff and George.
“Vol complet aujourd’hui,” his voice came to her like a whir from above, an airplane overhead. Judith at a laudable 5’9" was often referred to by family as a "tall drink of water,” but she was petite compared the frenchman who approached at the flight gate. The clinical fluorescent lighting haloed his immaculately messy hair when she gazed upwards to stare at him.
“Sorry,” Judith smiled politely. “I don't speak much French.”
“Ah,” he nodded. It was as though he had peeled back a layer of himself, revealing someone she immediately felt close to. “American. My mistake. I was commenting on how full our flight is. You're headed to Paris, yes?”
“My first time," Judith couldn't help but beam.
The man offered his right hand and a grin. “I’m Rafael.”
Ah. Of course. He even shared a name with an angel. She took his hand, introduced herself, felt his voltage run from her fingers to her collarbone.
“Sit with me on the flight,” said he. “I’d love to be your… ‘all you need to know’ guide to Paris.”
Rafael stowed her parcels in the overhead bin and let her have the window seat like a gentleman. Before the flight had even ascended, Judith felt farther away from Wisconsin, and Mike, than ever.
More available upon request.