Un historien de l’an 4500 regarde des livres d’histoire de la France. “Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI… Louis XVIII… Mais… c’est quoi cette famille qui ne sait pas compter jusqu’à 20 ?”
Today, the Country Boy and I were watching the 11 o’clock news, and a story about the Isle of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled for 300 days in 1814. I know, because I’ve just taken a class on French history, and besides, my thesis (which is due next Friday… why am I blogging??) is about the era of Restauration and Revolution directly after the demise of his Empire, but the story got me thinking.
As soon as the news was over, I turned to the CB and asked, “Napoleon is general knowledge in France, right?”
He frowned at me and waited, like he does when I ask him to come aboard the crazy train a few stops out of the station, which is embarrassingly frequently. “I mean,” I backtracked, trying to get him up to date, “In America, we know who he is… and that he was short…”
“Yes, in France everyone knows who he was, when he ruled, and that he died at St-Hélène in exile.”
I smiled. The Country Boy has started to understand the odd directions my brain runs in. “But like… U.S. Presidents,” I asked. “Would most people know about Thomas Jefferson or George Washington?”
“Yeah…” TCB said. Now he was off-track again, and I admit, I was a little bit too. I guess what’s so strange for me about living in an adopted country is how much general knowledge I accrued while I was still living back in the States. A lot of the time, I feel like my life started when I went to boarding school, but there were so many things that I acquired back when I was in the States–U.S. history, literature, what have you–that even now, living here for the past four years, I’m missing crucial parts of what most French people learned in elementary school. I don’t write in French cursive, have any inkling of the sorts of things they were reading when I was paging through The Rats of NIMH and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I certainly don’t know any “dirty” 3rd grade jokes.
Humor, after all, has been a cultural barrier that I’ve noticed since the moment I arrived in France: my very first day at my school in the North, a friend of mine told me a joke that I hardly understood… something about a dog in a church with an English accent. What bothered me more, though, was hearing the same joke three months later, when I understood most of what was said to me: I understood the words, but I still didn’t find it funny.
Building a joke is a delicate process: I’m in awe of those who can write humor, which is a much more difficult and delicate process than writing drama. Writing comedy takes a balance of wit, a little bit of crazy, and a whole load of cultural references. Dissect the joke, and it’s no longer funny. I can explain the joke above to you–it has to do with kings of France–but then I’d need to explain the history around it, what was happening in the late 18 and early 19th centuries in France, etc. It’s not a particularly good joke, but I found it twice as funny because of how pleased I was to have understood on the first go.
Humor, in a way, is like cooking. Some people have a talent for it, some people work at it til they get it, some people can enjoy it but can’t produce it on their own. My journey from following recipes to the letter to now, when I open the fridge, stare at the contents, and wonder aloud to TCB, “What should we have for dinner?” (a question that, these days, very often results in chicken breasts stuffed with something) mirrors my journey along the route of French humor. The more general knowledge I accrue, the closer I feel to my goal of, someday, being able to utter something that’s just the right combination of wit and a little bit of crazy–I’ve got the crazy part down, already.
Til then, I’ll stick with chicken.
Pesto Rosso Stuffed Chicken Breasts (serves 2)
50 g. (about 3) oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained
1 tbsp. store bought green pesto sauce
1 oz. goat cheese
2 chicken breast halves
salt and fresh black pepper
2 tsp. olive oil
Roughly chop the sundried tomatoes and place in the bowl of a food processor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. Pulse until smooth, and set aside.
Remove chicken tenders attached to chicken breast halves if necessary and save for another use. Place one chicken breast, smooth side down, on a cutting board, with the thickest side facing you. Insert a small paring knife into this side, holding the chicken breast down with the flat of your hand. Make a slit with the paring knife, ensuring you don’t create any holes aside from the opening you’re making. When finished, you should have a slit about 1 1/2 to 2 inches deep that goes as far along the wide edge of the chicken breast as possible without slicing all the way through it. Cut the other chicken breast the same way, and season with salt and black pepper.
Evenly divide the filling between the two chicken breasts. Fill generously, but take care not to overfill: filling that falls out of the chicken during the cooking process may burn in the hot skillet.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat. Add the olive oil and heat until shimmering, then place the chicken breasts, smooth side down, into the oil. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until this side is golden brown, and then carefully flip. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover. Cook for an additional 7-8 minutes, or until the chicken is completely cooked through.