Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Have a Lovely Hot Soak

When I was a little girl and would come home from school with the weight of the world on my shoulders, as only an eight-year-old can, my British grandmother would say, “Have a lovely hot soak and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.” She was a firm believer in the restorative powers of both. Marie Anastasia, my maternal grandmother, had been born into wealth, but by the age of 16 her profligate father had managed to run through the family fortune with amazing speed leaving them virtually penniless. Estates, servants, carriages and other vestiges of her opulent childhood would become a distant memory for Marie, except for the white marble bathtub in her private bath. Some day, she vowed, she would once again have a lovely hot soak in a beautiful bathtub all her own.

Bathing was once considered a luxury reserved for the upper classes. Ornate bathtubs, sometimes made of precious metals, became symbols of their owners’ wealth and power and were designed accordingly.

Cleopatra was reported to be one of history’s earliest super soakers in everything from mud to milk. It would appear that whenever a crisis loomed she took to her bath, a thoroughly sensible reaction in my opinion. After all, look at what the poor woman had to deal with – invading armies, an ignominious occupation, treachery and betrayal in her own household, two Roman warriors ready to hack either other to pieces for her affections, not to mention fratricide, genocide and, in the end, suicide.

I think I’d retire to my baths after a day like that, too.

Napoleon bathed every day believing there was nothing like a good soak before fine-tuning your plans for world domination. He even took a folding bathtub with him on campaigns. Legend has it that on the morning of the battle of Waterloo the Emperor’s bathtub went missing (an act of sabotage perhaps?) denying him his morning soak and getting his day off to a very bad start. Of course, we all know how it ended. I can’t help thinking how differently history might have written of that day, but for a missing bathtub.


Of course, there are those rare occasions when skipping a bath altogether might in fact be a very good idea, as Jean-Paul Marat discovered when he received a certain young Charlotte Corday on July 13, 1793, while in his bathtub.

Having hidden a large butcher knife in her fichu, she plunged it into his chest thereby ending the life of one of the monsters of the French Revolution.

Four days later, the 25-year-old Corday went to the guillotine for her crime.

Marat’s unpleasant experience aside, I firmly believe, as did my grandmother, that a lovely hot soak can get you through almost anything in life. The ritual preparations themselves are soothing -- pouring the lavender mousse bath foam into the water and getting that first whiff of scent as the bubbles burst open; lighting the vanilla scented candles; choosing the perfect piece of music to accompany the whole experience (for me, anything by Richard Strauss sung by Renée Fleming); and pouring my favorite champagne into a crystal flute. Well, after all, I’m not eight years old anymore and grandmother’s hot cup of tea doesn’t quite do the trick these days.

And then comes that wonderful moment when at last you sink down into the warm, sweet-smelling water and close your eyes. You feel safe and loved. Nothing can harm you in here. This is the way it must have been for you in the womb, except without the bubbles and champagne (what a pity!).

Somewhere along the line we stopped taking baths and started taking showers. Not only are they quicker, they are also a more efficient use of our water and our time, both of which we are constantly being told are in short supply. So we are in and out of the bathroom before you can say “ablution.” We may be washing more frequently than our upper-crust forebears, but we are certainly enjoying it less. Thus, you might logically conclude that bathrooms would become smaller and more utilitarian, probably eliminating the tub altogether, and for a while things were heading in that direction.

Now, however, we seem to have gone the other way. Once again the bathroom has become a symbol of its owners’ wealth and power. We are obsessed with them. And the focal point of these huge bathrooms is the bathtub. Sunken or elevated, no longer does it just lie there taking up space and waiting to be filled. It is a monument to our lifestyles, fetishes and aspirations.

This to-die-for bathtub, the Audrey, comes from the creative genius of Italian designer Massimiliano Della Monaca and speaks to two of my favorite fetishes: bubble baths and shoes. Fabulous! Wouldn’t you just love to have a lovely hot soak in that?

At the end of the day, however, whether you do it in a tub that is grandiose, fanciful or ever so humble, a lovely hot soak helps you smooth out the bumps in the road and escape into a world of your own design for a few glorious minutes every day.

And now, if you’ll excuse me while I hang my prière de ne pas déranger sign on the door, I have a hot bath waiting to take me to an enchanted place where I am younger, taller, and thinner.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Memories of Mayonnaise

It’s been such a wonderful weekend, the kind you hope will never end but secretly hope it does for fear that some silly thing will mar its wonderfulness if it lasts too much longer. Does that make sense?

Well, anyway, it’s a snowy, blustery Sunday afternoon and I am in the kitchen standing over a steaming pot of Cassoulet. The house is bathed in the sounds of a Mozart symphony and the smells of bubbling pancetta and sausage, garlic and onions, fresh thyme and white beans. As I breathe in the aroma, I remember other Sunday afternoons when my Father would commandeer the kitchen, to my Mother’s relief.

He’d walk into the house after morning Mass, take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and head straight for the kitchen to begin the preparations for Sunday lunch.

Upstairs in my room it took every ounce of a 10-year-old’s willpower to ignore the tantalizing smells emanating from below and concentrate on mastering long division.

From my glamorous French-American Mother, a former model and opera singer, I inherited my love of clothes, and from my handsome French father, the son of a chef, I inherited my love of food.

Stunning Leslie Caron, who will forever be Gigi in the minds of most Americans, was also the child of an American Mother and French Father.

In her charming autobiography Thank Heaven… she relates a delicious tidbit that made me smile in recognition when I read it. A Parisian born and bred, she is living in Los Angeles and expecting weekend guests. She discovers she has run out of mayonnaise and asks the cook to make some. The horrified cook confesses she doesn’t know how to “cook” mayonnaise, to which Leslie replies that you don’t “cook” mayonnaise, you make it. In its most basic form it’s just egg yolks, lemon juice and olive oil beaten together.

We were living in Philadelphia when my Father passed away. Several months later a strange jar appeared in our refrigerator and I learned that in America mayonnaise came from a jar. Quelle surprise!

My Mother had no desire to make her own like a proper Frenchwoman. After all, she was only half French, and her American half was perfectly happy with mayo from a jar. My French Father would have been horrified.

Everyone was together to celebrate the 14th of July (“le quatorze”), Bastille Day. I must have been seven or eight years old. We were in the large kitchen of a farmhouse and I was standing in the corner watching the women bustle about in high activity. Seated in the corner was the Baroness. Like my Father, she was a decorated war veteran. We were all in awe of her. She had been in the Maquis and it was common knowledge that she could and did handle a machine gun as well as any man could or did. But at the moment, she was beating oil in tiny droplets into a bowl. I was fascinated. I moved closer to see and my Mother pulled me back. “Don’t bother the Baroness,” she scolded, to which the Baroness replied, “Leave the child alone. Some day she will need to know how to make mayonnaise.” My Mother murmured something about Frenchwomen and their obsession with mayonnaise and left. And so I watched, fascinated by the rhythmic circular motion of her strong hands – hands that could just have easily pulled the trigger of a gun, but were now gently and methodically coaxing a golden emulsion from an egg yolk and olive oil. I was mesmerized.

These days I confess I do not spend as much time in the kitchen as I would like, but I still make my own mayonnaise.

If you would like to learn how to make your own mayonnaise and don’t have a French father or know a gun-toting Baroness, may I recommend Julia Child’s recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking?” It is absolutely foolproof.

Once you’ve made your own mayonnaise, you can never be satisfied with what comes out of a jar. Trust me.

Must dash! Someone’s just come in. “Hi, Honey, I’m home! Wow, something smells fabulous!” Those are the words of a hungry husband who’s just gotten a whiff of my Cassoulet.

Bon appétit!